At a town hall held at Grace Episcopal Church, 924 Lake St., 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, but who made a mistake that was not entirely of his own making.
“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 the scene].”
After law enforcement officials identified the three friends on footage from a surveillance camera inside the cab, all three 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 that she would have given a difference 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 its resonance was acutely felt throughout the vaulted cathedral on a night that happened to coincide with what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 86th birthday.
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 event’s purpose, which Boykin said was to bring together grassroots organizations with some of Cook County’s most powerful elected officials to “arrive at solutions for a system that is badly broken.”
Boykin said that the idea for such a forum emanated from a rally last month, which involved congregations in Austin and Oak Park marching out of their Sunday services to Scoville Park in a collective stance against the police killings of unarmed black males nationwide, most notably in New York and St. Louis.
Boykin recalled that he marched to the park along with members of Grace Episcopal and promised that day to Rev. Shawn Shreiner, the church’s rector, that he would put concrete proposals behind his symbolic protest.
But, while last month’s demonstration in Scoville Park was a relatively open form of emotional and moral protest among private civilians tangential to power; last week’s town hall took on the feel of a policy-oriented board meeting, albeit with many of the clout-heavy panelists voicing frustrations with the criminal justice system that mirrored those vocal complaints of protesters nationwide.
The irony, of course, was that they were the frustrations of those – most notably President Preckwinkle, Commissioner Boykin, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Boykin and 1st Deputy Police Supt. Al Wysinger, among others – charged with safeguarding that deeply flawed system.
It made for a night that was both self-reflective and self-critical, but also somewhat self-congratulatory, with many touting reforms achieved on their watch.
Practically to a person, the panelists were critical of the county’s criminal justice system, conceding that the “tough-on-crime” approach preached by law enforcement officials and politicians for decades may not have worked as well as expected.
“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), condensing 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 at Chicago’s (UIC’s) Center for Urban Economic Development. “$500 million. One zip code. Five years. $500 million. That’s how much we’re going into the wrong direction.”
Much of the panelist’s criticism focused on Cook County’s policing tactics and the Cook County Department of Corrections, the citadel at 2700 South California Avenue 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,” he said.
“We must continue to reduce our over-reliance on pretrial detention,” Preckwinkle said. “Contrary to most people’s assumptions, the jail is not primarily a place where lock up violent criminals; and it is not a place where people wait to go to prison. In fact, only seven 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.”
Many of the panelists advocated for various forms of alternative policing, and decriminalizing, measures.
State’s Attorney Alvarez touted her office’s efforts to make prostitution a misdemeanor and 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 clinics across the state.
Oak Park police chief Tanksley and Chicago’s 1st Deputy Wysinger emphasized policing measures that relied less on force than on building trust.
“You can’t arrest your way out of circumstances,” Wysinger said, noting that the CPD has eliminated two targeted response teams lacked “geographical accountability.”
“Sweeping corners and arresting people who just happen to be on the streets is just not the way to do things,” Wysinger said.
Tanksley said that good policing “is grounded in trust,” and insisted that “a balanced approach to police training is key,” to building that trust. He praised his department’s efforts to reduce racial bias and unfair policing tactics and said that Oak Park police have been “consistently progressive in community policing.”
Preckwinkle, alluding to the case of the aforementioned 16-year-old, said that a bill to end automatic transfers of juveniles into adult prisons.
“This will be my top criminal justice priority in Springfield this coming session,” she said.
But for all of the panel’s commendable focus on reform and self-reflective critiques, there were several audience members who pointed out some glaring blind spots in the night’s proceedings.
Austin pastor James Bailey of St. Stephen AME Church observed that one constituency was glaringly absent from the crowd of about 70, mostly older, adults gathered in the sanctuary.
“Some of the concerns that we have tonight deal with those between [ages 12 to 25], but we don’t have many of them represented here,” Bailey said. “So we have to figure out a way to get them involve in the solution; not talk around them, but talk to them and with them.”
For Circuit Court Judge Marianne Jackson (7th), the problems with the system extend much deeper than a focus on incremental reforms will admit.
“When we figure out how to not make drug dealers the biggest employers in the community, we’ll have fewer people in the system,” said Jackson, who wasn’t on the panel, but who was invited to provide some remarks, anyway.
“You got a judge sitting here making a very nice salary, you’ve got a state’s attorney sitting here making $40,000 plus a year, same for a public defender; we’ve got a clerk…we’ve got a court reporter, we’ve got an adjudicator—and I’m listening to a case about $10 worth of reefer,” she said.