Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle spoke out Wednesday against mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes — a key legislative initiative of Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his effort to tamp down a stubbornly high level of city violence.
"I've been quite clear that I don't believe in mandatory minimums," said Preckwinkle, who also made it clear she was referring to both drug and gun crimes. "I think that they're one of the reasons that our jails and our prisons are overcrowded, and they basically tie the judges' hands and eliminate judicial discretion, and the reason we have judges on the bench is to exercise discretion."
Emanuel and Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy back state legislation to require a minimum three-year sentence for gun offenses, arguing that it would serve as a deterrent to violence on Chicago streets. The two have pointed to the case of 21-year-old Bryon Champ, who was sentenced to boot camp for felony gun possession last year and then arrested last month and charged in the mass shooting at a park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
The mayor and board president come at the issue from different angles by the nature of their government posts. Emanuel is trying to get a handle on gun violence that has drawn national headlines, while Preckwinkle is trying to lower the costs of detaining people who are awaiting trial at the overcrowded county jail.
Preckwinkle also has noted the costs to society of get-tough-on-crime mandatory minimum sentences that often put nonviolent offenders — or people capable of rehabilitation — behind bars for long periods, making it less likely they can later launch a productive life.
"All of these people, you know, unless we send them to jail for life, they eventually return to our communities," Preckwinkle said, speaking to reporters after a County Board meeting. "And the longer they stay in prison, the less employable and the more problematic their future outcome."
Later, a Preckwinkle spokeswoman elaborated on the remarks, saying it's important to note that the board president does believe in "the vigorous prosecution" of people who are a danger to the public.
Also Wednesday, Preckwinkle said she was glad that the Illinois Supreme Court has called in a Washington, D.C., judge who is a an expert on court efficiency to join Chief Judge Timothy Evans, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham, Sheriff Tom Dart and Preckwinkle to look for ways to more quickly process cases.
"It will give me an opportunity to lay out the concerns that I've had for the last three years about the efficient and fair operation of our criminal justice system," Preckwinkle said.
She had requested the intervention of the high court and has long contended that Evans needs to do more to more quickly move criminal cases through the system and get nonviolent offenders out on bond to alleviate jail overcrowding.
Evans, in turn, has said he has taken steps to speed up justice but needs additional resources to evaluate whether it's appropriate to release more defendants on bond.