Kwame Raoul wants to stop the violence. Will his new bill accomplish this? | Bleader

Kwame Raoul wants to stop the violence. Will his new bill accomplish this?

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Illinois state senator Kwame Raoul and police superintendent Eddie T. Johnson proposed a bill aiming to keep repeat gun offenders accountable for their crimes. - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • Illinois state senator Kwame Raoul and police superintendent Eddie T. Johnson proposed a bill aiming to keep repeat gun offenders accountable for their crimes.


To tackle Chicago's gun violence problem, Illinois state senator Kwame Raoul and other sponsors of the Safe Neighborhoods Reform Act focused their bill on one of the root causes: repeat gun offenders.

After consultations with judges, legislators on both sides of the aisle, and ex-offenders, among others, Raoul and company crafted a bill that would create a more stringent sentencing guideline for repeat offenders. Instead of judges considering sentences within the typical three- to 14-year range, they'd be encouraged to give sentences ranging from seven to 14 years, depending on the offense.

The goal of the bill, Raoul says, is to keep people who are more likely to repeatedly commit gun crimes from being able to do so, and to rehabilitate them during their prison terms to try to improve their return to society.

Raoul talked to the Reader earlier this week about why the bill is needed now, and how it will be different from others like it.

Other lawmakers have previously proposed bills targeting repeat offenders, as well as increasing penalties for gun crimes—which you and other lawmakers have pushed back on. What makes this bill different from those other bills?

Several things. First of all, we don't create a mandatory minimum because mandatory minimums already exist. So that's one of the myths that are out there—that there's a bill that's creating a mandatory minimum for this offense. It already exists.

Second, the previous proposals sought to bump up the minimum on all gun offenses—for first-time offenders as well. It also—on top of the mandatory, on top of the enhancement—sought to put on a layer of "truth in sentencing," requiring that the offenders would have to do 85 percent of the time that they're sentenced for no matter what—no matter if they participated in rehabilitative programming or what, so it kind of disincentivizes both the offender as well as the Department of Corrections from engaging the individuals in rehabilitative services. So the effect of that would be you hold them in prison longer, but you don't rehabilitate them, and they come out worse than they went in.

Then the other element of our bill is that we preserve judicial discretion—we don't bind judges. So we allow for individualized assessment in sentencing. I think it's hugely different from proposals that I've opposed in the past.

The other thing is that we tie it to some other criminal justice reform. It's one thing to say that we're going to remand violent offenders to prison for a longer period of time, but if you're not doing anything to enable the prison system to have the capacity to deal with them, again, you're not helping the prospects of rehabilitating them.

There's also a number of nonviolent offenses that we attempt to do either one of two things for: reduce the sentence, or in some cases we've expanded the eligibility for offender initiative programs—second-chance probation and first-offender drug probation. We expanded the eligibility for those things to more individuals and offenses. If they're diverted to services and they comply with those services, they may get out without a criminal record. So not only do we divert them from the Department of Corrections, we give them an opportunity, if they participate in services, if they comply with the terms, to have a fresh start—presuming they don't have any other background.

You talked about maintaining judicial discretion and allowing judges to deviate from the guidelines. Why did you leave the ability for them to deviate if they wanted to? What are the unique circumstances that they might consider?

There can be unique circumstances that justify a judge deviating downward. Because the policy is about maintaining the individual treatment of the offender, we wanted to give judges the option to do that based on a narrow list of criteria.

Stuff like the nature of the arrest. A judge may say, based on the arrest—whether they were employed at the time of the arrest, or maybe they were coming home and they'd been threatened or something like that—those are different circumstances than standing on a corner with a gun.

Also, the length of time since their prior offense. Someone convicted 20 years ago who's now a law-abiding citizen, going to work, raising a family is different than a repeat violent offender.

So the importance there is to show that there's more to consider?

The importance of it is you don't want to put somebody [in jail] who doesn't really merit intense time in jail. All the judge has to do is say why they did that. We thought that was a fair balance. We realize that there can be unique circumstances.

In the conversations I had with [CPD] superintendent [Eddie] Johnson, he understood that. When he came last spring, I told him I didn't want to cast the net too wide and get people who weren't violent offenders. You can have repeat offenders, but you aren't a gangbanger or violent. You have to look at their cases. There's all sorts of unique circumstances that arise.

You've said that your bill will take a data-driven approach to fighting the problem of repeat offenders by targeting the 1,500 people on CPD's "strategic subject list." How will this bill deter these repeat offenders from committing more crimes?

I don't know if this is necessarily tailored to the police department's list, but we do know that people who have offended before, particularly with a gun or some sort of violent crime before, and they're possessing a gun on a public way, that that person is more likely than a first-time offender to do something wrong with it. The previous attempts at addressing the gun violence problem cast the net too wide in who it targeted.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you've said the bill will expand alternatives for nonviolent first-time offenders. What are these alternatives?

Depends on what the individual person's problem is. It's availability for community-based drug treatments, if the person has a drug problem. What will happen is, through cooperation between the state's attorney's office and probation services, they can do assessment of the offender and figure out what type of community-based program the person should avail themselves of and monitor them and hold the kind of hammer of, "If you don't comply, you'll end up with a conviction and possibly being referred to the Department of Dorrections."

I served on a criminal justice reform commission and there was a gentleman by the name of Doug Marlowe [of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania]. He testified before us and he talked about how it didn't make sense to refer people to the Department of Corrections for short periods of time in terms of rehabilitation. For many of those offenders, they're better served in local-based settings with enforced penalties if they don't comply. As opposed to other offenders, it's better to keep them longer so you have an opportunity to rehabilitate them in prison. But all of this is dependent on us continuing our work on criminal justice reform to reduce the prison population. I was a little bit disappointed that several of the [statehouse] Republicans, even the ones who served on the criminal justice reform commission, withheld their vote because of the reforms—and this was a commission the governor created by way of executive order.

Amy Campanelli, the Cook County Public Defender, said that this bill and bills like it could lead to the demonization of young, mostly black and brown people, men specifically. A woman from the Children and Family Justice Center said that these bills focus on the people who are committing these crimes instead of considering why they're carrying guns in the first place and argued that they don't touch on the broader health of communities affected by violence. What do you make of these criticisms?

First of all, I know of no bill that comprehensively does everything that a community needs—I don't think there's ever been such a bill, and there will never be such a bill because we have something called the single-subject rule, which means you can't have legislation that has unrelated subjects. When you talk about resources, you've got to have the revenue and you've gotta pass a budget, and we haven't passed a budget in the state of Illinois going on three years almost. So fundamentally I agree we need to do that, and I'm going to work my butt off to do that. We need to fund education more fairly—I've been advocating for that for 12 years. That doesn't mean it's necessarily in a gun bill. We need to do all of these things, and I've worked on many of these things.

People talk about how there's blight in the community. I partnered with Commissioner Bridget Gainer and I sponsored legislation that allowed for the formation of the Cook County Land Bank that is acquiring abandoned properties and rehabilitating them and interestingly, creatively using a diversified workforce that includes offenders. So yeah, the people who say we need to find work for them, well, you know, I think I've made a contribution to doing that. But that doesn't mean that somebody who's out there with a loaded automatic or a semiautomatic weapon, or any sort of deadly force, that we don't hold them accountable.

Do we say, "Oh, the root causes tell us that this person's community didn't have the proper investment, so we're not going to hold them accountable for murder?" And of course a counterargument to that is going to be, "Well, with this bill, you're not really targeting people who has shot somebody yet."

And how would you address that counterargument?

Well, should we always wait until they shoot somebody or should we save some lives? If you know somebody's been caught with a gun before, been convicted for i,t and they go out and get another gun and hit the streets with it, then there's the argument that these are violent neighborhoods, they have to carry a gun. I think that demonizes and that profiles young black men more than anything.

The notion that most people in the most violent neighborhoods are breaking the law, that's not true. The vast majority of people are obeying the law, and characterizing them otherwise is the kind of thing that leads to racial profiling, leads to the advocacy for stop and frisk without really having any reasonable cause. I got very upset when that was suggested in the hearing, and I remain upset by that characterization. I reject it.


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