Prevention Over Punishment: The Push to Reduce Gun Violence in Chicago

Mar 4, 2014Janaè BonsuJohnaè Strong

Chicago should seek new methods of violence prevention that strengthen neighborhoods and focus on healing, because these methods are more effective and more cost-effective.

It’s no secret that gun violence has long been a major problem in Chicago. An astronomical number of lives have been lost, the social fabric of communities has been compromised, and as a result, both morgues and prisons have continued to fill up. That gun violence is a problem is something on which everyone – liberals and conservatives alike – can agree. The grounds get muddy, however, in identifying and implementing an effective solution.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration have been pushing for a more “tough on crime” strategy to reduce gun violence in Chicago, with mandatory minimum sentencing for illegal gun possession. The original proposed Senate Bill 1342 (now House Bill 5672) included a minimum sentence of one to three years for any person caught with an illegal weapon. ‘Gang affiliation’ – which is determined at the discretion of a judge – would lead to an escalated minimum. In addition, there are currently five new bills (HB 3770 - 3774) that have been introduced by Rep. Michael J. Zalewski (D) to the Illinois General Assembly that may very well have been drafted and introduced with good intentions to deter gun violence and other crime, and keep those who engage in it off of the street. However, components of the House package are unduly punitive. For example, HB 3770 raises the Unlawful Use of a Weapon (UUW) charge to an Aggravated UUW for an individual who has committed a forcible felony as a juvenile. Thus, instead of facing a misdemeanor charge with up to one year of jail time, a defendant faces a class 4 felony that carries a sentence of up to three years of prison time, plus a fine of up to $25,000, because of a crime committed in their youth. Taken together, HB 5672 and similar legislation pose a mirrored threat that will disproportionately affect communities of color and further depress local and state budgets by funneling much needed resources into the city jails and state prisons.

A substantial body of research shows that mandatory minimums have little to no effect on crime, which even its proponents seem to accept: they expect these laws to reduce arrest rates for violent crime by only 0.6%. Aside from that, more incarceration could produce more problems than it actually solves. Many Chicago communities of color grapple with high unemployment and neighborhood instability. More incarceration would further exacerbate these issues at a steep price. In Illinois, if mandatory minimum legislation such as HB 5672 does pass, it will likely cost Illinois close to $2 billion over 10 years, and add to an overcrowded prison system. And more money for “corrections” leaves less for interventions that actually work.

In Chicago, community members and activist organizations that are no longer willing to watch the silent war against minority communities are contesting these bills through direct action campaigns and policy advocacy. These organizations include, but are not limited to the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Community Renewal Society, and Project Nia. Mirroring the progressive direction of the Obama Administration and other politicians including Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) by moving away from mandatory minimums, these organizations are advocating for funds allocated to subtractive policies to instead be used for empirically based preventative solutions to violence in Chicago communities. Two major initiatives in the works to prevent violence are 1) the expansion of youth employment in communities especially affected by violence as a preventive measure and 2) the implementation of restorative justice peace hubs as an alternative to incarceration.

BYP100 and Project Nia are working towards proposing a youth jobs bill that may look similar to the National Youth Administration (part of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal). The bill will focus on scaling up existing employment and training programs that have been proven effective such as One Summer Chicago Plus as well as dropout and violence prevention programs such as Becoming A Man (BAM). The bill will push for the reallocation of resources to help communities most impacted by violence implement various proven and promising employment and mentoring interventions across the entire state of Illinois. These programs reduce gun violence and strengthen communities economically and socially.

In addition to the push for youth employment, Community Renewal Society is currently spearheading the Reclaim Campaign, an initiative that urges the Cook County justice system to fund community based restorative justice hubs and mental health and drug rehabilitation programs through money saved from the release of Cook County nonviolent detainees. The campaign advocates alleviating jail overcrowding and reversing the trend of warehousing individuals who pose little threat to public safety by relying more on release with personal recognizance and electronic monitoring. Less bodies in the jails can free up dollars to fund the peace hubs, which are proposed to act as a coordinating referral center in the community where offenders, victims of crime, family members, and other impacted residents can appropriately handle conflict without further violence. The restorative justice approach offers a promising alternative to retributive justice that we have seen fail us for decades.

These solutions outline a need for economically just measures and attention to community healing and restoration over imprisonment. Most importantly, these solutions begin by looking within the community and empower people to change the policies governing their homes and neighborhoods, which is the best way to achieve real social change.

Janaè Bonsu is a Lead Coordinator for the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline and a Master’s student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

Johnaè Strong is a Master’s student in the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) and Lead Facilitator of the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline. 

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