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On Feb. 21, 2021, Democratic Governor Jay Robert “J. B.” Pritzker awarded Derek Brown clemency. Having success securing a court date in other counties, it appears Champaign County is trying to obstruct the process. After years of criminal activity, Brown, a former Vice Lord, turned his life around and decided to empower future generations. He knows the hardships of growing up on Chicago’s Westside and falling victim to the challenges of “trying to survive.” Now, he works hard to help other young people escape the violence plaguing the city.
Champaign County is the 10th-most populous county in Illinois. A majority of the county’s population (73 percent) is white. The second-largest race group is African American, making up approximately 13 percent of the Champaign County population. The organization, Build Programs, Not Jails recognizes that racism is a central factor in the arrest and incarceration of Champaign County community members. This organization has documented a collection of data on racial disparity invaluable in exposing the local face of structural racism within the county.
Although black residents are not more likely to commit crimes, however, they are significantly more likely to be charged with a crime and are selectively prosecuted, especially for drug crimes. Black people also face harsher sentences for the same crimes white people commit and harsher discipline for the same school infractions that white students commit. These statistics do not paint a picture of Black criminality. Rather, they paint a picture of structural racism. We believe the research we have done reflects negatively on Champaign County’s treatment of Black community members, not the community members themselves.
Given the current state of civil unrest the country is experiencing, it is long past time to confront the way criminal courts and their agents—judges, prosecutors, and lawyers alike—reproduce social inequalities and how ordinary people resist. This is an important lesson on the need for radical transformation not only in courtrooms but also in the broader society. It is difficult for advantaged people in the United States to understand what it is like to be ignored, silenced, mistreated, and failed by the people and institutions that are supposed to look out for all citizens.
By the 1960s, these developments had already embedded class inequalities into the criminal justice institutions that facilitated the carceral state’s rise while the regulatory state became the government’s primary means of controlling corporate crime. The historical development of mass incarceration, the corporate criminal law, and regulatory state should not be viewed as autonomous developmental threads, but as processes that have overlapped and intersected in ways that have reinforced politically constructed understandings about what counts as “crime” and who counts as a “criminal.”
Mass incarceration in the United States is not a phenomenon that affects most. It is concentrated in extremely small pockets, communities defined almost entirely by race and class, and in these communities, it is not just one out of 10 who serve time behind bars. No, often one out of three are likely to do time in prison. In these communities of hyper incarceration that can be found in inner-city communities, such as Chicago, it is difficult to find any young man who has not served time or been arrested for something.
In these urban areas where incarceration has become so normalized – part of the normal life course for young people growing up, it decimates those communities. It makes the social networks that people take for granted in other communities impossible to form. It makes thriving economies nearly impossible to create. It means that young people growing up in these communities imagine that prison is just part of their future; it is just part of what happens to you when you grow up.
The United States remains in the grip of an unjust, unnecessary, and self-inflicted epidemic of mass incarceration, the machinery of which only deepens racial inequities and harms that have existed for hundreds of years. Of the more than two million people incarcerated in the United States, more than half— roughly 1.3 million people—are incarcerated in state prisons across the country. Moreover, there are large groups of people who have been historically, systemically overincarcerated without any justification: people sentenced to long sentences for drug crimes; people who have served decades already and have long since passed the time when they may pose a threat to anyone’s safety; people serving sentences under mandatory-minimum laws or other draconian policies that have been repealed; and people incarcerated for administrative or minor violations of probation or parole supervision.
A pressing question for states, and advocates, is whether clemency powers could be an effective and legal vehicle to correct these systemic excesses and injustices by being issued to grant release to large groups of similarly situated people. Some say yes, while others scream no.
Many people know what a pardon is but may experience some confusion when they hear about a governor offering clemency. While clemency and pardon are not interchangeable, a pardon is a form of clemency. Clemency is a general term for reducing the penalties for a particular crime without actually clearing your criminal record. Clemency can come in the form of a pardon, which is forgiveness of a sentence, a commutation, which is the reduction of a sentence, or a reprieve, which is a temporary putting off of punishment while the situation is analyzed further. Therefore, a pardon is always clemency, but when someone receives clemency, it does not necessarily mean a pardon.
Under the Illinois Constitution, the governor has the authority to pardon someone who has been convicted of a crime by granting clemency. After being awarded a pardon by the state, it means the person is forgiven for the crime and will not be subject to any further penalties and any restrictions on activities due to being an ex-convict will be removed.
However, Champaign County is seemingly ignoring the opportunity to support the positive transformation of this black man. When speaking with Brown, he explained the unnecessary difficult process he is being met with from this county, in particular. He said:
I ended up receiving clemency from the governor and submitted my paperwork to Cook County. However, once I went to Champagne County, I found that it was as if they are denying me access to my pardon. I requested a court date and Champagne County’s response was ‘they can’t give me legal advice.’ Legal advice? I don’t need legal advice; I just need a court date so they can release my paperwork and give me my forgiveness.
In 2009, Brown decided to show up for North Lawndale’s youth, devoting his life to saving the next generation from the difficult path he had taken. Going by the name of “Shotgun,” he joined a gang at the age of thirteen and spent many of his younger years between the streets and jail. By the time he was in his twenties, Brown had been shot and his best friend murdered.
Brown still walks the same streets he did while growing up, but now his journey is filled with purpose. Seeing his younger self in the faces of today’s children, Brown is determined to help them not only survive, but thrive through even the grimmest circumstances. Since the founding of Boxing Out Negativity (also known as the North Lawndale Boxing League) in 2009, Brown has taught “gloves, not guns” to more than 500 youth. As a result of all he is doing to empower Chicago’s youth, Governor Pritzker has given him clemency.
Incarceration is a massive system of racial and social control. It is the process by which people are swept into the criminal justice system, branded criminals, and felons forever. Then, after paying their debt to society they are released into a permanent second-class status in which they are stripped of basic civil and human rights, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to public benefits.
The impact that the system of mass incarceration has on entire communities, virtually decimating them, destroying the economic fabric and the social networks that exist there, destroying families so that children grow up not knowing their fathers and visiting their parents or relatives after standing in a long line waiting to get inside the jail or the prison — the psychological impact, the emotional impact, the level of grief and suffering, is beyond description.
In Champaign County, African Americans constitute a disproportionate number of the people stopped and/or charged due to municipal offenses. Young African Americans tend to make up the majority of this group. For years, Brown found himself a product of “trying to survive” the streets of Chicago. He was a hopeless victim of poverty trying to keep his head above the wreckage. Now, years later, after turning his life around and giving young people a “way of escape”, he was awarded clemency. Unfortunately, it seems Champaign County is trying to obstruct the freedom earned by Brown’s continued efforts of restitution.
By Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
Derek Brown: Interview
Clear Up My Record: Pardon Vs Clemency
Boxing Out Negativity: Meet the Coach
Build Programs Not Jails: Racism in Champaign County
Top / Featured Image Courtesy of David Grant’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inline Image Courtesy of Derek Brown – Used with permission
Inline Image Courtesy of Office of Public Affairs’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License