Cook County Board President on “unfair and inequitable” criminal justice system practices

by Mary C. Piemonte

Cook County Board President talking about the American Justice system with Actress Anna Deavere Smith and David Axelrod in early January 2014..  Photo by Mary C. Piemonte

Cook County Board President talking about the American Justice system with Actress Anna Deavere Smith and David Axelrod in early January 2014.  Photo by Mary C. Piemonte

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been a vocal advocate for alternative options to sentencing youth charged with low-level crimes, including drug-related offenses.

She recently laid out her views while addressing a question about “the school to prison pipeline” asked by a youth during a talk with actress Anna Deavere Smith on “Grace and Politics” at the Logan Center for the Arts, moderated by David Axelrod and organized by University of Chicago Institute of Politics, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and UChicago Arts on Jan. 13, 2014.

Preckwinkle provided statistics on the Cook County yearly fiscal budget for the Cook County Jail, talked about the racial composition of the majority of prisoners awaiting or serving sentences at the County Jail and highlighted the sentencing inequalities for African American and Latino young men who make up the majority population in the the criminal justice system in the county.

In addition, Preckwinkle talked about her goals and current activities to divert people of color out of the criminal justice system in general.

Public health and safety makes up about 41 percent of the county budget, according to Preckwinkle. “The county spends about half a billion dollars annually on the Cook County Jail

alone. Many of you think that the jail is where many serve sentences. Only 10 percent of the people housed at the County Jail are actually serving prison sentences. 90 percent are awaiting trial. And 70 percent of those are awaiting trials for non-violent offenses,” including drug crimes, Preckwinkle said.

86 percent of the total number of people in the County Jail are “Black and Brown,” she said. “What I usually say is that the jails are at the intersection of racism and poverty in this country.” Most of the people are in jail because they can’t pay their bond. And African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented there.

“I usually tell the joke that if you went to our jail, you would think that there were no white people who lived in Cook County,”

Preckwinkle said. One of the things she has committed herself to is to try to reduce the County Jail population, she added.

Preckwinkle went on to say that she believes that not every person and not every community gets treated the same by the police, “particularly the police in Chicago.”

Chicago is half the population of Cook County, according to Preckwinkle. But 80 percent of the people in the County Jail are from this city.

“And that’s a reflection on how communities get policed” she said.

Talking about disparities in policing strategies

Preckwinkle said that young African American and Latino males hanging around on corners with their friends are more likely to be stopped by the police, “put up against a car and frisked, rather than just told to go home.”

If an African American or Latino male is caught with a small amount of marijuana they are “more likely” taken to the police station and put in the criminal justice system “than what they call a station adjustment,” which means the parents are called to come get them, Preckwinkle said.

“And once you get into the criminal justice system, you’re much more likely to get a sentence than to get out on probation, or have a more favorable disposition of your case,” said Preckwinkle. “So in every point that you can think of, about who gets stopped to who gets sent home for ‘station adjustments,’ particularly for young people, to what happens to you when you come into the criminal justice system, Black and Brown young men are treated differently.

“ And that’s a reflection, as I’ve said, of the racism in our society. Unacknowledged and profound.”

In moments of advocating against this practice, Preckwinkle said that she usually talks about it in two ways.

“One, I make a fiscal argument. This is incredibly wasteful,” Preckwinkle said. “It costs us a $143 a day to keep somebody in jail. $52,000 for a plea a year. We could send people to Harvard for what it costs us to keep them in jail for a year. I also make the social justice argument, based on racial injustice. And both of those are true, and I talk about them in varying combinations depending on what the audience is. But it’s important for us to remember that we have 5 percent of the world’s population. And 25 percent of the people in the entire world are in jail or in prison.

“It’s not because we detain and incarcerate white people at astonishing rates. It’s because we detain and incarcerate Black and Brown young people at incredible rates. For which we’re all going to have to be held accountable some day. When I give those statistics on the world’s population, you would think that this is China or some awful authoritarian country in Eastern Europe or Latin American or someplace. But you know ladies and gentlemen. It’s us. And it’s damning.”

Preckwinkle said her goal as a public health and safety official “is to try and get non-violent offenders out of the jail. To put money into anti-violence and anti-recidivism programs, to keep people out of jail in the first place, which she added that County Board members were already doing. And to try to put pressure on the court system to expedite cases so people won’t stay in jail for a long period of time waiting for trial.” Additionally Preckwinkle has been attempting to talk to “all the actors of the criminal justice system” about the “unfair and inequitable” ways in which our criminal justice system impacts communities of color.

She believes keeping kids active and engaged in school, rather than dropping out of high school and being idle out on the streets, coupled with plenty of investments in after-school activities and summer jobs for young people, such as the “One Chicago” program to provide jobs and mentoring and support for some youth most at risk, have worked together on as an alternative strategy to incarcerations.

Preckwinkle was unavailable for comment at the time of this report.

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