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Testimony of Shari Runner President and CEO, Chicago Urban League Criminal Law Committee

Testimony of Shari Runner

President and CEO, Chicago Urban League

Criminal Law Committee

Opposing SB 1722

March 9, 2017

Most people think of gun violence as a criminal justice problem, but the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health– the leading government health agencies – views gun violence as a public health problem. Public health problems are most effectively dealt with by using evidenced-based public health interventions.  Nothing in the research literature has demonstrated that enhancing criminal penalties for people who possess guns works to reduce gun violence.  SB1722 targets people possessing guns, not shooting guns.  It casts too wide of a net, failing to consider criminal justice risk factors that have been tied to future violence, such as previous violent acts within the home or neighborhood. SB1722 also does not address the wide availability of guns in our neighborhoods, nor does it do anything to address the insidious gun trafficking that is the likely culprit behind why we have so many guns circulating in the community. This bill, were it to become law, would have no lasting impact on gun violence in Chicago, because it does not address the root causes that underlie violence: gun availability, poverty, trauma and the disinvestments in neighborhoods, schools and services that disadvantage families and communities.

It seems to me, as the President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, that we have no problem addressing public health problems with ineffective, punitive approaches, particularly if the impact will be felt most in the African American community.  We have seen this before in the punitive approaches we have used to address substance use, another public health problem. We imposed mandatory minimums to address a public health crisis, leading to the mass incarceration of generations of African Americans. Presumptive maximums are also used in this way, and will have the same outcomes for the community – increased rates of incarceration and the collateral consequences that follow. These policies overwhelmingly impact the African American community, and we put them in place despite the lack of evidence that these approaches work to address the problem it claims to solve.

Punitive criminal justice penalties have a lasting, negative impact on communities of color. The policies that promote criminalization and mass incarceration hurt families, hurt neighborhoods and hurt the city. Parents are imprisoned, children are removed from their homes, neighborhoods that are already disinvested are taxed with the additional challenge of providing housing and jobs for people with a criminal record. We saw this under the laws created for the War on Drugs. We will continue to see this under any additional laws that attempt to use the criminal justice system to solve a public health problem. There is no evidence that incarcerating people for possessing a gun will work. We do know who it will largely impact, though: African American males, the same population that was targeted under ineffective drug policies.

These policies don’t just impact African American communities, though. They impact society at large. Taxpayers end up footing the bill for policies that are prohibitively expensive and ineffective. Illinois has spent billions of dollars using the criminal justice system to fight a war that is at its core a public health issue. All to pay for policies that didn’t work.  We stand poised on the brink of making that same mistake again.

We do not yet know how many people would be in Illinois prisons as a result of SB1722 if it were to become law. The Sentencing Policy Advisory Council has had no time to conduct an analysis of the costs, or the impact on our prison population, but conservative estimates indicate this bill will add 1,000 new offenders into our prisons each year.  The Governor’s goal is to reduce the prison population by 25% by 2025. The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform did not list penalty enhancements as part of their recommendations to the General Assembly because penalty enhancements, by their very nature increase – rather than decrease – the prison population.  We know that it costs about $25,000 to incarcerate an individual in our prisons.  If our goal is to reduce the population, thereby reducing costs, this is not an effective means of doing so.  Are we so willing to spend $ 150,000 over 6 years to incarcerate an individual without rehabilitation, knowing that this approach is not effective?

Gun violence is costly, and to address it with an ineffective solution is to throw money at a problem without spending the resources to fix it correctly. Too often we don’t think about all the big and little ways this violence causes harm to African American communities.  We tally up the counts of victims, we say how terrible and scary and sad it is, and the conversation turns again. We don’t often discuss how these levels of violence impact everyone in the neighborhood – not only the victim and the victim’s family, but the other residents who live there.  Children who live with and are exposed to high levels of gun violence or any kind of violence are traumatized.  Trauma exposure is a profoundly destabilizing experience with potentially lifelong impacts. Research on the impacts of traumatization indicates the role that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can have on both physical and mental wellbeing.  These ACEs are highly predictive of disrupted neurodevelopment; social, emotional and cognitive impairment; adoption of high risk behaviors, disease, disability and social problems; and finally even early death.

So this issue of violence is not only the number of deaths and the number of shootings – but the lifelong health impact that this violence will continue to have on the children and adults who live in these trauma zones – the areas where violence is most prevalent.  We don’t have the time to waste on ineffective solutions when our youth and adults are dying. We need to implement a comprehensive set of solutions that are proven to work.

We seem willing, again and again, to ignore the role violence prevention funding – specifically the lack of funding – has had on the homicide rate. We also ignore, again and again, the true costs of punitive penalties and mass incarceration for public health issues. There is clear correlation between the trend in homicide increases and the cuts to evidenced based programs that are proven to reduce violence. Yet when compared to almost all other health issues, gun violence receives significantly less money for research, for prevention and for intervention services.

The neighborhoods that we serve and advocate on behalf of need these public health programs to deal with the complex problem of violence.  Because that is what violence is a – a public health problem. There are many solutions that are proven to work to reduce gun violence, and these are a good use of our limited funds. Spending $150 million per year incapacitating 1,000 offenders who may not fit the predictive risk factors for shooting and may never go on to commit a gun crime seems like an expensive proposition, but this is what SB1722 is asking you to support today.