Black State Legislators Talk Criminal Justice Reform

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BLACK LEGISLATORS DISCUSS criminal justice reform at a symposium last week on the West Side. (Photo by Lee Edward)

By Lee Edwards, Chicago Crusader

The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation (ILBCF), in partnership with the Cook County Bar Association, continued its statewide series of symposiums following the release of its latest report on criminal justice reform at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Student Services Building on April 1.

The ILBCF is a non-partisan organization whose directive is to provide public policy development, educational research and analysis on a wide array of social and economic issues relevant to the state’s African-American communities.

ILBCF Executive Director Larry Luster said the purpose of the symposium was to receive community feedback about the report and other issues. The UIC symposium was the second of three scheduled symposiums, with the first being held in East St. Louis and the next slated for Springfield in May. He said the organization’s fellowship program created the report to illustrate to its constituents what specifically African-American legislators are fighting for and their views on key topics.

“The time is now, and it’s really exciting to see all of these Black leaders fighting for the issues because they want to see real change, so it’s a really exciting time,” said Luster. “One of the things about the Black Caucus is there aren’t a lot of places where you can specifically focus on Blackness and what we care about as Black people, and what we’re trying to advance and do as Black folks, and this is a great space to do that.”

In addition to its advocacy work, the ILBCF offers $60,000 annually in scholarships through its scholarship program, said Luster.

Led by Chicago Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th); State Reps. Elgie Sims (34th Dist.), Juliana Stratton (5th Dist.) and LaShawn K. Ford (8th Dist.); Victor Dickson, president and CEO of the Safer Foundation; State Sen. Kwame Raoul (13th Dist.); and Natalie Howse, president of the Cook County Bar Association, the symposium’s agenda featured panels addressing policing, re-entry into society and sentencing and bail reform.

During her remarks, Howse focused on the impact of mandatory minimums on sentencing and bail reform. She specifically highlighted how African-American teens and young adults in Cook County who possess a firearm—regardless of reason—are being negatively impacted at an alarming rate. She said because of mandatory minimums, second chances are non-existent and would prefer to see youth participate in a program like Cook County’s boot camp or receive parole instead of jail time.

“In Cook County, the only people I see impacted by mandatory minimums are African Americans,” said Howse. “In some of our communities [young adults are] afraid, recruited by gangs or they’re not in gangs, but they feel like they need to carry [firearms] around; those are the ones that are entering the mandatory-minimum situation which leads directly to the prison.”

Founded in 1914, the Cook County Bar Association is the oldest bar association of African-American lawyers in the country.

Stratton discussed trauma and how women are particularly impacted throughout the entire criminal justice cycle. She sponsored House Bill 3904, which according to its synopsis, amends the Unified Code of Corrections to establish a Women’s Correctional Services Division in the Department of Corrections that would increase accountability and respond to the specific needs of female inmates.

“When we think about the unique role of women in the community, we know that they’re not the dominant reflection of those that are incarcerated in Illinois, but we need to make sure that we meet the unique needs of women who have high rates of trauma; who are often mothers; and we need to make sure that they’re going back to their families and communities better off than when they came into the system,” said Stratton.

In 2014, WBEZ reported that Logan Correctional Center—an all-women’s center with a population capacity of 2,019—had potential issues, like multiple suicides and a 156:1 inmate to officer ratio among others.

Sawyer spoke about the financial impact of paying settlements caused by “bad actors” within the Chicago Police Department. According to a report by Crain’s Chicago Business, the city of Chicago has spent $662 million in police misconduct payments since 2004. He went on to say there’s a difference between a “bad actor” and an officer who made a mistake.

“There’s a very small percentage of bad actors that thumb their nose at the law and do something to the effect of criminal conduct. Those are the ones we need to remove from the force and eliminate their egregious and criminal conduct.”

Following the symposium, Sawyer added that forums like it are often “fruitful” and referred to a joint Black caucus of elected officials from the city, county, state, and federal levels who periodically meet to discuss issues facing the African-American community.

 

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