Breakthrough Executive Director Yolanda Fields and BUILD Chicago Chief Program Officer Andres Alvear at the launch for Justice Rising. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club

EAST GARFIELD PARK — Four neighborhood groups are launching a program using community centers as a home base for critical services to divert West Siders out of the criminal justice system.

Lawndale Christian Legal Center, New Life Center, BUILD Chicago and Breakthrough Urban Ministries joined forces to create Justice Rising: Project 77, which launched Tuesday. The program for people 25 and younger will offer on-site legal aid and wraparound social services at four community centers to address issues that lead Black and Latino youth to become involved in the justice system.

The joined organizations can connect at-risk young people to employment, school, trauma counseling, health care, mental health resources, mentoring, housing, spiritual guidance, sports, violence prevention programs and substance use treatment.

The goal is to break the cycle of crime, mass incarceration and recidivism that burdens Black and Latino neighborhoods. To do that, “we must transform the criminal justice system for all youth under 25 from the ground up,” said Cliff Nellis, executive director of Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

“For decades, we have spent billions policing, prosecuting and incarcerating primarily Black and Latino communities in Chicago … exacerbating the cycle of poverty, the cycle of violence and racial inequity,” Nellis said. “Instead, we need to spend billions of dollars on the interventions that community leaders … have spent decades designing and perfecting.”

Violence prevention and public safety strategies must be rooted in free legal aid and “high-quality, community-led holistic supports,” Nellis said.

Their approach promotes restorative justice, where the victims and the perpetrators of a crime can be restored and made whole. This kind of support can help repair the harm that young people may have caused to their community, instead of simply punishing them and discarding them, said Breakthrough Executive Director Yolanda Fields.

“We believe that redemption is possible, and that redemption does not absolve us, but it creates an opportunity for hope,” Fields said.

Attorneys from Lawndale Christian Legal Center will offer legal services. Community lawyering has significant benefits for the legal outcomes for youth involved in the justice system, Nellis said. Young people who have access to an attorney in their own community typically have reduced charges, they are less likely to go to jail and they are more likely to keep a clean criminal record, Nellis said.

There are also social benefits, since the attorney can help them resolve other issues that put young people at risk for becoming involved with the justice system, like housing or labor disputes, Nellis said.

“A lot of our young people may come to us because they need more. They may or may not be seeking support in other areas of their life,” Nellis said. “Once the opportunity is present, they run with it.”

The attorneys will work with social workers and case managers at the neighborhood groups so young people will “have a dedicated team that will provide not only legal representation but also will support their needs as a whole person in their community,” said Andres Alvear, chief program officer at BUILD.

“For a young person who needs to speak with a social worker, if they need an after-school program, or if they need a job, or if they need somebody to help them with housing assistance, that attorney can literally walk down the hall and find somebody,” Alvear said.

Young people face systematic obstacles within the justice system, so the solutions must also be systematic, Alvear said.

“They’re not only navigating a complex criminal justice system, they’re also navigating complex social-emotional needs. These young people have an abundance of assets. But often, the system has failed them,” Alvear said.

The Justice Rising organizations are already community centers that host after-school programs, athletics and other youth-centered activities. The model of meeting the youth where they are already at and bringing them the legal aid and social services they need to address the root causes of crime and violence can be used in all Chicago’s neighborhoods, said Matt DeMateo, executive director at New Life.

“Our goal is to see this come to scale across Chicago, across the West Side and across the South Side,” DeMateo said.

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