Let’s stop wasting our valuable time following the Comey Comedy, the Donald Drama, and the Carson Cartoons. These Parodies-on-the-Potomac will grind on and on without our precious attention.
President Barrack Obama, in an interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, nailed it when he said, “The capacity to disseminate misinformation in a wildly negative light without any rebuttal…has accelerated in ways much more polarizing to the electorate and makes it very difficult to have a conversation.”
In other words, in the new media ecosystem, everything is true and nothing is true. So I’d advise my fellow African Americans, and especially Black Chicagoans, to stay focused on things that matter – and will continue to matter – long after the Trump fiasco plays itself out.
Like these things:
• African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. If this trend continues, one of every three Black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, according to the DC Sentencing Project in 2013.
• 25 percent of Black male prison inmates are emotionally traumatized or mentally challenged, according to Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.
• It has become so expensive to maintain the million Black men in America’s criminal justice system that two of the nation’s foremost ideological combatants, the Koch Brothers and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, agree that a reduction of Black prison inmates needs to be achieved.
The New State’s Attorney
Locally, consider the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we now have to address these issues with the election of Kim Foxx as Cook County State’s Attorney.
Sure we’ve had Harold and Barack, but never a Black officeholder – not to mention one who grew up in the CHA projects – with this level of leverage to begin solving an immediate and crucial problem.
After all, our State’s Attorney controls the second largest prosecutor’s office in the United States. Her office directs approximately 900 attorneys among its more than 1,600 employees and they handle all misdemeanor and felony crimes in our state’s largest county.
“We’ve never had a Black officeholder – State’s Attorney Kim Foxx – with this level of leverage to begin solving an immediate and crucial problem.”
In light of the unprecedented powers now held by Kim Foxx, I was motivated to pick up John Pfaff’s book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration – and How to Achieve Real Reform. Pfaff argues the most effective way to reduce Black incarceration is to reduce admission to prison in the first place.
To do that, we must change the practices that have led prosecutors to file felony charges against so many. Pfaff posits that prosecutors have more power than ever because, in general, state legislators have enacted laws affording prosecutors a wider range of options.
The criminal justice trifecta has three horses: police, prosecutors and judges. This is the axis upon which all spins – who’s arrested, who goes to prison and for how long, and who gets let go.
Within this trio – think of a drummer backed by piano and guitar – the most powerful is the prosecutor. The police, theoretically at least, operate in public and have constitutional and judicial oversight. Judges must explain their decisions in writing and are subject to appeal. Legislators must answer to voters at election time.
But prosecutors act behind a relative veil of secrecy, as described recently by David Cole in the New York Review of Books. Prosecutors, moreover, have the power to agree to drop charges if the arrestee agrees to counseling, behavior changes, mediation, etc., all likely monitored by reporting periodically to the court.
Consider just the veil of secrecy. We know almost nothing about how they decide whether to charge a defendant. There is no requirement that state’s attorneys offer any explanation for their decisions.
Too often this has led to race-based abuse, a prime example being the 1969 home invasion and killing of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark orchestrated by Cook County State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan.
Compare that travesty to how a compassionate Kim Foxx might establish alternative sentencing for young defendants. She could, for instance, take advantage of pre-apprenticeship programs for construction jobs on County projects.
And if violent behavior is indeed a public health challenge comparable to alcoholism, a theory that Chicago Dr. Gary Slutkin advances, Foxx could widen the menu to include compassionate, consistent and interventional counseling.
Think about this again. A Black female, having grown up in Chicago’s public housing, now has the power to decide who gets charged, with what, and who goes to jail…or gets diverted toward a more positive outcome.
How We Can Help Foxx
Realizing this, here are some things Black Chicago needs to keep in mind:
1. Understand what the State’s Attorney can do.
2. Lay out a set of expectations for that office.
3. Volunteer for citizen advisory councils to that office (I was on one back in the day).
4. Support Ms. Foxx electorally, organizationally, and financially.
5. Recognize that other interest groups, including some whose pursuits don’t match ours, will also be jockeying for position.
6. Hold her accountable for responding to Black community concerns.
We also should take a lesson from, of all places, Oklahoma. In November 2016, folks there voted overwhelmingly for Trump, yet simultaneously approved a ballot initiative to reduce many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and to invest the savings in rehabilitation programs for convicted criminals. (This wasn’t about Black people; it was about dollars.)
With what other Cook County State’s Attorney could you even have had a conversation about this in the past? Yet, it’s a great idea – to shift convict maintenance costs to external prison counseling and guidance.
Of course, the devil is in the details. If Cook County saves $20,000 by keeping a Black man out of prison for one year, what portion of that savings could go directly to his or her rehabilitation? Or as importantly, to the protection of the community to which he will return?
There are many ways these savings could be applied. Illinois already offers a five percent income tax credit – not to exceed $600 per eligible employee – to encourage contractors to hire ex-offenders.
Cook County, at the urging of Commissioner Richard Boykin, is experimenting with a “bid credit” giving employers of ex-cons an edge when seeking competitively bid contracts. And the savings could subsidize pre-apprenticeship programs to which offenders would be assigned as an alternative to jail.
I am involved with the Drake Center at Roosevelt University, where planning is underway for a September 2017 conversation between State’s Attorney Foxx and the aforementioned Dr. Gary Slutkin, who founded CeaseFire Illinois, also known as Cure Violence.
A University of Illinois epidemiologist, Dr. Slutkin is an advocate for recognizing the homicide epidemic among young Black men as a public health issue that cannot be addressed by external force.
His staff runs a cell phone hotline with four Black community trauma centers that, when a shooting takes place, steps in to cool the inevitable fever for retaliation.
There are many other opportunities to engage the State’s Attorney and to establish and maintain ongoing dialogue toward change.
The Historic Black Colleges remind us that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. I agree. But so are rare opportunities such as the election of Kim Foxx. So let CNN worry about President Humpty Dumpty and his Wall. We’ve got more immediate fish to fry.
(Paul King is a construction consultant and member of Chicago’s Business Leadership Council.)
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