This New Bill Could Put 2,500 More People In Prison: Meet the Organization Trying to Stop It

"Violence is not simply shooting people. Violence is also poverty. It's also incarceration—putting people in prison is incredibly violent."
Photo by Shutterstock.

Photo by Shutterstock.

On Tuesday, Project NIA, an organization committed to ending youth incarceration, asked its Twitter and Facebook followers to post just six words reflecting on gun culture and mandatory minimum sentencing. What resulted were some compelling stories, posted with the hashtag #mandatory6words. (A few of these compositions have been included below this article.)

Mandatory minimum sentencing has not been shown to prevent crime in the way that advocates of these policies say that it does.

The social media project was part of a two-week-long campaign to fight against a proposed bill in Illinois, SB 1342, which would introduce mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of owning or discharging an illegal weapon.

Project NIA has been pushing back against this bill since late 2012, when it was known as HB 2265. It didn't pass the Illinois General Assembly, but it returned, slightly amended, under the name SB 1342.

SB 1342 sentencing chart

Voting on the bill was finally set to take place in early November, but the Illinois state House Black Caucus, a group of African American legislators, was able to delay the vote through a procedural maneuver: they requested information on how much the bill would cost taxpayers.

In an official press release about the procedural delays, Mayor Rahm Emanuel reiterated his support for SB 1342:

Illegal guns drive violence and we must continue working to strengthen penalties for the dangerous criminals who are carrying illegal, loaded weapons in our communities while at the same time reducing sentences on non-violent crime.

Activists have countered Emanuel's stance by drawing attention to three major issues.

"The bill strips judges of their judicial discretion," said Mariame Kaba, the organization's founding director. "If someone is caught with an illegal weapon, you would have a mandatory minimum sentence regardless of the case's circumstances."

It would also be expensive. A report commissioned by the Illinois General Assembly concluded that the bill would lead to the incarceration of an additional 2,500 people every year, sending them to an already overcrowded prison system and costing the state $549 million over 10 years.

But most importantly, research has shown that mandatory minimum sentencing has not been shown to prevent crime in the way that advocates of these policies say that it does. A recent report completed by the Bluhman Legal Clinic at the Northwestern School of Law concluded that, based on numerous studies and years of empirical research, "there is no credible evidence that mandatory sentences lead to crime reduction."

Meanwhile, other types of policies have been shown to be highly effective. A study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab showed that crime dropped by 51 percent in the nine months after youth participated in One Summer Plus, an employment program that gave 700 youth from low-income neighborhoods access to jobs, mentoring, and educational activities.

Project NIA's website asserts that the $549 million that SB 1342 would cost could instead fund a program similar to One Summer Plus for several decades. They offer Redeploy Illinois as an example: Another youth employment program, it serves around 400 youth each year and, at its 2013 level, could be funded for 112 years with the same amount of money.

According to Kaba, it's important for policies aimed at reducing violence to address the root causes of the problem, and to redefine what violence is.

"Violence is not simply shooting people," Kaba says. "Violence is also poverty. It's also incarceration—putting people in prison is incredibly violent."

It is unclear whether the SB 1342 will come to a vote this year. But the Illinois congress has called a special session on December 3, and if there is going to be a vote on the bill, it's likely to happen then.

Here are five of the most compelling tweets of the campaign.

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