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IL Gun-Case Diversion Program Gets Praise, Eyes Expansion

After an Illinois mandatory-minimum sentencing law ballooned the prison population with nonviolent gun-possession cases, lawmakers created a diversion program for youthful offenders that appears to be working well enough to expand after its first five years, The Trace reports. Illinois launched the First Time Weapon Offender Program in 2018 as an experiment allowing judges to assign 18- to 20-year-olds who don’t have prior violent crime convictions and who did not commit a violent crime with a gun to a special form of probation. If they complete the program successfully, including GED classes and other programs, their charges are dropped. The program’s goal was to show that rehabilitation is more effective than incarceration in reducing gun violence, at least for young people carrying guns for protection who violated gun-carrying laws but are deemed to be a good risk not to commit violence.


While data on the program's effectiveness is limited, sentencing trends in Cook County show that a significant number of judges have used the program since its inception, lowering the rate of 18- to 20-year-olds being incarcerated by about two-thirds. Last year, legislators extended the program by one year, moving its expiration date to January 2024. Now, Democratic legislators and advocates are pushing to make the diversion program permanent and include people of all ages. “Everybody deserves another chance,” said John, a former enrollee in the program identified by a pseudonym for privacy. “You never know what they might be or what they can do with theirself if they just get that help.” The law was a response to another gun-violence remedy that backfired. In the early 2000s, after Illinois legislators passed new punitive gun sentencing laws in an effort to reduce gun violence, incarceration rates for gun possession charges increased markedly, especially among young Black men. Between 2010 and 2021, according to a report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, arrests for charges of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and unlawful use of a weapon more than doubled. In Cook County in 2016, more than 90% of defendants with Class 4 felony firearm possession charges between ages 18 and 20 were sentenced to prison. In 2019, a year after the program launched, that figure was down to 33%. The program has strict eligibility and compliance rules. What it lacks so far, though, is a formal evaluation assessing its effect on gun violence.

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