Illinois Justice Project
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REFORMS GIVE EX-PRISONERS A SECOND CHANCE

by Paula Wolff and Victor Dickson
Guest Columnists
as appears in the Daily Herald on October 5, 2017

Prisons have been filled beyond capacity for so long that overcrowded prisons are now the norm in Illinois, and meaningful rehabilitation is a rarity. Policymakers can debate whether prisons exist for punishment, isolation, retribution or rehabilitation, but we must face the fact that -- no matter why so many people are in prison -- nearly every person sent to prison (98 percent) eventually will leave prison. Every week, hundreds of men and women leave Illinois prison cells and return to their home communities where they will have to follow parole requirements or be returned to prison. While prison may sound like an incentive to abide by parole, it is difficult for many returning prisoners.

Some 28,000 people leave Illinois prisons each year, and each one needs help. They must look for a job, continue with education, get treatment for any mental illness or addiction, have meetings with parole agents and submit a monthly written report on compliance. Otherwise, they return to prison. These conditions suggest we expect people leaving the criminal justice system to become responsible citizens.

With a public criminal record, much of that is hard to do, but help is on the way. Passed by a bipartisan coalition of Illinois lawmakers and recently signed into law by Gov. Rauner, a package of justice reform bills aims to give second chances to youth and adults who have been in the criminal justice system.

Some of the key improvements:

  • Juvenile records are supposed to be private, but weak confidentiality protections have led to broad sharing of records and prevented young people from obtaining jobs, housing and education. By setting statutory penalties for unlawful sharing of juvenile records, the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act will help young people keep mistakes of their youth in their past.
  • The process of expunging juvenile records has been so expensive and difficult that only a tiny fraction of young people have been able to take advantage of expungement laws allowing some records to be erased. The new Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act eases the expungement process for the thousands of young people merely arrested each year, most for nonviolent offenses and many never even charged with any offense but still saddled with an arrest record.
  • For adults, another bill in the package expands sealing, removes some records from public view without destroying the ability of law enforcement to access the records. Safeguards are in place to protect public safety and require court approval.
  • Because many jobs require a state license and those licenses often are denied due to the applicant's past criminal record, many men and women have been shut out of living wage work. One of the enacted bills creates a new license review process in more than 100 occupations and requires state license regulators to consider applicants' rehabilitation instead of focusing solely on their conviction record.

We expect people leaving our prisons to become responsible members of society. We can help them by making sure a past record is not a barrier for those who do not pose a threat to public safety. Based on this principle, the legislative changes will help make our communities safer and allow people to move on once they have paid their debt to society.

Legislative changes only set the stage. It takes people like you to extend the offer of a second chance. Please consider ways you can help returning citizens create brighter futures.

Victor Dickson is President of the Safer Foundation. Paula Wolff is Director of the Illinois Justice Project.


NEW WEBSITE EXPLAINS OVER REPRESENTATION OF MINORITY YOUTH IN CHICAGO’S JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Open Data Can Be Downloaded for Deep Dive

by Illinois Justice Project Staff
July 1, 2016

A new website, JusticeDivided.com, will increase public awareness of the overrepresentation of minority Chicago youth in the juvenile justice system and provide open source data for research by community members and journalists, eventually leading to changes in practices and policies.

The new website will call attention to the overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system and provide factual and easy-to-access data from verified public data sources.

“The site is targeted to inform youth, provide them with tools to become engaged in policy reform efforts and provide resources to help them overcome the collateral consequences of having an arrest record,” said Era Laudermilk, Deputy Director of the Illinois Justice Project.  

Some visitors will be surprised to learn that black youth make up only 42 percent of Chicago’s youth population but account for 79 percent of arrests and 87 percent of imprisonments. 

“The website is intended to encourage a public discussion of inequity: for example, while black and white youth have the same rate of marijuana use, blacks are arrested far more often,” Laudermilk said. “The website also is a resource to spur discussion of how to develop and implement policies and practices to reduce disproportionate minority contact, as well as information to help kids in trouble stay out of trouble.” 

Read the news release HERE.


MONDAY LETTERS: BEWARE OF THE UNATTENDED CONSEQUENCE OF TOUGHER GUN LAW

by Sharone Mitchell, Jr. 
Letters to the Editor
as appears in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 15th, 2017

Mayor Emanuel’s recent commentary (“4,368 shootings have neither one cause nor one cure”) deserves praise for presenting a broad-based vision for violence reduction. The issue is complex, and there is no easy fix.

The mayor is right that those responsible for the city’s epidemic of gun violence must be held accountable. But let’s be sure any new laws accomplish that without making our neighborhoods less safe, which is a possible unintended consequence of his call for longer prison sentences for people possessing – not firing – guns.

For those charged with possessing an illegal gun — perhaps to protect themselves in communities where they believe law enforcement cannot or will not do that – the city should use all the other remedies the mayor suggests and more to increase community safety and to prevent that person from feeling forced to rely on an illegal gun for protection.

For those who murder or maim people using guns, the city should step up enforcement and solve more murders. More than four in five homicides didn’t even result in an arrest.

The people not held accountable today are those who – with no state supervision – sell the guns that are recovered in embattled communities that suffer from what the mayor calls the “scourge of gun violence.”

Illinois already has tough sentencing laws for gun crimes of illegal possession, aggravated assault and murder.  What we don’t have is a way for those who sell the thousands of illegal guns to be held accountable. In his September speech on public safety, the mayor called for state legislation to license gun shops, which supply almost half of the illegal guns in the city.

We beseech him to throw his substantial political muscle behind this bill and face down the NRA. Put the rogue dealers out of business.


“BUILDING A SAFE CHICAGO” REPORT: ATTACK ROOT CAUSES OF VIOLENCE WITH A COMPREHENSIVE CRIME PREVENTION PLAN

by Illinois Justice Project Staff
November 3rd, 2017

The Illinois Justice Project and nearly 50 other community groups and criminal justice reform advocates have issued a report urging Chicago’s elected leaders to reject reactionary and unproven crime fighting policies and instead attack the root causes of violence with a comprehensive crime prevention plan. 

“Building a Safe Chicago” argues against mandatory minimum prison sentencing schemes and in favor of a comprehensive plan that should include:

  • Expansion of community-based programs to improve social conditions that have led to increased demand for illegal weapon possession; 
  • Reduction in illegal handgun availability by regulating gun shop owners; 
  • Reduction in gun possession charges by identifying and addressing the causes of the repeat offenses; 
  • Enactment of the reforms advocated by Mayor Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force; and 
  • Economic development initiatives in high poverty neighborhoods. 

Read full report HERE

Summary HERE

News release HERE