Developing Justice in Illinois

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

The numbers are daunting: fifty-five percent of Black adult males in Chicago have felony records. In Illinois, Black men are 57 times more likely than white males to be in prison for drug offenses. There are more Black men in Illinois prisons than in state colleges and universities.

Illinois’ “Tough on Crime” policy prescriptions of more arrests and longer sentences have produced a growing prison population with rising recidivism rates. Illinois’ incarceration rates are some of the most racially disparate in the country. These numbers are burned on the brains of many criminal justice reform advocates. But more daunting than the numbers is the uphill battle of transforming a system and society that don’t see this as a problem, but a solution.

Strategies to address the depth and scope of the problems the criminal justice system represents and reproduces require more than one approach or one policy. The challenge is not simply weeding out bad leadership or debunking a flawed strategy. The ideas, values and political support for a punitive incarceration system over rehabilitative treatment alternatives must be challenged. Solutions that get to the root causes of incarceration, not just the symptoms, call for policies and programs that are both fiscally and socially responsible.

Illinois has seen a number of recent policy advancements in criminal justice. In the last legislative session, two key juvenile justice bills were signed into law creating a new Juvenile Justice Department and stopping automatic transfers of youth. Another key victory addressed the rights of ex-offenders through expungement legislation. This win was the work of a dynamic and growing set of Chicago-based community organizations focused on criminal justice reforms.

The Developing Justice Coalition (djc) was founded by Patricia Watkins of TARGET Area Development Corporation and Debra Strickland of the Developing Communities Project in 2002. With over a dozen organizational members, this multiracial coalition includes many of Chicago’s strongest and most innovative grassroots org-anizing groups from all corners of the city. Its strength comes not only from its strong foundation of organizing, but from a racial justice analysis, an integrated strategy and a long-term vision and commitment to reforming Illinois’ criminal justice system. Their agenda includes promoting alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders, decreasing the racially biased outcomes of Illinois’ sentencing laws, and advocating for a state-sanctioned reintegration plan for all Illinois residents with prior offenses.

The DJC has forged extraordinary alliances across racial, ethnic, religious, geographic and ideological divides. Unwedded to any one sector or strategy, the coalition has utilized their organizational differences as a catalyst for developing innovative strategies. This dynamic coalition has proven the efficacy of Blacks and immigrants, and Christians and Muslims organizing and advocating together. The power of a cross-community collaborative echoing the same message and advocating for a shared platform has moved legislators. DJC leaders testify that key opposition has been turned by the very multiracial and citywide nature of the coalition.

The DJC has proven itself on the ground and in Springfield. In 2003 the DJC led the successful Treatment Not Jails Campaign to address the barriers ex-offenders faced upon return to their communities, no more educated or prepared to join the workforce, but with a criminal record. In 2005 they won the passage of SB3007, the Ex-offender Expungement and Sealing Act. This law seals and expunges the records of those with non-violent misdemeanor and low-level (Class 4) drug and prostitution convictions.

SB3007 has opened economic opportunity and possibly prevented recidivism for many ex-offenders in the state. Today, tens of thousands of ex-offenders in Illinois can legitimately tell prospective employers that they do not have a criminal record. While an important advancement, expungement legislation primarily addresses the back-end needs of ex-offenders. This new law is only one component of the coalition’s long-term strategy.

Proactive solutions to reduce or eliminate incarceration have been much more difficult to move. Advocates like the DJC can only move positive reforms within the purview of public and political support. The coalition’s unsuccessful effort to pass the Substance Abuse Management Addressing Recidivism Act (smart) in the last legislative session indicates the need for increased public education. If passed, the Act would expand existing legislation which allows Cook County judges to sentence low-level drug and prostitution offenders to drug abuse treatment and education programs, diverting them away from the criminal justice system.

Perhaps the most crucial and consistent component of the coalition’s work continues to be public education. Through the Administration of Justice Campaign, the coalition is challenging the culture of criminalization upheld by policymakers and the public alike. Redefining drug-abuse from simply a criminal act, to part of a larger public and mental health issue, opens up opportunities for treatment and rehabilitation. Challenging the incarceration mentality is crucial to building the political will and support to move a criminal justice reform agenda.

The Developing Justice Coalition moves into its fifth year of work with both victories and challenges to learn from. Proactive policies like the smart Act will be at the top of their agenda in 2007. As the coalition looks ahead to the future they see a long road ahead. “We know that one law is not going to change these problems. We know that two laws are not going to change these problems. We need to change the whole system,” says Patricia Watkins, Executive Director of TARGET Area Development Corporation and Convenor of the Act. “We also know that what the Act has been able to do together, none of us could do alone.”

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