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Ensuring people with disabilities have access to justice debated by Democrats running for prosecutor and court clerk

“There’s probably no worse place to put someone who is in the middle of a mental health crisis or who has mental disabilities than in a small cell absent from resources,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said.

Democrats running for Cook County state’s attorney, clockwise from top left: incumbent Kim Foxx, Bill Conway, Donna More and Bob Fioretti.
Democrats running for Cook County state’s attorney, clockwise from top left: incumbent Kim Foxx, Bill Conway, Donna More and Bob Fioretti.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia and Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times files

Sign language interpreters in courtrooms, hiring mental health professionals to help identify whether someone who is arrested has a disability or mental health challenge, ensuring people with disabilities are on staff and working to remove “all barriers to access to justice for people with disabilities.”

Those were some of the ideas that Democrats running for Cook County state’s attorney and Circuit Court clerk offered on Thursday for making their respective offices more accessible to people with disabilities at back-to-back forums hosted by the disability services and rights group Access Living

“The criminal justice system is really a case-by-case system, and you have to evaluate each case that comes before you as an assistant state’s attorney and, again, depending on whether we’re dealing with a victim that is disabled or defendant that’s disabled that kind of guides you as to what you do,” former prosecutor Donna More, who is running for Cook County state’s attorney, said.

She proposed having a floating mental health professional in the county to help identify disabilities and mental health challenges in those who are arrested.

Incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx noted what she’s already done in the office, pointing to hiring a chief diversity officer as well as an equal employment officer for the county office and creating training and accommodations for staff that helps guide how the office handles cases involving people with mental health challenges or disabilities.

Democratic candidates for Cook County state’s attorney Bill Conway, Bob Fioretti, Donna More and incumbent Kim Foxx.
Democratic candidates for Cook County state’s attorney, from left, Bill Conway, Bob Fioretti, Donna More and incumbent Kim Foxx meet with the Sun-Times Editorial Board last month.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

“There’s probably no worse place to put someone who is in the middle of a mental health crisis or who has mental disabilities than in a small cell absent from resources,” Foxx said. “So what we try to do is get as much info as we can before we get to the bond court process, so that we can make a fair and credible presentation to the court about what we would be asking for for a defendant.”

Former prosecutor Bill Conway said the office needs a diverse skill set so the office is “able to accommodate a broad group of folks.”

Former Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said that appropriate accommodations need to also be available in courtrooms.

All four candidates for the top county prosecutor’s position voiced support for an alternative mental health behavioral team that would be part of the 911 emergency system but would only respond to mental health emergencies.

In Cook County, 551,169 residents live with a disability, 292,332 of them in Chicago, according Access Living.

In the race to replace outgoing Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi and attorney Jacob Meister all talked about the need to increase access to court documents.

Jacob Meister; Michael Cabonargi; Richard Boykin; Iris Martinez.
Democrats running for Circuit Court clerk, left to right: Jacob Meister, Michael Cabonargi, Richard Boykin and Iris Martinez.
Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times; Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times; Rich Hein/Sun-Times; James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Boykin said on Day One he’d create a task force of people with disabilities to “make sure we remove all barriers to access to justice for people with disabilities” and will offer remote access to public documents.

Cabonargi said he’d create a chief innovation officer position to reach out to members of the disability rights community to hear “early on what we need to do.”

Meister said he’d add interpreters fluent in sign language to assist when people have hearing impairments, work with state officials in Springfield for Americans with Disabilities Act capital expenditures to redo courtrooms, create an ADA office and make sure employees go through training to “understand how we as a court system have to accommodate everyone who comes in contact with us.”

The fourth Democratic candidate for the clerk position, state Sen. Iris Martinez, did not attend the forum.