A coalition of activists and union members rolled out a “Budget for Black Lives” on Wednesday that proposes to cut the Cook County sheriff’s office budget by $157 million amid a national debate over policing and incarceration systems.
About 20 backers of the proposal gathered at Stroger Hospital on the Near West Side to press Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the Board of Commissioners to adopt their plan to divest from Cook County Jail and redirect that money into social services for Black and Latino communities in the 2021 budget.
One community organizer said the coalition will not budge on the $157 million figure because “Black life is a priority.”
“This process may take a while, but we actually won’t stop until we get everything that we demand for our communities,” Tanya Watkins, executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, said. “We have a lot of incarceration, and a lot of people who don’t feel safe at all. So I think that the answer is obvious.”
Watkins then asked the other activists whether incarceration works in ensuring public safety. They responded with a resounding “no.”
The group’s proposed Budget for Black Lives would allocate $60 million of that money from the sheriff’s office toward housing, mostly for rent subsidies under the Housing Authority of Cook County. Another $55.4 million would go toward offsetting proposed cuts to Cook County Health, such as potential layoffs and South Side outpatient clinic consolidations, as well as other services for physical and mental health including a first responder program that sends mental health workers instead of police to certain emergencies.
Restorative justice and violence prevention organizations would get $10.5 million, and the rest of the money would go to job training, the Cook County public defender’s office, broadband internet access and services for incarcerated people.
“We need a budget that reflects that we aren’t just actually trying to jail all our problems away,” Amika Tendaji with Black Lives Matter Chicago said. “We have two choices. Either we believe that Black people deserve public health, mental health, the resources that communities need, or you believe that Black people are just inherently criminal and should be in jail.”
Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, The People’s Lobby, National Nurses United, Shriver Center on Poverty Law and the Chicago Community Bond Fund are behind the campaign for the suggested budget. Their blueprint comes about a month after the Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution that supports reallocating money from policing and incarceration, a nod to the thousands who took to Chicago’s streets this summer to rally and march for reimagining the role of law enforcement in response to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Commissioner Brandon Johnson, D-Chicago, said it was too early to pinpoint his desired figure for reallocating the sheriff’s office’s budget as the county grapples with potentially its largest budget shortfall in a decade. But “there is no number big enough” when it comes to repairing the damage from a “failed, racist incarceration system,” he said.
“As much money as possible to go into the lives of communities that have been desperately calling for investment for decades is a righteous call,” Johnson said. “Our budget has to reflect how much we really value Black lives.”
A spokesman for Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Commissioner Lawrence Suffredin, D-Evanston, said the activists’ bid would be considered despite his initial reservations on the amount.
“What we’ve got to do is wait till we see what the president’s going to do,” Suffredin said. “I’m presuming that she’s going to be sensitive to some of the discussions, but it seems to me that that number is very, very high.”
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More than 20% of Cook County’s $6.2 billion budget this year goes toward public safety, the second-highest expenditure following the health fund. That public safety fund includes the sheriff’s office, which in addition to running Cook County Jail polices unincorporated Cook County and fills in for cash-strapped suburban agencies. More than half of the sheriff’s annual budget goes into the Department of Corrections and Community Corrections Department.
Sheriff Tom Dart’s office did not directly address the activists’ demands on Wednesday, but a spokeswoman said Dart “has long been a leader in the effort to end unnecessary and unjust incarceration” and expanded mental health programming at the jail.
Earlier in a July speech, Dart dinged those who want to cut his office’s budget.
“The defund folks, they’re misplaced because I always said, ‘OK, well then what’s your solution? What are you going to do once you defund the police?’” Dart said.