Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has pledged to work with Chicago community and faith leaders in their effort to establish pilot restorative justice "hubs" with a focus on mental health services on the South and Southwest Sides as a means to keep people with mental illness out of the county's jail.
The Reclaim Campaign, comprised of Chicago community and church leaders, wants to see more community-based alternatives to incarceration created in order to reduce the number of nonviolent inmates at the jail. Specifically, the group has called for community mental health centers, or hubs, to work towards preventing those with mental illness from being unnecessarily incarcerated.
At a packed public meeting Monday evening hosted by the Reclaim Campaign at the South Side's St. Gall Church, Teresa Fraga, with the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council and Gamaliel of Metro Chicago, said a restorative justice hub would serve as "a community-based, accessible, affordable institution that provides health care to the uninsured, the underinsured and the undocumented."
In addition to providing mental health services, the proposed hubs would be a community space dedicated to reducing violence, creating neighborhood-based alternatives to criminalization and incarceration and providing support systems for youth.
"The criminal justice system is disempowering our community, but restorative justice peace hubs will empower the community to address issues locally," said Robert Spicer, pastor of the Englewood Mennonite Church. "The criminal justice system does not have the capacity to reduce or stop the violence in our community, but restorative justice peace hubs will create effective alternatives to reducing the violence and stopping the violence. The criminal justice system's way of holding people accountable has not brought about healing and restoration that all victims need, but [a] restorative justice peace hub has the capability to hold people accountable by repairing the harm caused to others and their community."
The goal of the hubs, said pastor Alvin Love of the South Side's Lilydale First Baptist Church, is to "create an environment in our community where we can take care of our own children and not have them carted off and shipped off to the criminal justice system."
"It's about community mental health, not jail," added Larry Dowling, pastor of St. Agatha Parish in North Lawndale. "It's about prevention, not punishment."
Dart agreed that there is a need for restorative justice hubs with mental health services in the city. The sheriff plans to meet with community and faith leaders within the next month to discuss the next steps in moving forward on the issue.
"There is nothing in your agenda that is not something that we shouldn't already be doing, and it's embarrassing that you have to come together and petition your government to do exactly what we're supposed to be doing already," Dart told the large crowd.
About 3,000 inmates currently in the Cook County jail system have some form of mental illness, Dart said. The majority of inmates with mental illness are locked up due to minor crimes, he noted.
"The plan for when they leave used to be: there's California Avenue. Good luck," the sheriff said. "What we started doing is we are identifying people when they come in who have mental illness. We try to plead with the judges to not put them in the jail, but to put them in a mental health setting. I've had very little luck with the judges. And then when they're in my custody, we give them treatment that many of them ... will tell me it's the best treatment they've ever gotten."
"Think about that for one second," he added. "A person suffering from mental illness, the best place for them to get treatment is in the jail. That's horrible. That's embarrassing. And I don't believe that's what our society stands for."
For the past two years, mental health providers have been working with jail officials to create plans for when inmates with mental illness are ready to be discharged, Dart said.
"The big problem though is there's not a lot [of services] on the outside, and that's why these hubs are so important," he noted. "The hubs are essential. They have to be part of it. They have to be spread through the communities and have to have multiple components, but absolutely have to have a mental health component."
Here's more from Dart:
Chicago currently has just six community mental health clinics after six other facilities were shut down in 2012 as part of a transition to improve mental health care, city officials said at the time. The city has said that its mental health services at the six existing community clinics place a focus on serving the uninsured.
The Reclaim Campaign's proposal for the pilot hubs on the South and Southwest Sides involves reallocating city and state funds to initially provide mental health support services to 75 people to be transitioned from the jail to the centers.
“The funds that should be used to provide community treatment and youth support services are now tied up incarcerating nonviolent persons who suffer from mental health and addiction,” Love said. “We can eliminate violence and provide a just and compassionate alternative if our communities are allowed to care for our own.”
The group wants to also develop a mental health care plan for undocumented individuals who are not eligible for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
"Access to mental health care is a human right," said Armando Guillen, a parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in Chicago's Back of the Yards community.
He said some undocumented youths and adults "in our community end up in jail, not because they are career criminals, but rather because they do not have the family support that they need."
"We are suffering from depression and anxiety, and our future is very uncertain," he added. "Mental health clinics in Chicago continue to close, and we do not have access to mental health services. Undocumented people like myself experience emotional and psychological distress around the issue of identity and belonging ... To deal with these struggles, we need access to mental health care, but we are excluded from the Affordable Care Act."
Dart responded that he is open to helping the group improve access to services for undocumented individuals.
The Reclaim Campaign plans to hold a follow-up community meeting about the hubs at St. Gall Church, 5511 S. Sawyer Ave., on July 31 at 7 p.m.