Revamped gun law would still pack state prisons

2013-11-18T16:48:00Z 2013-11-18T21:14:16Z Revamped gun law would still pack state prisonsKurt Erickson, Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
November 18, 2013 4:48 pm  • 

SPRINGFIELD | Despite making changes to appease some state lawmakers, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to crack down on gun violence still would add thousands of inmates and millions of dollars in costs to the state’s prison system.

According to new figures submitted by the Illinois Department of Corrections, the mayor’s revamped bid for stiffer gun penalties would result in 2,478 more inmates in a system that is already overcrowded.

That figure is down slightly from the nearly 3,000 inmates predicted under an initial, tougher version of the proposal.

Prison officials also said it would add $549 million in operating and construction costs over a 10-year span, down from an earlier estimate of $713 million.

The original proposal would have required three-year mandatory sentences for first-time gun offenders. The sponsor, state Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, stripped that provision out of the legislation, hoping to gain colleagues' support.

Under the measure, unlawful possession of a weapon by a repeat offender would carry a minimum sentence of four years in prison. Inmates also would be required to serve 85 percent of their sentences.

While the changes did gain support from the National Rifle Association, African-American lawmakers blocked movement on the initiative earlier this month over concerns that it would take discretion out of the hands of judges and give it to county prosecutors.

“Most African-Americans — law-abiding and not — have a historical distrust for the state’s attorney office here in Cook County,” state Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, D-Chicago, said during an interview Sunday on WGN radio’s “Sunday Spin” show.

Black lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn favor taking the legislation off the fast track, saying they want to take a more comprehensive approach to solving the gun violence problem in Illinois’ largest city. Other opponents say mandatory minimum sentences don't deter crime.

The delay may help lawmakers and Quinn get answers to how the state could handle the influx of additional prisoners if the initiative becomes law. The prison system was built to house about 32,000 inmates, but currently holds nearly 49,000.

Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said the department has not yet determined how it it would absorb the additional inmates, primarily because the legislation is not yet set in stone.

Of the additional costs, the agency says about $200 million would have to be spent on constructing or renovating additional cell space. Options include building a new prison, adding housing units at existing prisons or reopening recently closed prisons, Shaer said.

The department also didn’t have a number for how many new employees would have to be hired to oversee the additional inmates.

“Because the impact of this bill is projected over a 10-year period, the population and funding increases resulting from such legislation will be spread out over some or all of those years,” Shaer said in a statement.

Lawmakers could resume debate on the proposal as early as next month.

The legislation is Senate Bill 1342.

Kurt Erickson can be reached at kurt.erickson@lee.net or 217-782-4043

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