“Defunding the police” may sound scary, but what if it is in line with your values after all?

When Louis J. was arrested, he was on track to become another statistic, lost in a failing criminal justice system. As an incarcerated young adult, less than 24 years old, Louis would face a 75% chance that he’d be arrested again within 3 years of his release. His odds of ever finishing school or finding a job were about to plummet. His likelihood of experiencing mental health struggles, illness, or death was ready to skyrocket. 


Here in North Lawndale, Louis’s story is not uncommon. 


Though Lawndale, the neighborhood Louis calls home, boasts nearly 10x the national average police presence, our violent crime rate remains 3x greater than Chicago’s overall. Folks who share our zip code make up 12% of Illinois prisoners. In contrast to the robust police presence, basic resources in Lawndale can be hard to find. A lack of economic investment, jobs, quality schools, play spaces, and safe housing leaves young people in Lawndale and our police force engaged in what feels like an unbreakable cycle of arrest/incarceration/release/repeat.



So what changed things for Louis? 


Today, we’d statistically expect Louis to be returning for his second stint in prison. Instead, he is an active and engaged father to his young son. He’s working a good union job in construction, making plans to travel the world, and volunteers in his community. For Louis, the key to avoiding the seemingly inevitable wasn’t being surrounded by a well-armed police force.


The key to his success was the community in his corner. A team brought together by Lawndale Christian Legal Center (LCLC), of community-based legal experts, care workers, and professional allies who surrounded Louis with the support he needed to avoid becoming another statistic and move toward becoming the person he wants to be.  


It’s tangible support that makes a difference. 


Through LCLC, Louis received help navigating the court system, probation, and his community service hours. He got help finishing school, finalizing his resume, and securing a reliable job. LCLC made sure Louis found affordable housing and had the basic resources he needed to move his life forward. And he isn’t alone – of the more than a thousand LCLC clients we’ve had the privilege to assist, most have successfully beaten the odds. In 2019, for example, of the young people who have been working with us, only 8% have been rearrested. Very different than that 75% national average re-arrest rate. 



The approach we’ve developed over the last 11 years in North Lawndale for restorative criminal justice with youth is one that we believe shows what can happen when we don’t keep doing things the same way, expecting different results.


As a nation, we spend $300 billion on criminal justice every year. About 50% goes directly to funding police presence. Another approximate third funds the prisons currently holding 2.2 million Americans, and the smallest portion – around $64 billion – is designated for the judicial and legal systems. What we aren’t funding are the resources that help to disrupt the cycle of arrest/incarceration/release/repeat. 


The words “defunding the police” are a hot button for a lot of people.


That phrase has a tendency to send folks running to their respective political corners, but for most in favor of it, it doesn’t mean eliminating police, it simply means investing less in the police and criminal courts system that isn’t working, and reinvesting in community-based resources that are – mental healthcare providers, more affordable housing initiatives, more legal resources, and more professional opportunities that are proven to restore lives. From our experience we believe if we did that and began supporting more models like we’ve been building at LCLC, we could create communities with fewer lives reduced to statistics, and many more success stories for young people like Louis. And together, make justice more just for everyone.


That aligns perfectly with my values. How about yours?

Cliff Nellis is the founder and executive director of Lawndale Christian Legal Center. A lawyer himself and a nine-year resident of North Lawndale, Cliff holds a law degree from The University of Chicago and a Master in Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is currently enrolled in the Executive MBA program at University of Chicago Booth School of Business to learn better how to scale what LCLC is doing, across Cook County, and ultimately the nation, in order to transform our criminal justice system for youth, 24 and under.