In September, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Children & Family Justice Center continued its “Race and Lawyering in the 21st Century” series with a discussion on the Illinois Blueprint for Peace, a recently published report of recommendations to build peace and prevent gun violence in Illinois. The panel was led by representatives from the four co-convening entities: the Office of the Cook County Public Defender, the Illinois Justice Project, Live Free Illinois, and the CFJC. Hosted in the student area of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, the 90-minute conversation addressed the newly minted report, the need for community engagement, and the power the media holds in advocacy work.
The speakers included Stephanie Kollman, policy director of the CFJC; Artinese Myrick, lead Chicago organizer of Live Free Chicago; Garien Gatewood, director of the Illinois Justice Project; and Emmanuel Andre, Cook County public defender and deputy of policy and strategic litigation. Following the discussion, the panel also took questions from the audience.
Last year, the CFJC hosted the inaugural “Race and Lawyering in the 21st Century series”, Gun Possession in Chicago: What the Headlines Don’t Tell You. While planning the symposium, community organizers, advocates, and other participants expressed interest in developing a comprehensive way to advocate for a progressive, forward-thinking approach to address harm reduction, gun violence, racial injustice, and criminalization. The Blueprint Coalition was formed and from November 2021 to May 2022, advocates went to work. The full report has over 60 organizations, including ACLU of Illinois, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and Illinois Prison Project, who support its policy recommendations.
The Blueprint is broken down into three sections: Invest in Healing and Holistic Violence Prevention, Redesign Criminal Processes, and Improve Sentencing and Policy Integrity—each section dedicated to addressing a different pillar of the fight to re-imagine how we view criminalization and the actionable steps to make communities safer.
During the discussion, Myrick focused on the importance of asking communities and the people within them what they need to help succeed as they navigate the world. “Communities can speak for themselves,” she said. Community input not only adds value, but gives the people who are directly affected by the decision making a sense of partnership and agency, she continued.
She also highlighted the lack of mental health access to communities throughout Chicago. “Let’s not criminalize the people who are dealing with high rates of trauma,” Myrick said. “We need healing. We know that people go through high amount of trauma and despair. We need to be able to not only make sure people have access to healing, but that the system is able to uphold and sustain.” Often times, the numerous non-profit organizations throughout Chicago, many listed in the Blueprint, go unnoticed or ignored in their efforts in transforming the way crime prevention is handled. “We don’t have to recreate the wheel. There are already great programs happening in Chicago, despite what the Monday night news tells you all.”
Gatewood emphasized the importance of funding preventative measures, not always defaulting to reactionary methods such as over-policing already vulnerable communities. The funds are there, but that’s not the story that is often told. “I have the pleasure of chairing the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority budget committee. We get to see a lot of the dollars that come through the criminal justice initiative…we get to see a lot of those dollars being returned to the federal government because they haven’t been spent,” he said. “What we have to do is a better job of explaining where resources are, how to get access [to them], and making that access easier for folks who are doing the work.”
As an attorney, Andre spoke to the pure frustration he has being “a part of the process” and feeling helpless in a court, something others in his position can relate to. “The amount of cases I’ve seen where I couldn’t really do anything for [clients], no matter how hard I fought as an attorney, at the end of the day I realized I was a part of a process.” Andre told a story about one of his clients, a young person on the west side of Chicago who was shot eight times. He was charged with gun possession because a weapon was found near him. “When I first met [him] he’s literally in the hospital coming from surgery. I can’t bring my head around why he is being charged,” Andre said. The case was ultimately dismissed, not because of his skills as a lawyer, but it was dismissed after a local beat writer wrote an article on the case. “The power does not lie in only the hands of the lawyers, but it’s about the narrative and who gets to [have] impact.”
In conversations around restorative justice and advocacy work, the media holds a lot of the power. “The danger in all of our work is the narrative of the work,” Gatewood added. Historically, when reform advocates introduce alternative methods for violence prevention, their opposition says the methods take too long, do not work, and to “lock them up and throw away the key,” he said. “Now we’re running against a time clock.”
Kollman said the Blueprint is crucial in reforming not only Chicago’s response to violent crime, but the state as a whole. “Illinois is one of the most punitive states in the country. That’s not the same as having safe gun laws,” she said. “I think this is a thing that trips a lot of people up when they think about how to address what is a very real problem with legislative solutions.”
Myrick added: “When you look at economic apartheid, you can drive through this city and see the imbalance. You can see it. This doesn’t just look like this in the city of Chicago. I’ve lived in Springfield, Joliet, Kankakee, Champaign, Urbana…it looks the same.”
But the panel is hopeful for the future – in part because of the work that has already been done, and in part because of the advocates and community organizers’ commitment to seeing it through. “We’ve seen other cities do this,” Myrick said. “We’ve seen Milwaukee do this, we’ve seen New York have a community lead crisis and violence prevention strategy…, Philadelphia, New Orleans. There are [blueprints] out there.”