Board Chair Betsy Lehman’s remarks from the Evanston Women’s March

Board Chair Betsy Lehman gave remarks at the Evanston Women’s March on Saturday, October 17, 2020 at Dawes Park.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today.  It’s an honor and a privilege.

I am Betsy Lehman, Chair of the Board of Directors for the James B Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.  For those of you who don’t know the Moran Center, we provide integrated legal and social work services for youth and young adults up to age 26.  We also provide educational advocacy, run a school-based civil legal clinic in partnership with District 65, operate a criminal records expungement and sealing help desk at the Skokie Courthouse, and advocate for a “Restorative Community,” among many other efforts to address the critical needs of Evanston youth and their families.

We are all painfully aware of the injustice and inequity that lives in our criminal justice and policing systems.  It has been used as a tool to oppress and control.  We see it regularly on a national level in the horrific violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, our own Jacob Blake, and far too many others.  We’ve seen it in our state where racially disparate policies such as “stop and frisk” violate basic constitutional guarantees against unlawful search and seizure, and where meaningful police reform continues to be a battle every step of the way.  And we see it right here in Evanston, where youth of color are disproportionately disciplined and suspended from our schools.

Let me give you just a few facts:

  • 2019 data from the Prison Policy Initiative showed that, on any given day, close to 50,000 youth are confined in facilities away from their homes—most in locked, prison-style spaces; 40% of these facilities isolate youth in locked rooms for periods of four hours or more, and 43% use restraints such as hand/leg cuffs and strait jackets;

  • Black youth are arrested, and confined to juvenile institutions, far out of proportion to their share of all youth in the US; in IL, the ACLU estimates that Black youth are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of White youth;

  • As Covid-19 spread across the US, the number of Latinx and Native American youth in detention facilities actually increased, despite calls for  juveniles to be released;
  • Marijuana usage rates are similar among white and Black Americans, however Black Americans are more than 3 1/2 times as likely to be arrested on possession charges; legalization and decriminalization has not changed this;
  • At the end of 2018, the Pew Research Center found that the imprisonment rate among Black Americans was more than five times the rate among whites; a generation of Black fathers has been lost to incarceration.

    These are just a handful of examples of the devastating results of the systemic racism inherent in the criminal justice system.  (Or as, Patrick Keenan-Devlin, the ED of Moran likes to say, “the criminal injustice system.’”)  We demand a system that will bring true justice to those in it.  A system that is rehabilitative and restorative to both victim and offender.  A system that asks what one needs, not just what one has done.  A system that not only rejects, but protects against the criminalization of poverty and mental illness.  A system that refuses to funnel black and brown bodies into institutions or legitimizes their murders.

    The Moran Center is advocating every day for policies that support women and families in Evanston and the values that I know we all share—education, healing, compassion, support of the most vulnerable members of our community, and, to paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, one of my heroes, not judging anyone—especially children—by the worst thing they have ever done.

    We stand together today in solidarity with these values.  Make no mistake.  Justice is on the ballot.  Join me in demanding a government that is committed to these principles:

  • a community where basic needs are met, and all members have the opportunity to thrive;

  • an educational system that is equitable and supportive of students with special needs, and looks at each child as an individual;

  • a robust commitment to mental health;

  • a commitment to protect the rights of those people and communities that have historically been persecuted and disinvested; and

  • a criminal justice system—from policing to sentencing—that rejects mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and is guided by the principles of fairness and racial equity.
And while these values are completely absent at the highest level of our government, it’s also essential to vote for leaders who reflect this vision all the way down the ballot.
This is not just about the White House or the Senate.  It’s the statehouse, it’s county-wide and local government, and it’s the judiciary.  Get out there and vote!
Thank you.