Civil Rights

We still have a long way to go in the struggle for civil rights. What are today’s most significant civil rights concerns, and how can Illinois address them?

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Civil Rights Today

The struggle for civil rights has continued well beyond Brown v. Board of Ed. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Decades later, our generation continue to struggle with many Civil Rights issues rooted in our past. Our challenge is to identify the problems and think about how we can make meaningful changes in light of the gains and losses we have experienced since the 1960s.  

Civil Rights in Illinois

Illinois follows a three-tiered judiciary- Circuit Court, Appellate Court, and Supreme Court. The Illinois State Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. Comprised of seven justices elected from the five appellate judicial districts of the state, the Supreme Court has original and exclusive jurisdiction.

Current Areas for Reform

Access to Civil Justice 

Legal services have become increasingly unavailable at an affordable price. This means that the number of people without legal representation is increasing. In 2010 alone, nearly 73,000 people filed civil cases in federal courts without a lawyer.  The bulk of self-represented defendants have low-incomes, and very few self-represented defendants any legal experience or training that prepares them for the complexities of the adversarial system.  

Language access is a fundamental principle of access to justice.  Language barriers, coupled with racial bias, have led to an alarming erosion of trust and confidence in the justice system among people of color.  Illinois does not mandate that interpreters be provided in all civil proceedings. Cook County provides foreign language interpreters for criminal cases, domestic relations cases, and some civil matters as directed by the judge.  Not all venues in Illinois require certified interpreters.  The lack of a statewide system has led to varying levels of quality of interpretation provided.  

Immigration accounts for a large number of civil cases.  In 2010, 387,242 people were removed from the United States.  Persons who are placed in removal proceedings potentially face both the threat of prolonged custody as well as forcible deportation from the country, which often results in permanent separation from family and home. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides for the “Right to Counsel.” However, people are only entitled to legal representation when they can retain counsel at “no expense to the government.” Given this law, only those who can afford to retain a private attorney, or obtain pro bono counsel, receive legal representation. The rest are forced to forge through the complex immigration system without an attorney.

Resources on Access to Civil Justice 

Legal Information Institute

American Bar Association

Civil Right To Counsel 

Brennan Center (IL Language Access)

Brennan Center- Language Access in State Courts

Immigration Detention and Removal

  Fairness in Criminal Justice 

The current prison industrial complex has been likened to a “New Jim Crow,” a recreation of a caste-like system that resulted in millions of people of color relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. 

65 million adults in the United States (approx. one in four) now have a criminal record, and live with the increasing public exposure, civil disabilities and other consequences that flow from a criminal record.  African-American and Hispanics comprise 58 percent of all inmates, even though they make up only one quarter of the U.S. population.

African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate of nearly 5.6 times the rate of whites.

The War on Drugs disproportionately impacts communities of color.  African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.  From 1980 to 2007, about one in three of the 25.4 million adults arrested for drugs was African American.  

Illinois’ 4-year public university population only exceeds the prison population by about 115,000 people. However, there are 10,000 more prisoners than African-American 4-year public university students in Illinois. 

Over the past four decades, imprisonment in the U.S. has increased explosively. At the same time, the nation has seen the rise of for-profit prison companies, which financially benefit from keeping more people locked up.  The biggest private prison owner in America, The Corrections Corporation of America, has seen its profits increase by more than 500 percent in the past 20 years. Moreover, the business’ growth shows no sign of stopping, having already approached 48 states to take over government-run prisons. Despite Illinois’ 23-year moratorium on construction of private prisons, private companies are still trying to build corrections facilities in the state.

Research shows that a felony conviction or time in prison makes individuals significantly less employable. It is not simply that individuals who commit crimes are less likely to work, but rather, incarceration independently lowers the employment prospects of ex-offenders.  Time behind bars can lead to deterioration in a worker’s “human capital,” including formal education, on-the-job experience, and even “soft skills” such as punctuality or customer relations. Incarceration can also lead to the loss of social networks that can help workers find jobs andprovide former inmates with new social networks that make criminal activity more likely. Incarceration or a felony conviction can also impart a stigma that makes employers less likely to hire ex-offenders. 

The School to Prison Pipeline describes a system of policies and practices that rely heavily on automatic punishments that remove students from the school system and encourages police involvement in schools-based conflicts. The end result is children who are more vulnerable to involvement with the criminal justice system. According to recent data by the Department of Education, African American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates. Out of the 96,000 students that were arrested and 242,000 referred to law enforcement by schools during the 2009-10 school year, more than 70 percent were black and Hispanic.

Black students in Illinois are suspended and expelled at rates that far exceed their representation in public schools.


  • 22% African-American
  • 54% White


  • 49% African-American
  • 32% White


  • 50% African-American
  • 32% White

School discipline also has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and on LGBT youth.

Resources on Fairness in Criminal Justice

Center for Law and Justice

Brennan Center –Racial Justice

Sentencing Project- Uneven Justice

Prison Policy Initiative- IL 

Prison Policy Initiative- Mass Incarceration

To Privatize or Not to Privatize 

Chicago Youth Justice

Juvenile Justice in Illinois

Attainment of Economic Justice 

In 2013, 4,781 charges of Employment Discrimination were filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Illinois.   

The breakdown of these charges is as follows:

  • Race Charges: 38.8%
  • Sex Charges: 27.4%
  • National Origin Charges: 11.4%
  • Religion Charges: 3.5%
  • Retaliation Charges: 40.8%
  • Age Charges: 23.7%
  • Disability: 28.4%

Since 2006, the Illinois Human Rights Act has prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.  From 2007-2010, 457 sexual orientation complaints were filed in Illinois.  

In 2012, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research revealed that Chicago remains the most racially segregated city in the country, despite significant improvements in the last decade.  If you are poor and black in Chicago, on average, 34.6 percent of people in your neighborhood are also living below the poverty line.

Everyone has the right to live where they want to live, free from discrimination.  Unfair renting practices against families with children are the most common violation of fair housing laws.  In Chicago, African Americans who inquire about homes listed for sale are made aware of 17 percent fewer homes and are shown 18 percent fewer ones.  Asians are told about 15 percent fewer and are shown 19 percent fewer properties.  Among renters, all minority groups found out about fewer choices than did white consumers.  In the Chicago area, African Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites to be told that a credit check had to be performed and that particular rental units carried fees.  They were also quoted higher fees than whites.  

Resources on Employment and Housing Discrimination

Employment discrimination lawsuits (IL)

IL Human Rights Act

Fair Housing & Lending Project- IL

Manhattan Institute- Racial segregation

Additional Resources

Race and Poverty Blog

Encyclopedia of Chicago – Civil Rights Movement

National Community Reinvestment Coalition