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Lawndale legal clinic gets $2.9 million to help address cycle of incarceration

With the state’s cash bail system set to end in 2023, the Lawndale Christian Legal Center has partnered with The Bail Project to offer social services to help keep people out of the justice system.

Robin Steinberg, founder and CEO of The Bail Project, speaks on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 about the program’s goals during a press conference at Lawndale Christian Legal Center at 1530 S. Hamlin Ave in Lawndale.
Robin Steinberg, founder and CEO of The Bail Project, speaks Tuesday about the program’s goals at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, 1530 S. Hamlin Ave. in Lawndale.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

For years, Matthew McFarland struggled with drug addiction.

A cocktail of heroin, crack and Xanax cost him $1,000 a day – and helped earn him a rap sheet 30 pages long by the time he turned 40.

“I was living in an endless loop of physical addiction and mental anxiety,” said McFarland. “Drugs were the air I breathed.”

That is, until his last arrest, six years ago. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and Stage 3 liver failure. But he also received “meaningful intervention and support” from the Gateway Foundation.

“Without community-based treatment, I would have left jail with a criminal record and an untreated, out-of-control addiction,” he said.

Now, six years sober, McFarland is a husband, a father — and the director of a new community-based pilot program between The Bail Project and Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

Matthew McFarland overcame addiction with a little help. Now six years sober, he is director of a new joint venture between the Bail Project and the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. The effort was announced Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021 at a news conference at the legal center, 1530 S. Hamlin Ave.
Matthew McFarland overcame addiction with a little help. Now six years sober, he is director of a new joint venture between the Bail Project and the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. The effort was announced Tuesday at a news conference at the legal center, 1530 S. Hamlin Ave.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Bail Project, a national non-profit fighting mass incarceration, announced Tuesday a $2.9 million investment and partnership with the legal center to serve people released on individual-recognizance bonds after a Cook County Circuit Court bail hearing.

The voluntary program will connect people coming out of jail to services for employment, housing, mental health, substance use, violence prevention and medical care.

Speaking Tuesday at the legal center’s headquarters, 1530 S. Hamlin Ave., Robin Steinberg, founder and CEO of The Bail Project, said the program, called Community Release with Support, will help address what comes after cash bail is gone.

“Because cash bail disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color, it also keeps some of the most vulnerable people in our society cycling in and out of jail instead of connecting them to services and resources they need to break those cycles,” said Steinberg.

Cliff Nellis, the legal center’s executive director, said the goal is to address the environmental traumas that push the cycle. With community-based help, he said, they can help people navigate the criminal justice system so they never have to return.

“We recognize there’s a time and place for incarceration in a society,” said Nellis. “But we also recognize that punishment does not strengthen our community. It is a short term solution to commit someone to jail to incapacitate them so they don’t commit harm again. But that does not change the environment that gave rise of harm in the first place.”

The resources and services the Community Release with Support program will provide make it “unprecedented,” Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, said at a press conference Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
The resources and services the Community Release with Support program will provide make it “unprecedented,” Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, said at a press conference Tuesday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The two-year pilot program comes nearly a year before Illinois ends its cash bail system and shortly after the legal center partnered with other South and West side community organizations to offer free legal counsel.

While that program helped youth age 25 and under, the new program is for anyone who choosing to opt in. Referrals will also come from the Cook County public defender’s office and the the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

The first client referrals to services will begin in April 2022.

McFarland anticipates the program reaching 6,000 people within the jail system, with a conversion rate of at least 50%.

The nearly $3 million will allow the legal center to hire staff to work the program and offer clients transportation to and from court. Workers will be stationed in the jail’s pre-bond area, where they can make initial contact with people and follow-up within 48 hours.

Deshawn Nelson, owner of Mr. Nelson Movers, speaks about how his life changed thanks to a little help. Nelson was among the speakers at a news conference at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, 1530 S. Hamlin Ave. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Deshawn Nelson, owner of Mr. Nelson Movers, speaks about how his life changed thanks to a little help. Nelson was among the speakers at a news conference at Lawndale Christian Legal Center, 1530 S. Hamlin Ave. on Tuesday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Don Beachem, director of operations at the Cook County Jail, attended Tuesday’s announcement. He called the partnership with the legal center and The Bail Project an important tool to “break the cycle” of arrest and incarceration.

“Too often, involvement in the criminal justice system is tied to poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental illness,” said Beachem. “If we want to keep our communities safe, we must move beyond simply enforcing the law.”

While the program is funded for the next two years, McFarland added the program is seeking investors to help provide funding for the long-term.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.