Four West Side nonprofits have formed a coalition in hopes of strengthening public safety through free legal aid and wrap-around social services for children and young adults.
“For decades we have spent billions of dollars policing, prosecuting and incarcerating primarily Black and Latino communities in Chicago,” Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, said at a news conference Tuesday.
“This has led out to … the massive numbers of permanent debilitating criminal records [and] lengthy prison sentences — and exacerbated the cycle of poverty, the cycle of violence and racial inequity in our city.”
That coalition, Justice Rising: Project 77 aims to break those cycles.
One member of the coalition, the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, 1530 S. Hamlin Ave., will be assigning one attorney to be on site at each of the other three nonprofits in the coalition: Breakthrough, 3219 W. Carroll Ave. in East Garfield Park; BUILD, 5100 W. Harrison St. in Austin; and New Life Centers of Chicagoland, 3908 W. Hirsch St. in Little Village.
Those three attorneys will provide free legal help to potential clients who have cases pending in Cook County’s juvenile and adult courts.
As the attorney addresses clients’ legal issues, they also can steer them to the social services each group can help. That holistic approach can include trauma counseling, workforce development, access to housing, spiritual guidance, violence prevention and health care. The initiative will serve juvenile and adults up to 24 years old.
“Justice Rising is a group of community leaders that believe we must transform the criminal justice system for all youth under 25 [years old] from the ground up,” Nellis said at the news conference. “This is a violence prevention, crime prevention, public safety initiative.”
Nellis said the partnership also will help the attorneys understand the systemic issues facing certain communities — issues at the root of violence. As a result, it is hoped those attorneys can better serve their clients’ needs not only in the criminal justice system but also in connecting them to services that can improve their quality of life.
Justice Rising: Project 77 hopes to bring similar partnerships to all 77 community areas in Chicago is uncertain when the initiative can grow citywide.
For now it will cost an estimated $300,000 per site to cover attorneys, case workers and outreach workers. That figure does not include the cost of the actual social services.
The coalition hopes to expand the program into four more neighborhoods by the end of the year.
Yolanda Fields, executive director of Breakthrough, said their organization has had a lot of success with providing services for families but access to quality legal aid is something that has been missing. Just because someone has had a run-in with the law, she said, doesn’t mean they should be forgotten.
“We believe that redemption is possible and that redemption doesn’t absolve us but it creates an opportunity for hope,” Fields said. “We are not just helping young people, but we are helping our community. We are restoring hope, we’re repairing and we are providing opportunities for harm to be reconciled and healed.”
Matt DeMateo, executive director at New Life Centers of Chicagoland, said the past 18 months has been difficult but the partnership is encouraging.
“We are facing challenges. We’ve been battling COVID-19, we’ve been battling racism, we’ve been battling violence,” DeMateo said. “For us, this initiative is about taking four groups that have been working together for many years and bringing a strong community-based asset of legal services and comprehensive wrap-around services to scale.”
Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer said many young people need an opportunity, or just to know someone cares. This new partnership, he said, will do just that.
“Here in our city, here in our county, the only way that we will deal with the violence in our communities is through projects such as this,” Deer said.