What Does Criminal Justice Reform Look Like?

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"About 40% of the IDOC (Illinois Department of Corrections) population is African American, but only 14% of the entire state population is African American."

This astonishing statement was made by Representative Ken Dunkin (D-5) at the July 15 inaugural meeting of the Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee of the Illinois General Assembly.

No one in the audience gasped. No legislator questioned the accuracy of the data.

"Over 90% of the population of the jail is waiting for trial," testified Cara Smith, the Executive Director of the Cook County Jail. 

Again, there was no reaction from the audience or push back from legislators.

Sadly, we have become accustomed to these numbers. Most people in the room - legislators, state department heads, criminal justice professionals, community advocates, service providers, researchers - have heard these statistics many times. 

On the other hand, people living in communities plagued by violence, unemployment, and poverty experience the trauma brought on by the disproportionate impact of current criminal justice laws and practices on a regular basis. They also know through their personal experiences how long their friends and family members wait in Cook County Jail. Violence is not just a news update or a legislative debate. It's the ongoing story of their daily lives.

Many members of our CRS churches live in communities overwhelmed by violence. Together, we have launched the Reclaim Campaign to reduce violence and restore lives by lowering the number of days to preliminary hearings at Cook County Jail and creating restorative justice peace hubs in our churches. We are calling upon Cook County to shift financial resources away from detention and incarceration and into communities to help stop the cycle of violence.

With leadership from the FORCE project, we have also called upon members of the Illinois General Assembly and the Governor to oppose any new legislation that expands mandatory minimums or enhances Illinois’ already harsh sentencing policies. FORCE members, their families, and allies know firsthand that sentencing enhancements fail to reduce crime or stop violence. Instead, they disrupt families and cost our state millions of dollars. Strong opposition from CRS and other criminal justice advocates, coupled with leadership by the Illinois Black Caucus, helped to stop legislation, introduced by Representative Michael Zalewski (D-23) in 2013, to enhance penalties for gun crimes.

As a result, the legislative conversation changed to comprehensive criminal justice reform, and HJR 96, adopted by both House and Senate in May 2014, created the Joint Criminal Justice Reform Committee at the end of the Spring Session of the General Assembly. 

Popular wisdom says that the committee wants to find a way to reduce the prison population, cut down on recidivism, enforce strict laws, and promote public safety. Others are convinced that the primary focus of the legislators will be to increase mandatory minimums on gun crimes and balance the increased prison population by decreasing sentences on some low-level, non-violent drug offenses.

Members of CRS churches and the FORCE project, along with other criminal justice advocates, will add our voices and expertise to the deliberations at the next committee hearing on August 19.  It is imperative to get this right. A piecemeal approach will not generate the comprehensive criminal justice reform that the Black Caucus called for and Representative Zalewski promised when he introduced HJR 96 in May 2014.

As people of faith, we work for policies that will transform our communities into places of justice and peace. We agree with Senator Kwame Raoul's (D-13) statement at the July 15 hearing: "The committee should look at long-term criminal justice sentencing reform, not just a trade of increasing sentences for violent offenses and decreasing sentences for non-violent."