Recently, Cook County has been making investments in its criminal justice system, but not by spending money directly on the jail or courts. It’s by spending money on the people who go through the courts and jail that the county is hoping to keep people out of that system.
As 28-year-old Reggie Freeman makes a presentation to his high school classmates, his friends are noticing.
“He knows this, front and back. He knows this, he was really nervous,” said one of his classmates.
Reggie has a bit of stage fright, even though the presentation is on one of his favorite subjects: African-American Studies. So, he's asked to give the first few seconds of it again.
"Dred Scott was a slave. He was the first slave to sue for his freedom in the federal court system," said Freeman.
And he nails it.
Though these high school students vary in age and background, they all have a few things in common.
“When our class first started, we were scared. Some of us knew a little more than the other, but now it's like we all know,” said Faith, another classmate of Reggie’s.
They've also all served time in jail or prison for a criminal conviction.
“When you consider that most of the people who are released from prison are given a bus ticket and $10 upon release, and many are returning to the most socially, economically disadvantaged communities in the city of Chicago, that's not a whole lot that you can expect for them to muster in order to support their re-entry, to nurture their re-entry,” said St. Leonard's Ministries Executive Director Walter Boyd.
Which is why the Barlow Center at St. Leonard's Ministries on Chicago's near west side provides a number of services, including the chance to earn a high school diploma in just one semester.
-- Slideshow photos by Michael Yen
“Studies indicate that people who have a high school diploma earn more money than those who have a GED,” said St. Leonard's Ministries Director of Education Nancy Stanner. “But also, in my opinion as an educator, students learn from being in school. The GED is a test. There's no real opportunity there to absorb knowledge.”
Students attend class four nights a week for three-and-a-half hours a night.
At 52 years old, Gem Canada is finally earning her diploma.
“For so long, I have put off accomplishing things. I always wanted my high school diploma. I always regretted dropping out of high school, and my life went in a different direction,” she said. “So this is something that I really wanted to acquire and finish.”
And she's frank about how challenging her life has been without it.
“It sucks. It does. I want to get my high school diploma because I want to get back into the drug counseling field, and I know I have to have a high school diploma,” she said. “I want to give back what was so freely given to me.”
Helping Canada and her classmates achieve their goals is the goal for the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, which provides grants to organizations like St. Leonard's.
“We spend on an annual basis about $387 million on our jail and our Juvenile Temporary Detention Center,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Compare that amount to St. Leonard’s Adult High School which received a $24,000 grant this year -- a worthy cause in the eyes of Preckwinkle, herself a former teacher.
“In my view, whatever we can do to be sure that people who have been immersed and engaged in our criminal justice system come out of that system, and then are able to turn their lives around, we ought to do,” said Preckwinkle. “Education truly is an important component in that path to productivity. At the present time, about 52 percent of the people who are in our jail at any given time will be back within three years.”
Other grant recipients working to reduce violence and recidivism include Inspiration Corporation, which teaches food service skills, WestCare Illinois, which provides substance abuse and mental health counseling, and even the Cook County Housing Authority, which runs a virtual high school for youth in the criminal justice system.
This year, the Council is granting $1.9 million in violence prevention and reduction grants, plus another $800,000 in recidivism reduction.
“We're spending money on anti-violence and anti-recidivism initiatives, prevention initiatives, and we've been able through the transfer of some resources to support that on a pretty modest level,” said Preckwinkle. “We need to ramp up that support. The only way to do that is to take the jail population down and free up resources that we're presently spending on detaining people.”
For the more than 9,000 mostly low-income and minority inmates in the Cook County Jail, their involvement in the criminal justice system is already one strike against their future prospects.
But for the St. Leonard’s students, a lack of a high school diploma will no longer be a second strike.
Officials at St. Leonard's Ministries say they used the grant to fund the education director's position and to offer a small stipend to teachers, who volunteer their instruction time.
In the following web extra video, St. Leonard’s Ministries’ Adult High School graduate, 42-year old Tawana Pope, tells her story. After graduating high school in 2007, she went on to get her Associate Degree in social work, and plans to graduate from Northeastern Illinois University with a B.S. in social work in May. She’s also interning at St. Leonard’s Ministries.