“Is This It?” Evans’s Attempted Transparency Fix Raises Even More Doubts

On August 12th, Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, sent this letter [PDF] to all judges operating in the Circuit Court of Cook County. In it, he acknowledges that judges have found it difficult to meet with him, sets aside a “block of time” on Thursdays, and asks that any judges looking to get in touch with him schedule appointments with his assistant, kindly providing contact information.
What is troubling about this seemingly innocuous memo is that it further betrays that judges did not previously have a means of scheduling such appointments. The letter also does little to restore confidence regarding one of the most troubling issues about this administration: the inability of judges and representatives of other public safety agencies–not to mention outside groups–to get an audience with the Chief Judge or communicate effectively with his office. This in itself is not news; appointments with the Office of the Chief Judge (OCJ) are regularly canceled or delayed at the last minute. Those lucky enough to obtain a scheduled meeting with the Chief Judge are often subjected to waits well over an hour (or two) after the scheduled start time.

Furthermore, there have been indications–as in the emails sent out by Judge Patrick Murphy–that this stifling of communications both with the OCJ and laterally between judges is a matter of policy rather than an accident.
Evans Meeting Memo Photo
The memorandum sent by Judge Evans on August 12, 2016.

One would hope that a contested election for Chief Judge (right around the corner on September 15) would have inspired more progress on transparency and communication than simply distributing contact information for Chief Judge Evans’s assistant. Sadly, the standard of communication has been so low for so long, that this memo actually marks the most progress we’ve seen in Evans’s 15 years in office.

Upcoming Interview Series: Chicago Votes

Our partners at Soapbox Productions and Organizing have teamed up with Chicago Votes staff to tell the story of what it’s like to grow up in an over-policed neighborhood in Chicago. These young organizers shared their perspectives on police accountability, our public school system, community safety, Black Lives Matter, and why they’ve chosen to work toward getting young people registered to vote and involved in politics. They also shared some spoken word pieces, providing a look at how young people express themselves through art.

During National Voter Registration Day, Chicago Votes registered over 1000 people on college campuses across the city. It will be interesting to see what impact the youth vote will have on crucial races to the administration of justice. Both Cook County States Attorney and Illinois State Senate elections will take place on March 15th, 2016.  In 2012, 35.2% of registered voters ages 18-24 voted in the general election.

The complete footage is set to debut in the coming weeks, but for now please enjoy this sneak peek. Stay tuned for updates on this exciting partnership.

The End of an Era?

At the same time that Cook County is finally reducing the daily population of the Cook County Jail, the United States as a whole appears to be reaching a political consensus that mass incarceration is unsustainable. As is often observed, the United States has five percent of the world’s population, but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

shamsara20120422061008857

Most of the Republican presidential candidates have joined Democratic politicians who have long called for mass incarceration to end. In fact, at the moment two leading Republicans, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul, have progressive public positions on ending mandatory minimum sentences, which are a major contributor to mass incarceration.

As the topic gains prominence in the national spotlight, it is also being recognized that ending mass incarceration will be easier said than done. The most common call is to end the incarceration of low level non-violent offenders and those imprisoned for drug possession. Unfortunately, if that were to happen it would hardly make a dent in the overall prison population. Fully half of the inmates in state prisons are there for violent crimes. And most drug offenders in prison are there for drug dealing, not drug possession.

In addition there are one federal and fifty state court and prison systems, each of which will have to be reformed to reduce the level of incarceration.

The good news is that the debate is beginning to move from whether mass incarceration can be ended to how it might be ended.  Excessively lengthy prison sentences are the primary contributing factor to the exorbitant incarceration rates that we face today. Sentences are far longer than necessary to serve legitimate purposes of the protection of the public. But due to “tough-on-crime” rhetoric often heard from both sides of the isle over the last decades, politicians in the United States are used to increasing prison sentences, not lowering them. Take for example the continued push in Illinois for mandatory sentences for gang members convicted of having guns.

The approach that would likely be most effective would be for each state legislature and the United States Congress to examine their respective sentencing laws and develop specialized, comprehensive revisions that could be shown to both protect the public from crime and reduce high levels of incarceration. Present incarceration rates are simply not necessary for crime control, are extremely expensive, and have been implemented in highly racially discriminatory ways.

This will not be easy. During the President Obama’s first term, U.S.Senator Jim Webb proposed a national commission to examine American sentencing practices and to make recommendations for reform. Even though the proposed commission had backing from many quarters, it was not authorized by the Congress largely because of the tepid response of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. But the call for reform has grown louder now than it was just a few years ago and can no longer be ignored. The Obama administration now more strongly supports such measures than it did in its first term. If the relevance of this topic in presidential hopefuls’ platforms is any indication, the pendulum has finally begun to swing back, and we are at the beginning of the end of the era of mass incarceration.