How a West Side law center is showing the benefits of releasing people before their trials

Ninety-six percent of the people the law center has worked with have attended all their follow-up court dates.

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Community client support specialists Daryl Pierce (from left) and Darold Wicker speak to a reporter at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, a restorative justice-centered organization in North Lawndale, during an April tour.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For those who fear the worst if cash bail ends in Illinois, Matthew McFarland invites them to spend a day with him.

“Come see our work, meet the people,” said McFarland, who works to get people out of jail and keep them out. “Understand the plight of poverty, understand the plight of unemployment and lack of resources. … Try to understand what it’s like living in a bedroom with 10 other people, not knowing how you’re going to pay rent or where you’re going to live the next day, or where your next meal is going to come from.”

“If you don’t understand the problem, you can’t understand the solution,” he added.

McFarland is a vice president at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, where a staff of lawyers and social workers practice forms of restorative justice that emphasize reparation over incarceration.

They have been closely following the legal challenges to a controversial state law that would eliminate cash bail in the state. A judge in Kankakee has ruled it unconstitutional, but the attorney general’s office said it will appeal.

“Our work goes forward, regardless,” Cliff Nellis, CEO of the law center, said Thursday. “We will continue to serve people pending trial with supports that they need to get through the system.”

For the last year, the center has worked on a pilot project that shows what happens — and what needs to happen — if and when cash bail ends in Illinois.

With a nearly $3 million grant, the center has worked to connect people coming out of jail with services for employment, housing, mental health, substance use, violence prevention and medical care.

If people really care about addressing violence and increasing public safety, they should care about supporting those who are released from jail, McFarland said. “That’s where the answer is.”

So far, the center has worked with just under 1,300 people, and 96% of them attended all their follow-up court dates. About 440 cases have already been concluded, and charges were dropped in 367 of them, according to the center.

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Lawndale Christian Legal Center is a restorative justice-centered organization that provides legal, social, psychological and employment services to young adults in North Lawndale.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

‘Back into the tiger’s den’

The two-year pilot is being funded by the Bail Project, a nationwide organization that provides free bail assistance to low-income people.

Members of the legal center’s intake team are stationed in the pre-bond area of the Cook County Jail. The team speaks with nearly every person before they see a judge and assesses their needs, according to the center.

“I know how it feels when you get down in the county jail,” said Daryl Pierce, who has spent much of his life behind bars and now is a supervisor for the law center.

“You can’t make bond, you ain’t got no hope, you ain’t got nobody,” Pierce said. “They just release you right back into the system with no support, no nothing. … Sometimes they put you on a bus, and you got to ride right back into the tiger’s den.”

Pierce and his team work with people after they are released, connecting them with housing, employment resources and access to education, mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

“If you think of clients, on average, identifying almost five of these things happening at one time, what is the probability of success?” Pierce asked.

Housing is one of the largest areas of need for recently released clients. Through a partnership with the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund, the legal center finds subsidized housing for clients making below 30% of the area’s median income.

A new full-time housing coordinator at the law center also works to match clients with landlords.

Pierce said he speaks from deep experience. Every time he was released from jail, he said, he had nowhere else to go but back to the corner that got him locked up in the first place.

It was not until someone offered him an “off ramp” — treatment, housing and a path to education — that he was able to break free from the cycle. And now with a master’s degree, he tries to do the same for others, he said.

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Amy Campanelli, vice president of restorative justice at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, is the former chief Cook County public defender.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

‘Tough on crime’

The center has quickly grown since its founding in 2010, nearly running out of space in an old community building on Hamlin Avenue and 16th Street.

Community support specialists like Pierce work on the first floor while lawyers and case managers work side by side upstairs. The center primarily serves people 18 to 24 years old, but has worked with older clients under the pilot project.

McFarland, like Pierce, spent much of his life in and out of jail and prison. He said it was not until he was connected with treatment for his addiction that he was able to transform his life.

“Some people look at our work as soft on crime, but I would argue that it’s actually tough on crime,” McFarland said. “The real hard work is the work that Daryl is doing. It’s actually rolling your sleeves up and helping somebody out. That’s what changes the trajectory of somebody’s life. That’s what keeps our community safe.”

Amy Campanelli, the law center’s vice president of restorative justice, spent nearly 27 years in the Cook County public defender’s office and six years as the chief public defender.

“I knew what we did well in the public defender’s office and what we didn’t do well and what needed to be changed,” Campanelli said. “I wanted a mitigation report on every single one of my clients, which I couldn’t get because we didn’t have enough mitigation specialists.

“I wanted social workers to evaluate my clients to help me with their mental health issues ... and we didn’t have the money to spend to get those kinds of resources,” she said.

The criminal justice system was not designed to see people beyond the crime they are charged with, and many veterans of the system struggle to imagine a system beyond the one they know, Campanelli said.

“Many communities have been affected by the normal, racist criminal system,” Campanelli said. “It has destroyed entire communities, entire blocks, entire generations of mostly men, but women, too, and children who feel the effect of their fathers or uncles or brothers who go to jail or eventually go to prison, and then have to come home and be a model citizen.

“We punish you, and then when you come home, we expect you to be a model citizen, without anybody helping you or allowing you to work or get back into school,” she said. “There’s a better way, and we know it works.”

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