Gun possession is already a controversial topic. But especially when guns are in the hands of Black people, legally or illegally, there’s still a common racist belief that Black people are inherently bound to inflict harm. 

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and other reform-thinking prosecutors across the U.S., cognizant of the underlying conditions that force people to carry guns, are pushing back on that racist notion through gun diversion programs. This relatively new idea is currently in practice in cities such as Minneapolis, Austin, and Brooklyn.

In Cook County, the State’s Attorney Office (SAO) is experimenting with a pilot gun diversion program through its Bridgeview courthouse, Foxx revealed in an interview with Triibe columnist Bella BAHHS.

Through gun diversion programs, the overall goal is to reduce violence and recidivism rates. According to a report from Loyola University’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy, and Practice, 72 percent of arrests for gun crimes in Cook County between 2009 and 2019 were for illegal gun possession. Additionally, the majority of people arrested for gun crimes in Cook County during that time were Black men under age 25. 

According to the CPD’s publically available data, since Dec. 1, 2016 there have been 26,882 reports of illegal gun possession but only 5,239 arrests. During that same time period, the SAO approved about 89 percent of “unlawful use of a weapon” charges and secured convictions in about 74 percent of those cases, according to data the SAO provided. 

Foxx has approved more gun-possession cases since 2016 than her predecessor Anita Alvarez did in the five years before, even though Foxx approved a slightly lower percentage of charges than Alvarez had, on average.

Between January 2020 and May 2021, only about 12.6 percent of people charged with gun crimes had been hit with other charges in the year before their gun arrest, according to the SAO.

Data visualization by Jim Daley // The TRiiBE

Gun diversion programs “are starting to learn from their participants that carrying [a gun] is often seen as something that’s necessary because they may not feel completely safe in their neighborhood,” said Matthew Epperson, an associate professor at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social, Work, Policy, and Practice. “They may feel like they need it for protection, or they’ve seen other kinds of violence happening in their community, and they want to make sure that doesn’t happen to them.” 

Although the Cook County SAO couldn’t speak much to their pilot program in Bridgeview, because they are still in the early phase of the program, SAO’s policy advisor Kristina Kaupa said its diversion programs historically have focused on substance abuse and mental health needs. But in the last year, the SAO has expanded its work to focus on what it means to support people beyond “what we have traditionally thought of as diversion in the criminal justice space.”

Generally, prosecutor-led diversion programs connect people charged with non-violent criminal offenses to mental health services, substance abuse treatment, housing, education and employment opportunities rather than having them incarcerated. After the completion of the diversion court program, charges are dismissed or vacated. Most diversion programs are voluntary.

Kaupa said when thinking about the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice system, she considers how the office connects people to solutions and interventions that are “more meaningful than their engagement in the criminal justice system might be.” 

Because prosecutor-led gun diversion programs are still few and far between, there’s not much data out there to show whether they are effective at reducing gun crime.

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But the Smart Decarceration Project, a program at the Crown Family School of Social, Work, Policy, and Practice that connects research, policy, and practice to lessen the use of incarceration, is currently studying diversion programs in the Midwest and on the East Coast. 

This year, the Smart Decarceration Project published a report that examined eight different gun diversion programs. For example, the report identified treatment approaches common among the programs, such as cognitive-behavioral programming, life-skills and anger-management training, service and resource provision, and restorative justice circles. 

Cognitive-behavioral programming is drawn from cognitive-behavioral therapy, and it’s used to help people understand the thoughts and choices that caused them to commit a crime and it teaches them alternative behaviors and thought processes. 

Life-skills and anger-management training teach people communication skills, job development, education, and more. Service and resource provision connects participants to social agencies to ensure that they have housing, counseling, transportation, and employment. 

Restorative justice circles are used outside of the criminal legal system to repair the harm caused by crime. Typically an individual meets with trained community members to discuss the impact their choice has had on the community and they work together to come up with a repair of harm agreement that the participant must complete.

Since coming into this work, Epperson explained that prosecutors consider gun diversion programs when they find that a punitive approach wasn’t getting the results they desired. 

“What they [prosecutors] would like to see is that the person stopped carrying a gun, that they didn’t use it for violence,” Epperson said. “But in fact, they were seeing that those folks were still at pretty high risk of coming back into the system, and often for gun-related charges that were more than possession, so in other words, the intensity escalated.”

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Another violence prevention organization, the Heartland Alliance’s READI Chicago, is also stepping in to curb gun crime. The nonprofit was formed in 2017, a year after the city saw a historic surge in shootings and homicides. It aims to decrease violence involvement, arrests and recidivism among people at the highest risk of violence prevention. 

“We came together to talk about how to create an intervention that would be evidence-based, that would be targeted and would be successful in addressing the gun violence that we were seeing,” said Sophia Manuel, senior program manager for reentry at READI Chicago. 

READI is a voluntary program, and participants may be referred to it through partner community organizations such as the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, or by correctional agencies. The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab developed the eligibility requirements for referrals to READI based on an analysis of which people are at the highest risk of being involved in a violent gun crime. 

READI engages with young men at risk of gun violence and victimization. According to Manuel, 95 percent of READI’s participants are Black men between ages 18 and 32. More than 80 percent of READI participants have experienced violence, and more than half have lost a family member to violence. 

“We are finding that our participants who are sticking with the program are having good outcomes,” Manuel said. “A lot of our staff build relationships with our participants. That’s sort of something that we see as central to making it work.” 

Since 2017, more than 800 people have been connected to READI’s programming services. The program provides up to 18 months of transitional employment, behavioral therapy, coaching, and support. 

READI’s support services are based on the needs of each participant, and could look like assisting them with enrolling in SNAP or Medicaid, getting a driver’s license, housing, legal help, and more.

After completing READI, the goal is for participants to gain long-term employment and stable housing. Preliminary research from the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab released this year found that READI participants that stay engaged in the program have 79 percent fewer arrests for shootings and homicides. 

Manuel pointed to anecdotes from READI participants that have developed skills to avoid conflict and improve relationships at home. 

“We’re hearing positive things. We hear that their relationship with the staff is important to them,” Manuel said.  “We hear that they are using the cognitive-behavioral intervention tools that we go over with them and in groups, that they’re using them in their daily lives to avoid conflict, or to have good relationships at home [and] we are hearing that they feel like READI is helping them achieve their goals.”

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.