Miquel Lewis: Making Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System More Equitable

Posted April 17, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Miquel Lewis

Miquel Lewis (far right) with colleagues

The Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion and Court Ser­vices Depart­ment in the nation’s sec­ond-largest coun­ty — Cook Coun­ty, Illi­nois — is acknowl­edg­ing and con­fronting the role it plays in uphold­ing sys­temic racism that dis­ad­van­tages Black, Lati­no and oth­er youth of col­or. Racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties that begin at arrest and per­sist through­out the youth jus­tice sys­tem are not unique to Cook Coun­ty — which is home to Chica­go. Youth of col­or are con­sis­tent­ly over­rep­re­sent­ed in pub­lic sys­tems in juris­dic­tions across the Unit­ed States. What sets Cook Coun­ty apart? Its response: a staff-led orga­ni­za­tion with­in its pro­ba­tion depart­ment that iden­ti­fies poli­cies, pro­grams and prac­tices that con­tribute to racial and eth­nic inequities.

Miquel Lewis, sec­tion chief pro­ba­tion offi­cer in Cook Coun­ty, found­ed the inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion — called C.O.R.E., or the Com­mit­tee on Results for Equi­ty — with the sup­port and par­tic­i­pa­tion of the direc­tor of pro­ba­tion, Avik Das.

C.O.R.E. and Results Count

C.O.R.E.’s ori­gin sto­ry goes back to 2016 and Lewis’ involve­ment in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Applied Lead­er­ship Net­work (ALN), a selec­tive oppor­tu­ni­ty for prac­ti­tion­ers in the Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® (JDAI). By par­tic­i­pat­ing in group sem­i­nars and apply­ing lessons back home, Lewis and a group of peers from across the coun­try learned skills and tools to make progress toward results for young peo­ple based on the Foundation’s unique approach to lead­er­ship devel­op­ment, Results Count®.

A Results Count frame­work, known as Per­son-Role-Sys­tem, trans­formed Lewis’ lead­er­ship style. The frame­work spells out the dif­fer­ent ways lead­ers show up in their work: as indi­vid­u­als, with­in their roles and as parts of larg­er sys­tems they can influ­ence and that influ­ence them. Per­son-Role-Sys­tem helped Lewis under­stand how his own back­sto­ry — includ­ing past fam­i­ly, edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences — shaped his approach to his work and inter­ac­tions with others.

I grew up in Engle­wood, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black com­mu­ni­ty that is one of sev­en neigh­bor­hoods in Chica­go that has become a dri­ver’ — a high-vol­ume refer­ral source — to our juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem,” says Lewis. I iden­ti­fy with the con­di­tions that many of these chil­dren endure. In my role, I’m com­pas­sion­ate, so I’m always seek­ing to under­stand what informs the behav­ior of these chil­dren. I can­not sep­a­rate my per­son from my role, and it’s that deter­mi­na­tion to retain con­nec­tion to chil­dren, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties that informs how I engage stake­hold­ers across the system.”

Lead­ers often believe that their upbring­ing, their fam­i­ly of ori­gin and their per­son­al expe­ri­ences have lit­tle effect on their lead­er­ship,” says Bar­bara Squires, direc­tor of Lead­er­ship Devel­op­ment at the Foun­da­tion. An insight­ful and self-reflec­tive leader knows dif­fer­ent­ly — that how they take up their lead­er­ship role is pro­found­ly influ­enced by their per­son­al journey.”

C.O.R.E. was one way Lewis found to work with oth­ers in his depart­ment who were will­ing to have hard con­ver­sa­tions around race and who shared his con­cerns about sys­temic and struc­tur­al inequities. He made sure the com­po­si­tion of C.O.R.E. reflect­ed the department’s staff as a whole — espe­cial­ly its gen­der and racial demo­graph­ics — and drew staff from all lev­els. So far, the 14 mem­bers of C.O.R.E. have for­mal­ly reviewed five poli­cies using the Racial Equi­ty Impact Assess­ment from Chica­go Unit­ed for Equi­ty, a tool that ana­lyzes the effects of poli­cies on peo­ple by race and ethnicity.

For exam­ple, C.O.R.E. stud­ied a report about a young per­son who was deliv­ered to the court by a pro­ba­tion off­fi­cer, which influ­ences how the court rules. Based on a home vis­it, this report, called a social inves­ti­ga­tion report,” found fault with the home envi­ron­ment of youth of col­or and ignored the con­text of the young person’s expe­ri­ences and devel­op­ment. As a result, C.O.R.E. rec­om­mend­ed revis­ing the social inves­ti­ga­tion report to pro­vide the court with more holis­tic and cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion about youth.

Lewis not­ed that seek­ing input from youth and fam­i­lies can strength­en results by draw­ing atten­tion to blind spots around cul­tur­al norms.

As a stand­ing advi­so­ry com­mit­tee in the depart­ment now led by its sec­ond team of co-chairs, C.O.R.E has evolved from a lone champion’s pas­sion project to a last­ing ele­ment of the department’s operations.

Read about racial equi­ty impact assess­ments, and learn how the right lead­er­ship approach can con­tribute to juve­nile jus­tice gains.

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