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“There’s no disincentive to carry:” Felons with guns dodge ‘minimum’ sentence, despite new law

MILWAUKEE — Every year, Milwaukee police take thousands of guns off the streets -- hundreds of them from convicted felons. Under state law, felons caught in possession of firearms could face up to 10 years in prison, but many of them don't go to prison at all.

The FOX6 Investigators pored over five years worth of data from 2011 to 2015 involving thousands of cases where convicted felons were arrested for illegally carrying a gun.

The findings are eye-opening.

Guns

Three out of every four felons arrested in Milwaukee County for possession of a gun do not go to prison. More than half aren't even convicted.

Consider what happened in August of 2013 at a house on Milwaukee's north side. It was a hot summer day and family members had gathered at the home near 8th and Keefe for a 55th birthday party. There was food on the grill. Children were playing.

Then, a fight broke out between a group of rival women. A man was overheard calling someone and telling him to "bring the heat."

Bobby Joe Johnson Junior was arrested in 2012 as a felon in possession of a firearm. The case was dismissed due to an uncooperative witness. A year later, he shot an killed a woman at a birthday party.

Bobby Joe Johnson Junior was arrested in 2012 as a felon in possession of a firearm. The case was dismissed due to an uncooperative witness. A year later, he shot an killed a woman at a birthday party.

Bobby Joe Johnson, Jr., showed up with a long-barreled revolver.

"Bullets just came flying through the side window," said Jassmine Mulbah, one of the people at the party.

Mulbah started frantically telling women and children to hide in closets. Whitney Rhodes had been cowering inside one, when she emerged to look for another family member. That's when the bullets struck her.

"She ran in the room and said, 'Jassmine, I'm hit.' And I just started screaming. 'Everybody call 911 from their phones. Everybody just call 911. Whitney has been shot!'" Mulbah said.

Rhodes, a 25-year-old mother of two, was still clutching her two-month-old baby.

"Her daughter was still in between her legs, in front of her legs, sucking her fingers not knowing her mother is back there losing her life, dying back there -- over some mess," Mulbah said.

Whitney Rhodes

Whitney Rhodes

Rhodes' death is emblematic of the growing human toll in a city with so many violent criminals.

"One of the best ways to catch them is to catch them with a gun," said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.

But catching them and putting them in prison are two different things.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn

"There's got to be a consequence for criminality," said Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn.

A year before shooting Rhodes to death, Johnson was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon -- a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. But Johnson's case was dismissed.

"If he was locked away, put away like he should have been, then this lady would still be alive to this day," said Tiffany Mulbah, another of the victim's relatives.

A FOX6 Investigation found Johnson is one among hundreds of convicted felons in Milwaukee charged with having a gun in recent years -- only to have those charges dropped.

Felons with guns

"It's a huge issue," Chisholm said.

Chisholm said gun cases can be challenging for even the most experienced prosecutors, who face massive case loads.

"They are aggressively pursuing cases, but they have to do some triage. They have to focus on the ones that pose the biggest risk," Chisholm said.

Felons with guns

From 2011 to 2015, police referred 3,637 gun possession cases to the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. The FOX6 Investigators found charges were never filed in 37% of them -- that's more than one in three.

"Because there just isn't sufficient evidence at that point and time," explained Chisholm.

Hundreds of other cases were charged, but then dismissed — sometimes because a key witness backed out. That's what happened with Bobby Joe Johnson, whose girlfriend -- and mother of his child -- had reported him to police for threatening her with a gun. Police found a gun hidden in the oven and arrested him. But on the day of his trial, the witness failed to show up to testify -- a common problem in domestic violence cases.

"She doesn't show. She's not cooperative. That case gets dismissed," Chisholm said.

Shooting

Even when felons are convicted of having a gun in Milwaukee, they don't always go to jail  — at least not for long.

The FOX6 Investigators found 20% serve less than one year in jail and 75% serve less than three.

"If we can't put the felons in possession of firearms in jail, why are we surprised that we're awash in guns?" Chief Flynn asked.

Felons with guns

Flynn said his officers take thousands of guns off the street every year. They arrest the same felons for having them over and over again.

"It's a little bit like having a kid. You say 'if you do that, I'm gonna send you to your room without watching TV.' And then they do it and then you let them watch TV. Why would their behavior change?" Flynn said.

That's why Flynn pushed for a change in state law that sets a mandatory three year minimum sentence for felons caught with firearms.

chisholm

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm says gun cases are a high priority, but they can be difficult cases to prove for even the most experienced prosecutors.

In 2015, the law changed. FOX6's investigation found the results have not.

Four out of five felons (82%) convicted of gun possession in Milwaukee County still don't get three years or more in prison.

"If there's a minimum sentence, how come people aren't getting the minimum sentence?" FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn asked Flynn.

"Boy, that's the question, isn't it?" Flynn said.

Turns out, the new law only applies if the original crime was violent -- only if the offender is caught with a gun within give years -- and only if he's already completed his probation or parole from the original violent crime.

Jail

"It is actually a very small number of individuals who would actually qualify for sentencing under that change in the law," Chisholm said.

In other words, the new three year minimum sentence is virtually meaningless.

"It's business as usual in the juvenile courts. It's business as usual in the adult felony courts," Flynn said.

And the courts are flooded with gun cases.

Felons with guns

Milwaukee County Judge Frederick Rosa's so-called "gun court" has more than 200 pending cases that involve actual shootings. So many, in fact, that simple possession cases are farmed out to other courts.

The FOX6 Investigators asked Milwaukee County Chief Judge Maxine White for an interview about gun possession cases. She arranged a meeting with three of her most experienced felony court judges to talk to FOX6 News.

judges

Four judges, including Milwaukee County Chief Judge Maxine White, met with FOX6 Investigators. The judges declined to be interviewed on camera.

During the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, the judges said the FOX6 Investigators' data was incomplete. In some cases, the judges and a court administrator claimed the data was inaccurate. They said that they didn't have enough time to review the data. And that you can't draw conclusions from that data without looking at the transcripts of each case.

In the end, the judges declined to be interviewed on camera, with former Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers noting that he feared the story would play into the ongoing narrative that judges are "soft on crime."

"Everybody's got a litany of excuses why nothing can change," Flynn said.

Flynn says he understands that budgets are tight and resources are scarce, but he expressed frustration that other parts of the criminal justice system aren't lobbying for resources more aggressively.

"You're elected officials. Raise hell. Raise hell!" Flynn exclaimed.

For all they disagree on, when it comes to surviving life on Milwaukee's violent streets, the police chief and the district attorney agree on one thing: Violent criminals in Milwaukee would rather be caught with a gun than without one.

"There's no disincentive to carry a gun," Chief Flynn said.

"We have to change that calculation," Chisholm said.

Guns

The data the FOX6 Investigators relied on for this story was obtained through open records requests to the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office and from a case-by-case review of online court records.

Even though it was the district attorney who handed over the data, it was Milwaukee police who compiled it in the first place.

Neither the District Attorney's Office nor Milwaukee County judges keep track of that kind of information. Chief Flynn said that's part of the problem. He said the Milwaukee Police Department is the only agency using data to think strategically about crime.

As for Chief Judge Maxine White's statement that she did not have enough time to review FOX6's data, the FOX6 Investigators sent her both our findings and our source material on October 11th -- thirteen days before the broadcast. A week later, she arranged the meeting between FOX6 News, herself and three other judges. However, she declined an interview on camera, saying she would prefer to be part of a follow-up story.

15 comments

  • KILWAUKEE

    Kilwaukee’s judges and DA protecting the criminals and allowing them to roam free. There’s no sense of justice or reasonable sentencing in Kilwaukee. No wonder we’re the 7th most dangerous city and 5th highest homicide city in the US. What a garbage city.

  • john

    Dear State legislators you passed a law to take over failing schools now its time to pass one to take over the failing court system here in Milwaukee and appoint some judges that get it and provided the DA’s office with more prosecutors and resources. possession of a firearm by felon is not a throw away charge.

  • Jacob G.

    I have lived I’m Milwaukee my whole life. Never owned a gun. Living in the inner city. My baby brother was killed in Milwaukee 2012. The gun laws in Wisconsin are a joke. The violent criminals are let free because nobody cares to change the because the truth is the state polititians and everybody else in power get money keep the poverty going. This is the most segregated city in the USA. A Govenor that never sets here unless he trying to get votes.They rather make decisions in Madison that affect Milwaukee schools to take money from our kids schools instead of fixing the gun laws here because they cities aren’t affected !!!

    • cannibal

      You are completely mistaken about the gun laws. You need to blame the liberal judges in milwaukee, not the governor, for not enforcing sentencing guidelines.

    • Educated one

      Re-read the article…we do NOT need more gun laws…these thugs do not follow laws. We need elected judges to uphold the law and PROSECUTE all FELONS committing crimes in possession of a gun! Look at Chicago….more gun control laws = more shootings and murders!

  • CYNIC

    This is an unbelievable non-biased article about guns from Faux 6. I’m shocked. Every other story parrots the antis talking points about more background checks and the fake gun show loophole. This is actually the real issue, the number #1 problem. There is just no penalty! If they actually tacked on minimum sentences for this then every petty robbery done in possession of a firearm would amount to a much greater sentence. Every drug crime where the thug has an illegal gun would be way more than a slap on the wrist. Keep these thugs and their illegally owned guns off the streets! Unfortunately most of the energy will still be spent trying to punish law abiding citizens first.

    • Opinion8d

      The reason they don’t go to jail is all political -too many blacks in jail and you can’t have that…..regardless if it’s warranted. Just like they can’t suspend or expel them from schools. And I’m not saying all the gun crimes are by blacks.

  • Moved Due To Barrett

    Enforce the freaking laws we already have for God’s sake! Love listening to the anti’s go on and on about stricter laws.

  • KILWAUKEE

    Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers noting that he feared the story would play into the ongoing narrative that judges are “soft on crime.” What a joke of a comment. YOU GUYS ARE SOFT ON CRIME! How many times do we hear repeat offenders both juveniles and adults gets released on bail for violent crimes. WHAT A JOKE THESE JUDGES ARE. THEY’RE NO BETTER THEN THE STANDFORD JUDGE, JUDGE PERSKY.

  • Make America Great Again

    The only thing worse than libs taking away the rights of the Second Amendment are people who are “conservative” and yet does not protect it.

  • confused

    Why does it have to be a violent crime for the felon with a gun? If the felon is not to have one it should be not to have one, whether in your lap, on the seat next to you or in your hands. Go to jail, directly to jail. And the whole, it’s not mine, it’s just laying there, you ARE a felon, so what, you know the rules. Choose your friends and associates wisely. 1 gun and 5 felons? you ALL go directly to jail.

  • Educated one

    Perhaps the judges should require the felons to wear a button that says “I am gun free!” And to ensure they’re not possessing guns make them shop and live in gun free zones! That will reduce all gun crimes right??? Here is your sign…

  • jeff

    There should be a mandatory sentence for crimes committed with a firearm, whether the person is a convicted felon or not. It isn’t a need for more gun laws, it’s a need for real across the board consequences that are inforced. The same applies to the the so called war on drugs, if mandatory sentencing is implemented giving no quarter to users, crack would dissappear.

Comments are closed.