In May 2019, 20-year-old John was charged with possessing a weapon, a felony in Illinois. Police officers found a gun and John’s ID in an abandoned home next to his sister’s house in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. John says he has never owned a gun and didn’t know how his ID ended up there. While out on bond, John wore an ankle monitor for almost six months.

“I used to think I was never going to have another chance,” John said. “I used to think my life was over.” 

The year before his arrest, however, Illinois created the First Time Weapon Offender Program, a five-year experiment that allowed judges to assign 18- to 20-year-olds who don’t have prior violent crime convictions to a special probation that, if completed successfully, would drop their charges. John joined the program in October 2019. For the next two years, he pursued his education while getting regular check-ins from his probation officer. (The Trace agreed to refer to John and program participants by pseudonyms to ensure that the charges that have been wiped from their records don’t become public.)

John said the program was challenging, but he successfully completed it in March 2022 — which means that now, all charges for possession of a weapon have been dropped from his record. John received his high school diploma this year and started taking carpentry classes in May. 

“When I was young, I kind of felt that I wasn’t going to do nothing, and I probably was going to be in the streets,” John said. But after getting arrested and joining the program, he said, his mindset changed. “I wanted more for myself, it was pushing me to do better.”

The program’s goal was to show that rehabilitation is more effective than incarceration in reducing gun violence. While data on its success rate is limited — the program isn’t required to collect data, and Illinois courts are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests — 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,” John said. “You never know what they might be or what they can do with theirself if they just get that help.”

The consequences of punitive gun sentencing laws

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. Contrary to their names, these charges do not always involve the use of a firearm during a violent crime.

A 2021 study by Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, found that between 2008 and 2019, nearly three quarters of Illinois’ more than 100,000 arrests for firearm-related offenses were for charges related to illegal possession of a firearm. These offenses involve people who were not legally allowed to own or carry a firearm because of their age, felony history, or for failing to have proper documentation. They do not include firearms used during a violent crime or that were illegally discharged.

A 2011 law that created mandatory sentences for those convicted of carrying a “loaded and accessible” firearm increased prison admissions for these crimes by 27 percent between 2014 and 2019. These changes affected some areas more than others. During Loyola’s study period, people in Cook County were almost twice as likely to be sentenced to prison for Class 4 felonies — the least serious felony firearm possession offense — than people in the rest of Illinois. One third of Illinois’ convictions for this offense came from 11 of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. 

State Representative Kevin Olickal, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill to make the First Time Weapon Offender Program permanent, said mandatory minimum sentencing for gun charges undermines a judge’s ability to use their discretion. 

Finding an alternative to incarceration

Advocates and legislators responded to the effect of mandatory sentences on incarceration rates by creating the First Time Weapon Offender Program. A person can qualify for the program if they are between 18 and 20 years old; if the weapon they were charged with possessing wasn’t used in a violent offense; and if they don’t have a previous conviction or probation for any other violent offense. The person cannot have any orders of protection against them and cannot have already gone through this process.

The program provides participants with rehabilitative services, like education and vocational training, while making sure they meet with probation officers who verify that they are meeting all requirements. To finish the program and get their charges dropped, they must obtain a high school diploma, a GED, or finish a vocational training program. They must also complete 50 hours of community service and participate in additional activities, like counseling or medical treatment. Owning any firearms, using illicit drugs, or violating any criminal laws will get them kicked out. 

There is no public record of how many people have been invited to join the program or how many successfully finished it. But sentencing trends in Cook County show that in 2016, more than 90 percent 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 percent. 

The sentencing alternative contributed to that drop, said David Olson, a professor at Loyola University who helped author the 2021 study. Other factors like policy changes in the Cook County State’s Attorney Office may have also helped. To truly evaluate the program, he said, the state needs to collect information on its progress.

In general, the majority of people convicted of possession charges were not rearrested or convicted for violent crimes after being released from prison or after being sentenced to probation. Instead, Olson said, risk factors like a violent criminal history are a more accurate predictor of violent recidivism. The majority of those convicted and sentenced to prison for firearm possession offenses do not have prior convictions for violent crimes.

What communities need

Supporters of the First Time Weapon Offender Program think it’s a great alternative to incarceration, but that it’s not enough to reduce gun violence. For that to happen, they say, communities that face the highest rates of gun violence must be given more resources and support, not more incarceration.

“You’re taking people away from the communities that otherwise would be supporting their families, that would be contributing to the economy,” said Lindsey Hammond, policy director of Restore Justice Illinois, an organization that advocates for reforming Illinois sentencing laws. “The more we remove important breadwinners and people from the community, the less stable it becomes, and the more the cycle of violence can perpetuate and continue.”

Recent reports show that traffic stops are being used as a pretext to search for guns in some South and West Side neighborhoods. Injustice Watch reported that Chicago Police have made more than 4.5 million traffic stops that included weapon searches since 2015, but that even at its most “successful year” of finding weapons in 2021,the police made only one gun arrest for every 156 stops.

Robert, a West Side resident, faced one of these stops when he was 19.

In June 2021, while driving to visit his friend, police officers pulled him over. Before telling him why he was stopped, they asked if he had a license to own and carry a firearm. He didn’t. Despite not having a warrant, the police ordered him out of his car, and searched it. When they frisked him, they found a gun. 

“They acted like I was about to kill them,” Robert said. “They were being very scared and started to almost panic.” He said they didn’t ask any questions about the weapon but immediately pushed him toward his car and arrested him. 

Robert later learned that he had initially been pulled over because his front headlight wasn’t working. But instead of a traffic ticket, he was charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, which can carry a mandatory prison sentence of one to three years.

Robert learned about the First Time Weapon Offender Program from his attorney. He volunteered and got a job as a youth mentor for a community art center and garnered a few career advancement certificates, including entrepreneurship courses. 

After 18 months, he completed the program. Now, Robert is touring college campuses and beginning to apply.

“It’s allowed me to soar,” Robert said. “I feel like there’s nothing hindering or holding me back.”

‘It felt like a necessity’

Legislators want to make the program permanent and to remove age restrictions altogether. They also want participants to be able to complete it faster, within six to 18 months, because they say fulfilling the requirements doesn’t take longer than that. Legislation supporting those changes passed both houses on May 27. Under the new law, participants of all ages would complete their special probation within six to 24 months. Olickal’s office was not able to say how much the expanded program would cost, but noted that probation generally costs less than prison.

Elizabeth Zink, a Cook County assistant public defender, said her office has had several clients who met all the requirements — but were sometimes just above the age limit.

Research suggests that human brains are not fully developed until age 25. That’s one argument advocates make in favor of including people older than 20 in the First Time Weapon Offender Program.

The program, Zink said, has been successful among the clients represented by the Public Defender’s Office. Beyond avoiding a conviction on their records, she said, the program has allowed participants to continue earning an income while they remain present for their families.

Zink said it has also received positive feedback from judges. “Our judges also like this program because they realize that people can make mistakes,” she said. “These are mainly young men in neighborhoods where they feel unsafe and where they feel they need to have a gun, not to use it, but to instead protect themselves.”

Before he was arrested, Robert had lost several people to gun violence. “Seeing the way that violence had been rising, especially in the last few months and years, it felt like a necessity to be able to protect my life,” Robert said. He still feels that way.

Although Robert successfully completed the program and no longer carries a firearm, the violence around him hasn’t ceased. Since then, he has lost even more people to gun violence.

This story was updated on May 30 to address the bill’s passage.