It seems like such a logical equation: the more tax dollars we invest in police forces and prisons to round up law breakers and keep them off the streets, the safer our communities should be. But across partisan lines, Americans are becoming increasingly aware that the numbers in our criminal justice system don’t seem to add up. Though we invest a staggering $300 billion every year, we are barely making a dent in the crime and violence that’s devastating our communities.
But, don’t give up hope quite yet.
In North Lawndale, one of the most-segregated, under-resourced, and heavily policed neighborhoods in Chicago, we’ve found remarkable evidence for hope.
We found it, not by ignoring the truth of our current system. But by looking at it with fresh eyes. For example, there are over 2.2 million Americans currently serving time in prisons across the country, and according to some estimates, nearly half of them are under 24. When those young adults are released, the odds are not in their favor – 75% of them will be re-arrested within just 3 years. What became clear was that jail time fails to prepare them for anything other than more jail time, and a destructive cycle of arrest/incarcerate/release/repeat begins. And that the current system, supposedly designed to keep us safe, is perpetuating the poverty, mental health issues, and desperation that endanger us.
So that’s where we decided to focus our efforts.
We started with those young people under the age of 24 and asked a simple question: what if we could disrupt this cycle?
The answer to that question became the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, where for the last 11 years in North Lawndale, we’ve put into practice a holistic approach to restorative criminal justice, and it has dramatically improved the outcome for young people who’ve gotten entangled with the legal system. Through LCLC we’ve provided more than 1,000 youth and emerging adults with wraparound support designed to rehabilitate, repair, and restore. By offering housing, employment training and placement, educational support and mental health and substance counseling, we’ve successfully disrupted the arrest/incarcerate/release/repeat cycle for our youth while simultaneously investing in the community that surrounds them.
And in place of that jaw-dropping 75% re-arrest statistic, we have a profoundly hopeful new number for our equation: 8%. In 2019, of the young people working with us in our community-based approach to holistic justice, only 8% have been re-arrested. That means 92% have stayed out of prison! Not only is that an incredibly encouraging number, 91% of our school age clients are enrolled in school or GED programs and 69% of them found employment within 9 months of release.
These numbers are not just encouraging – they’re transformational.
They prove it’s possible to direct more of our $300 billion annual taxpayer dollars toward restorative justice programs that actually move us closer to the safety we all want for our families.
They suggest that with creativity, community, and care that considers the whole person, we can reduce the massive economic burden of our overpopulated prisons by restoring citizens to thriving members of their communities. They point us toward a criminal justice equation with numbers that add up to justice for all.
It’s happening in Lawndale. We believe it can happen in any community you call home.
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.