Preface - Access to Justice


Preface: Why Access Living?

In 2018, Access Living was granted a one-year planning grant as a strategic ally from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC). The grant’s purpose was to look at reducing jail incarceration, primarily in Cook County, Illinois, through a cross-disability lens. The SJC is a large-scale national investment project aimed at reducing mass incarceration in the United States.

Why did Access Living take on this project, especially given the existing body of work done on disability and incarceration to date?

Since 1980, Access Living has been the Center for Independent Living (CIL) serving people with disabilities living in the city of Chicago. “CIL” is the federally designated category for a nonprofit whose staff and board are comprised of a majority of people with self-identified disabilities providing core services, including peer support, advocacy, independent living services, information and referrals and transition to community integrated living for youth and residents of institutions.

While Access Living’s assigned geographic area of direct service is the city of Chicago, the organization has a well-established reputation as not only a national leader but also a global one in transforming society’s conversations about people with disabilities and expanding civil rights. This means that one of the basic functions of Access Living is to serve as a crossroads for many kinds of conversations about how to shape society to both remove disability barriers, and to normalize having a disability.

Over the past 39 years, Access Living has served a number of people who have also been impacted by the Cook County, and other, criminal justice systems. For many, disability began or worsened as a result of their criminal justice involvement. Time and again, our community members have told us about situations where people with disabilities would have benefited from supports and diversion rather than incarceration.

Locally, we have also collaborated with community members who are part of Access Living’s Advance Your Leadership Power (AYLP) group. AYLP is comprised of people with disabilities who organize for social change. Formed in 2004, AYLP has evolved over the course of several years into a multigenerational group of disability activists who center racial justice. AYLP has historically worked with local community groups to address the school-to-prison pipeline and to build restorative justice practices in underserved communities. AYLP’s work has increased Access Living’s broader understanding of racial justice.

These grassroots advocates showed us that Access Living has value in serving as a place to have a process of dialogue and creativity towards solutions, centering the voices of those most impacted. Those conversations led us to ask: how can we further lift the voices of justice-involved people with disabilities? How do we show support for good work that has already been done? What else can we do to reduce the number of people with disabilities entering the criminal justice system? How can we invest more in our communities while not leaving behind those of us who are currently or have been in jail or prison?

For Access Living, it was clearly a matter of community responsibility that we should improve our efforts in criminal justice reform and restorative justice practice. Conversations with the MacArthur Foundation showed us that bearing down on the question of reducing jail incarceration might provide more opportunities for sparking new conversations and opening opportunities for innovation.

This paper is our effort to begin answering these questions.