By AARON GETTINGER
State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) held a roundtable discussion Wednesday on criminal justice reform in Bronzeville, the day after announcing he would run for a full term in the General Assembly.
Analilia Mejia, national political director of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) presidential campaign, attended the event at a National Association of Letter Carriers union hall, 3850 S, Wabash Ave. Peters endorsed Sanders last month.
“The reality is that our criminal justice system is broken and completely fails communities of color,” she said. “We criminalize poverty. We exploit the labor of the incarcerated. We have commercialized our criminal justice system, so that it’s more about the justice you can afford rather than the justice that you are due. We essentially make it impossible to reenter society and essentially create a system that can only resolve in recidivism.
“We do all of that, and the reason it’s acceptable to do that is because we also politically erase people, either by systematically disenfranchising and/or gerrymandering,” she said. “It is a systemic, intentional way to erase communities. In order to fix it, you have to deal with every single one of those things.”
When Peters asks constituents if they feel safer now than they did a decade ago, he said they tell him “no.”
“But yet we continue to have these regressive, racist policies that basically attack you if you’re poor, Black and Brown,” he said. “We need to think about how real safety isn’t locking up people: It’s about lifting up people.”
He recalled the much-higher number of police and resource officers at district schools there are compared with social workers. “That’s not safety. That’s literally unsafe behavior,” he said. “If you’re seven years old and going through trauma, and the first person you talk to is a cop, that’s a problem.”
Food insecurity and disinvestment-incurred lead-tainted water are not safety either, he said: “And then you combine with the fact that we, in order to provide people with the feeling of safety, we’ve seen an increase in policing that’s also used to segregate communities.”
A critic of Reagan- and Clinton-era social policy, Peters said that criminal justice reform should draw what is idealistic into existence: “To undo the last 30 to 40 years and then go beyond that.”
He sees the massive increase in progressive organizing as the 2016 presidential election’s silver lining, calling President Donald Trump “what a lot of terror in America looks like with the mask taken off.”
“That doesn’t need to be seen as a negative,” Peters said. “It’s seen as a moment to do a lot of work that shifts the terrain of what’s politically possible.” He said that 2016 was that kind of moment, but if a Democrat does not win next year, “Any local victories we have can be undone.”
Peters said he wants to abolish bail and risk assessment, which he described as “an algorithmic tool that’s supposed to figure out if a person is supposed to figure out if someone is going to be a violent person to their community or get back in trouble.”
“It’s really an unknown, proprietary tool that has baked-in biases that many people in power use to hide behind, because they’re so afraid of Willie Horton,” he said, referring to Black man convicted of rape and murder committed after not returning to prison after a weekend furlough, which then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s used in highly effective 1988 attack ad against then-Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-Mass.).
“They’re afraid that they will get in trouble for letting someone out, which is not right and has baked-in biases. It holds back our communities,” said Peters.
In addition to dealing with prisoners’ rights, Peters argued that formerly incarcerated people should not have to be electronically monitored during their supervised release.
Peters, who was appointed to the seat vacated by now-Attorney Gen. Kwame Raoul, launched his bid for a first full term on Sept. 24 at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.
“We will reimagine what safety and justice looks like because the way we’ve been doing safety has failed,” he said. “We will reimagine what it means to have a public school and invest so that every kid feeling trauma is lifted up and cared for. We will reimagine what it means to build up our working families and win a just transition towards the future.
“The powerful can kill one, two, or one hundred roses but they’ll never stop the arrival of spring — and our fight is in search of spring.”