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Jobi Cates is the director of Restore Justice, a Chicago-based nonprofit devoted to promoting “fairness, humanity and compassion” in the Illinois criminal justice system. Cates first became involved in issues related to criminal justice while working at the Chicago office of Human Rights Watch, which she left in 2014 to begin Restore Justice after recognizing that she needed to deal with the “state apparatus” to truly affect policies around policing and incarceration. In conjunction with The Point’s prison symposium, I spoke with Cates about human rights, why prisoners in Illinois have no possibility of parole, and the role of nonprofit organizations in promoting change.

JB: You came to Restore Justice from Human Rights Watch. How have you found your work on human rights to be relevant to criminal justice? 

JC: Human rights is not something anyone talks about in the practical space of criminal justice reform. And I think that’s unfortunate because it’s a framework that could be very useful. My colleagues and peers bring up human-rights norms as things we should be talking about, and I agree with them. But with policymakers and administrators it is a nonstarter. They work in a political framework. Honestly, I’d get laughed out of a room if I brought up human rights in a negotiation session with administrative or political stakeholders.

JB: Is that because when we think about human rights we think about innocent women and children being harmed through no fault of their own, whereas there’s a sense politically that incarcerated people have done something wrong: they’re not innocent and don’t have the same kinds of rights?

JC: That’s how a lot of people think, but it’s also ludicrous, because human-rights frameworks are not conditional on behavior. Prisoners and combatants are a huge part of human-rights conventions. I think it’s telling that the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC). If a war criminal is convicted at the Hague, they will never do their time in the U.S. And that is probably a good thing, because we do not meet the global human-rights standards that would be necessary for the other countries to consent to the prisoner doing their time here. Ours is not considered a humane prison system by most of the world. Many of those convicted by the ICC do their time in European countries.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also taught me about child soldiers. When we see a child soldier, someone who has been kidnapped, swept into an army, indoctrinated as a child, and then later escaped or was rescued and rehabilitated, we look at that child as a hero. The international community has initiatives to help that child come back into society. If that same child grew up in Englewood (on the South Side of Chicago), they would be incarcerated for life for crimes they committed, and they would never be given a second chance. And there’s nothing heroic about that story to the general public.

JB: You work mainly on the system in Illinois—can you say more about the parole system in the state? Why did it develop the way it has?

JC: Most people don’t know that we don’t have parole in Illinois. We still use the word to describe something that happens after people get finished with prison, called Mandatory Supervised Release. During that time, formerly incarcerated people must report to someone called a parole officer. But at no time while they were in prison will they ever see a board of people who determine whether or not they are rehabilitated, never will they get an offer to reduce the prison sentence. That’s the role parole plays in the 37 states that have it. We don’t have parole in Illinois and that forecloses any chance that someone can be deemed rehabilitated and released.

That policy can be traced back to 1978. In the late Seventies there was a movement around the country among prosecutors to institute something called “determinant sentencing.” They wanted to get rid of mushy sentence ranges with parole boards determining when people got out. They wanted, like we say to our kids, “you get what you get and that’s it.” They wanted to be able to use those policies to increase their bargaining power when they were trying to make plea deals. Most of our cases are settled before they get to a judge or jury. There are about 140 men left alive who were sentenced before 1978. They were grandfathered into parole, but nobody else has the opportunity.

In addition, in 1995, Illinois passed a law that sharply reduced “time off for good behavior,” and eliminated it entirely for what we consider violent offenses. So that avenue to a shorter sentence was closed off as well.

JB: It seems like the attempt to take things out of the hands of subjective authorities is sometimes done for good reasons, but has often ended up making things worse for prisoners. I saw a presentation last year in Chicago by an institution that was trying to create algorithms for judges to determine sentencing. I’m curious what your perspective on that kind of thing is.

JC: I’m not a researcher, but I know that there’s no science underpinning our current sentencing structure, no science behind the configuration of mandatory minimums, no science that says increasing sentences deters crime. But as a state, we do those things anyway. The idea that a judge shouldn’t have the discretion to look at the person in front of them and determine their sentence is insane. The idea of a mandatory minimum sentence doesn’t take discretion out of the system, it just takes it away from the judge and the jury, the ones who are supposed to be impartial.

Imagine this story. A kid in Winnetka (a wealthy suburb north of Chicago) and his buddies get drunk and threaten someone at a party—and later, there is a fight. Of the main aggressors, one has a gun but does not fire it, but he beats up another kid very badly. The police arrive, and they are angry and stern, but decide, looking at the party and the situation, that these are fundamentally good kids. They decide not to report the gun, and not to charge the kids who might have been accomplices, egging the aggressor on. They work with the local prosecutor to negotiate a slap on the wrist for the kid who did the most damage in the fight.

The same scenario plays out in North Lawndale or Englewood (neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago). When the police arrive, they see gang symbols on some of the kids. Multiple kids are charged with aggravated assault, some as accessories, which carries the same sentence. Because they do not cooperate with the police or prosecutors, they are not offered deals for lighter charges. Later, prosecutors decide the pre-fight talk proved attempted murder, and they threaten some of the boys with longer sentences because of the presence of the gun. Police and prosecutors have an enormous among of discretion because they can determine the charges, and those charges determine everything that follows.

JB: It seems like a lot of the activity in criminal justice right now is happening in the nonprofit sector. How do you see nonprofits in relation to this issue, and how do you think about your role in influencing policy?

JC: I used to work in education reform. Go to any statehouse, and if there’s a debate on education policy, you will find a certain set of people in the room advising or informing lawmakers. The teachers’ union, who represents the adults working in schools, an administrators’ union, the city or town or county education administration, the state education administration—and those people are going to make the vast majority of decisions about how reform evolves. Education-reform nonprofit groups enter the room representing the kids. They say, “It’s not just about what the administration or the teachers want. We’re representing the voices of the children who don’t have a voice in this process.”

It’s exactly the same in the criminal-justice reform world, except you’re representing a constituency that’s less sympathetic than children. You’ve got the public-employees union, the law-enforcement community, and you’ve got the administration of state law-enforcement entities. Who’s representing inmates or potential inmates? Our organization and many others attempt to speak with or for people who don’t get a seat at the table. We need organizations and advocates who are dealing with people who have traditionally been left out of the policymaking process to make sure overly punitive policies do not become runaway trains. Unfortunately, the groups in criminal justice are smaller and there are fewer of them than in education reform. The research isn’t as thick. And the population of people we’re working to help are not seen as being as sympathetic as children. It’s still an influential community, but not as robust as I’d like it to be.

JB: You said that law enforcement has a vested interest in harsher sentence. I’m wondering if you ever try to reach out to law enforcement. And if so, what kind of conversations have you had with them?

JC: We’ve had excellent informal conversations with subsets of law enforcement, and I am sure there’s more common ground than we see today. But those conversations rarely move into the formal space, largely because there’s a traditional law-enforcement line, articulated by many of the associations—for instance in Illinois the Association of States Attorneys—a set of beliefs based on the assumption that determinative sentences, for example, are better than indeterminate sentences, because they create more leverage for higher-level convictions and more certainty for victim families. Because people in law enforcement generally see people at the moment of the crime and immediately after, they don’t see the growth, the change, that occurs when people age out of violent behaviors. Because they are often pushing for closure of a case, they don’t get to see the benefits to victims of restorative-justice practices. And prosecutors – the top of the law-enforcement ladder here in Illinois—are elected. They’re elected on the ability to close their cases. In many ways, it is just not in their interest to slow down and work through some of this stuff less aggressively.

There are prosecutors around the country that are trying new things—Kim Foxx [in Illinois] has a steadily improving record; the prosecutor in Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, is blazing the trail of what it means to be a progressive prosecutor. It’s very exciting, but still a drop in the bucket compared to the culture of most law-enforcement organizations around aggressive punishment.

JB: What is restorative justice?

JC: I am not a restorative-justice practitioner, so I may not explain this perfectly. Our name, Restore Justice, is a play on the words because we believe our state has evolved in the wrong direction. There was a time we weren’t as aggressive in our sentencing. We like restorative justice and we think our state should be evolving toward it. Restorative justice is a set of practices developed by folks who believe the system that creates an adversarial relationship between the victim and perpetrator ultimately hurts communities. Not only is the system bad for the perpetrator, who does not get the chance to grow and rehabilitate after their crime, but it is also bad for the victim, who is denied the opportunity to participate in a compassionate, forgiving practice, a practice that helps them come to terms with their loss and with the support in their community. That’s something that’s being tried in Chicago, the Juvenile Justice Initiative and others are working on building a restorative justice court. This would represent an attempt to lift the practice up and into a courtroom; I think it’s exciting that those kinds of things are being tried.

JB: How do you go about your advocacy work, in representing the prisoners who don’t normally have a voice? You mentioned the human-rights angle is ineffective with policymakers—what kind of strategies do you feel are effective in terms of getting pragmatic results?

JC: We’ve had some success making a case based on a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). SCOTUS has said time and again that states need to consider the age of offenders in sentencing, which many of our laws in Illinois preclude. The Supreme Court sets floors: they tell you what you absolutely cannot do. So that gives us the opportunity to propose what a constitutional system would look like. We spend a lot of time working off of the legal underpinnings of those decisions: the Miller decision, Montgomery, Graham, and Roper, which banned the death penalty for children. All of those decisions have happened in the past fifteen to sixteen years. States don’t like being sued. They don’t like being out of compliance. So that gives us a little bit of leverage. Not as much as we want.

It is worth noting that today, we have a court without Justice Kennedy, who was the swing vote, I believe, on all of the cases I just listed. As an advocate, I will admit to being fearful that a majority conservative court won’t continue the line of jurisprudence that Kennedy was integral to creating.

Beyond that, where there’s research available, we try to use it. For example, we might look at research on increased sentencing for possession of firearms, and show longer sentences do not reduce crime, clog up prisons, and create a terrible cost issue: overcrowded prisons means more lawsuits. The cost of incarcerating upwards of 40,000 people in Illinois every year is obscene.

Finally, we’re doing some work to change the narrative around who the people are who commit serious offenses when they’re young. They have families, they have moms, they have sisters, they have friends, and we’re trying to get those people involved in advocacy work so when we go to Springfield. It’s not just us blabbing about policy, but family members talking about their loved ones.

JB: Sounds like legal recourse, cost, and heart or humanity are the three prongs.

JC: That’s pretty much it, and elbow grease.

JB: What do you spend most of your time doing day to day?

JC: It’s seasonal. This summer the legislature—it’s important to say this: mass incarceration is a state-level problem, not a federal problem. I think around 13 percent of incarceration is federal. So if you really want to end mass incarceration you need to do state level work.

So what do we do? This summer we have a list of twenty state legislators in the House of Representatives who are basically undecided on the issue of parole. We want to spend time with those twenty people. We want them to meet people from their districts who have incarcerated family members. We’re arranging those meetings, trying to get in the door—that’s a lot of work. And then we’re working with constituents in these districts to try and get the word out. Most people are terrified to talk to their elected officials, you know—if they’ve never done it before it’s a very daunting thing. So we train people on how to tell their story and talk about the issues.

We get in our cars and drive to Springfield, Peoria, Normal, wherever, and we have those meetings. That’s what we do in summer. Then during the legislative session, we do a lot analyzing bills, then writing and talking to folks in the statehouse about the issues. Legislators might not know that inmates have to pay $5 every time they go to the doctor. This year, we had former inmates go down and testify about how limits on family visitation were harmful.

JB: What gives you hope? Are there places where you see the tide turning?

JC: Criminal justice is a big issue nationally right now. I tend to be pretty pessimistic, however, because as a society, it feels like we have settled for so little, and we’ve allowed ourselves to be excited about inches. I get it. I’m part of it now. I have to settle for those inches. But I want a mile, ten miles. And I do not see the shift people are talking about nationally here in Illinois. In fact, I see more of a reactionary pullback. Where I get my energy and enthusiasm and ability to continue to be pragmatic is from the people I know who are incarcerated or have been released due to the Supreme Court decisions. One is sitting in my office right now. Marshan Allen spent 24 years in prison for something he did when he was fifteen. He was convicted of double homicide so you’d think he killed two people. If you read the case, however, you’ll find he drove the car for a couple of buddies of his brother who shot two men as part of a drug deal gone wrong. For driving that car, Marshan was convicted and got mandatory natural life without parole. And if it weren’t for SCOTUS he’d be in prison for the rest of his life.

Every step of the way our system failed Marshan. He served 24 years for a double homicide, and the guy’s never even been in a fistfight. When I met him, I said I was so angry, and I asked him, “How are you not angry?” He said, “I can’t be angry when I’m this sad.” That gives me hope: here is someone who was not embittered by his situation, who comes out ready to work to make things better for others.

JB: Why are legislators so resistant to change?

JC: It’s almost always the politics on specific changes. If they are in a safe district and can vote their conscience, and they agree with the ideas, they vote yes. If they are in a tight race, even if they agree, they won’t be able to vote yes. And not everyone naturally agrees with these types of reforms. So you have to do the math: subtract those that don’t agree, then those who agree but still can’t vote yes. That is where you have to start.

Most legislators don’t give a substantive reason for their decision; they might say their colleague, the elected prosecutor, doesn’t like it, so they don’t either.

This issue, particularly bringing back parole, makes a great negative political mailer—“so and so voted to let murderers out of prison.” Done. It’s not a deep discussion, unfortunately. It’s not a deep policy discussion most of the time. But when we do get the chance to have those conversations, I think we reach people.


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This interview is an online supplement to
our “What is prison for?” symposium.
Subscribe today to read the prison symposium,
and more, in print.

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