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Milwaukee Police Chief Backs Strict Penalties For Violent Felons Caught With Guns

Bill Has Bipartisan Support, But Critics Argue Law Would Worsen Mass Incarceration

Gilman Halsted/WPR

Milwaukee Police chief Ed Flynn is backing a bill he contends will help take the most violent criminals in the city off the streets, although critics argue it will only fuel the growing prison population.

Under the bill, anyone with a violent felony on their record who is caught with a gun would face a mandatory minimum sentence of up to five years in prison.

Flynn said the goal is to incapacitate career criminals who he said are responsible for most of the city’s gun crimes.

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“Eighty percent of our victims and over 85 percent of our actors have extensive criminal records,” said Flynn. “These are not the guys who rehabilitated themselves. Theses are guys committed to a lifestyle.”

But opponents say the most violent criminals are already getting long sentences, and that mandatory minimum sentences drive up the prison population and have little effect on reducing crime. Still, the bill has strong bipartisan support and will likely be voted out of committee next week .

John Tradewell of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the bill prevents judges from individually tailoring a sentence for someone who might not belong in prison.

“Maybe this person shouldn’t go to prison at a cost of $30,000 a year to the taxpayer, and at a cost of needlessly rending that person’s family apart and maybe putting them out on the street,” Tradewell said.

But Flynn said he’s convinced the mandatory sentences will take many of the most violent criminals out of circulation. He added that he’s encouraged by the bipartisan support, both from Democrats who are often reluctant to vote for bills that are tough on crime, and Republicans who usually shy away from increasing penalties for gun possession. The bill would sunset in five years, giving legislators the chance to decide whether or not it’s been effective.

Flynn said the next thing he’ll ask the Legislature for is a law barring gun ownership for people with multiple misdemeanors. He said increasingly, criminals with felony records are recruiting people who have only misdemeanors to be what he calls “human holsters” to assist in committing crimes.

According to Flynn, often when a car is stopped, police will find one person who has three guns in the car. That person doesn’t have a felony record, meaning they can’t be charged with illegally carrying a gun. Flynn said sometimes the “human holster” even has a concealed carry permit.

Flynn also said most of the guns his officers seize from criminals were originally legally bought in Wisconsin at stores like Gander Mountain and Cabela’s and then sold illegally. Because there’s no requirement to report a gun lost or stolen in Wisconsin, Flynn said, it’s difficult to crack down on that secondary market where criminals get their guns.

“We don’t want to interfere with farmer Joe selling his shotgun to farmer Bill. I get that. But what about little rascal A selling to villain B? What do we do about that?” Flynn said.

One of the bill’s cosponsors, Democratic Rep. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee, planned to hold a community listening session on the bill Wednesday night.