The Safety and Justice Challenge wants your opinion on how Cook County can safely reduce its jail population and eliminate racial disparities. 

During a community meeting held April 18 at Bethel New Life, Rebecca Barbaroza, a project director with the Cook County Chief Judge’s office, said that 90 percent of those jailed are black or Latinx in a county where black and Latinx people make up about half the population. 

Clifton “Booney” Fowler, who spent 27 years in prison, told those gathered during the meeting that he’s spent the last decade talking to young people on street corners and lobbying the powerful on their behalf. 

“In the 1970s, I started a street organization in Austin, since we had to fight gangs of white boys to be able to use Columbus Park,” Fowler said.  “I didn’t foresee that our gang would become part of the problem. Now it’s about our grand babies.  If enough of us come together, we can make the politicians do what we want. The legislature passed laws to ban the box on city and state job applications, stop them from asking questions about your criminal record.” 

During the meeting, some skeptical participants interrupted designated speakers with pointed questions: Will talk really help, they asked, when problems have persisted for years despite citizen participation and protest? Why do people sell each other out? Why do the decisions that governments make seem to overrule what the majority of West and South Side residents want and need?  If we can’t expect politicians to bring about justice, what can we do ourselves? 

Some facilitators with the Safety and Justice Challenge — which is funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation — told attendees about the recent progress that has been made in the area of criminal justice reform. 

For instance, the county is implementing automated court reminders. Detainees and families can sign up, using their court case number, to get text or phone reminders of their court date.

The county is also working on requiring courts to quickly set affordable bail unless a detainee is a danger to others or is rated likely to skip bail. The goal is to reduce nonviolent detainees’ stays in jail. 

So far, eight of the 10 people released pre-trial have met every court date and only 1 percent of those bailed out have committed a violent crime. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the last name of Rebecca Barbaroza and misattributed a statement to her. This article has since been updated. AWN regrets the error.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

Get involved

The Safety and Justice Challenge is holding another meeting in North Lawndale on April 30, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at UCAN, 3605 W. Fillmore. Five weekly intensive small-group discussions on racial equity in criminal justice are to follow, capped by an action-planning meeting in July. The results will be presented to political officials and the public. 

Anyone with experience or ideas about the criminal justice system is welcome in the five-week discussions, including crime victims, those who have been in jail, community residents and those who work in the system. 

Discussions will be conducted by Marshawn Feltus, the Austin community liaison for the Safety and Justice Challenge, and Kim Davis-Ambrose, the challenge's community engagement coordinator.  

To sign up with Davis-Ambrose by May 7, call (312) 603-1139 or email SJCCommunityinfo@cookcountyil.gov. For more info on the Safety and Justice Challenge, visit: http://www.safetyandjusticechallenge.org.

Bonni McKeown

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years. www.barrelhousebonni.com  She has led classes for young and old on...