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Gun Rights, Gun Control and a Local Push to Tax Guns and Their Ammo

Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.

As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.

While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.

So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market - a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.

Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.

Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.

According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.

“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.

Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.

And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.

But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.

What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.

According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.

Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.

But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.

Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.

Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.

With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.

Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.

In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”

According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.

Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.

For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.

“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.

“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”

Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.

For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.

Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.

After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.

And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.

“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”

But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.

“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”

Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.

Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.

But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”

What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.

“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”

This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.

Photo by Natalie Krebs. 

Pondering the Limits of Criminal Justice Reform

John LashOn Monday I spoke via Skype with a group of students enrolled at Georgetown University. Some friends of mine teach a class on social justice and conflict studies. Twice I have joined the class to discuss my own experiences with the criminal justice system, restorative justice, my current work, and any other insightful (and difficult) questions they come up with.

Several wondered how prison could be changed to address issues of safety and violence, and whether or not restorative responses still allowed for incarceration. These are interesting topics to me, and I am able to talk about them with ease, but a few questions left me pondering the limits of criminal justice reform. These were questions that addressed what I think of as structural issues.

For instance, why does the average prisoner have an elementary school reading level? Is he in prison because of that, or are people with that level of education more likely to be incarcerated? Why are African Americans disproportionately incarcerated? It is not because they are more likely to commit crimes. Even when the circumstances of a given crime and background are accounted for, they are more likely to be sent to prison and to receive longer sentences. The same is true for Latinos, poor people, Native Americans, and other traditionally disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

One of the greatest writers in the field of conflict studies, Johan Galtung, introduced the concept of structural violence in a 1969 article for the Journal of Peace Research. For Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of human needs.” This definition includes a lot of “isms” including racism, classism, sexism, and others. It doesn't take a lot of investigation to see how these phenomena can be connected to the current system of justice.

Even if we were somehow able to create the perfect prison, with programs that are effective, safe living conditions, supports for maintaining family connection, and relevant educational classes, it still would not address the issues that lead to incarceration in the first place.

I don’t wish to ignore personal responsibility, but I also recognize that environment and other factors outside of the individuals control have an impact on their perception of choices and ability to transcend hardships. Consider a November 4th article in the New York Times entitled "After the Violence, The Rest of Their Lives".

The article tells the story of The Chicago Project, led by Northwestern University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Linda A. Teplin, a study of 1,800 youth who entered the juvenile justice system at an early age. The youth, interviewed between 1995 and 1998, have been tracked ever since.

Consider a few statistics from the study. Over 80 percent of the juveniles who enter the system early are gang members, 70 percent of the males have used a firearm (starting at an average age of 14), 20 percent of the participants on a given day are incarcerated, and 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are unemployed. The youth surveyed in the study die, usually violently, at a rate three to five times as high as comparable residents of the county.

All of these statistics do not flow from personal choice, and to ignore that fact is to hide from reality. Do some individuals rise above the circumstances? Of course, but these exceptions to the rule, while admirable, do not excuse the rest of us from considering the realities of stark contrasts in equality, opportunity, and risk that exist between most Americans and those that live in the worst areas of the nation. Until these structural issues are fully faced and dealt with we will always have injustice, no matter how much we “improve” the criminal justice system.

New Research Examines Long Term Links Between Juvenile Detention and Psychiatric Disorders

A new study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry finds that, five years after being released from one Illinois juvenile detention center, more than 45 percent of male former detainees, and almost 30 percent of female former detainees, had been diagnosed with at least one psychiatric disorder associated with mental impairment.

The study, conducted by the Northwestern Project with support from the National Institution on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health, examined more than 1,800 detainees, ranging in ages from 10 to 18, at Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. According to researchers, the report is the first longitudinal study to fully track psychiatric disorders in juveniles following release from detention.

Researchers said that half of the center’s former male detainees had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder not associated with impairment, while more than 40 percent of female ex-detainees has been diagnosed with at least one or more disorders not commonly associated with mental impairment. The most common disorders noted were substance abuse issues, with researchers saying the male ex-detainees were two to three times likelier to develop problems with alcohol and illicit drugs than female ex-detainees. Formerly detained females, however, demonstrated a greater risk of developing major depression over the five-year time period, researchers said.

The study indicates that non-Hispanic whites are much more likely to develop substance use disorders than Hispanic or African-American ex-detainees, while researchers noted a much more significant drop in substance abuse numbers among female ex-detainees as they aged than was observed for male ex-detainees.

“Although prevalence rates dropped over time, some disorders were three times more prevalent than in the general population,” lead study author Linda Teplin said in a recent Northwestern University media release.

“These findings demonstrate the need for special programs, especially for substance use disorders, not only while these kids are in corrections but also when they return to the community,” Teplin said.

Juvenile Offenders in Limbo under Outdated State Laws

More than two years after U.S. Supreme Court decisions started throwing out mandatory death and life sentences for minors, judges in Washington, Illinois and dozens of other states still lack guidance on what to do with juveniles past and present convicted of murder and some other serious felonies.

“Courts are uncomfortable in trying to figure out what ‘life’ means in terms of years,” said Kimberly Ambrose, senior law lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law. She represented Guadalupe Solis-Diaz at the state’s Court of Appeals, arguing against a 92-year sentence he’s serving for six counts of first-degree assault and other charges for his role in a drive-by shooting. The then 16-year-old Solis-Diaz fired into a crowd in Centralia, Wash., in 2007, though did not injure his target or anyone else.

It’s not clear in Washington if those 92 years are equivalent to what the U.S. Supreme Court calls “life” sentences. The federal high court has definitively thrown out state sentencing laws that mandate life without parole for juveniles. Beginning with the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case and more recently with Graham v. Florida in 2010 and Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the court says that juveniles are not yet fully mentally developed, are less culpable and more capable of reform. Therefore, lower court judges must consider those and other mitigating factors when sentencing juveniles for both homicide and non-homicide offenses.

Solis-Diaz’ counsel at his original sentencing failed to mention that U.S. Supreme Court trend. That omission, said the state appeals court, was one of several mistakes that contributed to their decision this month to throw out Solis-Diaz’ 92 years, on grounds of ineffective counsel.

“This is the first life-equivalent case to come before a Washington appellate court,” said Ambrose, speaking of non-homicide offenses.

But the court also noted it would not opine on any other sentence for Solis-Diaz.

“The legislature is the appropriate body to define crimes and fix punishments. To the extent that Graham suggests that an opportunity for parole must be available for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses, only the Legislature has the authority to amend the SRA [Sentencing Reform Act] to allow for such remedy,” the opinion reads.

They remanded the case for resentencing.

Many judges are grappling with how to amend their current laws to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on juvenile sentences. Some state legislatures have yet to update laws to comply with the two-year-old Graham case. And most state legislatures have been closed since the June, 2012 Miller decision, so have had no chance to start thinking about it. Thus judges dealing with juveniles convicted of murder must figure out if it would apply to juvenile offenders sentenced before it, and how to handle appeals, all without legislative guidelines.

“There’s lot of people trying to figure out what to do and how to proceed, and if it [Miller] would apply retroactively,” said Randolph Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The answers so far vary by state.

More than 100 people have been sentenced to life without chance of parole in Illinois for crimes committed as minors, according to a 2010 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nationally, there are more than 2,500 juvenile offenders who have received this sentence in the states that did or do allow it, according to The Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy group.

“Does each of those people get a new hearing? If so, what sort of sentence will they be facing?” Stone asked.

He argued that because the Miller decision was bundled with one out of Arkansas, which relieved a defendant convicted for a crime he committed in 1999, juvenile offenders nationwide who had already been sentenced before the decision should have a chance for a new trial and sentencing.

“It’s a question of whether it will be decided on a case-by-case basis or a broad remedy that can be fashioned to deal with them all at the same time” he said.” I think it’s pretty clear that it does [apply retroactively], although the prosecutors are saying that it doesn’t.”

Michigan’s Supreme Court declined to settle retroactivity in its state this month. Attorney General Bill Schuette asked the Court to rule out retroactivity on the life sentence of a man convicted of participating in an armed robbery as a 16-year-old. Instead, the court remanded the case for resentencing.

One prosecutor who’s agreed to applying Miller to one existing conviction is New Hampshire’s Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin.  Steven Spader was 17 when he hacked to death a woman in her home. In 2010, he was given his state’s mandatory sentence: life in prison. The court also added 76 years on other charges.

“Spader is the only defendant who has filed anything in court. We have agreed that he will be resentenced in light of the Miller decision,” said Strelzin.

“Four other defendants have indicated they may contest the applicability of Miller to their cases. However, none have filed any motions in court yet asking for a new sentencing hearing,” he said.

Spader’s case was still on appeal when Miller was published. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is hearing a similar case.

If the definition of “life” sentences varies by state, so does the definition of “juvenile.”  In Illinois, 17-year-olds facing felony charges are tried as adults, and children ages 15 and older charged with first- degree murder and other felonies, such as robbery at gun-point, are automatically transferred to adult court.

And an accountability statue in Illinois often leads courts to treat accomplices with the same degree of culpability as the shooter.

Illinois has to wrangle with a decade-old ruling by its state Supreme Court that foretold the later U.S. ruling, but may also preclude it being retroactive.

The court shot down a mandatory life sentence for a 15-year-old who had served as a lookout for two people convicted of homicide. The court wrote that under the state’s automatic transfer, accountability, and sentencing statutes, “a court never considers the actual facts of the crime, including the defendant's age at the time of the crime or his or her individual level of culpability.”

Matt Jones, of the state’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s office, said that mandatory sentencing for juveniles was already shot down in Illinois with this decision, and that courts had abstained from the practice since then, except in the case of 17-year-olds, who were still tried as adults.

But he also said the ruling made it clear that it shouldn’t be applied retroactively, and that he doesn’t think the Supreme Court’s decision in June will be applied retroactively either.

Stone argues the opposite, that the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision only applied to that specific case, and that courts throughout Illinois still maintained mandatory sentencing for minors convicted of homicide. He said that a new bill or amendment to the Illinois Code of Corrections must be made to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The U.S. Supreme Court rulings do not talk about such details. But juvenile rights advocates hail the principle.

“These [mandatory sentencing] laws make it difficult for judges,” said Shobha Mahadev, a Northwestern University law professor. “The decision is taken out of the judge’s hand.  We have to change the way we treat children and change these laws.”

The Illinois Legislature may take the question up when it reconvenes in November. Ambrose expects it to be an issue in Washington as well. Pennsylvania legislators have already held hearings on a rewrite.