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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Policing Isn’t The Only Problem — Defund The Cook County Jail, Too, Protesters Demand

Advocates want money from the jail to be reallocated towards housing, health care, jobs and mental health.

Activists rally outside the Cook County Jail in 2020.
Deana Rutherford / The People's Lobby
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LITTLE VILLAGE — Echoing the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement to defund the Chicago Police Department, protesters are urging local officials to do the same with Cook County Jail.

Protesters assembled at the jail Thursday in a car caravan that disrupted traffic in the area. Following the caravan, they staged a demonstration on foot where advocates spoke about how the money going to the jail might be better spent elsewhere.

Coinciding with the rally, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson introduced the “Justice for Black Lives” resolution to the county board in support of demands to defund the jail.

Organizers of the rally included the People’s Lobby, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, the Chicago Community Bond Fund and Black Lives Matter Chicago.

Rally organizers said there is no correlation between money spent on the criminal justice system and public safety. Spending public dollars on mental health services, restorative justice, safe housing, transit and health care would have a bigger impact on public safety than investing in a punitive justice system, they said.

“We actually want to take lots of money out of jail and policing and put it into things that actually make Black and Brown communities thrive, and to fund the things people say they actually need in their community,” said Kristi Sanford of the People’s Lobby.

Credit: Deana Rutherford / The People’s Lobby
Activists demand the county defund the jail.

The jail population has decreased by over 50 percent since 2013, largely due to efforts from Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Sheriff Tom Dart, Public Defender Amy Campanelli and Chief Judge Timothy Evans responding to money bond reform advocates demands to end unaffordable pretrial bail.

The reduced jail population is an opportunity to also trim its budget and redirect it to community services, advocates say. Sanford contends that if the jail’s funding were proportional to the shrinking number of people incarcerated, $117 million would have become available to invest in Black and Brown communities.

According to a statement released by the sheriff’s office, even though the jail’s budget is much higher than it was in 2013, it has started to shrink in the past few years. The budget has been reduced by $42 million and the staff has dropped 600 positions since 2017, the statement said.

Johnson’s resolution would affirm that the county government should redirect funding out of policing and incarceration and invest in public services not administered by law enforcement officers.

The resolution pledges to invest in affordable housing and push for expanded medical and mental health care. It would acknowledge that the best first responders for those experiencing a mental health crisis are mental health professionals, not police.

The resolution would also direct the county to use its resources to support a livable wage and expand public sector job opportunities for communities of color. The county would prioritize contracting with Black-, minority- and women-owned businesses.

It would resolve the county to invest more resources into restorative justice programs that address crime by repairing the harm to communities and survivors of violence rather than just punishing people.

“It’s past time to redirect the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on the failed, racist system of policing and criminalization into services and programs that will actually promote and protect the health and welfare of our communities,” Johnson said.

The resolution passed at a virtual county board meeting Thursday, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle voicing her support — while also acknowledging the financial troubles the county faces.

The Sun-Times reports the resolution will be used as a guide for policies moving forward, but as of now won’t be reflected in the budget.

“I’m not sure that that budget frankly can reflect some of the concerns that are raised by Commissioner Johnson given this point in time, but we’re going to do the best we can to be responsive,” Preckwinkle said, according to the Sun-Times.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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