racial justice

The Citiesscape Part 4: Bias Before the Bench, Behind Bars?

Minorities would appear to be “on the downside” of McLean County’s criminal justice system, according to a new study for Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal.

In a study conducted by Illinois State University students and the ISU Stevenson Center for Economic and Community Development, researchers uncovered apparent racial as well as gender disparities in McLean County incarcerations.

“On any given day, the McLean County jail population is majority white,” the ISU team noted. However, it is also 32 percent black, “highly disproportional to the population.” Research findings indicate that “there is still work to be done to ensure that minorities are not wrongfully targeted and incarcerated.”

“So if we’re 8 to 9 percent African-American, in the jail we’re about 36 percent African-American,” Stevenson Center study coordinator Frank Beck relates.

The study also indicates a disproportionate frequency in traffic stops and related searches for black motorists, as detailed in Part 3 of this series.

ISU researchers examined patterns in McLean County Jail and court files. Each local booking had a code, frequency, and percentage, and the team focused on each frequency that was higher than five thousand, enabling members to narrow analysis to the most frequent charges.

Students then researched each code to obtain the name of the charge (e.g., domestic battery, possession of drug paraphernalia, first time and previous DUI convictions, and key traffic violations including driving without a license or with an expired license).

Of the 22,157 persons in the jail on felony charges under the study, 17,481 were men, and4,676 were women. Men spent an average 35 days in jail for felony charges, while women spent half as many days in jail.

For overall convictions, blacks and Latinos spend more time in jail than whites. Blacks spent nearly twice as many days in jail than whites, while Latinos fell between the other two groups. That pattern was consistent for both felonies and misdemeanors.

“Future research can hold constant conviction status and charge severity to further determine where disparities are most pronounced,” the team suggested.

The research team also studied the frequency of each group booked on drug charges, identifying a disparity between the races during the late teen years and early 20s. Whites are booked more frequently for drug charges, but frequencies for whites and blacks converge around age 27, which researchers found “extremely significant.”

Blacks comprise roughly eight percent of the total McLean County population, and when the frequencies converge it does not mean the demographics are changing (such as whites “suddenly moving out of the area in droves”). “Around age 27, blacks are booked on drug charges at a rate even more disproportional to the population,” the team concluded.

“Charge severity is even between whites, blacks, and Latinos,” Beck observed. “African-Americans are not likely to be booked on things that are more violent. African-Americans are far less likely to be booked on DUIs. Driving under the influence is very much a white thing – less so Latino, and far less so African-American.”

Citizen Review Board Nearing Critical Vote?

The Bloomington City Council is expected to vote Monday night on a proposed ordinance to create a civilian police oversight board, but its membership would not include convicted felons or police officers.

One of the hurdles for some aldermen has been whether to allow convicted felons to serve on the proposed board.

"I think I am not alone in saying that most of us on the council had many, many conversations across the community about this ordinance and how it needed to read and what its focus should be," Ward 6 Alderman Karen Schmidt said Thursday.

"A group of aldermen worked very hard to try and synthesize all of the ideas with the product that we have in front of us now," said Schmidt. "I also think most of us made some compromises on some things.

"But the heart of the ordinance is something I know a majority of us can support," she added. "It provides a structure for us to build a stronger police-citizen relationship. There are a lot of tools in it that focus on helping communication and education across the board."

An alliance of community organizations — including Not in Our Town, American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, YWCA of McLean County, and Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal — has asked for a citizen review board for police. Some community activists also wanted to allow convicted felons to apply and to exclude anyone affiliated previously or currently with law enforcement.

"Essentially we came back to where we were kind of at to start with on those issues — that the felons are prohibited even if they're nonviolent felons and even if (their crimes) occurred 20 or 30 years ago, and no law enforcement officials," said Mayor Tari Renner.

Ky Ajayi, a member of the local BLM chapter, said he has mixed feelings about the revised ordinance.

"I will be glad if a review board is created." he said. "I will be disappointed that people who have been convicted of crimes in the past would not be eligible to be considered for membership on the review board."

If that happens, he said, "people who have served and paid their price to society for whatever mistakes they have made are not afforded full rights of citizenship.

"I think people who have been through the process can bring a unique perspective to the review process."

Police Chief Brendan Heffner previously said he is against felons serving on the board unless someone from law enforcement also is allowed to serve.

Ajayi said he would be pleased if the exclusion of city employees and anyone with current or former affiliation with a law enforcement agency is in the ordinance.

In May, a request by the local Black Lives Matter chapter to create a community board to review public complaints about interactions with Bloomington police officers gained community momentum. Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal (NIOTBN), YWCA McLean County, NAACP Bloomington-Normal and the Central Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union — supported Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal in calling for a civilian review board.

In a joint statement, the five groups said many residents, particularly people of color, lack confidence in the process for filing complaints about police officers and in investigations conducted solely by police.

Mayor Tari Renner pledged "a broader discussion about what the overall concerns are, what the issues are, what does our current process look like and what our options are." "One, obviously, is a review board and that certainly will be discussed,” Renner said.

"Black Lives Matter has shared some principles it would like to see shape the board, and hopefully at the committee-of-the-whole meeting the City Council will agree that these are good ideas and should form the basis for a board,” said Ajayi.

Few public complaints are formally submitted to Bloomington police, the groups related, but that fact may be misleading.

"We believe it is dangerous to assume that the low number of complaints filed against officers are a measure of public satisfaction, when it may instead be an indication of public distrust with our current complaint process," according to the groups' statement.

The organizations suggest that "in order to maintain public trust," the review board consist solely of volunteer members of the public to remain an impartial body.

The community groups also recommend expanding the avenues for filing complaints by allowing people to file them directly with the review board, with the city's human resources department or through the current process at the police department.

While the police department would investigate the complaints and make determinations, a review board could provide an avenue for people to appeal department findings they dispute, said the organizations' statement.

"We recommend that BPD make all investigative material related to the complaint available to (the review board)," the groups said.

The board could make nonbinding recommendations to the police chief or city manager to consider, according to the groups.

NIOT member Mike Matejka said people may feel more comfortable taking complaints to a review board, and the review process would be more productive than having people just raise these issues in public forums.

"People constantly voice complaints when we have these large public forums," said Matejka. “It's really not fair to the police because they can't answer an individual situation in front of a crowd."

In mid-June, an alliance of nine community organizations gathered on the steps of the McLean County Museum of History Friday to urge the Bloomington City Council to create an oversight board.

"We urge all council members to vote in favor of it," said Jenn Carrillo, YWCA mission impact director before introducing the representatives who spoke at the press conference. In addition to ACLU of Central Illinois, Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal, Bloomington-Normal Branch of the NAACP, Not in Our Town Bloomington-Normal and YWCA McLean County, Central Illinois Pride Health Center, Prairie Pride Coalition, Illinois People's Action, and the McLean County League of Women Voters joined in the effort.

But continued delays in bringing the plan to a vote elicited frustrations in early July

“We are disappointed this process has been delayed once more," NIOTBN member and YWCA Director Dontae Latson stated. "During the June Committee of the Whole session, we heard a majority of council members express support for the passage of the PSCRB ordinance. Council members had ample opportunity to ask questions, offer revisions and raise any outstanding issues with the ordinance during that session. We believed their concerns had been sufficiently addressed in the proposed revisions. The delay raises concern that an already vetted and modest ordinance may be weakened. We remain hopeful the city council will have the courage to vote and pass the PSCRB ordinance.”

YWCA Seeks Funding To Close School/Prison Pipeline

YWCA Mclean County seeks to close the school-to-prison pipeline through a bid at a $25,000 award to start a racial justice training program for teachers and students.

Voting opened today at State Farm's Neighborhood Assist site (http://www.neighborhoodassist.com/entry/1984443), and remains open until Nov. 4. Individuals can vote 10 times per day for the next 10 days to fund the project.

The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ is an epidemic that is plaguing schools across the nation, disproportionately targeting students of color and those with a history of abuse, neglect, poverty or learning disabilities. According to an analysis by United Way of McLean County, students of color make up a disproportionate amount of school suspensions. In McLean County, black students comprise only 12.3% of the population but account for 53.5% of students receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. In contrast, white students make up 63.9% of the population but only 41.2% of out-of-school suspensions.

Additionally, districts made up of predominately white teachers are not equipped to deal with the needs of the growing number of students of color and don't have the tools to empower their students. While some students have resources and support to deal with their experiences, some do not. The concept of the "school to prison pipeline" suggests some students are "pushed out" of school, not deliberately, but as a consequence of systemic racism and the lack of resources available to offset their adverse experiences. There is a need for education as a means to alternatives to traditional punishments.

YWCA McLean County would develop a racial justice training program. Funds would be used for staff and consultants to develop the program, materials for trainings, and to offset costs for nonprofits to be trained. The program will include different forms of oppression and be customizable for audiences. For example, the program for people of color will focus on internalized racism and how to challenge the oppressive systems. The program for white people will focus on how to be an ally and empower people of color. The program will be piloted with YWCA staff and then taken into schools. This training will give teachers and administrators insight into how systems in place disproportionately affect students of color and the tools to empower those students. The training will allow students and teachers to learn together about systemic oppression and how to challenge it. Eventually the program, with trained volunteers leading, will educate businesses, city officials, and more.