Transformative Justice: Reforming Policing & Incarceration in Chicago


Photo courtesy Library of Congress. Jack Delano, 1943.

Like any cyclist who has almost been hit or doored by cop cars, I have a complicated personal relationship with the Chicago Police Department. I’ve had cops flirt with me, and paternalistically check on me to make sure I was ok when I was being hit on at a bus stop. An officer once leaned out of an SUV window and sing-songed “Somebody wants to get hiiii-iiiit” when I merged across lanes to turn without signaling or lights. I’ve also squatted painfully on streetcorners, crying and scared and sore and shaking with adrenaline, waiting to report that I’d been hit-and-run to a police officer who never came.

I am very aware that my contact with the CPD, while not exactly positive, has been incredibly influenced by my privileged status as a a relatively educated and wealthy, ambiguously mixed-race resident of the northwest side. Cook County’s law enforcement and incarceration system uses prison as a substitute for mental health care, makes it more difficult for children on the South Side to stay in school through disproportionate targeting of minority youth, and profiles innocent citizens who are allegedly statistically more likely to be involved in a violent crime. In tandem with societal factors such as income inequality and segregation, these practices ensure that people of color in disadvantaged neighborhoods have less opportunity and are more likely to experience arrest, incarceration, and violence.

Tiny Fix believes in social justice, and we believe in Chicago. These flaws in the city we love are impossible to ignore, and require the cooperation of all of its citizens to move to a more just future. Below, you’ll find information about a number of local organizations dedicated to reforming the prison system and developing community-based alternatives to the system of policing and incarceration. We hope that you’ll take the time to learn more about this issue and get involved.

Project NIA

Launched in 2009, Project NIA is an advocacy, organizing, popular education, research, and capacity-building center with the long-term goal of ending youth incarceration. They believe that several simultaneous approaches are necessary in order to develop and sustain community-based alternatives to the system of policing and incarceration. Their mission is to dramatically reduce the reliance on arrest, detention, and incarceration for addressing youth crime and to instead promote the use of restorative and transformative practices, a concept that relies on community-based alternatives.Check out their Tumblr for more frequent and timely updates than the Project NIA site, and make sure to follow @PrisonCulture, the informative twitter account of the founder/director of Project NIA.

Transformative Justice Law Project

The TJLP is a collective of radical lawyers, social workers, activists, and community organizers who are deeply committed to prison abolition, transformative justice, and gender self-determination. They provide free, zealous, life-affirming, and gender-affirming holistic criminal legal services to low-income and street based transgender and gender non-conforming people targeted by the criminal legal system. They assist transgender and gender nonconforming people with legal name changes, publish a zine written by trans* people about their experiences with incarceration, and organize Write to Win, a correspondence project that connects prisoners with networks of allies on the outside.

John Howard Association of Illinois

The JHA works to achieve a fair, humane and cost-effective criminal justice system by promoting adult and juvenile prison reform, leading to successful re-integration and enhanced community safety. Make sure to check out their blog.

Chicago Freedom School

The Chicago Freedom School trains students to lead campaigns to change school and community policies around issues such as zero tolerance policies, homophobia in schools, education reform, public school course requirements, school hiring practices and policies, the school-to-prison pipeline, community violence & healing, sexual/reproductive health issues, mental/physical concerns, and food justice.

Juvenile Justice Zine Project

The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, Project NIA, and the Chicago Freedom School partnered to produce five zines that can be printed and used as educational material. Links to individual PDFs formatted for reading on your computer are below:
Graphic History of Juvenile Justice in Illinois (PDF)
Girls in the System (PDF)
Youth Stories (PDF)
School-to-Prison Pipeline (PDF)
The Prison Industrial Complex is… (PDF)


  • Steven Vance February 26, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    I want to add a new project that I learned about through the civic hacking network in which I’m active. It’s a website called (expunge-eeo) that walks a person through the process of checking to see if their criminal record can be expunged for arrests (whether or not a conviction occurred) when they were 18 or younger.

    In 2012, over 25,000 arrests of youth were made but only 500 petitions were submitted in 2012 (for arrests in 2012 or earlier). This website aims to make it easy to check eligibility and then puts you in touch with the Legal Aid Foundation.

  • Lizzy February 27, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Other attorneys at my office (Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice) staff the Adult Redeploy Planning and Implementation Grant Project under the guidance of Presiding Judge Paul Biebel, Court Administrator Peter Coolsen, and Judges Mary Roberts and Lawrence Fox. We’ve got one treatment diversion courtroom (the ACT “Access to Community Treatment” Court) up and running, which provides community-based treatment services in felony cases. Hopefully, if it goes well, it will become a model for a coordinated diversion into services model for all the felony courts, reducing jail populations and improving the efficacy of the system.

    I’m involved in a similar project to bring a community courts/coordinated services model to domestic relations courts for families in need of job services, child care assistance, and such.

    Of course, I always plug Cabrini Green Legal Aid–their expungement help desk in the Daley Center helps a lot of people, every day. When I was a regular volunteer with them, the most common client I saw was a young woman, ready to get her nursing or PA’s license, with some arrest (no conviction) outside a nightclub when she was 18 preventing her from moving on with her life. That help desk provides an invaluable service, not just for the people getting help, but for the communities. We’re all better off when people can get jobs and move on with their lives.

    • lauren eg February 27, 2014 at 8:23 pm

      I second the ups to CGLA. They work with clients at the nonprofit I work for and I’ve seen people’s rap sheets go from 20 pages to 3. Especially good work done with and for people who were either victims of sexual trafficking or have accumulated prostitution charges. Nice to know that there’s parts of the legal system that can surprisingly be on the side of sex workers.


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