The Racial Justice Task Force and the slow trudge toward justice in Champaign County

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The Champaign County Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF) will be issuing its final report this fall. Those who sought to create this task force, and those working within it, have faced an uphill struggle in trying to get the white community to confront the fact of racism in the criminal justice system.

The proposal to establish a Racial Justice Task Force first came from a wide-ranging 2013 report issued by the Champaign Community Justice Task Force (CJTF), a group of officials, scholars, and activists chaired by then-Urbana City Councilwoman Carol Ammons, the county’s current State Representative. The CJTF issued a call to create an RJTF in order to address the egregious racial disparity in the population of the Champaign County Jail, relative to the general county population. Essentially, African-Americans make up about 13% of the county’s population, and always well over half, sometimes over 70% of the jail population.

While multiple community groups mobilized to pack the County Board meeting room in fall 2015 in support of the RJTF, centrist Democrats on the Board made an effort to shift attention away from criminal justice. While the resolution that passed made no such stipulations, the application for appointment to the RJTF nonetheless requested that applicants indicate their interest in jobs, housing, or an all-purpose heading simply labeled “justice.” Applications were to be reviewed by a five-person panel, of which four members were white. In November, eight local activist organizations wrote an open letter criticizing this process. Applications were slow in coming in, and a group was not convened until February 2016.

Without any funding from the County Board, the RJTF began its work with 23 members (including one alternate), divided fairly evenly between white members and members of color, and took the early step of issuing a mission statement dedicated to criminal justice. The group soon broke up into subcommittees. In September 2016, there were committees addressing policing practices, juvenile justice, community engagement, restorative justice, the legal process, and structural racism. Ignoring the mission statement, this last category initially was intended to encompass employment and housing, and later expanded to include education, implicit bias, and trauma-informed counseling.

Over the course of the last 18 months, the group has met regularly, both in its committees and as a large group. According to Task Force member Sara Balgoyen,”the task force has had many experts in their respective fields (police, courts, juvenile, disproportionate minority contact and more) present evidence–based practices, promising practices, and beliefs for how to reduce racial disparities.”

Task force members have ventured into the community on a handful of occasions: to gather community members’ stories at two events in summer 2016, and, in March 2017, to get feedback on collaborative efforts to analyze county criminal justice data. Other than these forays, though, it’s not clear that the group did much to solicit the views of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people.

The original mandate had the RJTF issuing a final report in July 2017, but the group received permission to extend its work until October. Drafts of committee final reports have been under discussion since July. The legal process committee has focused on fines and fees, penalties that disproportionately burden poor people of color, and new sections were added to the report: one dealing with access to public housing for those with criminal convictions, and one identifying cash bail as a significant cause of racial disparity in the jail. Most of the draft sections are concise, and generally make concrete, common-sense recommendations to address problems related to criminal justice disparities. The deficit in an otherwise solid draft report was the section on structural racism, which ignored criminal justice; however, this section, now only treating “education,” has been cut down from its original length of over 30 pages.

With some additions and subtractions, the RJTF group now stands at around 18, and has a distinct white majority. Attendance at meetings exaggerates this imbalance. This white domination can be witnessed in the meetings, in which white speakers take up an outsized portion of the group’s time. These speakers seem to have set the bulk of the group’s agenda since 2015, and have at times communicated among themselves without including the entire membership. This inadvertent but undeniable silencing of Black voices does, in turn, help to explain the attrition and absence of people of color from a group purportedly formed to address the interests of communities of color.

Alex Evans, a Black member who has stopped attending meetings of a Task Force he describes as “arguably anti-Black,” wrote to me about the racial dynamics of the group.

“On paper it looks as if the RJTF was/is interested in what Black folks have to say, but the reality is that they actively rejected what some Black committee and community members had to say. It was definitely an instance of only accepting the ‘Black perspective’ if it was comfortable to their brand of liberalism… It seemed as though many on the RJTF went into the process searching for racial discrimination, not as a means for providing proof for the County Board, but they searched to validate their experiences and their feelings that things aren’t as bad as some of us claim.”

Along with the sprawling and ineffectual section on structural racism, Evans also took issue with the programs proposed by the restorative justice committee, programs which he said “were suggested to benefit Task Force members’ professional endeavors, not as a means to confront the racial justice issues in the county.”

Ultimately, the work of the Racial Justice Task Force has been worthwhile. At the same time, its history illustrates the pervasive racist dynamics in institutional efforts to confront white supremacism. This remains true despite the good intentions of white liberals, some of whom have made valuable contributions to the Task Force. “The (draft) report ignores the very real racism and indifference utilized to construct it,” says Evans, “while at the same time attempting to rebuke the same racism in Champaign County.” He states, “all many of us are asking is for the current system to be called out, and, more importantly, be held accountable for its daily patterns of inflicting racialized miscarriages of justice.”

Given the difficulty of communicating this simple necessity to a relatively sympathetic, diverse group organized to address the racism of the criminal justice system, it is hard to be optimistic about what will happen when the RJTF final report reaches the far more white and far more skeptical County Board. But this Board is the same body that had to be hounded into creating the RJTF, and the same body that then sought to undermine its mission in the application process. Most importantly, it is the same body that must once again this fall, as in years past, be stopped by public pressure from spending taxpayer dollars to expand the county’s majority-Black jail.





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