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The Collaborative: Bringing Together Advocates, Policymakers, and the Voices of the Formerly Incarcerated

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There are so many nonprofit organizations and activists engaged in changing the Illinois criminal legal system that it often is challenging to keep track of what each of us is doing.

There are dozens of organizations involved in changing the adult and juvenile systems – every possible policy issue from police conduct on the streets to reforming our courts, prisons, and probation. In addition to advocacy organizations, elected leaders in Chicago, Springfield, and throughout the state are enacting laws and sometimes changing the systems from within.

The Collaborative

In 2008, Illinois Justice Project launched an effort to improve communication among advocacy groups, elected officials, and formerly incarcerated individuals willing to share their experiences and recommendations for improving the system. Our effort, the Collaborative, brought these stakeholders together in the same room to share ideas and to learn from each other. Held almost annually since then, the Collaborative has grown in the depth of discussion and number of participants; the room is much bigger.

Fast forward to 2021.

Since our last convening early in 2020, there had been drastic changes across the world, from the pandemic to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the widespread demand for equity, justice, and accountability.

In Illinois, we saw some monumental policy reforms. The most notable was enacting the SAFE-T Act, a priority of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which seeks to reform the pretrial justice system and eliminate cash bond in Illinois by January 1, 2023. The act includes measures for police accountability, training, and setting new standards for measuring police misconduct and duty to intervene.

We also experienced the first year of the Restore, Reinvest and Renew program—more commonly known as R3. Using a portion of the tax revenue from legalized cannabis, R3 allocated more than $30 million statewide to curb community violence, increase help to youth, and support reentry in communities that were most heavily impacted by the War on Drugs.

Because those changes advocated by so many in the past are now in statute and because intentions when passing legislation don’t always become a reality in the real world, we decided that this year’s Collaborative agenda would concentrate on how the reforms will be implemented.

From Policy to Practice

The theme of this year’s Collaborative was “Policy to Practice.” Our key questions included: What can we expect as we embark on this journey? What lessons can be learned from other jurisdictions? What challenges do we face here in Illinois? How do we create a more just legal system that provides public safety for all?

Governor J.B. Pritzker, our keynote speaker, said that the name “The Collaborative” is “a terrific description of what we have been accomplishing together for years and how together we must recommit to creating a brighter tomorrow.”

“Here in Illinois, we believe that we must make certain words in statutes come alive in practice in our courtrooms, our police departments, our correctional facilities, and on the streets where we live,” he said.

For those who missed the Collaborative and those who want to revisit the discussion, we have posted videos of the remarks by Governor Pritzker, Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton, and the panel discussions: https://collaborative2021.splashthat.com

Session topics included “What Lessons Can We Learn from Efforts to Implement Changes to Pretrial Systems Nationally and in Illinois?”, “One Year In: What Have We Learned from the Implementation of the R3 Grant Program So Far?,” and “Where Are We Now: The State of Police Reform Implementation in 2021?” Among the guest speakers were Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr., State Rep. Curtis J. Tarver (Chicago), Illinois House Deputy Majority Leader Jehan Gordon-Booth (Peoria), Safer Foundation President & CEO Victor Dickson, and Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly.

All of the discussions centered on moving policy on paper to practice in our communities. If reforms are successfully implemented—with fidelity to the intent of the changes and vigilance not to reproduce or recreate oppressive systems—the result will be improved public safety for all of us.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx may have said it best: “It is not a choice between public safety and reform. I fundamentally do not believe that you can achieve public safety without changing the way that things are operating right now. It is not an either-or. One necessitates the other. It is necessary for us to have a reform of a system that has had done such disproportionate harm in order for us to achieve safety in those communities.”