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Milwaukee Mayor & Police Chief Argue for Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Some Gun Crimes

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It's been a deadly summer in some Milwaukee neighborhoods. Now, state lawmakers are considering increasing penalties for certain gun crimes.

A proposal would create mandatory minimum sentences for felons who possess firearms. Currently, judges have discretion over the length of such sentences.

Under Wisconsin law, people with felony records cannot possess a gun. If they do, they face up to 10 years imprisonment. The bill lawmakers held a hearing on Tuesday establishes mandatory minimums: at least three years, for someone with a violent felony record; and from 18 months to five years, if a person with a violent record uses a gun to commit additional violent crimes.

State Rep. LaTonya Johnson is behind the bill. She says gun violence has taken its toll in Milwaukee, with 2,365 shooting victims since 2012.

Johnson shared one of the harrowing incidents involving children. She described how a 10-year-old was caught in the crossfire, when shots were fired, at a playground.

"Sixteen shots rang out on that playground of about 50 kids. The potential for 16 victims. Sierra Guyton was fatally shot in the head, and died as a result of her wounds," Johnson said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the panel that he typically opposes mandatory minimum sentences. But in this case, he makes an exception.

"If an individual in this state commits a violent -- a violent -- felony and then uses a gun, not only does that mean that person's flunked the IQ test, but if they've committed a violent crime a second time, I want that person locked up," Barrett said.

The hearing was heavy with emotion over the lives lost, and the risk to those who might become victims by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet just a handful of people spoke at the meeting. State Sen. Lena Taylor was among them. She's on the committee considering the bill. Taylor talked about the high price the state pays to incarcerate individuals. She says the money could better be spent on crime prevention, and she pushed for peers to consider other cities' successful models.

"The question is, is whether or not this is an effective way to move forward, when there are better data-driven strategies that can work," Taylor said.

Taylor fears tougher sentences won't work, while they could cause other problems.

"We know what mandatory minimums have done for us. They've not been effective and they've promoted or helped to increase disparities that exist within our system," Taylor said.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn responded, saying mandatory minimums don't work for all crimes -- such as drug crimes, among people with a drug addiction. But he's confident the sentences for felons carrying firearms will make a difference.

"States that have stronger laws on guns and criminals and putting them in jail have much lower levels of violence than those that don’t," Flynn said.

Milwaukee has had an especially violent year so far. There have been more than 100 homicides, already outpacing last year's total.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.