Benjamin S. Wolf was the Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois from 2015 to April of 2020. In that capacity, he supervised a staff of approximately 20 lawyers and legal assistants working to protect women’s and reproductive rights, the rights of people in the LGBTQ community, freedom of speech and religion, victims of unlawful discrimination, victims of police mistreatment, and children and adults in government custody.
Before taking that position, Wolf was the Director of the ACLU of Illinois’ Institutional Reform Project since 1984. The Project provides legal representation to Illinois residents of prisons, jails, mental health centers, developmental centers, government-funded nursing homes and children who are wards of the state.
Under his direction, the Project has challenged the systemic abuse and neglect of the most helpless of our citizens in the courts—the only forum in which they could stand on equal footing with powerful officials and agencies that too frequently fail to provide safe and livable conditions.
For example, in R.J. v. Mueller, the Project represents hundreds of youth housed in Illinois Youth Centers operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice. In Jimmy Doe v. Cook County, the Project challenged the poor health and mental health care, pervasive violence and filthy conditions at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. After Cook County failed repeatedly to comply with the Court’s orders, the federal court appointed an Administrator to oversee management of the facility. The Administrator’s success engineering substantial improvements in services and conditions are the subject of a book by a leading expert, Recalibrating Juvenile Detention (Roush, 2019).
In Lippert v. Baldwin, the Project is monitoring a consent decree requiring reforms to the health care provided to tens of thousands of inmates in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
The increasing mistreatment of children who are dependent upon the state for their care and support led a 1988 lawsuit, B.H. v. McDonald, the first federal case to challenge the complete breakdown of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services system. The project secured a consent decree in 1991 which triggered substantial reforms but still requires ongoing monitoring and enforcement.
The Project filed three cases on behalf of people with disabilities, Ligas v Maram, Williams v. Blagojevich, and Colbert v. Blagojevich, successfully challenging the state’s practice of unnecessarily warehousing people in nursing homes. Governor Quinn’s administration agreed to settlements of all three cases, and the Project is working with its co-counsel at local law firms and advocacy groups to make sure the state complies with its promises to permit everyone who wants to leave the institutions to receive the services they need in a safe, appropriate, community-based setting. Thousands of people now receive community-based services in their own homes as the result of these three cases.
Wolf received his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He graduated cum laude from Boston College Law School in 1979 and was an editor of the Boston College Law Review. Wolf served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge James B. Moran in the Northern District of Illinois from 1979 through 1980. Prior to joining the ACLU legal staff, Wolf was an associate at Jenner & Block in Chicago from 1980 to 1984. Wolf lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife Donna. Their daughters, Leah and Miriam, both are teachers.
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