The Wall Is Falling: Criminal Justice Reform in Chicago and LA

A wave of outrage against America’s ‘Carceral State’ of mass incarceration has made the promise of community reinvestment, demilitarization, and a society of solidarity and loving-kindness immediately realizable.  In city after city, after the activism and outrage of #Blacklivesmatter; freeway takeovers, Black Friday boycotts, urban rebellions, and police repression, popular outrage over police shootings, mass incarceration, economic disinvestment, and a black and brown exodus from urban centers has toppled urban politicians.  From Philadelphia to San Antonio, Chicago to Los Angeles, elected officials have been falling like confederate statues; County Assessors, District Attorneys, Congressmen, Sheriffs—even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  California legalized Marijuana and ended cash bail.  Florida restored voting rights to ex-felons.

December 21, the winter solstice, was the longest night of 2018.  But on that dark night, a full moon shined bright. Even as the showdown over Trump’s border wall shut down the federal government, the President signed the bi-partisan First Step Act.  According to the White House, the First Step Act would offer federal inmates vocational training, educational opportunities, work-release, and the opportunity to appeal their sentences, in addition to eliminating both mandatory minimums and the infamous three strikes law. Supported across the political spectrum, from Sean Hannity to the Koch Brothers, from Diane Feinstein to Bernie Sanders, there is an emerging consensus that something must be done.

We are unstoppable.  An upset in the 2018 Los Angeles County Sheriff race has shocked the political establishment. Popular outrage over Republican Sheriff Jim McDonnel’s flouting of California’s new sanctuary state law breathed life into the candidacy of Latino union reformer Lt. Alex Villanueva, who ran on a platform that included expelling federal immigration agents from the County jail, replacing corrupt senior managers promoted in an era that encouraged racial profiling and abuse, and overhauling ineffective constitutional policing reforms with truth, reconciliation, and systemic change.

In Chicago, or “Chiraq,” a city where over 30,000 have been shot and 5,000 murdered since 2010, and where the City Council has paid police shooting victim’s families over $662 million dollars over the past 15 years, Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder for the shooting of Laquan McDonald last fall, and Rahm Emanuel, widely criticized for covering up the video of that death until after his re-election, declined to run for a third term.

On January 8th, 2019, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors paused plans to build a women’s jail in the desert of the Antelope Valley, eighty-two miles from downtown LA, and a Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility to replace the Men’s Central Jail; a death trap where staff, not to mention inmates, have contracted serious respiratory illnesses from a broken sewage and non-functional ventilation system.  A broad coalition of labor, faith, and community leaders rallied at the meeting, calling for the County to make a massive reinvestment from crime and punishment to healing and redemption, and to reallocate funds to social services, education, mental health, substance use treatment, jobs and supportive housing.

On January 9th, at Chicago’s City Hall, 18 aldermanic candidates assembled to pledge to support an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council, where, like in the recent Sheriff’s race in Los Angeles, voters would have a chance to elect and provide real civilian oversight to law enforcement activities.  Forty seven of 212 Chicago Aldermanic candidates have pledged to support an elected police council.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a front runner in the Mayor’s race, has come out supporting an elected school board, and staked her reputation in part as a criminal justice reformer. With red lawn signs peppered across the south and west sides reading “We love Laquan” and “Bye Anita,” Preckwinkle’s former Chief of Staff Kim Foxx beat Anita Alvarez in a 2016 States Attorney race that centered on Alvarez’s shielding killer cops from prosecution.  From a high of over 13,000 detainees in late 2013, including over 10,000 in Cook County Jail and several thousand others with ankle bracelets in community settings, the Cook County jail population has declined to less than 6,000 today.

Despite a struggle over outsourcing recidivism reduction and community reentry services for detainees discharged from the County jail, Preckwinkle’s budget for correctional health more than doubled from $40 million in 2013, to $87 million in her 2019 budget.  Along with Anne Burke—Illinois Supreme Court justice and wife of recently indicted Alderman Ed Burke, Toni Preckwinkle convened a Justice Advisory Council, which has distributed upwards of $18 million in micro-grants to community organizations for recidivism reduction and restorative justice.  While this is only a drop in the bucket for a County with a $1.2 billion-dollar budget for public safety, it is still a notable initiative in a region dominated by news of police involvement in drug and gun trafficking, and tens of millions in annual payouts for police shooting victims and their families.

In Los Angeles, change could not come at a more opportune time.  While LA County has created an Office of Diversion and Reentry in the Department of Health Services, it only has a $13 million dollar budget, and has not yet begun to seriously implement policy recommendations.  The California Department of Corrections has a $12 billion dollar budget, and the County Sheriff and Probation department spend $4 billion annually.  Meanwhile, investment in mental health, transitional housing, and vocational services lag behind.  When inmates are released from jail, they are often discharged to homelessness—there are no available beds for transitional shelters or halfway houses.  According to a recent UCLA International Law Clinic report, Women Beyond Bars,  Southern California is failing incarcerated women, in a cruel system far removed from reformist rhetoric of liberal Los Angeles.

Despite these challenges, the time is ripe for change.  Both Cook County and Los Angeles operate two of the nation’s only remaining public healthcare systems; they have the existing infrastructure on which to scale up.  With Democratic Party in control of both state and local governments, there are no excuses to not make systemic change; urban communities, especially in regions with large Black, Latino, and Jewish populations, are looking for policies that offer an alternative to racially disparate policing, incarceration, and deportation. It is time for elected officials to lose the shackles of fear and timidity, and to radically re-imagine public institutions; to redirect investment from militarized policing and incarceration to public education, jobs, housing, healthcare, and a social support system based on good paying union jobs—the foundation of stable communities.

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