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JB Pritzker

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaking in the state Capitol in Springfield, Ill., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

John O’Connor

Despite gun violence crisis, the Pritzker administration has been sitting on $50 million in federal anti-violence funds

Last month, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker testified before congress about his administration’s use of more than $8 billion in federal COVID stimulus funds sent to the state as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

He told the committee his use of the money was based on “a central tenet” that “the role of government in a crisis is to end the crisis as quickly as possible, and to alleviate the pain it inflicts on the people that we serve.”

Pritzker, of course, was talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. But Illinois U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi asked the governor about another crisis facing Illinois: gun violence.

Pritzker’s administration set aside more than $50 million from the COVID stimulus funds for violence prevention in the budget that passed last year. The funding, to be administered through the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, offered a unique opportunity to flood resources into neighborhoods impacted by violence. But with the fiscal year almost over, the state has spent only $56,764, one-tenth of 1% of the money, as Illinois experiences its worst gun violence in decades.

“Normally the argument would be, we just don’t have the money. Now we have the money, and we’re sitting on the money,” said Illinois State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), co-chair of the Public Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force. “Right now, the city of Chicago is on fire with violence, and we have to respond to that … There shouldn’t be a delay … people are dying.”

State officials said they are developing plans to ensure the money is spent effectively, but the clock is ticking.

The federal ARPA dollars have to be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026, or the state will be forced to send the money back.

“I do believe that what’s going to happen, there is going to be a rush to spend [at the end], and we’re going to lose some of that money,” Ford said.

‘Communities needed the money like yesterday’

The Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain is executive director of Live Free Illinois, a group that advocated for federal stimulus dollars to be spent on small violence prevention organizations. It was a major victory to get the $50 million of ARPA funds for community-based violence prevention in the state budget.

“When you look around, and you are constantly hearing gunshots or you’re hearing about loved ones being shot and killed, or you’re, you’re seeing the devastation across the community, it felt like relief was coming,” Bates-Chamberlain said. “And it felt very hopeful because our communities would begin to get the support that’s needed to pull us out of this gun violence pandemic.”

Now, a year later and with almost none of the money given out, Bates-Chamberlain said she understands why some people are frustrated. But she said she understands why it’s taken so long.

“I mean, as we know, communities needed the money like yesterday. But on the other end [we need] a comprehensive, coordinated structure for this funding,” Bates-Chamberlain said.

Leo Smith, policy director for the anti-violence organization Chicago CRED, said the Illinois residents should actually be excited about the amount of planning and coordination between government agencies happening around the ARPA money.

“We’re seeing a major shift from funding individual programs to investing in a comprehensive public health system for violence intervention,” Smith said. “Almost anyone who is helping out with that shift is frustrated with the speed of it, but I think people are also encouraged by how deliberate it is.”

Smith said this is a critical time for community-based violence prevention in Illinois. Support has been building in the state for spending taxpayer money on non-policing solutions to gun violence. He worries if they rushed out these ARPA dollars, without the right amount of planning and without making sure the small groups could meet the stringent reporting requirements, it could make it harder to get public funding once the ARPA money runs out.

Deputy Gov. Sol Flores said the planning period has allowed them to set up evaluations so they know if the “huge investment in cash” makes a difference in saving lives. And she said they’ve been using the time to meet with community providers and incorporate their input into the planning process for ARPA-funded grants.

“We’ve been … thinking through a whole of government approach to anti violence, along with a significant amount of resources that we’re investing,” Flores said. “Every death that happens, every violent weekend, you know, we can’t do it fast enough. And yet we’re doing it. We are listening to what the community is saying to us.”

‘The bureaucracy is going to cost lives’

In Chicago more than 735 people have been shot already this year. That’s behind last year’s historic pace, but it’s more than six people shot per day.

“They claim to be working for the community and the people … yet our government doesn’t see the urgency in getting funding to us so that we can have boots on the ground … to stop the shootings,” said Tyrone Muhammad, executive director of the anti-violence group Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change.

The budget included $500,000 in funding specifically allocated to Muhammad’s organization, but they still haven’t gotten a dime. He said they were planning to spend the ARPA dollars expanding their street intervention teams so they can mediate gang conflicts in more parts of the city.

“How is it possible for [lawmakers] to allocate funding in a line item last year, and we still haven’t received it this year?” Muhammad asked incredulously.

The state has started to make progress toward actually getting the ARPA money out to anti-violence groups. The Illinois Criminal Justice Authority has awarded about $12 million to community groups, although no money has gone out. Another round of grants are scheduled to go out for bid next month, and the newly created Office of Firearm Violence Prevention is offering its own grants funded by ARPA dollars.

Cristin Evans, the spokeswoman for the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority, said some of the delay was caused because the state was waiting for federal guidelines around ARPA funding to be finalized. She said they’ve also been working to coordinate with Cook County and the city of Chicago to make sure they were all spending their ARPA dollars strategically and in ways that didn’t overlap.

Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou said they’ve already used some of the ARPA funding for youth employment and teen mentoring programs, which she said are a vital part of anti-violence efforts.

Hou oversees the new office of violence prevention. She said they’re expecting some of the ARPA grant money coming through that office to be out before Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start of summer, when violence tends to spike. She said they’ve been working to “walk and chew gum” at the same time, balancing the need to be thoughtful with the need to be timely.

“We can’t hurry irresponsibly the deployment of this new program … with federal dollars that have a lot of, I would say, monitoring and accountability,” Hou said. “And we need to meet the need.”

Chico Tillmon, the leader of the anti-violence group READI Chicago said there’s a lot to like about the Pritzker administration’s approach to gun violence, but he would like to see more urgency.

“You have to be strategic … But the bureaucracy is going to cost lives if we don’t move a little swifter, especially with summer fast approaching,” Tillmon said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.

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