Policymakers talk county's progress on justice

Panel discussion confronts some difficult truths about reform

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

A group of area policymakers gathered last month at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., to provide a bird's eye summary of Cook County's progress on criminal justice reform. The Sept. 18 panel discussion and subsequent Q&A was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Oak Park-River Forest.

Michelle Mbekeani, an Oak Park Township trustee and juvenile justice policy advisor for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, said the office has focused on tackling the mass incarceration of black and brown people in the county. 

"What doesn't equate to a safe and thriving community is the mass incarceration of a population that is predominantly black and brown," Mbekeani said. "That is why this office has been vocal and transparent about the racial disparities that exist within our criminal justice system with our data portal." 

Mbekeani said the data portal provides access to every felony case since 2011. More than 350,000 felony offenders are now able to access information about how the state prosecuted their cases. The state's attorney is the only prosecutor's office in the country to have implemented the technology, she said, adding that the State's Attorney's Office is also creating a data system that will facilitate a process of record clearance for marijuana convictions "that will require no action from the individual." 

Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit that covers bond for people waiting for their cases to resolve and who can't afford it. Grace said that in the last three years, the fund has paid more than $1 million in bond payments to free 250 people. 

"More than 60,000 people are being admitted to Cook County Jail every year," said Grace, adding that the fund's relatively small impact compared to the population of people in jail is one reason why the organization doesn't believe private philanthropy is the answer to the county's bail problem.

"We need to change state law and local practices in the way our courts operate, so that money is not a factor in who is locked up and who is free while awaiting trial," Grace said. 

Ben Ruddell, director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Illinois, introduced perhaps the most radical idea of the night when he said the main driver of mass incarceration is excessively long prison sentences — even for violent offenders. 

"There's no way out of mass incarceration without reckoning with the issue of violence," he said, adding that most of the crimes related to long prison sentences are violent crimes. 

"It's politically difficult to talk to legislators about the fact that people who commit murder and rape and acts we all agree are abhorrent and need to be dealt with and punished — the sentences are too long for those crimes," Ruddell said. "Legislators aren't excited about hearing that or voting for bills to rectify that, but it's the truth. And if we're ever going to get our arms around this problem, everybody needs to understand that that's the score."

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (1st) mentioned his sponsorship of an ordinance that moved to eliminate the county's gang database, which was "loaded with individuals who no one knew how they got on the list and it wasn't securing safety in communities." 

Johnson also noted his sponsorship of a Just Housing Ordinance designed to end housing discrimination for people with criminal records and his vote against a $16 million appropriation for the Cook County Sheriff's Office to acquire Tasers. 

"A Taser is not de-escalation. That's a weapon," Johnson said, lambasting the fact that "we can find $16 million for Tasers, but we cannot find the resources to improve the quality of life for individuals." 

The progressive policymaker's predicament, the commissioner said, is always a factor in the difficult, age-old effort to roll back harmful, reactionary injustices. 

"There is this reaction from a meaningful ideology in our country that overreacts when it comes to conditions that, in many cases, the government is responsible for making as harmful and as damaging as they are," Johnson said. "It's difficult to advocate when you are blaming the system you are also trying to hold accountable to make right on what it's done wrong. It's a very complicated position as an organizer, a teacher and an elected official. … It's a difficult conversation, but it's worth having." 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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