Plans to Open Fourth Community Justice Center
By Chinta Strausberg
In an exclusive on Rev. Harold Baileyâ€™s PCC Network,Â Cook CountyÂ State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced she has launched the Offender Initiative Probation program that targets first-time, non-violent felonies she says deserve a second chance.
Continuing her trail-blazing efforts to target youth before they become habitual criminals, Alvarez is also opening her fourth Community Justice Center where her outreach is helping youth and adults who are experiencing mortgage fraud and other legal problems. She is excited about the Offender Initiative Probation program because it is reaching troubled the younger population blamed for the spike in violence.
â€œWe created a program that is basically a diversion,â€ she said. â€œWe are looking for that first-time offender with prior backgrounds and are non-violentâ€ who would be put on an intensive year of probation â€œwith all kinds of restriction,â€ she said referring to the Offender Initiative Probation program.
Alvarez said if youth were able to successfully complete this program, their case would be dismissed. â€œThis allows them to avoid that felony conviction because we have seen those cases where a kid gets in troubleâ€¦say a burglaryâ€¦nothing before, nothing after but yet he has to go through his entire life with that felony conviction.â€
She said as a result of this conviction, they have been denied financial aid for college. Bailey applauded Alvarez for her pro-active programs calling it â€œground-breaking.â€
Alvarez said, â€œMy inner circle are all long-time prosecutors like meâ€¦ and we seenâ€ this pattern of youth getting first-time felonies and the results of unchecked out-reach that too often leads to a cycle of jail and/or prison.
â€œWhen we talked about prevention and what can we do on our endâ€¦what can we do better, we actually started to talk to the chief judge and to all of the presiding judges and got their input about what they would think of about a program like this.â€
Alvarez said she received overwhelming support for the Offender Initiative Probation program including the blessing from Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans who â€œwas quite excitedâ€ about this program.
Asked if this program includes community service, Alvarez said, â€œYes. There will be restrictions on their community serviceâ€ that includes their getting a GED. â€œItâ€™s to get them moving and hopefully they will realize they can turn their lives around at this point,â€ she said.
Alvarez also announced she is opening up her fourth Community Justice Center near the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In office for two-years and a prosecutor for 24-years, Alvarez, who is the first female and first Hispanic states attorney, said, â€œwe would benefitâ€¦all society would benefit if we had more preventionâ€ programs that would target and provide positive guidance to youth before they traveled down the wrong path.
During her campaign, she realized her office needed to have a greater presence in the communities her office serves. â€œI pushed will hard and with a lot of helpâ€ including approval from Evans and other judges she opened up three Community Justice Centers. The fourth office will be opened sometime this summer around the University of Illinois at Chicago area.
Referring to her South Side Community Justice Center, Alvarez said, â€œThe phone never stops ringing.â€ The Centers are located in store front offices staffed by assistant states attorneys. â€œThey basically hear the problems from the communityâ€¦participate with community leaders with the police department. They hold forums like mortgage fraud or gang violence.â€
Having been successful in getting money from the federal government to create a mortgage fraud unit. Part of that mortgage fraud grant requires us to have mortgage fraud assistants assigned to our Community Justice Centers which is great.â€
Alvarez said victims of mortgage fraud came to the South Side Community Justice Center armed with their paperwork and talked to one of her attorneys. â€œTheir house, which was in foreclosure, was actually being taken from them not by the bank–from someone who just decided he was going to break into the house, start living there and then rent it out.â€
Alvarez said the homeowners said no one had been able to help them until they came to her South Side office. â€œWe were so proud to be able to help them to secure what is rightfully theirs. Those are the types of things we are working on in those offices,â€ she said.
Referring to the Community Justice Centers, Alvarez said, â€œSometimes it is intimidating to have to go to the courthouse. Itâ€™s nice to have those offices where people feel a little bit more comfortableâ€ in seeking resolutions to their problems.
On youth violence, while Alvarez wishes it would go away, sheâ€™s aiming at reaching the youth before they chose a life of crime. She has established steering committees that involve the interfaith community. â€œThere are pastors and reverends who have the ability to reach these kids.â€
â€œWe make sure that on our steering committees at our Community Justice Center that we involve clergy, the interfaith community because you have the ability to reach many more (youth) than we can,â€ she said.
Alvarez said she wanted to use already existing pastoral mentoring programs and is now networking with the clergy in an effort to reach more troubled youth.
â€œIf there is a case report, we have to handle it, but if there is something where the person is not in court..,â€ her assistant states attorneys will step in and provide positive mentoring for the youth.
Asked about her first human trafficking conviction involving Tyrelle and Myrelle Lockett, 18, of Dolton, who are twin brothers were charged with operating a sex trafficking ring in the south suburbs, Alvarez said, â€œsome people think that itâ€™s only happening in other countriesâ€¦that it doesnâ€™t happen in America, but Chicago is a hub for it because we are a convention center, a transportation hub. Itâ€™s ripe for that type of crime.
â€œThere are young women and men too who are being trafficked right here in our own back yards,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s sad that people tend to think that itâ€™s not our problem but it is our problem.â€
Because of the Countyâ€™s budget constraints, she has applied for numerous federal grants. She was then able to open a Human Traffick unit. â€œWe looked at how we have handled these types of cases. Traditionally, we were not doing a good job,â€ she admitted. â€œThey depended on the young victim and it was not working.â€
â€œWhen it comes to children, I truly believe no be loving 12-year-old girl is out there prostituting herself. Sheâ€™s a victim. Someone is forcing her and someone is making her do it. So what do we do? Do we take those 12-year-olds and put them in the system and charge them with a juvenile prostitution? No, that does not work,â€ said Alvarez.
She turned to Springfield and was successful in getting the Illinois Safe Childrenâ€™s Act passed on a first try. â€œThat law decriminalizes juvenile prostitutionâ€ by taking those words out of the statue. â€œThese kids are victims. They need to be treated as victimsâ€¦. Weâ€™re not putting them in the system. We are basically giving them the social services that they needâ€¦. They need long-term services.
â€œIt gives us more tools as prosecutors to work up these cases the same way we would work up a complicated financial crimes case. Weâ€™re going after their business because itâ€™s a business. We have several long-term investigations going focusing on getting these guys where we believe we can get them and to develop a strong case so we donâ€™t depend on the testimony of that young woman or young man,â€ Alvarez said.
She said the new law allows them to use wiretaps. â€œIn the past, we were allowed to use wiretaps on people selling drugs but not people selling children,â€ Alvarez said. â€œThat didnâ€™t make sense.â€ Alvarez said her office â€œis the envy of many other statesâ€ including New York that took five-years to pass a similar statute. â€œOurs is more comprehensive.â€
Asked how organized is human sex trafficking and are Russians involved, Alvarez said, â€œItâ€™s organized. Sometimes, youâ€™ll see international defendants, but you also see just our own domestic home-grownâ€ defendants and sometimes gangs. â€œIt happens here more than people think.â€
When asked why canâ€™t the punishment be stiffer when they are found guilty of human trafficking, Alvarez said, â€œPart of the statutes increases some fines that werenâ€™t there before. Itâ€™s all a work in progressâ€¦.â€
Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host.