It is often said that the greatness of our nation is judged by how well we treat our children, our senior citizens and those who are struggling among us.
The tragic deaths of too many African American males at the hands of law enforcement, the over-representation of minorities in our prisons, and the criminalization of the mentally ill show that we are not meeting that test of greatness.
In fact, our county and our society are crying out for criminal justice reform.
According to the Sentencing Project, if current trends persist one in three black boys born today will eventually become incarcerated. That should be unacceptable to all of us.
The time has come to examine our criminal justice system from top to bottom. Law enforcement, grand juries, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys — no aspect of the system should escape scrutiny. That is why last Thursday, Jan. 15, on what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 86th birthday, I convened a Town Hall Meeting on Criminal Justice Reform at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park.
Meeting participants included representatives from all levels of government and community leadership. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Chief Judge Timothy Evans of the Circuit Court of Cook County, and Cook County Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham, Jr., were joined by State Senator Don Harmon, State Representative Camille Lilly, top law enforcement officials 1st Deputy Superintendent Al Wysinger of Chicago and Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley. We were also fortunate to be joined by representatives of organizations who play critical roles in this policy area: TASC, the NAACP, the Safer Foundation, and numerous faith leaders.
It will not surprise anyone that we did not arrive at a clear solution to the problem in one meeting. But we did take a productive first step toward achieving the consensus that will be needed to pursue a reform agenda, particularly regarding our Cook County jail. In Cook County, 86 percent of our jail inmates are people of color. At the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center 80 percent of the children are either black or brown. These staggering statistics should shock all of our consciences.
And if your conscience is not shocked, then the price tag of such high incarceration rates should at least cause you great discomfort. For every child currently in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, Cook County spends $600 of your tax dollars per day. For every inmate in Cook County jail, it costs the county $143 dollars per day.
Our panelists all agreed that a focus on pre-detention alternatives coupled with an emphasis on supportive services—in particular, workforce training and jobs— to be provided in the community was essential to achieve the important goal of reducing our jail population in Cook County.
President Lincoln said that slavery was the ‘fire bell issue’ of his day. The criminal justice system and the problem of race are our ‘fire bell’ issues. In fact America’s house is on fire. America’s house is on fire when African American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. America’s house is on fire when African American youth account for 16 percent of all children in America yet make up 28 percent of juvenile arrests.
At the Cook County Board meeting that took place on Dec. 17, 2014, I introduced a Board resolution calling on the President of the United States to empanel a blue ribbon commission to examine the entirety of the criminal justice system and the intersection of race. That resolution passed without a single “no” vote. It is important that we continue to build on the momentum of that vote and last week’s Town Hall meeting in order to advance clear and effective policies that correct the imbalances that currently exist in our criminal justice system. If we can achieve this outcome, then the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—and too many others like them—will not have been in vain.
Richard Boykin is the Cook County Commissioner for the 1st District of Cook County