Changing the system

The Illinois Justice Project works to reform criminal justice

The Illinois Justice Project works to reform criminal justice - Photo by Rena Naltsas
February 2019
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Sharone Mitchell’s 6½ years as an assistant public defender for the Cook County Public Defender’s Office helped inform him — both in his heart and soul — as to what would come next in his career.

Mitchell is the deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project, a criminal justice policy organization designed to reform the justice system and reduce recidivism. Founded in 2014, the project is an offshoot of the now-defunct Justice and Violence Group at Metropolis Strategies. He is one of a trim five-person, full-time team, not including contract workers.

A mock courtroom exercise brought Mitchell to the practice of law. His experiences growing up on Chicago’s South Side prompted him to dedicate his legal career to service via the public defender’s office before realizing that some of his best work could be done outside the courtroom.

“Maybe halfway through my time with the public defender, I discovered that there was a world of people with boots on the ground, really working to make things better for the system,” he said.

Mitchell talks to us more about his work with the justice project, his professional motivations and what the project has in store for the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago Lawyer: What made you leave the public defender’s office for the ILJP?

Mitchell: When I first came to the criminal justice system as a law student and an intern, I had the perception that if everybody worked hard and did their job well — from the defense attorney to the state’s attorney to the judge — and everyone worked hard to find the truth, normally a good result will take place.

I thought it was only people not doing what was right that would create a bad outcome. I came to realize that there are poor outcomes in the criminal justice system not just because folks aren’t doing their job, but mostly because the system was designed to create an outcome that was not optimal for a number of people.

Whether you are a victim of a crime or an accused person, there are all types of intentionally built systems, practices and policies that have stopped taxpaying citizens from getting what they should be getting out of the criminal justice system.

CL: How did your time with the public defender inform your move to the project?

Mitchell: I worked across the city for the public defender and I have tons and tons of stories of injustices all across the board for a number of parties. It wasn’t just victims and the accused that were getting screwed over — there are things that were built in the system that just didn’t make it work. One of the problems with the criminal justice system is that most of the things that we do, we do because the guy or girl that came before us did them.

There isn’t a lot of creative global thought around everything that we do in the criminal justice system … it’s really so piecemeal and it’s just a mess. We don’t have the opportunity to rebuild the criminal justice system from scratch — we’d build it very differently if we could. But we do have an opportunity to review what we do from an outsider’s perspective and decide if we’re doing the right thing.

CL: Is reforming the system truly feasible?

Mitchell: At the ILJP, we try to be very realistic about political and policy limitations. Our founder Paula Wolff always talks about taking opportunities when we can, so you see something that can be fixed and you try to go fix it. That’s the way we look at things as opposed to deciding we have to change the world, or that if we can’t change the world, we’re not going to do anything. We really have to try to find places where we can help.

CL: How does the Trump administration impact your work, if at all?

Mitchell: I remember coming into the office the day after he got elected and I saw people crying, wondering what [the election] will do to our work. His campaign was really about outdated models of what the criminal justice system should be.

One of the really awesome things we’ve seen in the criminal justice area over the last 15 years is that it hasn’t been as partisan as other issues. Everybody — whether you’re blue or you’re red or you’re green or you don’t claim a color — wants safe communities, fair systems and their tax dollars to be spent correctly.

What we seek to do is not partisan, but there’s certainly a threat there when you have a leader of one of the parties talking very regressively about the criminal justice system, espousing things that take us back to a time when we believed that tough on crime was smart on crime. But the administration was certainly supportive with the First Step Act, so there’s the good with the bad.

CL: What are some social conceptions involving your work that you’d like to challenge?

Mitchell: Too many times we view jails and prisons are our only alternative. We overuse our jails and prisons because we haven’t really done any deep thinking about the outcomes. We say somebody’s done something bad, so I guess they just go to prison. We haven’t really thought about how can we spend our resources to prevent harm from happening as opposed to spending the majority of our resources reacting to the harm.

Jails and prisons are mainly reactive. Police officers mainly react if something bad happens. Let’s imagine a world in which we’re really trying to put as much attention on prevention as we do on punishment. I’m not an abolitionist that thinks that there’s no place for prisons or jails at all, but I do think that we don’t consider alternatives enough. We can be better at thinking about the harms of incarceration — what does incarceration do to a person?

When a person comes out and they have the record, it means they can’t seek housing or get an education or get a job. What does that do to that community that person goes back to? Too often you see people saying, ‘Oh my God, the jail population is so low and that the city will be less violent if we locked everybody up.’ The numbers don’t bear that out.

CL: What’s next for the IJLP?

Mitchell: We’re advocating for governments to explore multifaceted approaches to violence prevention. So, thinking more about violence prevention as opposed to just traditional law enforcement. How can we invest in communities to slow that violence?

We’re figuring out how disinvestment from communities affects what we see in regards to violence and figuring out how to adjust resources. We help write bills that consider about targeted investment as a response to violence and which treat violence as a public health issue. We also work on bond reform: The jail population in Cook County has been significantly reduced, but we think it could go further down and it’s really about educating the public on what bond reform means.