Proposed Illinois law aims to funnel help to crime-plagued neighborhoods

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Rockford, which has some of the highest crime per capita rates in the state, could benefit from the bill

ROCKFORD — Neighborhoods besieged by high rates of violent crime and that are home to large numbers of ex-offenders could get more access to job training, health care and other social services under a bill winding its way through the Illinois General Assembly.

The proposal, known as the Safe Act of 2018, would benefit Rockford and other communities with high per-capita crime rates. The bill passed the state Senate with bipartisan support in the spring, and proponents hope for House passage during this month’s veto session.

It is intended to provide an evidence-based approach to determining the communities with the greatest needs, chiefly by basing funding decisions on specific crime and prison re-entry data rather than relying on individual lawmakers’ political clout. Residents of those communities would be the ones to decide on the services and programs best suited to solve neighborhood problems.

“One of the problems we’ve had in the past is that we keep creating programs that’s one size fits all,” said state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, a Chicago Democrat who is one of the bill’s sponsors. “This will really give us a chance to start addressing the root cause of the problems, not one size fits all,” she said, allowing communities “to develop programs that address problems of that particular community.”

The act would not create any new funding source for such programs but would instead redirect existing state grant money to neighborhoods in need. The bill calls for 5 percent of economic development and social service agency grants to be redirected toward Safe Zones, the name given to communities determined to have high rates of violence.

The funding model has raised concerns among some lawmakers who say it could take money away from existing programs doing much of the same work. There’s also anxiety about the additional layers of bureaucracy the bill would create to dole out the money and determine the most appropriate programs for a specific Safe Zone. And there’s an additional giant unknown: Lawmakers are being asked to approve the bill without knowing exactly where the Safe Zones will be.

If approved, the bill would establish a new state board headed by the governor to create the Safe Zones and provide oversight of plans to reduce violence in those communities. The zones would be created using Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority data on the incidence of gunshot hospitalizations and mortality and the number of residents re-entering the community after prison.

Local councils, made up of residents and public officials in each designated zone, would develop strategies to reduce violence and a budget to submit to the state for approval. The state would evaluate the effectiveness of the programs, including enlisting a university to study the program as a whole.

“Whenever you start creating more bureaucracy there’s more costs and more delays and it’s harder to get things done, and you’re not sure where those dollars will ultimately end up,” said state Sen. Dave Syversion, a Republican from Rockford who voted against the bill in the Senate.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 44-12 on May 29. Rockford’s other senator, Democrat Steve Stadelman, voted in favor, although he said there are details that still must be fine-tuned.

“Obviously there are areas that suffer from under-investment and lack of resources. I think whatever you can do to prioritize money from the state to address these issues could be helpful,” Stadelman said.

Syverson is among those who want to know the locations of the Safe Zones before the bill becomes law to ensure it benefits Rockford and other areas of the state.

“It just becomes less controversial then, and you’ll have more buy-in and more support and might be something that potentially makes sense,” Syverson said. He is skeptical that of the measure would benefit communities outside of Chicago. “When it’s sponsored by all the Chicago legislators, they’re not doing it because they want to help Rockford or Decatur or Springfield,” he said.

Syverson said the bill was reminiscent of the disastrous Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a Pat Quinn-era program that became the subject of criminal probes and critical state audits. It was lambasted for purportedly handing out money based on political connections rather than need and it provided little or no oversight on how the money was spent. Proponents say the Safe Act is just the opposite.

“We built this bill to learn from the mistakes of NRI,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr., deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project, a nonprofit that advocates for policy changes intended to curb violence and reduce prison time. “This is not a blank check being cut to folks for political reasons.”

Although the state will not do the analysis needed to identify the zones unless the bill is passed, there are indications that Rockford, as a community with high rates of crime, would benefit. For example, a 2017 ranking by the crime-data crunching website Neighborhood Scout ranked a southeast Rockford neighborhood No. 8 on a list of the 25 most dangerous in the country. Illinois Justice Watch points to FBI data from 2015, analyzed last year by Law Street Media, that showed Rockford behind only East St. Louis among Illinois communities.

“Rockford is one of those areas that we believe would receive funding,” Mitchell said. “We want to make sure its objective, but if you look at the numbers objectively it’s clear that Rockford has the type of characteristics that this is trying to address.”

The Law Street Media list has Chicago ranked No. 6 in the state.

“It is a real misconception to suggest that this violence problem is a Chicago problem,” Mitchell said. “When we built this, we built this with the idea that this is a statewide solution.”

Kevin Haas: 815-987-1410; khaas@rrstar.com; @KevinMHaas

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Region: Northern,Feeds,Region: Rockford,Local,City: Rockford

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November 9, 2018 at 05:16AM

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