In a moment when Oak Park’s two public school districts are full in on restorative justice — some prefer aspiring to transformative justice — as essential ways to create safe and welcome school communities, it is discouraging to see the unraveling of the powerful alliance of local governments that 25 years ago invented the first bold and sincere effort at derailing the traditional and failing policing approach to youth at risk.

This was the Youth Interventionist program organized by Oak Park Township Youth Services under the leadership of John Williams. It had two remarkable aspects: The program hired several young social service professionals who went straight to the streets and in homes to engage young people about to make rotten choices. They met kids in the parks, they took referrals from an appreciative police force, and they went knocking on front doors to meet the parents of these youngsters across the dining room table. They talked honestly, offered resources, and diverted young people from the policing/prison pipeline.

The second remarkable accomplishment: On a proportional basis, every single taxing body in Oak Park and River Forest used tax dollars to pay the township for the program. Park districts, libraries, village governments, townships all cooperatively funded a program that needed both the cash and the buy-in to make this work.

The alliance has fractured in recent years. River Forest’s village government dropped its funding last year. It now seems clear that Oak Park’s village government is going to bail in 2020. This is a bad choice that reflects, in part, bad feelings among our elected officials. 

We’re not talking big dollars here. The entire program costs a bit more than $200,000 to run each year. Oak Park Village Hall’s share came to $50,000. The Oak Park library chipped in $10,500. The parks in River Forest contributed $3,154. You get the picture.

It wasn’t about the money. It was about the unanimity. All hands on deck. Until now.

As Oak Park village government prepares to walk away, village trustees are split. Some understand the power of shared support. A majority, though, say the township has plenty of resources to fund this program directly. Likely they do. Hopefully they will. 

But the necessity of focusing on alternate methods of connecting kids on the verge with solutions that don’t take them to court, that don’t put them in the system, has never been more critical. Shredding the collective determination to do just that diminishes the possibility of success.

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