Community must engage with police

There is a way forward with criminal justice: examine what works, and strengthen it; examine what doesn’t work, and change it. Law enforcement and the community share the responsibility and share the consequences, so they need to work together on this examination, strengthening and change.

The community cannot simply wash its hands of its problems, turning these problems over to law enforcement. Instead, the community needs to engage with law enforcement in problem-solving. For example, when law enforcement schedules a focused deterrence meeting with potential gun violence offenders in Peoria or Springfield, it is the voices of the community – the voices of pain, experience, assistance and hope – that speak most effectively to a potential offender. For another example, when young people begin to head toward trouble, it is the community (and the schools) that should plan and carry out the interventions that are needed. Here’s another example of effective community engagement and police-community problem-solving: The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois State Conference of the NAACP conducted “Let’s Talk” sessions, leading in 2018 to a joint statement of 10 “Shared Principles,” designed to build and rebuild trust between law enforcement and community.

Let’s consider safety, for people and officers. For public safety, our community needs to engage with our officers, trying to prevent the damage, injury or death that is preventable, rather than just responding after the damage, injury or death. Is this difficult, due to distrust? People and officers need to do the hard work toward improved trust – and improved safety.

Let’s consider another problem: mass incarceration. This country has more than two million people in prison, more than any other country. There is political consensus that we need to reduce this. This work must be done, county-by-county. For example, Sangamon County has diversion courts for people whose lesser crimes are traceable to addiction, problems of mental health, or impacts of military service. These courts offer intensive supervision rather than incarceration. McLean County has an effective Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, working toward reduced imprisonment.

Mass incarceration has consequences. Approximately 95% of prisoners will complete a sentence and return to the community, facing difficulties when they return. Will they succeed? Sangamon County is in the midst of a self-evaluation that acknowledges that people come out of jail and prisons with inadequate preparation and assistance. Success rates are unsatisfactory. Nationwide, about two-thirds of former prisoners will have an arrest within three years. This isn’t working well enough, and we need to work toward change. We must find people who are committed to successful prisoner reentry. When I looked recently, I easily found many such people. We must work with them and with other community resources toward education, employment and successful reentry. If we increase success, this will help individuals, families, neighborhoods and the community as a whole, while saving money by reducing repeated incarceration.

This may require some investment of time, effort and money. We should be smart about investment. Is it a good investment, if it improves lives and saves money? Yes, it is.

If we leave our criminal justice system as it is, we will continue to see the same mixture of success and failure, justice and injustice. But if our community and our law enforcement work together, we could and should find a better way toward public safety – a way forward that is well-considered, representing the community that we wish to have.  

This is the fifth and final article in a GUESTWORK series on criminal justice reform by Jim Lewis of Springfield, who served as U.S. attorney here from 2010 through 2016. He is a former civil rights worker, civil rights attorney, law school teacher and United States Department of Justice employee. For other articles in the series, go to and search for Jim Lewis.

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