After a push by anti-violence groups, and in the midst of calls to defund police, an Illinois committee has voted to send $20 million in COVID-19 grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice to community-based organizations, rather than law enforcement agencies.
The funding was designated to cover criminal-justice expenses across the state that arose as a result of the pandemic. It was part of the federal Coronavirus stimulus package passed in March. Shortly after, a coalition of Illinois groups started raising concerns that the money would only go to government agencies like police departments, sheriffs’ offices and prisons.
But this month, an “ad-hoc committee” formed by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which is in charge of distributing the funds, voted “to allocate all available funds to community-based organizations,” according to minutes from a June 9 meeting.
John Maki, a director with the Alliance for Safety and Justice, praised the state and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker for his “bold leadership” in looking beyond law enforcement when allocating the federal money.
“In many states across the country, they'd use these kinds of funds to pay back overtime and staffing in their prison systems [and police departments],” Maki said. “This administration has prioritized where funding needs to go. So, we think it is a national example. And we really commend them for setting it.”
Blaire Lewis, who was on the committee and is manager of Advocate Trauma Recovery Center, said the pandemic is “having a greater strain” on communities that were “already struggling,” and it’s important to get additional funding to organizations based in those communities.
“There are so many grassroots organizations that are there seeing it, like they are in the streets. They are in the communities. They are coming in contact with these people [who have COVID-19],” Lewis said.
She said the federal funding has a much better chance of making a big impact with these smaller organizations which do work like intervene in street conflicts, provide services to the men closest to gun violence, support survivors of domestic violence, assist people who have been raped and provide counseling to trauma survivors.
“I know for a fact that it would have a major impact to be able to say, ‘oh, you need cleaning supplies … here's some cleaning supplies,’” Lewis said. “It's hard to see people struggle. And when you can be able to help to get them out of their struggle. Why wouldn't we do that?”
But ultimately Lewis said the most important thing is that the money gets out fast. The funds were allocated to Illinois in March.
Cristin Evans, the spokesperson for the state agency said the committee’s recommendations still needed to be presented and finalized by the full information authority board.
After that she said, “the funds will be distributed via a competitive process.” Evans said there was “urgency to get the funds out the door.”
In a press release, the Alliance for Safety and Justice said the Justice Department grants had “typically” been used “solely to support law enforcement and criminal justice system operations.”
Maki said law enforcement agencies had clearly been stretched by the pandemic, but there are “all sorts of ways in which law enforcement are getting the resources they need.”
“Government and law enforcement will have many ways to access essential resources. On the other side, it's very difficult for communities, organizations [to get funding] — particularly organizations that are, you know, in the communities that are most impacted and are therefore able to serve people who are most impacted.”
Vaughn Bryant, executive director of the Chicago-based Communities Partnering for Peace, was part of a coalition that pushed the state to fund non-governmental organizations with the stimulus funds.
“Many of our program staff are working in communities that are disproportionately impacted by deaths caused by COVID-19,” Bryant said in a statement. “We are in desperate and immediate need of resources like personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, client financial assistance and technology that will allow us to work with impacted people while maintaining safe and healthy physical distance.”