SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — On average, every six hours in Illinois someone is killed with a gun.
The state has the ninth highest rate of gun homicide in the country.
Ten months ago, in the midst of a pandemic-era crime surge, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker declared gun violence a public health crisis and pledged $250 million over three years to reduce shootings.
The legislature was followed by the creation of the Office of Firearm Violence Prevention. State Senator Roberts Peters sponsored the bill.
“We’re going to target areas where violence is at its worst, where people have to deal with violence on a regular basis and we’re not going to get bogged down in talking in conjecture about what’s happening,” Peters said.
State Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas worked with Peters to add additional funding for anti-violence groups through the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget.
Dozens of groups with close ties to state lawmakers received funding.
“Springfield has been attuned to investing in root causes,” Pacione-Zayas said. “When people do not have access to economic resources, when they don’t have access to mental behavioral health or comprehensive health services, when they don’t have shelter, when young people don’t have places to go or relationships that are meaningful that can help shape their path, of course, we are going to see an uptick in violence.”
“To be able to truly overcome trauma takes a mind and body connection,” said Jesse Fuentes, director of policy for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.
The facility, based in Humboldt Park, is getting $2 million.
“We are going to take that $2 million and we’re going to begin a pilot for Latino returning residents,” Fuentes said.
The Cultural Center works with young males age 14-24.
“We are going to help them enter the workforce,” Fuentes said. “We are going to provide them the mentorship and the case management from individuals who understand that lived experience, from individuals who understand the nuances of what it means to be incarcerated and what it means to return home.”
“We’re planting seeds right now,” said Cesar Nunez, co-executive director of Enlace Chicago.
Like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Enlace Chicago plans to use $1.8 million headed its way to do reentry work. Enlace and partner groups will work with 40 returning citizens.
“These men and women have paid their debt to society and they’re coming home but you can’t rent an apartment because they don’t want to rent to you. You can’t get a job because they don’t want to give you a job,” Nunez said. “The pilot program is an opportunity for us to be able to support these individuals to really give them a second chance.”
So far, more than $61 million has been committed under the Reimage Public Safety to community areas, municipalities and associated programming. Government grant reviewers screen applications and decide whether or not a group is eligible.
Taxpayer money for street outreach is not new.
“We should be asking questions about where this money is going to go,” said House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, who opposed the Reimagine Public Safety Act, calling it an election year gimmick. Instead, they pushed for sentence enhancements and other tough-on-crime measures.
“It’s on the eve of an election and people can draw their own conclusions, but I saw what happened last time,” Durkin said.
Durkin referred to the 2010 Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. One month before the general election, Governor Pat Quinn announced the state would spend $55 million to reduce violence in Chicago.
NRI quickly came under fire when supervisors couldn’t produce the criteria used to choose organizations that received funds.
‘It was basically street money that was being passed out and it was a slush fund,” Durkin said.
Federal authorities and the Cook County State’s Attorney launched probes. The issue dogged Quinn during the 2014 campaign.
To avoid past mistakes, the Office of Firearm Violence Prevention is monitoring the flow of the money. Assistant Secretary Chris Patterson has the final say on who gets funding.
“We’re holding our providers accountable by making sure that they’re certified in the various aspects that they need to be certified in,” he said. “There will be monthly reports and quarterly reports that we’re doing.”
WGN News asked Patterson how he will measure success, guaranteeing that Illinois will be safer in three years.
“I feel it will,” Patterson replied. “How we will measure that success is not only by fewer mothers burying their children, people being safe and feeling safe in their communities, the number obviously of our rate and volume of shootings going down and declining.”
Northeastern Illinois University Professor Lance Williams has studied gun violence for 30 years. He praises the massive investment, but worries about smaller groups getting their share of the funds.
“Remember these smaller groups have gone without for so long they don’t have the structure, they don’t have the fiscal infrastructure and that takes time, that takes months to over a year to get an organization up and running,” Williams said.
Secretary Patterson says he doesn’t want anyone locked out of the opportunity, so if a group’s application is denied, they are encouraged to reapply.
“We’re going out and making sure not only that we’re a hammer in this instance, more so that we’re supporting, finding out, giving technical assistance to those provides,” Patterson said. “Where do they need help?”
At age 24, Patterson was convicted of bank robbery and served a decade in prison. After his release, he transformed his life and began working in violence interruption. Patterson says he knows how to reach young people on the streets carrying guns.
“We want to know why people aren’t working. Why they’re not in school? Is their mental health being addressed?” Patterson said.
With this unprecedented investment, Professor Williams predicts a short-term decline in shootings. But to end the crisis, he says billions more are needed.
“You can go put out a fire here, put out a fire there that will help with this $250 million,” he said. “To sustain it, though, it’s going to require much more money over a long-term basis.”
One year ago, Assistant Secretary Patterson was a chief program officer for a small youth-based group. Now, he’s in charge of handing out a quarter of a billion dollars. In three years, he and Democrats will be judged on whether or not this unprecedented investment reduced gun violence.