Summit offers solutions for criminal justice reform

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A young man was convicted of a crime in 1997 and released in 2000. Now, 15 years later, he’s a father and a community organizer dedicated to helping people avoid the same situations that led him to make poor decisions growing up.

James Johnson was in high school and living with his mother, who was on dialysis and receiving just $400 a month in child support, when he thought he had found a way to help ease their financial woes: selling drugs.

He was wrong, as it turned out, and that mistake has cost him countless employment opportunities.

Johnson was one of several to share his story and offer his recommendations before a panel of politicians, judges, attorneys and community activists earlier this month at Michele Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison St. The restorative justice summit hosted by state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) was held April 11.

Despite Johnson’s accomplishments since his release, and the respect he’s earned from others in the movement to reform the criminal justice system, his record continues to follow him.

He and others offered ideas about how to reform the criminal justice system. One area in particular Johnson focused on: the need to “take control of the pipeline to prison,” which he said starts in the schools with children who have parents who can’t adequately support them.

“If you want to see better children, you need to help the parents become better parents,” Johnson said.

Part of that help should come in the way of better economic opportunities for ex-offenders, said George Mitchell, president of the Illinois chapter of the NAACP.

But first the stigma associated with past criminal behavior needs to be eliminated, Mitchell said.

“The reason why we have so much trouble with restoring people who have had criminal backgrounds is fear,” Mitchell said. “We sometimes are afraid of each other and are afraid to acknowledge the fact that people who have stumbled along the way did not fall … Fear, I think, is an important part of understanding why we have the new industry in the United States, which is called prison.”

Attorney Melissa Williams, who is the chair of Rep. Ford’s Criminal Justice Advisory Council, said with so many ex-offenders in the state, reform is essential.

“We’re not talking about a few hundred thousand people; we’re talking about numbers in the millions across the state of Illinois who are ex-offenders,” Williams said.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recent executive order creating the state Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform means coming up with ways to re-integrate ex-offenders into society needs to happen sooner rather than later. The commission is charged with reducing the state’s prison population of nearly 50,000 people by 25 percent by 2025.

Part of that solution may come from several bills already pending in the Illinois General Assembly that would reduce non-violent offenders’ charges from felonies to misdemeanors or decriminalize some of the non-violent offenses, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana, altogether.

Another solution lies with an already existing program that Williams said few defendants know about that allows participants to defer prosecution.

Under this program, some defendants could be eligible for a year-long probation-like period. If the program is successfully completed, charges are thrown out, Williams said.

A considerable amount of time during the discussions also focused on ways to get ex-offenders’ records expunged or sealed sooner.

Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown said she has been holding expungement summits since 2004 where ex-offenders can receive advice about clearing their record from judges, attorneys and her staff.

Brown will host the next summit June 6 at Living Word Christian Center, 7600 Roosevelt Road in Forest Park.

For more information about the pending criminal justice and sentencing reform legislation or to learn how to get involved in the reform efforts, contact Ford at (773) 378-5903.

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