Would harsher sentencing have saved Hadiya Pendleton?

A suspect in the shooting of 15-year old Hadiya Pendleton, who participated in Obama's inauguration, was on probation for a gun-related charge. Chicago officials want tougher sentencing.

By MARK GUARINO | The Christian Science Monitor

February 13, 2013 at 4:33 pm EST

Chicago— In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama mentioned 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, the girl who participated at his inauguration festivities and was gunned down near his Chicago home three weeks ago, to push for a vote on gun-control legislation in Congress.

In Chicago, however, Hadiya’s name is being connected with a different cause. Officials here are pointing to weak sentencing rules, saying alleged gunman Michael Ward, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a weapons charge and was on probation, never should have been on the streets. They are pushing for the expansion of mandatory minimum sentencing.

“This incident didn’t have to occur,” said Chicago Police Department Superintendent Gerry McCarthy at a news conference Monday. “If mandatory minimums existed in the state of Illinois, Michael Ward would not have been in the state to complete this heinous act.”

But legal experts say mandatory minimums are not necessarily designed to keep gun offenders off the streets, and that the perils of expanding them – especially to minors, as Mr. Ward was in 2012 – could outweigh the benefits.

“We really want to make sure they [minors] finish high school,” says John Paitakes, a criminal justice professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., and a former probation officer. “One risk of getting someone too far into the system is they are going to get more criminalized. So the best chance of reducing adult crime is to deal with juveniles and divert and prevent them from adult crime.”

The issue has great urgency in Chicago because homicides here surpassed 500 last year. Police say Hadiya’s death was part of a three-year battle between two gang factions. Ward and Kenneth Williams, who police say are members of a Gangster Disciples splinter group, mistook the group that Hadiya was with as a rival gang. Both men were charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and remain in custody.

Ward received two years' probation for the 2012 weapons charge because he was a minor. For weapons violations in Illinois, a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison applies only to offenders age 18 or older. 

Superintendent McCarthy said Monday that Chicago needs harsher mandatory minimum jail sentences for all gun offenses, similar to those currently in effect in New York City.

But mandatory minimums don’t necessarily keep criminals of the streets, says Brian Wyant, a criminal justice professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia who studies gun violence.

Prosecutors primarily use mandatory-minimum sentencing laws to “have more leverage to get guilty pleas,” he says.

“There’s little incentive to not plea if [the offender] knows they are going to get an automatic period of time, so they plea down, which they often do,” he adds. “These penalties are often mandatory in name only.”

Moreover, Professor Paitakes of Seton Hall says that in nonviolent gun cases involving minors, probation remains the first choice.

The reason is that “the longer you keep people in prison and alienating them from their community,” the greater the chance they will return to criminal behavior when they eventually reenter society, says Glenn Martin, vice president of public affairs for the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates alternatives to incarceration.

He warns against using a high-profile case like Hadiya’s to push for sweeping sentencing mandates, saying that it neglects the “hundreds of thousands of young people who do better and change their lives” because they are exposed to education alternatives.

“Are you going to create criminal justice policies that impact thousands of people based on one case? Maybe education didn’t help this one individual but that’s not how you create policy,” Mr. Martin says.

The Chicago Tribune reports that, as part of Ward’s probation, he was ordered confined to his home at night for six months, and instructed to complete high school and attend an anti-violence forum.

Cook County’s probation process is under scrutiny after a Tribune investigation found that Ward was arrested three times for vehicle break-ins and trespassing while serving his probation. After two of those arrests, probation officers did not notify prosecutors or the judge. The county adult probation department said it is investigating.

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