Sheriff Dart speaks on mental health and criminal justice reform at DePaul

Sheriff Tom Dart speaks at an event sponsored by the DePaul Democrats Tuesday evening. (BRENDEN MOORE/THE DEPAULIA)
Sheriff Tom Dart speaks at an event sponsored by the DePaul Democrats Tuesday evening. (BRENDEN MOORE/THE DEPAULIA)

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart discussed everything from his efforts on mental health reform to rumors of a possible 2019 mayoral run during an appearance on campus Tuesday evening.

The event, sponsored by the DePaul College Democrats, provided an oasis of calm discussion amid the chaotic scene across the university brought on by Milo Yiannopoulos’ concurrent event and the student protests it generated.

Dart, who was elected to a third term as sheriff in 2014, spoke for around 20 minutes and then took questions from the audience of about 50 for about another hour. Much of the discussion focused on mental health and criminal justice reform, issues Dart has championed as he challenges the traditional role of what a sheriff’s job is.

“85 percent of the people who enter our jail go right out the door back out to the community,” Dart said. “So the majority, the largest funnel, is coming out of jails. Yet, the people who operate jails traditionally have thought they’re not the ones to try and fix the broken toys because that’s going to be done somewhere else.”

Dart spoke of the proactive efforts his office has taken in response, such as treating inmates for mental health, giving them proper therapy and providing them with a plan to succeed upon release from the jail. As he has done often in the past, Dart mentioned how the Cook County Jail is probably the largest mental health provider in the country.

“I told folks, if they’re going to make me the largest mental health provider in the country, I’m going to be the best one,” Dart said.

The sheriff said the challenge is often getting people to recognize that the problem exists.

“I think it’s because most of us don’t interact with large segments of our society,” Dart said. “And as result of that, it’s very easy to push them off to the margins and not think of them. Not because you’re a bad person, but because you do don’t work with them, you don’t deal with them, you don’t see them.”

Speaking on criminal justice, Dart said upset and anger in many communities when it comes to the criminal justice system is understandable because “it has never worked for them. Objectively, it hasn’t.”

Dart acknowledged that these problems were years in the making and will not be fixed overnight, but challenged the students in attendance to get involved.  

“So, how did we get to this trainwreck and what do we do about it? Collectively, these things have been allowed to go on and collectively, because it’s out of sight and out of mind, it hasn’t been on people’s radar screens,” Dart said. “But the solutions to them I really do feel are doable. And it’s going to be really incumbent upon a lot of you folks, people in your generation, to really take the lead on that and to care.”

The room erupted in loud applause when a student suggested to Dart that he run for mayor in 2019. The sheriff, who’s been coy about his interest, jokingly told the room, “I haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up yet.”

“Honest to God, I really, really love what I’m doing,” Dart said. “I know we’re literally at the forefront of incredible change in an area I know that needs it, I’m pretty good at it, so it’s tough for me to do that. But I told people I’d look at it this time.”

At the end of the Q&A, Dart mingled with students, taking photo and sharing stories.

While those who attended were happy to hear from the sheriff, the actions taking place outside the event, which was hosted in the Schmitt Academic Center, was not far from mind. Many students spoke of the contrast between the event and the College Republicans’.

“We decided to bring someone who wanted to come and talk about the issues and not bash certain groups of people,” said Nassir Faulkner, president of the DePaul Democrats. “So I think that says a lot. Other groups on campus may have created more of a stir, but I think the students in this room got more out of what Sheriff Dart was talking about rather than some guy who goes around to college campuses and speaks to people about what happens to be very offensive rhetoric.”

For junior and DePaul Democrats executive board member Kyla Patterson, the event was refreshing.

“It was refreshing to see an actual, constructive political conversation go on on campus,” Patterson said. “Tom Dart is leading the nation when it comes to criminal justice reform, and as somebody who’s been impacted by mental illness in my life and have seen the negative impacts that the criminal justice system has on people who suffer from mental illnesses, seeing someone who’s at the forefront of reform, it’s great.”