Sentencing Bill Could Cost Taxpayers $760 Million Over 10 Years

Critics say proposal to raise mandatory sentencing for gun crimes will prove ineffective and expensive

A bill designed to reduce gun violence by increasing gun-crime sentences could end up costing Illinois taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, according to an investigation by NBC Chicago and The Chicago Reporter.

State Representative Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) has proposed a bill to increase Illinois’ minimum mandatory prison sentence for gun violators from one year to three years. 

"We have to make sure individuals are afraid, frankly, of the law, and afraid of the consequences," Zalewski said. "I think three years sets a high bar that if you’re found guilty of the offense, you’re going to face serious consequences.  You’re not going to be right back out on the street."

But critics say the bill is nothing more than "political theatre." What’s more, it’s prohibitively expensive, according to opponents like John Maki, Executive Director of the John Howard Association, a local prison-watchdog group.

"It’s going to add about 4,000 inmates in about three years," Make explained. "It’s going to explode the budget."

The results of a study done by NBC Chicagos partner, The Chicago Reporter, would seem to support that view.  The Reporter analyzed all criminal cases in Cook County Criminal Court from 2000 through 2011, and estimated that it cost taxpayers more than $5.3 billion to imprison Chicago criminals during that period.  If those sentencing costs were extrapolated to include the increased prison time resulting from Zalewski’s gun-sentencing bill, The Reporter estimates the bill to taxpayers would have increased by an additional $760 million during that same time period.

"The research is absolutely clear," said Maki. "Lengthening prison sentences will not deter gun violence and will not decrease crime."

Zalewski disagrees. 

"If we can ensure that those who consistently violate our public safety laws face serious consequences, we have a compelling need to act, and that’s what we should do," he said, especially when Congress appears to be at a standstill in addressing gun crimes. "We can’t afford to wait for this system of comprehensive gun legislation out of D.C."

As for the potential added expense of these expanded prison sentences, Zalewski is part of a separate discussion in Springfield, aimed at freeing up space in Illinois’ overcrowded prisons.  The discussion centers around reducing the number of non-violent offenders—people convicted of such offenses as prostitution or drugs, for example—to make room for these more violent gun offenders.

There is a detailed analysis of the costs of prison sentences in Cook County -- for gun crimes and more -- in the latest issue of The Chicago Reporter.

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