By John Maki
At the end of the last legislative session in May, the General Assembly created the Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee and gave its 10 legislative members a broad mandate to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the state’s justice system.
As the committee holds its first public hearing on Tuesday, its members should look for opportunities to address the crisis of gun violence that plagues Chicago’s poorest communities.
But first the Committee must understand what this crisis is really about.
After a typical weekend of shootings, Chicago officials explain that the crisis stems from too many guns and not enough punishment, and that to address these problems, legislators need to pass stricter gun laws and mandate longer mandatory prison penalties.
This explanation not only confuses symptoms with causes, but it also leads legislators to double-down on failed and expensive policies. The threat of longer prison penalties is not an effective deterrent — it will only increase the time people serve in our already overcrowded $1.3 billion prison system, spending money we don’t have on a response to crime that doesn’t work.
To understand the true causes of Chicago’s crisis, the committee should engage people who live and work in the communities that are most affected by gun violence. They should talk to someone like Father David Kelly. For more than 30 years, he’s worked with young people in the deep end of Cook County’s justice system. And since 2000, he’s run Precious Blood Ministries, a kind of safe haven for youth in Chicago’s Back of the Yards, one of the city’s most violent and impoverished neighborhoods.
A few weeks ago, I asked him what he thought was behind Chicago’s gun violence. He told me the availability of guns is part of the problem, but the causes of violence are deeper:
“We have too many youth who are operating out of a sense of not having any worth — that is pretty much what they have heard — and too many have bought into it. They have all experienced serious violence, and so are dealing with significant trauma and the effects that come with it.
And so what you have are young people who are carrying a deep sense of shame, who are traumatized, who have nothing to do, and nowhere to go.
Then throw in the easy access to guns — that is a dangerous combination.”
This is the real crisis that is afflicting Chicago’s most violent communities.
And with this understanding, the Reform Committee can find meaningful opportunities for change.
Its members should reject proposals that would merely send people to prison for longer periods of time, exacerbating an already vicious cycle.
Instead, they should find ways to reduce our costly reliance on incarceration and invest in communities like Back of the Yards and the lives of the people who live there.
John Maki is executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a non-partisan prison watchdog and policy organization.