Commissioner, Activists Say Cook County COVID-19 Relief Money Should Fund Social Programs, Not Jails

Commissioner, Activists Say Cook County COVID-19 Relief Money Should Fund Social Programs, Not Jails

Johnson and others who organized the news conference said now is the time to pressure the county into spending that money in the community, instead of on a jail system they say took the bulk of federal coronavirus aid last time. “It is well past time that we utilize this moment to not just sprint back to normalcy, because normalcy for many people meant food deserts and unemployment and brutalization,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to set a new course for the people who have been most impacted by these failed systems of oppression.”

The county received $428.5 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund administered by the Treasury Department. Of that, $181.7 million — about 42% — went toward labor costs at the sheriff’s office, according to a county report released earlier this year. “We’ve already given over $180 million in federal COVID relief to the Cook County sheriff and yet people still continue to suffer in jail without protections and without dignity,” said Cate Readling, an organizer with The People’s Lobby who ran unsuccessfully this year for Oak Park village president. “Meanwhile the public mental health and behavioral health system in Cook County is underfunded, understaffed and inaccessible.”

Johnson was joined with The People’s Lobby, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, Shriver Center for Poverty Law and the Chicago Community Bond Trust. The People’s Lobby organizer Cate Readling speaks during a press conference outside Stroger Hospital, 1969 W. Ogden Ave., on Monday.

“Our city, our county, invests more in policing and incarceration than they do for jobs and health care,” Johnson said. “That’s a wicked system.” Another $8.3 million went toward “non-labor” expenses at the sheriff’s office.

The Budget for Black Lives calls for $157 million to be pulled from the sheriff’s office and put into creating affordable housing, better jobs, mental health services, broadband internet access and assisting formerly incarcerated people. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The more than 50-member task force includes members from nonprofits and activist groups, including some at Monday’s news conference. The task force also has members from various Cook County agencies, including the sheriff’s office. Last week, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced the formation of the Cook County Equity Fund Task Force, which will help advise her administration’s investment commitment to “historical disparities and disinvestment in Black and Latinx communities.” “What this coalition is calling for is something that has been called for throughout the struggle for Black liberation and Brown liberation in this country,” Johnson said. “The ability to work a good paying job; that’s a reasonable demand. To have housing that’s affordable; that’s a reasonable demand. To have access to public accommodations like public schools and health care … that’s a reasonable demand.”

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