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Home / Legal News / Lawmakers consider mandatory minimums for felons caught with guns (UPDATE)

Lawmakers consider mandatory minimums for felons caught with guns (UPDATE)

At a public hearing Friday, a state representative didn’t just bring her notes with her. State Rep. LaTonya Johnson brought a pile of obituaries of Milwaukee children killed in shootings.

“This bill is of utmost importance to me and my community because we are losing innocent victims left and right in the city of Milwaukee,” she said.

Johnson was back in Madison on Tuesday to testify at a public hearing before a Senate committee in support of a proposal, of which she is an author, that would require a minimum sentence for convicted felons who violate the prohibition of possessing a firearm and for convicts who use firearms to commit a felony.

If a person is convicted of using a firearm to commit certain Class A to Class G felonies, that person must also be sentenced to at least five years in prison. For those convicted of Class H or Class I felonies, possessing firearms could net at least three years or at least 1-1/2 years, respectively.

Under current law, people convicted of a felony who possess firearms face up to a $25,000 fine or imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett also testified in support of the proposal at Tuesday’s hearing.

“We need to send a message to certain people,” Barrett said.

Flynn agreed, saying the proposed legislation would incapacitate repeat offenders and affect the decisions of potential violent offenders.

“Our challenge is: how we alter the mental calculation of violent offenders to decide that it is more dangerous to get caught with a gun than without them?” he said.

But Flynn, responding to lawmakers’ concerns that criminals would just find a way around the law if it would pass, said the proposal is just one small step in the right direction.

He said there are other problems the city faces regarding gun control, including the thriving second hand market for guns in Milwaukee and the use of human holsters, which is the practice in which felons are accompanied by a person with conceal-carry permits or a rap sheet of lesser charges. The felon’s gun is then handed to that person if stopped by police so the felon won’t have to give up the gun or be found violating the prohibition on having a firearm.

But representatives of the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys testified that there are problems with the mandatory minimum proposal.

Chris Ahmuty, president of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said that the proposal won’t help because, in the case of career criminals, “… The problem is you can take one person out of the system … and there is always someone to replace them.”

He also gave an example of states where mandatory minimums are not working. Illinois, he said, has had such a law since 2011 but it hasn’t helped because crimes in Chicago have gone up, so much so that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been calling for lawmakers to increase the mandatory minimum there to three years.

The proposal, said John Tradewell, president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, has two unintended consequences:

  1. If the prosecutor won’t come off the charge, more people would have to testify, adding to the cost of a trial, and
  2. If the prosecutor and the district attorney in the case agree that someone should not go to prison for the mandatory minimum requirement, that person will either be sent to prison anyway or could plead the charge away, meaning the conviction will not be seen.

“I submit that all in all,” he said, “mandatory minimums contribute to a false comfort.”

About Erika Strebel,

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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