clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Commissioner, activists say Cook County’s COVID-19 relief money should fund social programs, not jails

Cate Readling of The People’s Lobby said the sheriff’s office has received $180 million in federal relief, but “people still continue to suffer in jail without protections and without dignity” while the mental and behavioral health systems remain “underfunded, understaffed and inaccessible.”

Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks about taking this issue up to the Cook County board to pass and support local communities during a press conference outside of Stroger Hospital at 1969 W. Ogden Ave asking the Cook County Board to fully fund the Budget for Black Lives.
Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks during a press conference outside Stroger Hospital, 1969 W. Ogden Ave., on Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson joined activists outside Stroger Hospital Monday morning to urge his fellow county board members to back a proposal to divert federal relief money from law enforcement and use it to improve social safety net programs.

The demands come as Johnson prepares to submit the Racially Equitable and Thriving Recovery, a resolution he said will be discussed at Thursday’s county board meeting, and as the county figures out how to spend nearly $1 billion in federal funding coming through the American Rescue Plan.

“It is well past time that we utilize this moment to not just sprint back to normalcy, because normalcy for many people meant food deserts and unemployment and brutalization,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to set a new course for the people who have been most impacted by these failed systems of oppression.”

Johnson and others at the news conference said now is the time to pressure the county into spending that money in the community, instead of on a jail system they say took the bulk of federal coronavirus aid last time.

The county received $428.5 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund administered by the Treasury Department. Of that, $181.7 million — about 42% — went toward labor costs at the sheriff’s office, according to a county report released earlier this year.

Another $8.3 million went toward “non-labor” expenses at the sheriff’s office.

“Our city, our county, invests more in policing and incarceration than they do for jobs and health care,” Johnson said. “That’s a wicked system.”

Matt Walberg, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said there is “no stronger advocate for the vulnerable residents of Cook County than Sheriff [Tom] Dart” and Johnson’s understanding of funding allocations “appears uninformed.”

“We look forward to working with [Cook County Board President Toni] Preckwinkle on prioritizing long overdue community reinvestment,” Walberg said.

Johnson was joined with The People’s Lobby, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, Shriver Center for Poverty Law and the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

“We’ve already given over $180 million in federal COVID relief to the Cook County sheriff and yet people still continue to suffer in jail without protections and without dignity,” said Cate Readling, an organizer with The People’s Lobby who ran unsuccessfully this year for Oak Park village president. “Meanwhile the public mental health and behavioral health system in Cook County is underfunded, understaffed and inaccessible.”

People’s Lobby organizer Cate Readling speaks about funding projects that help communities during a press conference outside Stroger Hospital at 1969 W. Ogden Ave. on Monday, May 10, 2021.
The People’s Lobby organizer Cate Readling speaks during a press conference outside Stroger Hospital, 1969 W. Ogden Ave., on Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Budget for Black Lives calls for $157 million to be pulled from the sheriff’s office and put into creating affordable housing, better jobs, mental health services, broadband internet access and assisting formerly incarcerated people.

“What this coalition is calling for is something that has been called for throughout the struggle for Black liberation and Brown liberation in this country,” Johnson said. “The ability to work a good paying job; that’s a reasonable demand. To have housing that’s affordable; that’s a reasonable demand. To have access to public accommodations like public schools and health care … that’s a reasonable demand.”

Last week, Preckwinkle announced the formation of the Cook County Equity Fund Task Force, which will help advise her administration’s investment commitment to “historical disparities and disinvestment in Black and Latinx communities.”

The task force includes representatives from nonprofits and activist groups, including some at Monday’s news conference, as well as from various Cook County agencies, including the sheriff’s office.

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Last summer, the county board passed a resolution called Justice for Black Lives that would redirect public dollars from policing and incarceration to housing, job creation and health care.

Readling said they hope the new task force convened by Preckwinkle will ensure resolutions like the Justice for Black Lives measure don’t hit a brick wall.

“We must expect and continue to press our elected officials to invest our money into what our community is asking — and literally dying — for,” Readling said.