VI. DISPROPORTIONATE MINORITY CONTACT
The term Disproportionate Minority Contact refers to the disproportionately high percentage of minorities in the criminal justice system in proportion to the general population. For example, rates of marijuana use by youth are similar across all racial and ethnic groups, but African-American youth, who make up 42% of Chicago’s youth population (ages 10-17), account for 79% of juvenile marijuana arrests in Chicago. Unfortunately, the disproportionate minority contact phenomenon is not limited to just marijuana arrests and spans across the entire criminal justice system.
How would you reduce or eliminate disproportionate minority contact in the Illinois justice system?
I would address disproportionate minority contact in the Illinois justice system by reducing disparities in arrests, reforming sentencing policies, and investing in communities of color. For example, we can create transparent data collection programs to track encounters between law enforcement and the people they serve. We must also improve transparency and protect due process in gang databases and prevent individual’s innocent from appearing in them. By improving transparency in these ways, we can better assess disproportionate minority contact and track the degree to which we’ve reduced the problem.
We must also revise police department recruitment programs to enhance diversity outreach and require sensitivity and diversity training for all state employees, including police and prison staff. When we educate law enforcement on these issues, and make them aware that disproportionate minority contact will be transparently communicated, we can change their behavior.
We must also look to our sentencing policies to eliminate this problem. For example, we must end the racist war on drugs by legalizing marijuana, end monetary bond, and ensure sentences are proportionate to crimes. As governor, I will proactively exercise my clemency powers to address unfair sentencing and reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.
Even beyond changes to policing and sentencing, we must end the vicious cycle of disinvestment that drives disproportionate minority contact. For too long, our state has failed to adequately invest in schools, social services, job creation, transportation, and other vital programs and services in communities of color. This disinvestment strips communities of legal economies, driving up policing and resulting in the criminalization of poverty and further disinvestment. Instead of increased policing, we must respond with investments in these communities to support strong schools, good jobs, and expanded social services.
Systemic racism, poverty, and segregation all play a role in the disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated. The highest poverty neighborhoods in Chicago are also the most segregated and the most crime-ridden in the city. Racism, unfortunately, is omnipresent. It’s a factor when people of color are gentrified out of thriving neighborhoods and into new ones with little-to-no economic development, job scarcity, and food deserts. Racism is also there when people of color are arrested at higher rates and incarcerated for longer sentences than their white counterparts.
Throughout Illinois, 50% of prisoners are sent back to prison within three years of being released. The cycle often starts with school-based arrests, which results in a disproportionate number of students of color and students living with a disability ending up in the juvenile justice system. Not surprisingly, there tend to be more diversion programs in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods, such as Oak Park's FACE-IT program in which youth with drug offenses are referred by law enforcement and the school districts.
A critical intercept point is the referral made by law enforcement to alternative programs, but in communities of color there are very few diversion programs to refer youth to that do not involve the criminal justice system. We need to embed such programs in our schools that are populated predominantly with students of color, especially when they are located in communities with high rates of crime and violence. Our schools with disproportionately high-risk student populations need youth interventionists working together with local law enforcement to divert them away from the criminal justice system, and we need to provide them and their families with supportive programming to address the causes that lead them into disciplinary action.
The cycle of incarceration and crime are strongest in our high poverty neighborhoods like Chicago’s West Side, where 70% of men between ages 18-54 have been subject to the criminal justice system. Instead of investing in neighborhoods and investing in education, we’re investing in an incarceration system that only perpetuates more crime. For example, a 2015 study called “Million Dollar Blocks” found that the Illinois Department of Corrections spent more than $1 million incarcerating individuals from one single block in Chicago’s Austin community. Indeed, the State spent $550 million incarcerating individuals just in the Austin community. That amount of investment in economic growth or workforce training could transform the lives of individuals in a community that receives more returning citizens than any other community in the State.
Making our criminal justice system more equitable will be a long road that involves addressing multiple challenges. Within the system, we must improve officer training, including implicit/unconscious bias training in addition to reforming the police department and the bail bond system. However, we also have to recognize that highly segregated, highly concentrated poverty will continue to create the breeding grounds for violence, and if we don’t make our society more equitable, our criminal justice system will continue to perpetuate the inequality that has a chokehold across our cities and on our state.
We should make our government and our law enforcement knowledgeable in explicit terms about the biases and discrimination that influence our criminal justice system. I support producing a regular report, at least annually, to cross compare similar cases in which white and nonwhite offenders are convicted of the same crime. The study would provide details involving the circumstances of arrest, outcome of convictions, and relevant as well as available socioeconomic data characterizing the offenders. Such reporting and data, which should be shared with the public, can allow for better training, understanding of biases, and inform behaviors and protocols needed to remedy racially biased factors that feed into disproportionate minority contact in the Illinois justice system.
To reduce and eliminate disproportionate minority contact, we must have a clear understanding of the breadth of the problem. We need to partner with local officials to collect and analyze data that can improve the justice system, provide support to evaluate local initiatives, and share best practices across the state. I also support increasing accountability between law enforcement and the communities they serve by making the Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Statistical Study permanent and incentivizing data collection for all stops no matter the result.