At a town hall held at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park last Thursday, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle recounted the story of a 16-year-old high school student, whom she described as churchgoing and diligent in his studies, who made a mistake that was not entirely his own fault.

“One day he got into the wrong car and his life changed,” Preckwinkle said. “He got into a cab with two friends when one of his friends grabbed the driver’s keys, pulled a gun and demanded money. After receiving $45, he threw the keys away and all three boys [fled].”

After law enforcement officials identified the three friends on footage from a surveillance camera inside the cab, all were apprehended and charged with a single count of armed robbery with a firearm and sentenced to 21 years in prison — the statutory mandatory minimum.

“The presiding judge said she would have given a different sentence, but her hands were tied,” Preckwinkle said. “That 16-year-old boy, who studied hard, went to church and dreamed of higher education and a career, had his future stolen from him.” 

The Cook County Board president has retold that story many times, but it resonated throughout the vaulted cathedral on a night that happened to coincide with what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 86th birthday (Jan. 15). 

First District Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, who, along with Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-7th), co-sponsored the town hall, evoked the slain civil rights leader when he described the purpose of the gathering, which was to bring grassroots organizations together with some of Cook County’s most powerful elected officials to discuss ways to reform the county’s much-maligned criminal justice system.

Boykin said the idea for the forum originated at a rally last month, which involved congregations in Austin and Oak Park marching out of their Sunday services to Scoville Park and taking a collective stance against the police killings of unarmed black males, most notably in New York and St. Louis. 

Boykin said he marched to the park along with members of Grace Episcopal and promised that day to Rev. Shawn Schreiner, the church’s rector, that he would put concrete proposals behind his symbolic protest.

Last week’s town hall, which featured a clout-heavy Who’s Who panel — from the county board president to the Cook County State’s Attorney to the Chicago Police Department’s second in command — was more of a gathering of well-connected insiders voicing their own frustrations with the very system they’re charged with shepherding. It made for a night that was both self-reflective and self-congratulatory.

Practically to a person, the panelists were critical of the county’s criminal justice system, conceding that the “tough-on-crime” approach may not have worked as well as expected. However, they weren’t dismissive of the system’s capacity for reform.

In line with Boykin’s emphasis on de-criminalizing societal problems such as mental illness and poverty, many of the panelists advocated for various forms of alternative policing measures. State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez touted her office’s efforts to make prostitution a misdemeanor. 

Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley and 1st Deputy Al Wysinger both emphasized policing measures that rely less on force and more on building trust.

“You can’t arrest your way out of circumstances,” Wysinger said, noting that the CPD has eliminated two targeted response teams that lacked “geographical accountability.” 

“For too many years, we politicians were so concerned with being tough on crime, we forgot to be smart on crime,” said state Senator Don Harmon (39th), who articulated the panelists’ consensus opinion that the old way of crime-fighting had finally run its course — both morally and economically.

“How much money do you think we spend locking up people just from Austin?” said Ryan Hollon, an urban planner with the University of Illinois Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development. “500 million dollars. One zip code. Five years. $500 million. That’s how much we’re going into the wrong direction.”

Much of the panelists’ criticism focused on Cook County’s policing tactics and the Cook County Department of Corrections, the citadel at 2700 S. California Ave. that Preckwinkle has called “the intersection of racism and poverty,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has called the “largest mental health institution in the country,” and that many panelists condemned as a warehouse for poor black and brown youth. 

“Here in Cook County, 86 percent of the inmates in our jail are people of color and 24 percent of African Americans make up Cook County,” Boykin said. “Keep in mind that the overall population of Cook County is 66 percent white. And yet if you were to visit our jail, as President Preckwinkle is fond of saying, you would think that the overwhelming majority of Cook County residents is black or brown.”

“We must continue to reduce our over-reliance on pre-trial detention,” Preckwinkle said. “Contrary to most people’s assumptions, the jail is not primarily a place where we lock up violent criminals, and it is not a place where people wait to go to prison. In fact, only 7 percent of the people in the jail are currently serving a sentence. Seventy percent of those in the jail awaiting trial are accused of a nonviolent charge and they are detained because they cannot pay their bail.”

In line with Boykin’s emphasis on de-linking the county jail from pressing social problems, such as mental illness and poverty, many of the panelists advocated for various forms of alternative policing and decriminalizing measures.

Boykin mentioned his role in last November’s mental health referendum. The ballot initiative, which passed overwhelmingly, polled voters on whether or not to increase funding for mental health clinics across the state. 

“Sweeping corners and arresting people who happen to be on the streets is just not the way to do things,” Wysinger added.

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