In 2009, TIME magazine listed Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Thomas Dart as one of the world’s 100 most influential people for his innovative approaches to law enforcement.
A former prosecutor and state legislator, Dart has long advocated for the plight of victims and society’s most vulnerable. Since taking over the sheriff’s office in 2006, Dart has brought reform to the nation’s largest jail. He’s introduced on-site projects that provide food for the inmates and valuable work experience that can help them land jobs when they’re released.
He’s also reformed the foreclosure eviction process by providing on-site social services for families, older folks, and people with mental illness. But while people in the Chicago-land area know him for these and other efforts, it’s his work with trafficking victims that has brought him national recognition.
In 2009, Dart was among a handful of officials around the country who targeted the so-called “Erotic Services” section of online classifieds site craigslist. He sued the company for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking, calling it “the single largest source of prostitution in the nation.” The lawsuit was dismissed, but public pressure led the site to drop this section entirely.
Within Cook County, Dart continues to advocate for women caught in the cycle of prostitution. Knowing that the women are, as he put it, “victims of crimes of violence, who have been through unspeakable horrors and betrayals,” Dart wanted a better way to restore those trapped in prostitution and keep them out of jail.
To do this, he developed the Women’s Justice Program, which employs previously prostituted women to serve as peer counselors to those arrested for prostitution. These counselors work to convince the women to leave prostitution behind when they’re released and provide ongoing counseling and resources to help them do it. Dart knows that women will struggle to trust the police who arrested them. But they might listen to someone who has walked in their shoes and managed to escape the pain and abuse that they feel.
As welcome as the Women’s Justice Program is, even better is the way that it fits within a much larger environment of restoration for the state of Illinois. In May, the state legislature passed a bill that authorizes restorative services for trafficking victims, including safe houses, counseling services and other assistance. This is funded in part with fines paid by abusers who are arrested for soliciting sex. Some of it also comes from assets seized from pimps and traffickers. It is a meaningful measure to make the thieves that tried to rob, kill and destroy these women’s lives pay at least some of it back.
Not surprisingly, Sheriff Dart has encountered resistance to his peer counseling program. Some people are bothered by the idea of employing “ex-cons” in law enforcement. Deeper down, though, we know that some will always be bothered by “ex-cons” doing anything.
That’s part of a small-minded worldview that we as Christians need to work at enlarging. Consider that millions of people have been and will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. Who better than Christians to proclaim forgiveness and work for the restoration of the whole person, victims as well as victimizers? The world hungers only for vengeance, but we serve a God who desires justice, reconciliation and mercy.
The staff and volunteers of Prison Fellowship and Justice Fellowship have been working to realize Chuck Colson’s vision for restorative justice for more than 35 years. We know we have a great deal left to do, and that’s why we’re so encouraged that someone as strategically placed and influential as Tom Dart stands at our side.
Reprinted with permission from BreakPoint.org.