Three visions of criminal justice reform in Evanston

Maddie Coyle, Opinion Editor

70 percent of officer-initiated use of force is against Black people stopped by police in Evanston, yet only 16 percent of the population in Evanston is Black. Black people were nine times more likely to get stopped than white people. In Evanston, Black and Latinx drivers are more likely to have their vehicles searched than white people—six times more likely for Black people and five times more likely for Latinx people. 90 percent of Evanston police officers live outside of Evanston, even though their paychecks would allow them to live in Evanston comfortably.

These statistics regarding Evanston policing in 2020, from Citizens’ Network of Protection (CNP), show a “progressive utopia,” plagued by the same issues seen nationally.

For far too long, people have been oppressed, marginalized and silenced by the actions of those in power. Innocent people have gone to prison, dying there. Children have been charged as adults, spending the entirety of their lives behind bars. Black and brown people have been beaten and harassed by police officers, forced to be silent or confess to crimes they did not commit. People of color are stopped at higher rates, put in jail at higher rates and incarcerated at higher rates.

Nonetheless, governments across the country—local and otherwise—still tell us to believe in the criminal justice system, to prioritize the idea of law and order, of getting criminals off of the streets. Despite calls to believe in the system, the U.S. criminal justice system is not effective at keeping people off the streets. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, within three years of release, two out of every three people convicted of crimes are rearrested and over 50 percent are reincarcerated. Among currently incarcerated individuals, almost 20,000 people are falsely convicted, as reported by the Innocence Project. Our country is facing a mass incarceration epidemic, with the national prison population making up 25 percent of the global prison population, even though our country makes up 5 percent of the global population, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

This has been a longstanding issue in our nation, and the national attention centered around the intersection of race and criminal justice has driven this epidemic into the limelight. It has inspired the involvement of many, but it is important to recognize and acknowledge the work that has been done locally for decades right here in Evanston.

Betty Ester co-founded CNP in 2008, a nonprofit organization that grew out of concerns about the police complaint process. After an experience with the EPD and her daughter, Ester began to work on criminal justice reform so anyone else in the Black community would have to face the impacts of biased policing.

That day, and the subsequent conversations about Evanston policing, inspired Ester to get involved. The co-founder of CNP approached her about oversight proposals on the police complaint process, leading to Ester’s involvement with the oversight board.

The organization worked for eight to 10 months to come up with a proposal for a complaint advisory committee. It was meant to be an independent organization that would review the complaints and give their opinion to the chief; yet, that was not what ensued. This resulted in a review process that ineffectively considered community complaints.

“Office of Professional Standards (OPS) did the investigation, the city police chief, Chief [Richard] Eddington, would make his decision and give that to the committee to see if they agreed with it. Then, it went forth to the human service committee, and the human service committee looks at the complaints, which they still do, and say ‘Oh, this is fine.’ They didn’t do anything. Later, we found out that [Evanston’s] human service department did not have any control over the police department; they could not enforce the police department to reevaluate any complaint. They had to send a request to the city manager, and the city manager looks at it, and if the city manager agreed that, ‘Okay, this one should be reviewed,’ then they would review it, and, sometimes, they send it straight to the police chief, and if he felt, ‘Well, you got a point, and then we should review it.’ And that is what they did up until 2017,” Ester says.

As the EPD maintained this process, CNP pushed to instate their own independent police complaint review board. This would decrease some bias in the system. They involved the community with the proposal and had them review it. This was done to make sure that the community was involved in a system that was meant to be working for them; however, their proposal was harshly rejected by the city.

“They [the city government] wouldn’t sit down and talk with us, so the mayor selected the people to serve on the committee. In my opinion, it was an insult to the community and to the people that had worked on this back in 2008, who were all African-Americans,” Ester acknowledged.

The proposal for CNP involved community members from each ward serving on the board to integrate community voices into the policing process. The current review board does not have people who live in the community, merely people who submitted their application, even though an alderman gave the mayor a list specifying people in that ward who could serve on the board.

Currently, CNP is reforming the way complaints are handled. Body camera videos get destroyed in 90 days. Police complaints can be filed up to two years after an incident by civilians. Ester and CNP are working to extend that, so body camera videos do not get destroyed until two-and-a-half years after the date they are recorded.

“They should change that policy for it to be two years for them to maintain the video, so if someone came along and filed a complaint that falls within that two years, the video would be there for them to use, and they could investigate. But, moreover, what was the biggest insult when they denied the person’s complaint, was, before we got the body cameras, they did investigate claims on what people said and everything. So, you’re telling me that they could not investigate a complaint following that procedure, that was wrong. Totally wrong,” Ester states.

Ester also explained that this extension of maintaining body camera videos would not cost the EPD much money; all they need to do is file the information correctly. This was found from the organization’s diligent research on the issue.

“We never ask them to do anything without researching and having it be an advantage to the community,” Ester states.

CNP has been dedicated to its work. The organization makes sure that every police complaint is heard. It has people from the organization help community members with their police complaints, ranging from about three to four every two or three months. Through their work, a complaint box was placed in the Civic Center in order for people to avoid having to go to the police station. They have the entire EPD roster on their website, so people can identify those who acted unprofessionally and unjustly. CNP also works on the Know Your Rights program, teaching people how to interact with police officers for their own benefit. They have transparency reviews, in which community members can join together to analyze the actions of the EPD. This organization is centered in the community.

Throughout talking with Ester, she was diligent in speaking and working for the community, believing that everyone must be respected, treated as human beings and, because that is at times not the case when it comes to interacting with the police, officials must be held accountable.

“You are a human being, you need to be respected, you have values and they should not be trying to take these away from you,” Ester declares.

Police complaint reform is vital to a safer criminal justice system. According to USA Today, in 2019, there were at least 200,000 incidents of police misconduct, committed by 85,000 officers, with less than 10 percent being investigated. This needs to change, not only in Evanston but on a national level. This could help decrease some of the bias and violence in the justice system, simply by holding those accountable who failed to safely protect our neighborhoods. This cannot be done by police departments or city governments, who have failed to hold those accountable for the harm that they caused in an effort to maintain their image in the eyes of the public. Yet, by not charging and removing these harmful police officers, police departments are further tarnishing their images.

Pam Cytrynbaum is also dedicated to combating the inequity and problems within the criminal justice system. She works as the Restorative Justice Coordinator at the Moran Center, an organization that provides legal aid to children and families, tackling different pillars—legal services, social work, and restorative practices—within the criminal justice system.

Cytrynbaum began her career working as an investigative journalist. She saw firsthand the horrid practices that ensued within the criminal justice system. Police planting evidence and innocent people obtaining convictions were all instances she encountered. When visiting those innocent people, she empathized with the sadness and hopelessness that many feel when locked up. She understood it was nothing compared to what those in prison actually went through but knew she wanted to help. Cytrynbaum worked as a volunteer, helping to train other volunteers in schools for restorative practices. The more research she did, the more she saw the impacts these practices have had within the criminal justice system.

“Our system is about vengeance and shunning. Ideally, the way our criminal justice system thinks our community is safe is if we get rid of people who have broken our laws and keep them far away, then we’re safe. We don’t offer anything to the victim, and, actually, we don’t offer anything other than being shunned and deprived of all your rights and often basic necessities in prison or jail. That’s how we seem to solve, and you see how well that’s working. It’s important to note in the 1970s, there were about 200,000 people in prison in America. Now, there are at least 2.5 million,” Cytrynbaum explains.

The Moran Center began about 40 years ago, providing legal aid to children and families in Evanston. They have attorneys at District 65 schools, volunteering their time to help this cause. The center also has social workers on staff to aid any child through the emotional process of a trial. The center began with one story that changed a man’s life.

“There was a story about a teenager who was falsely accused of killing his child. The young man was innocent and arrested and jailed, and, then, he tried to kill himself because he was so distraught, and he had no representation, and his family had no idea where he was,” Cytrynbaum describes. “He ended up in a coma and was moved to Cook County Hospital, and his family had no idea where he was, and he died. It was just horrific, from start to finish, and when Judge Moran heard about this story, he was like, no child in Evanston is ever, ever going to be unrepresented. This will never happen again.”

The work done at the Moran Center is varied, dedicated to helping those who need it most. Cytrynbaum tackles a different aspect of their work: restorative justice. She describes that restorative justice “is the idea that we all are far more than the worst thing we have ever done, that we are all deeply interconnected in our own community and that, when someone commits a harm, they are betraying a trust and a relationship.” She believes it is more important to look at the root cause of the crime rather than the crime itself and how the crime impacts those involved.

The Moran Center works to implement restorative justice practices throughout the criminal justice system. They hope to shift the system to focus on conversation and forgiveness rather than disdain and vengeance.

“In a restorative situation, we use circles or conferencing; instead of silencing and shunning the victim, you bring people together, with folks who support both sides, and let everybody be heard. The victims will share the impact that the harm had on them, and their supporters—family, friends—will share the impact. The offender will answer questions and share why they did what they did.”

These circles and other restorative practices are being implemented in the Evanston criminal justice system with many charges being shifted towards these practices. In tandem with this, community organizations are coming together to help those affected.

Restorative circles have been done with police officers and in schools, with people seeing real impacts in both.

“For me, sitting in conferencing circles, you get to bear witness with someone who has been harmed and someone who has committed harm. And you support them both. You listen to their stories, you offer your own story and you watch the transformation. You watch how many people who have caused harm have been the victim of terrible harm and how many people who are victims of terrible harm have caused terrible harm. We are all in this terrible human endeavor together. When you really tell your story and are courageous enough, to be honest, you can meet people who you would never think you shared any bit of humanity; it’s astonishing how you can find the humanity in each other and in yourself,” says Cytrynbaum.

Both Cytrynbaum and the Moran Center have been fighting for a better criminal justice system, in a variety of ways. Their work in restorative justice is working to implement a long-discussed practice of how to handle crime, revolutionizing the system at large. These practices understand the issues plaguing our community and work with the community to fix them.

“It’s all the same stuff: we want to be heard, you don’t want to be betrayed, you don’t want to be embarrassed, we want to be understood, we want to be accurate. Restorative practices offer us all those tools and the space to do it,” Cytrynbaum describes.

Restorative justice focuses significantly on healing and conversation. It opens the minds of both victim and offender to hear each other’s stories. Across the nation, the implementation of restorative justice programs have seen meaningful results. According to Forbes, one program, Common Justice, saw as little as eight percent of participants having committed crimes during or after the program. Other cities in Colorado found similar numbers, with recidivism rates as low as 8 and 10 percent, as reported by PBS.

That number is astonishing, especially in comparison to the roughly 67 percent of people who are rearrested in the current justice system, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Alongside Cytynbaum and Ester, Tracy Siska, founder and executive director of the Chicago Justice Project (CJP) is determined to fight for change in the criminal justice system. CJP is an organization dedicated to making accessible criminal justice evidence-based reports. His story began with research and the lack of accessible information.

“For about ten years or so, I did a lot of research on police brutality in Chicago, John Burge and all his minions [and] communities and families. In trying to do that, I learned just how impossible it was to get data and information for how the agencies were doing their jobs. Once I got into graduate school, I understood just how much data researchers got access to cover the justice system. I tried to create something that would get access to that and use it for communities, not just academic research,” says Siska.

The work that CJP does is key in the transparency of the criminal justice system. CJP has the largest database on case-level data about a single justice system in the world, with a significant amount of data. Their data has been utilized to reform the police board and the office of police accountability. However, unfortunately, the organization is not able to capitalize on all its capabilities due to a lack of funding. The team is not large, with most of their work falling upon interns and volunteers.

Despite a lack of funding, the organization still hopes to expand.

“What I would like to see, what we would like to create, is living dashboards that are giving the public near real-time access to deep analysis about how the justice system is doing as it reprises to Chicagoans, from 911 calls through incarceration, what is going on in the system, that is achievable. We have the data to nearly do that now; we just need the funding to do that,” Siska explains.

Significantly broken, with many extreme biases and issues, the criminal justice system needs reform. There are many criminal justice issues in Evanston that have stemmed from the ones plaguing our nation. This is why change needs to occur, with many currently fighting. Betty Ester and the CNP are working to get an independent review board and change the way police complaints are handled. Pam Cytrynbaum and the Moran Center are working towards implementing restorative justice practices that would revolutionize the criminal justice system. Tracy Siska, with the CJP, is working to get evidence-based data out to communities and families for greater criminal justice transparency. The most important thing we can do, as ETHS students, to help these organizations is to support them and share our own stories. By voicing experiences about policing in Evanston, you can help Ester and CNP. By having restorative conversations, you can support Cytrynbaum and the Moran Center. And through voicing the need for accessible criminal justice research, you can help Siska and CJP.

Cytrynbaum describes the call to action for the Evanston justice system best. “Evanston has so much, we have so many amazing people, we have so many resources, so much stuff; there is no excuse to be causing the kind of harm that we are. We are not living up to our myth of progressive Evanston, and we absolutely must. There is no reason not to.”