OP-ED: Illinois can Fund its Way Toward Shared Public Safety

By:  IL Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Deputy Majority Leader of the Illinois House of Representatives Jehan Gordon-Booth

What is the antidote to the spike in violence, pandemic health crisis, and urgent calls for justice and safety in communities across Illinois, including Chicago and Peoria?

The remedy does not reside in the militarization of our law enforcement agencies or overinvestment in measures of surveillance and punishment. These tactics have proven ineffective and unreliable.

The best way to respond in this moment and prioritize public safety is to invest in communities—especially communities of color most harmed by concentrated violence and COVID-19.

report in the Chicago Tribune shows how decades of disinvestment in Chicago’s Black and Latino neighborhoods—across housing, education, health, and more—have left communities vulnerable to the very crises we are facing today. Moreover, the authors note that the wealth gap causing many racial disparities during the pandemic is not an accident: countless policy decisions are responsible.

To meet this moment, the neighborhoods disproportionately suffering and long facing underinvestment, need the resources to keep them safe and healthy right now. This can be achieved with the recognition that public safety is not just about responding to violence after the fact. Fostering health and wellness—with good schools, access to health services, trauma recovery, and economic stability – is critical to preventing violence.

That’s why we recently lent our support to the Illinois Coalition for Shared Safety, a new initiative led in part by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, to persuade Illinois’ state government to use almost $20 million of Department of Justice stimulus funds to make investments in communities that are most harmed and least served.

While most jurisdictions used these stimulus funds solely to support operations of their criminal justice systems, Illinois used them to create opportunities for community-based organizations to provide direct assistance to people and communities most impacted by COVID-19.

This work is part of a larger strategy that we have championed in Illinois. In 2017, for example, we sponsored the Neighborhood Safety Act which has helped reduce Illinois’ prison population by 18,000 people – from a high of 49,000 to 31,000 people currently in the system. The Neighborhood Safety Act has also supported the implementation of Trauma Recovery Centers, an evidence-based model that is proven to help highly victimized, but underserved victims of crime. Thanks to this work and coupled with the efforts of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, Illinois will soon have Trauma Recovery Centers in Chicago, Springfield, Rockford, Peoria, Lake County, and Chicago. In 2020, Illinois increased its investments in violence prevention and trauma recovery services by $10 million, and to ensure that our work in informed by the community, the Attorney General’s office convened a series of town halls, bringing together victim service providers throughout the state in the areas of sexual assault prevention, domestic violence prevention, and community violence prevention. Through these town halls, our partners clearly articulated a need to move from a reality of safety for a few to a vision of shared safety for all.

According to a recent nationwide survey, community organizations providing emergency support have been stretched to the brink under the pandemic. Increased demand and strains have made it harder than ever to provide services that make neighborhoods safer, yet these services are the local pillars of health and safety.

On Chicago’s south and west side, for example—where taxpayers have spent more than $1.3 billion to jail people from four neighborhoods over five years—programs that provide employment, interventions, and support for people at high risk of violence have proven track records of success. Yet even in good times, community-based violence prevention programs are not funded at the scale required to achieve the best safety outcomes and often operate on a shoestring.

We hope that the example we have set in Illinois’ new approach to public safety funding will contribute to a larger re-imagining of safety in America.

We must begin to understand, measure, and address safety beyond the criminal justice system and recognize that preventing violence is more effective than reacting to it. By investing in the core health and safety needs of communities, and focusing on violence prevention, we can create shared safety.

Written By: IL Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Deputy Majority Leader of the Illinois House of Representatives Jehan Gordon-Booth

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