The Lawndale Christian Legal Center at 1530 S. Hamlin St. in the North Lawndale neighborhood on March 10, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

NORTH LAWNDALE — A West Side legal group will use wraparound social services instead of cash bond as a way to ensure people released from jail to await trial steer clear of trouble.

Community Release with Support is being launched as a partnership between the Lawndale Christian Legal Center and the Bail Project, a national nonprofit that pays bail for people who can’t afford it. The pilot aims to tackle the root causes of why people end up committing crimes, and it will offer resources, including drug addiction treatment, housing programs, job readiness, mental health services and violence prevention programs.

Individuals can opt in before their bond hearing to receive services from the Bail Project and Lawndale Christian Legal Center. The Cook County Public Defender’s Office and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office will also refer clients into the program.

The pilot is expected to serve at least 3,000 people over its two-year run, and it is funded by a $2.9 million investment from the Bail Project.

“People that will be home pending trial, they need assistance,” said Cliff Nellis, executive director of Lawndale Christian Legal Center. “Providing those supports in our community makes our community stronger and protects our community from any harm that might have occurred, have those services not been offered.”

The program will also ensure people who are released from jail on a no-cost personal recognizance bond will still make it to their court dates by sending them reminders and giving them transportation to the courthouse.

Providing reminders and transportation is significantly more effective than cash bail at making sure a person returns to the court, Steinberg said. Data collected by the Bail Project found people who were offered those services made 95 percent of their court dates, significantly more than those who did not get the reminders.

The Cook County Department of Corrections in the Little Village neighborhood on April 11, 2020. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Cash bond is set to end statewide in 2022 as part of a landmark criminal justice reform package signed by Gov. JB Pritzker earlier this year.

The conventional bond system has failed communities struggling with poverty and violence, said Robin Steinberg, CEO of the Bail Project. Money bond allows people accused of a crime to be released only if they can afford it. The system penalizes people who can’t afford to pay by keeping them behind bars as they await trial, even if a judge has determined they are bail-eligible and not a public safety risk, Steinberg said.

Incarcerating people who can’t afford bail also “fuels the engine of recidivism” by worsening the underlying conditions — like joblessness, housing instability and mental health issues — that cause high rates of crime in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, Steinberg said.

” … Cash bail disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color, and also keeps some of the most vulnerable people in our society cycling in and out of jail instead of connecting them to services and resources they need to break the cycle. This ultimately makes all of us less safe,” Steinberg said.

The Community Release with Support program will hinge on allowing neighborhood groups to take the lead on providing people awaiting trial with the resources needed to address each individual situation because local groups have the best understanding of the circumstances that cause issues in their area.

Lawndale Christian Legal Center is working with social service groups, including BUILD Chicago and New Life Centers, which will be the service providers that will offer supports mentorship, GED programs, vocational training and case management.

“Punishment does not strengthen our community. It is a short-term solution. … But that does not change the environment that gave rise to the harm in the first place,” Nellis said. “Everybody benefits from a stronger community. Everybody benefits from supports and services.”

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