About three years ago, Robert Rooks and his colleagues at the Alliance for Safety and Justice created a safe space for crime victims in Chicago to meet and share their grievances with the justice system. They agreed that the system is failing them, especially when it comes to trauma support services.

“Once we heard that, it’s our job as an organization to lift that up to the state level and media, and bring a call-to-action here in the state of Illinois,” Rooks said. He’s the vice president of ASJ, a nonprofit working to reduce racial disparities and incarceration numbers across the country.

After that Chicago meeting, ASJ hit the ground running. Their work with Illinois lawmakers, including Attorney General Kwame Raoul and State Legislator Jehan Gordon-Booth, resulted in three new trauma recovery centers and a 20% reduction in the state’s prison population. 

On Wednesday, ASJ hosted a private dinner with Raoul, Gordon-Booth, rappers G Herbo and Vic Mensa, local journalists and influencers to celebrate their wins. In a speech, Rooks reflected on the initial Chicago meeting that kicked off ASJ’s Illinois campaign.

“That resulted in us eliminating 700 mandatory minimums from the books here in Illinois, and it allows people to get probation as opposed to getting mandatory sentences,” Rooks told the room. “That also allows us to take millions of dollars and put it aside for trauma recovery centers so people can get the help that they need. And we have a trauma recovery center right here, Saint Anthony Hospital, waiting for people who want to come in for help.”

Two bills that ASJ helped lawmakers pass are the Neighborhood Safety Act in 2017 and the Criminal Justice Best Practices Act in 2019. The first bill, sponsored by Gordon-Booth, expands access to trauma recovery services for crime victims and incentivized inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs. 

The 2019 bill, sponsored by Gordon-Booth and Raoul, during his time as state senator, introduces new practices to facilitate re-entry for those leaving prison.

“We have embraced a new philosophy based on some of the teachings that I have gotten from ASJ and from experience in the legislature, where tomorrow is day one for my Violence Prevention Division, which is a brand-new division,” Raoul shared with the room. “We had already been involved with victim’s services, but we’re going to expand who we’re servicing.”

Other guests at the private dinner included John Monopoly, acclaimed talent scout known for managing rapper Kanye West, and Beat House founder Tiffany Kumar. Through her agency, Kumar works to connect entertainment artists with social justice causes.

[From left to right] John Monopoly, G Herbo, Vic Mensa and Tiffany Kumar all came out to celebrate ASJ's wins in Illinois criminal justice reform.

Born Herbert Wright III on Chicago’s East Side, rapper G Herbo found the dinner to be informative and motivational.

“We gotta acknowledge the problem that’s going on in our city and acknowledge what we have to do to make it better and go from there,” G Herbo told The TRiiBE. “It’s a lot of important people here bouncing off a lot of good ideas and I feel like the next step is to keep the vision alive and execute it.”

In particular, Gordon-Booth’s speech about marijuana legalization inspired the room. As a state representative, Gordon-Booth said her top priority is making sure Black folks in Illinois have equity in the cannabis game once recreational use becomes legal in 2020.

“You can’t have a product that’s sold legally and then have people who are facing convictions and who aren’t able to get public housing and who aren’t able to get jobs because their records are not clear,” Gordon-Booth said. 

That’s why she pushed for the expungement of nearly 800,000 people with marijuana-related criminal records to accompany the state’s legalization laws.

“You have to have Black people at the table because those are the very people who have been clearly targeted by marijuana policies for the last 80 years. That’s over,” Gordon-Booth continued.

One area that she’s still working on is Black ownership in the legal cannabis arena. At Wednesday’s dinner, she ended her speech with a call-to-action for entertainment artists and influencers to use their platforms to help ensure Illinois makes space for Black people in legal cannabis. 

“My hope is that the people in this room are thinking about moving into that space,” Gordon-Booth said. “I want to be able to look back on the time I spent in this space and I want to be able to say I had a small part in helping to build Black power in a way that Illinois hasn’t seen since the Johnson & Johnson days. That’s what I want to see.”

G Herbo agreed that artists can use their platforms to build awareness around the strides being made in criminal justice reform.

“You gotta steady think about the people that don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “So the people with platforms, who are able to really spread awareness on this situation and say what we need to do to make the community better and to help people who are already victims of these crimes, [we have to] make sure that these visions are being executed.”

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.