Nothing is more precious than freedom. Nothing.
So when we, as a society, enact legislation to address societal problems that would deprive certain individuals of their freedom, we must first be certain that (1) it is necessary, (2) it does not have crippling unintended consequences, and (3) it properly takes into account the communities’ desires and the historical context in which the proposed solution operates.
SB 1342—a bill awaiting a vote by the Illinois General Assembly–satisfies none of these preconditions.
By all accounts, SB 1342 is a well-intentioned bill that proponents hope will address the problem of gun violence. The bill would strip judges of their discretion in sentencing persons convicted of gun possession. Regardless of the criminal intent of the defendant or circumstances surrounding the case, judges would be required to impose “mandatory minimum sentences” on such defendants.
And, SB 1342 does not simply increase mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession; the bill would actually create a new mandatory minimum one-year prison sentence for people without any prior convictions whose only mistake is having an unloaded gun with ammunition nearby and no Illinois gun card.
Empirical data unequivocally show that mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession do not work. A meta-analysis of 29 separate studies of mandatory minimums by Northwestern Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic conclusively found that “there is no credible evidence that mandatory sentences lead to crime reduction.”
Moreover, there are a myriad of alternative, proven ways to address gun violence that do not require imprisoning everyone who is “caught” having a gun on their person. For example, although youth are responsible for a significant percentage of gun crimes, that can change. Study after study plainly show that giving young people a reason to hope, meaningful access to jobs, and providing them with mentorship opportunities leads to a dramatic reduction in gun violence.
Research also conclusively shows that increasing the number of police on the streets in high-crime neighborhoods during periods when shootings happen most yields a significant decrease in gun violence.
SB 1342 also has several absolutely devastating and unintended—albeit foreseeable—consequences for the State of Illinois and the innocent victims of violence it is supposed to protect. First, the bill could actually make violence in our communities worse. SB 1342 would take away the community-based punishment sentencing option that judges now have and require them to give everyone prison time. This massive uptick in incarceration would likely make communities even less safe. Studies show that individuals who are incarcerated are more likely to commit another crime (recidivate) than individuals who serve community-based sentences; incarceration often imposes a lifetime sentence of unemployment, lack of housing, and “crime schooling” on the individual.
Second, implementation of SB 1342 will cost Illinois taxpayers over half a billion dollars over ten years. Even if Illinois wasn’t in the midst of a fiscal crisis, half a billion dollars is an exorbitant amount of money to spend on implementing a law we already know won’t work and will unnecessarily take people’s freedom away.
Third, by stripping judges of their discretion, SB 1342 would force judges to blindly and unforgivably deprive innocent victims of violence of their freedom. An elderly woman living in fear and carrying a loaded gun to protect herself would have to receive a minimum one-year prison sentence simply because she was licensed in Indiana (rather than in Illinois).
Fourth, SB 1342 would destroy even more families of color. Studies consistently show that people of color are more likely to be arrested and convicted than their white counterparts, despite substantially similar levels of engagement in criminal activity. If this bill were to pass, even more people of color would be sent to prison, uprooted from their families, and trapped in the vicious cycle of underemployment and poverty.
Finally, and significantly, the innocent victims of violence that this bill hopes to serve have spoken clearly: they do not want this bill. Hundreds of individuals, community organizations and religious institutions have formally documented their opposition to this bill and all its amendments.
This fierce opposition may be in part because Illinois already has multiple mandatory minimum laws relating to gun possession in place. Moreover, despite being place for years, these mandatory minimum laws have not worked. In fact, since the most recent of these laws was enacted on January 1, 2011, gun violence has significantly increased.
Strangely, as Illinois hopes to diminish gun violence, state legislators have repealed laws requiring gun registration. This despite the fact that gun registration laws are largely seen as an effective way to address one of the roots of gun violence: the proliferation of illegally purchased firearms (gun trafficking).
SB 1342 is unnecessary, ineffective, and has significant unintended consequences. Moreover, it ignores the outcry of community members and the track record of similar laws. It is clear that Illinois and its communities cannot afford or justify the deprivation of freedom required by SB 1342.