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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Arguments over mandatory minimum prison terms center on the effects they have. Supporters would like to think that mandatory minimums deter people from committing crimes. Critics say those sentences simply take away the discretion of judges and further overcrowd prisons. And that is the debate underway in Illinois. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the force behind a proposal to require a mandatory prison term for a firearm offense. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: In Illinois you can face a prison term of one to three years if you use a weapon unlawfully. You could also serve half that time, or you can get probation or boot camp. In Chicago, which saw more than 500 murders last year, most by gunfire, Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the current law is not what's needed to fight gun violence in the city.
MAYOR RAHM EMAUEL: And in fact, I would like to take a note that the same minimum penalty we have for a gun law is what we have for shoplifting.
CORLEY: The bill backed by the mayor would raise the sentence for unlawful use of a weapon to a three-year mandatory minimum, and it requires anyone found guilty to serve 85 percent of that time. It's a notion that Cleopatra Pendleton supports.
CLEOPATRA PENDLETON: In my community, carrying an illegal gun is no big deal, but it needs to be a big deal.
CORLEY: The death of Pendleton's 15-year-old daughter, Hadiya, made national headlines when she was killed in a park not far from President Obama's Chicago home shortly after her high school band performed in inaugural festivities. Mrs. Pendleton says when she learned the man charged with her daughter's murder had served time for another gun crime, it felt like salt being poured in a wound.
PENDLETON: I wonder if a larger mandatory minimum had been in place, if the person that allegedly shot and killed my daughter would have been in jail and Hadiya would still be alive.
CORLEY: Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy agrees.
POLICE SUPERINTENDENT GARRY MCCARTHY: Now, we have at least 108 examples of shootings or murders in 2013 alone that would not have happened if this bill were already in law.
CORLEY: The University of Chicago Crime Lab analyzed the bill. And it says people on parole arrested for illegally carrying a firearm are four times more likely than other convicted felons on parole to be arrested for murder, and nine times more likely for a non-lethal shooting. The Crime Lab also says a growing body of research suggests the threat of swift sanctions can deter crime and therefore could hold true for gun violence.
Not everyone buys that analysis.
JOHN MAKI: This is the same old story.
CORLEY: John Maki is the head of the non-partisan John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.
MAKI: This is how the United States has gone from a prison population of around 250,000 people in the early '70s to about 2.3 million right now. And it's often on the back of these really horrible tragedies. And I think too it's people who feel like they have to do something, legislators who - and so what you hear from them, we have to do something. And prison is held out as some kind of magical answer to the problem.
CORLEY: The Illinois Department of Corrections also has a warning. It says the cost of the proposal would be a billion dollars over 10 years, with nearly 4,000 inmates added to a prison system already bursting at the seams. But the U of C crime lab says the deterrent effect of the sentencing proposal could actually mean substantially less cost with fewer people going to prison. Professor Daniel Nagin thinks otherwise.
DANIEL NAGIN: There's a lot of evidence that the certainty of apprehension is a very effective deterrent.
CORLEY: Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, says people often engaged in gun crimes are not thinking about how long a prison sentence will be as they act in the heat of the moment. He says the real deterrent is the certainty of getting caught, which has a lot to do with a much more tangible and visible police presence.
NAGIN: Nothing can be done to bring back the people who have already died because of gun violence. What needs to be done is to look to the future to try to identify the most effective and proven strategies which might reduce those numbers in the future. And it's clear that the evidence suggests there are alternatives that are better, that will be more effective in that regard than mandatory minimums.
CORLEY: As sponsors of the legislation push for a vote, negotiations with gun rights advocates like the NRA continue. They argue under the proposal that law-abiding citizens who make one mistake could face prison time. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.