Proceedings of a Workshop
Addressing the Drivers of Criminal Justice Involvement to Advance Racial Equity
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
SUPPORTING CHILDREN AND FAMILIES TO REDUCE RACIAL INEQUALITY IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE
In this workshop, speakers discussed the numerous interrelated factors that shape racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. Workshop presentations focused on issues and promising solutions in health and well-being, in both neighborhood and opportunity contexts, as well as in youth-serving systems, as they relate to reducing racial inequality. The programs and policies discussed in this workshop were presented with varying levels and types of evidence; while some offered evidence from evaluations, others provided less in terms of program efficacy. Across these domains, supporting children and families was a common theme from the presentations and discussions.
PUTTING YOUTH DEVELOPMENT AND IDENTITY INTO CONTEXT
When considering how to reduce racial disparities, said Micere Keels (University of Chicago), it is critical to consider the societal and institutional processes that sustain and perpetuate historical racial power structures in this country. Policy solutions that focus only on the present are “tinkering at the margins”; changing the present requires viewing it through a long-term, historical lens, she said. Similarly, interventions that aim to reduce youth involvement in the criminal justice system need to view children in the broad ecological context of their lives. Children are exposed to different experiences and circumstances in their families, their schools, their communities, and society; these developmental contexts differ in how they teach and perpetuate the likelihood of victimization, said Keels. “We are again only tinkering at the margins” if we focus interventions only on one level. Keels shared an example, saying that we often think of child soldiers in other countries as having little agency and little choice, so we respond with support rather than criminalization. However, young gang members in this country are often perceived as individuals with freedom of choice who are willfully engaging in criminal activities; the re-
sponse is therefore often punitive rather than focused on rectifying the underlying issues that led them to gang membership. Perceptions matter, said Keels, because they dictate how we perceive victimization and shape our response to safety concerns.
Angela Irvine-Baker (Ceres Policy Research) added that in addition to the developmental context, it is critical to consider how race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression intersect. These layers of identity can be drivers of inequality in the criminal justice system. In particular, notions of Black femininity and masculinity and similar constructs of Latinx femininity and masculinity are “driving our youth of color into the justice system,” she said. Irvine-Baker shared the results of anonymous surveys of youth in the juvenile justice system. Nationally, 20 percent of youth—and 40 percent of girls—in the juvenile justice system identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, gender-nonconforming, or transgender (LGBQ/GNCT). Among these LGBQ/GNCT youth involved in the justice system, 85 percent are youth of color, said Irvine-Baker. The intersection between the variables of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression can be particularly salient in the criminalization of sex work. Irvine-Baker noted that youth who are both gay and gender-nonconforming are more likely than other youth to be criminalized for behavior related to sex work. Another area in which gender and race intersect is in the hyper-criminalization of masculine Black and Latinx youth, who are more likely to receive violent crime and weapons charges than other youth.
Irvine-Baker offered several suggestions for how to use this evidence to inform interventions. First, diversion efforts and programming for youth involved in sex work need to consider the intersections of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression and need to be inclusive of youth across the entire spectrum of identities. There is a need, she said, for diversion programs targeted to masculine youth of color who receive violent crimes and weapons charges, particularly if no one was injured. Irvine-Baker said these types of charges are a “red flag” and an opportunity to disentangle what happened whether the punishment is appropriate, and to look for diversion opportunities. Finally, there is a need to build the capacity of youth-serving agencies and organizations to be intentional about serving LGBQ/GNCT youth of color.
FAMILY-CENTERED APPROACHES LED BY THOSE DIRECTLY IMPACTED
The incarceration of women has grown by 700 percent over the past 20 years, said Serena Liguori (New Hour for Women and Children). Women of color make up about one-half of all incarcerated women, and many incarcerated women are survivors of domestic abuse. New Hour for Women and Children seeks to help these women through a variety of services, including re-entry programming, parenting and wellness guidance, and support for those who have babies while incarcerated. Liguori herself was incarcerated, and other staff at New Hour have also been incarcerated or directly impacted by incarceration. Liguori said this makes a difference in understanding and empowering the women in the programs and in addressing recidivism rates. “Women want to know … that you understand their story and can help them through what the next steps are,” she said.
New Hour offers a 15-week class for re-entry, growth, and engagement. This trauma-informed program focuses on building self-esteem and empowering women to think of themselves as advocates for change. The program has a 2 percent recidivism rate, said Liguori, compared to a rate of 65 percent in the region among men and women. Part of the program’s success lies in addressing basic needs that have gone unmet for these women, including safe housing, economic stability, physical and mental health care, and community support. Liguori said that the stigma for those who have been incarcerated is “palpable,” and that being met with compassion and support is critical. New Hour also works to eliminate collateral consequences (e.g., court fees), and to reduce technical violations of parole, which can impede a person’s successful re-entry to the community after incarceration.
Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, said Ebony Underwood (We Got Us Now), about one-half are parents. There are currently more than 2.7 million children in the United States with an incarcerated parent, and approximately 10 million children and young adults in the United States have had a parent behind bars at some point in their lives. Children of incarcerated parents comprise “one of the largest marginalized at-risk populations,” said Underwood, and Black
and Hispanic children are, respectively, nine and three times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than White children. Underwood’s father was incarcerated for much of her life, and the resulting abandonment, shame, social stigma, stress, and economic instability have taken a toll, she said. As she began to overcome this stress and find her voice, she found that the general public was largely unaware of this “historically invisible” population and the devastating effects that incarceration have on families. Underwood founded We Got Us Now, an organization devoted to amplifying the issues that children of incarcerated parents face. Like New Hour, We Got Us Now is built and led by people who have been directly impacted by incarceration.
The organization runs an “actionist” leadership program, which trains children who are directly impacted to become leading subject matter experts committed to reforming the criminal justice system in their communities. We Got Us Now also builds public awareness; for example, the organization highlights the fact that incarcerated people who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates. It also uplifts the resiliency and ingenuity of the families of incarcerated people. Mass incarceration, said Underwood, has left millions of children traumatized and suffering. However, these children can thrive and persevere with encouragement, empowerment, and support.
HEALING TRAUMA TO MITIGATE CRIMINAL JUSTICE INEQUALITIES
Echoing Micere Keels (University of Chicago), Dolores Subia BigFoot (University of Oklahoma) said that addressing current disparities in criminal justice requires recognizing the impact of historical, multigenerational, and cumulative trauma in communities. Native Americans, said BigFoot, are an honor-based culture; learning from the stories of the past “honors our ancestors … and honors our futures.” Unfortunately, the criminal justice system and other systems have largely not benefitted the Native American community, and Native American children specifically. However, one program that came out of the U.S. Department of Justice has been implemented both nationally and in the Native American community, she said. The National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth is a nationwide program aimed at working with courts, child welfare agencies, and families to support and treat youth. One component of this program is a toolkit for American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities to “restore the sacred circle” through a range of interventions, including trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy.
BigFoot noted that indigenous cultures have always had ways of explaining the healing process. For example, trauma-informed care “has always been part of our way of taking care of one another when we think about being a good relative.” Concepts like child well-being are defined differently depending on culture and context, she said. For example, BigFoot worked with Alaska Natives, who conveyed their idea of child well-being as relating to the harvest of dried salmon. That is, if a family worked together at fish camp, passed on knowledge, repaired relationships, had goals to work toward, and harvested enough dried salmon for the season, the family could feel assured that the child and the family were doing well. When considering child well-being in the context of the criminal justice system, said BigFoot, it is essential to look at spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being within a cultural context that allows the child “to know who they are, where they came from, and why they are here.” In addition, she said, storytelling is an important part of the healing process; overcoming historical and personal trauma requires telling a new story. We can help children involved in the criminal justice system by supporting them to “create their own story of helpfulness, or resilience, of learning what is important for them to thrive.”
We are living in a time, said Henrika McCoy (University of Illinois, Chicago), when children are exposed to levels and types of trauma not seen before. While young people may have historically been exposed to trauma in their homes or communities, now they are repeatedly exposed to trauma—for example, images of Black people being killed by police—through social media and the news. For those youth who have traditionally been exposed to trauma, she said, that trauma has continued and is expanding. In order to help children heal from trauma, it is first necessary to identify the children affected and connect them with the services they need. We know that youth in the criminal
justice system have extraordinary levels of trauma, McCoy noted. Unfortunately, she said, research indicates that existing screening and assessment tools for behavioral issues tied to trauma exhibit high levels of racial, ethnic, and gender bias. This can lead to disparities and inaccuracies in identifying who needs mental health services. This means that youth who have experienced trauma and need services may have their behaviors be criminalized rather than viewed as victims, for which the response would be to move them into a system (e.g., juvenile detention) where they are unable to access appropriate mental health services. Racial and ethnic disparities impact not only who is in the system, but the type of services that young people get in the system.
McCoy shared the details of two promising interventions, noting that they are examples of how multiple interventions can work together. The first intervention is Family-Centered Treatment, which is delivered in the home to the entire family of a youth in the juvenile justice system and aims to identify what the family needs to successfully manage the traumas they have experienced. The second is the Crossover Youth Practice Model, which focuses on helping youth and families navigate various systems. For example, a youth may be engaged with both the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system and also have mental or behavioral health needs. Instead of the systems working separately, said McCoy, through this intervention they are brought to work together. McCoy emphasized that interventions are not merely an opportunity to address some aspect of a child’s life, but an opportunity for a family to gain respect, to regain power, and to identify strategies to successfully navigate the systems as a family unit.
ADDRESSING NEIGHBORHOOD CONDITIONS TO ADVANCE RACIAL EQUITY
Speakers discussed the social and physical features that shape neighborhood conditions and can influence racial inequalities in crime, victimization, and criminal justice involvement. John MacDonald (University of Pennsylvania) began with an overview of trends in racial disparities across arrests and victimization, followed by a discussion of neighborhood-based interventions to reduce crime. Over the past 25 years, there have been major reductions in racial disparities in rates of both arrests and victimization, said MacDonald. Violent crime and arrest rates have fallen in general, but the reduction has been more substantial for Blacks than for other racial groups.2 MacDonald said many factors contribute to this reduction in disparities, but one central factor has been the major structural changes that have occurred in many cities. Starting in the mid-1990s, there has been an effort to invest in the revitalization of urban centers as part of the “back to the city” movement. These strategic investments in redevelopment, along with land use changes, are partly responsible for the reduction in victimizations and arrests. Although changes to places do not address the structural disadvantages in income among certain communities, they can change the context in which people live and make decisions, which can influence participation in crime, he said.
MacDonald gave three examples of place-based initiatives that are scalable and sustainable and that can lead to reductions in racial disparities in victimization and criminal justice contact. These examples focus on making changes in “pockets of crime,” a term that sociologist Peter St. Jean uses to refer to economically and structurally disadvantaged communities with high rates of crime. The first example is Business Improvement Districts, which involve merchants and landowners contributing to clean-up activities and basic public safety (e.g., private security). The creation of Business Improvement Districts, said MacDonald, has been found to lead to declines in total crime, robberies, and arrests. The second initiative shared by MacDonald is requiring owners to make vacant houses compliant with city ordinances (e.g., by installing working windows and doors). This policy was associated with fewer assaults, fewer gun assaults, and fewer nuisance crimes, he said. The third and “most transformative” example was the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s LandCare program. This program began in a single neighborhood and expanded to incorporate the entire city; it involves turning vacant lots into park-like settings that are cleaned and maintained through community partnerships. The program is inexpensive—at about $5 per square meter for remediation and 50 cents
2 MacDonald noted that violent crime rates rose in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, disproportionately impacting minority communities, so some of these trends may have reversed.
per square meter for maintenance—and has substantially reduced crime over the long term, including robberies, drug crimes, public order offenses, and total crime.
Communities across the United States, particularly those with vacant lots, abandoned houses, and distressed commercial corridors, need to consider strategic investment in these types of place-based programs, said MacDonald. These programs are scalable, cost effective, and reduce crime. They can be concentrated in neighborhoods with the highest rates of crime and victimization, replicated across the country, and employ individuals from the communities where they are applied. In seeking to improve public safety, he said, communities should examine not only how to “restore people, but also restore places.” MacDonald also noted that revitalization initiatives can have unintended consequences, including gentrification. He stressed that undertaking such work is a balancing act: On the one hand, concentrated poverty has a “pernicious effect” on communities, but on the other hand, gentrification can result in people being priced out of their communities. Therefore, communities need to be mindful of these unintended consequences when undertaking such initiatives.
Daniel Webster (Johns Hopkins University) echoed MacDonald’s approach by highlighting ways of reducing violence through public health approaches that rely less upon police and prisons. Webster discussed a breadth of interventions, including reducing access to firearms and alcohol and addressing exposure to environmental lead. The implementation of handgun purchaser licensing laws, he said, is associated with a significant reduction in firearm homicide rates; conversely, states that have repealed such laws see those rates increase. Webster said that these laws have a strong effect on the diversion of guns for criminal misuse and are associated with lower rates of officer-involved shootings as well as officers shot in the line of duty. He pointed out that these findings are consistent with the general theory that if you “keep guns out of dangerous contexts, fewer people are going to get shot.” Reducing access to alcohol, said Webster, also reduces crime rates. For example, in Baltimore, a study estimated that reducing the number of alcohol outlets (on and off premise outlets) by one-fifth could reduce violent crime by about 17 percent.
Another concern is exposure to environmental lead. Such exposure, particularly early in life, is connected with adverse effects on the brain and behavior, learning deficits, and problems with impulse control, Webster said, and the data show that these outcomes lead to more criminal offending over the lifespan. Neighborhoods with higher levels of lead exposure have been shown to have higher rates of homicide and incarceration than similar neighborhoods with lower levels of lead. It is critical to prevent lead exposure, said Webster, adding that early intervention for children with lead poisoning is also associated with reductions in involvement in the criminal justice system.
While the physical and social environment in which a person lives has an impact on the likelihood of criminal activity, not having a place to live is also a predictor of involvement in the criminal justice system, said Kim Johnson (National Low Income Housing Coalition). Generations of both overtly and covertly racist housing policies have caused Black, Native, and Latino people to be disproportionately represented in homeless populations, she said. Unfortunately, communities often criminalize homelessness rather than allocate resources to address the root causes of homelessness. Public housing authorities and owners of federally assisted housing have broad discretion in screening out applicants with a criminal record, said Johnson, leaving many people cut off from housing and from their families and support networks.
Many individuals leaving jails and prisons exit into homelessness, Johnson said, and those who cannot find affordable housing are more likely to recidivate. This cycle of homelessness, poverty, and incarceration can be broken by implementing policies that increase access to affordable housing, making investments in the construction of deeply affordable housing, providing housing assistance to all in need, ending the criminalization of homelessness, and removing barriers to housing access for people who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Johnson offered two specific examples of actions that could be taken (1) investing additional resources in the National Housing Trust Fund to increase the supply of affordable and available housing and (2) addressing the $70 billion capital needs backlog in public housing to ensure safe and healthy homes for public housing residents.
The physical and social characteristics of individuals and communities are multiple, varied, and intersectional, said Layel Camargo (Bay Area Community Land Trust). Factors including race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, experience with trauma, and access to food, health care, and housing compound and interact with one another, and impact a person’s likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Making changes in one area can affect other areas, said Camargo. For example, investing in affordable housing can increase a family’s ability to access food. The Bay Area Community Land Trust is an example of a community-led initiative that provides permanently affordable housing for diverse, low-income people. Decreasing our investment in the criminal justice system and increasing our investment in basic needs and community programs has the potential to ameliorate inequalities, both in society at large and in the criminal justice system specifically.
Camargo called for shifting power to the local level in order to increase the ability of local governments to redistribute resources where appropriate and to resolve issues faster. In addition, they said, shifting away from no-tolerance approaches and toward systems of restorative and transformative justice is essential for reducing racial disparities and providing alternatives to the criminal justice system. For example, undocumented immigrants and gender-nonconforming individuals may feel unsafe approaching police officers or navigating the criminal justice system, even when they have been victimized. Redistributing resources toward communities and away from the criminal justice system is a way to move forward in reducing social and racial inequality and ensuring justice for all people, said Camargo. Johnson added that while there is no “silver bullet” solution, the country can begin by making investments in communities that have been historically and purposefully disinvested.
RESHAPING SYSTEMS TO REDUCE RACIAL INEQUALITIES IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Throughout the workshop, speakers highlighted multiple systems that interact with the criminal justice system as promising sites of intervention to mitigate racial inequality. Speakers discussed barriers to progress, promising solutions, and the bidirectional relationships between drivers of inequalities in these systems and the criminal justice system.
The health system contributes to racial inequities but could also be a forceful solution to these inequities, said Emily Wang (Yale University). Health care is constitutionally guaranteed in the correctional system, she said, and it is a place where a large proportion of people in correctional settings first access health care and medications. Unfortunately, the quality of care in correctional institutions varies and does not always meet the needs of incarcerated individuals. For example, she said, while it is irrefutable that medications such as buprenorphine improve health outcomes for opioid use disorder (OUD), the vast majority of correctional facilities do not offer these medications. Wang noted that one reason for this is that the correctional health care system is overseen by correctional leaders rather than physicians or public health officials.
After a person leaves a correctional facility, Wang noted, they face significant barriers to accessing care. Getting an appointment or receiving appropriate medication can be difficult, and there can be bias against formerly incarcerated people or people of color. For example, continuing with the example OUD, White people are approximately 18 percent more likely to receive buprenorphine than Black people. Further, Black people receiving medication treatment for OUD are more likely to be arrested than White people, thus disrupting their treatment due to a lack of access to medications in correctional facilities.
Wang said that the health care system in correctional facilities has the potential to mitigate some of the health disparities in the United States, if care is equitable and of high quality. Because Black and Latino people are more likely to pass through correctional facilities, access to and quality of care in these facilities impacts these populations more than others. However, she said, “we truly know nothing about how correctional systems influence racial disparities in health outcomes” because of a lack of systematic data collection. However, Wang noted that one evidence-based change that could be
made immediately is ensuring that correctional systems provide access to all three FDA-approved medications for OUD.
Wang also shared details about the Transitions Clinic Network, a nationwide initiative to engage those who have been released from correctional facilities back into community primary care. This network relies on community health workers who have a history of incarceration themselves and who work alongside a primary care team. Studies have shown that these programs, which partner formerly incarcerated community health workers with a primary care team, increase patient engagement, reduce hospitalizations, and reduce future criminal justice contact. The involvement of previously-incarcerated people, she said, is particularly critical to the Transitions Clinic Network’s success.
The educational system in the United States, said Anthony Peguero (Arizona State University), has been marked by socialization, assimilation, colonization, and racial and ethnic inequality. People of color have experienced marginalization, such as anti-literacy laws prominent in the south, Native American boarding schools, and the education of students in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Currently, there are conversations about school safety, the increasing amount of security and law enforcement in schools, and the relationship between schools and the criminal justice system. In these conversations, said Peguero, it is critical to keep in mind the intersection between race, gender, trauma, discrimination, punishment, and criminalization. Efforts to improve school safety need to keep equity at the forefront and need to seek to ameliorate disproportionate police contact and punishment. In addition, he said, there is a growing movement to rethink punishment through the lens of trauma-informed practices, addressing not just the misbehavior but the socioemotional well-being of students. A restorative justice approach, for example, aims at restoring and improving relationships and building strong bonds in the community moving forward. Peguero stressed that a definition of “school safety” should be centered not just on reducing criminal activity, but on addressing trauma and improving student well-being and socioemotional health.
Defining “school safety” by focusing on criminal activity has resulted in police presence and punitive practices in schools, rather than approaches focused on addressing underlying mental health and well-being concerns, said Micere Keels (University of Chicago). Schools that serve a higher percentage of racial and ethnic minority children are more likely to respond to emotional and behavioral dysregulation with punitive discipline rather than mental health support, she said. As police presence in schools increases, so does the use of exclusionary discipline and the criminalization of breaking school rules. In turn, increased law enforcement response only worsens any underlying factors that were associated with breaking rules, she said.
Involvement in the juvenile justice system makes the transition back into school difficult, Keels said, and this can lead to low academic achievement that is associated with later criminal justice system involvement. The current system is based on the criminalization of developmental and mental health challenges, in her view, and it results in the maintenance of population-level differences in violence and victimization. However, many school districts are committing to reducing police presence, said Keels, and there is a need for research on how to implement school safety policies and practices that reduce rather than exacerbate underlying developmental challenges. Keels offered an example of how schools can be responsive to underlying challenges rather than using punishment or police: A student in Chicago who was coping with homelessness, the death of one family member, and the incarceration of another. He was using drugs to manage, and was getting in fights at school. Instead of calling the police to respond to these fights, the school nurse met the student at the door in the morning to assess his basic needs (e.g., sleep, food) before going to class.
Desiree Mims (Black Organizing Project) shared the history and work of the Black Organizing Project, a community organization focused on “making police-free schools a reality and not a dream.” This work began in 2011, in response to the killing of a young man by a school police officer. The organization is multigenerational and Black-led, said Mims. She noted that the public education and criminal justice systems impact the entire family, from students to grandparents, so it is critical to
have voices of multiple generations at the table. Further, Mims emphasized the importance of lifting up the voices of those most impacted by policies and allowing their lived experiences to facilitate change and transform communities.
Mims described the process of getting buy-in from the Oakland school district and other city leaders. She said that “we really had to test them” and push them to understand and empathize with the real-life experiences of students harmed by the use of law enforcement in schools. The school district valued data, so the Black Organizing Project became data experts in order to push their agenda forward. Several policies have been passed through this “step-by-step process,” said Mims. In 2012, a school district policy was implemented to provide a mechanism for families and students to make formal reports and complaints about the conduct of school police officers. In 2014, a new policy prohibited the Oakland Unified School District’s police department from being involved with student disciplinary issues (e.g., minor behavior issues). In 2015, a memorandum of understanding between the school district and the Oakland Police Department limited the police department’s role in the schools and mandated the regular reporting of all referrals to law enforcement, citations, and arrests.
Also in 2015, “willful defiance” was eliminated as a grounds for suspension. Mims noted that this is a behavior that is often criminalized for Black boys and girls but not other children. Finally, in June 2020, the school board passed a resolution that will eliminate the Oakland Unified School District’s police department and will reallocate the money toward student support services, such as school-based social workers, psychologists, restorative justice and transformative justice practitioners, and other mental or behavioral health professionals. Mims noted that this was the result of a 10-year campaign, but that the organization used the events of 2020 (the death of George Floyd and the movement for racial equity) as a catalyst to hold the school board “accountable for the things that they had promised for so long.”
The shift to police-free schools will not happen overnight, said Mims; it is anticipated to be a 2-3-year process. The first phase involved developing an alternative safety plan; this required rewriting policies, looking at data on when and why police were called, and reviewing legal requirements. The second phase, which they are engaged in now, is a community-driven process in which community organizations, experts, and other stakeholders are creating alternatives to police, such as setting up a crisis hotline to call instead of the police.
CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM
Children who are involved in the child welfare system are disproportionately represented in both the juvenile justice population and the adult prison population, said Jennifer Rodriguez (Youth Law Center). A lack of data obscures the full picture, but one study found that two-thirds of youth involved in delinquency had been involved in the child welfare system at some point, and another found that two-thirds of youth who have been involved in both child welfare and the juvenile justice system as children experience at least one jail stay as an adult. There are a number of factors that influence this pipeline of children from the child welfare system into the justice system, said Rodriguez. One of the top drivers is the lack of trauma-sensitive responses to the adverse childhood experiences of children in foster care, she said. In particular, there is a lack of focus on protecting, nurturing, and maintaining the relationships that are the primary protective factor for children in foster care, and inadequate focus on ensuring that they receive high-quality parenting while in care.
Related to this, Rodriguez said, are issues around the general quality of foster care and congregate care placements. Placement in congregate care or a group home dramatically increases the risk of delinquency involvement, even when all other factors (e.g., race, mental health problems) are equal. The child welfare system, like the juvenile justice system, criminalizes behaviors that are hallmarks of normal adolescent development, such as experimenting, taking risks, and learning about consequences. Rodriguez said that many congregate care facilities rely on law enforcement to enforce facility rules; one shelter in California, for example, called law enforcement more than 1,000 times in a single year for infractions as minor as kicking a vending machine.
Many children in the child welfare system are not “parented” but, rather, “supervised,” said Rodriguez. She noted that evidence indicates that a strong parenting relationship is important, yet the child welfare system places little focus on protecting or building supportive relationships. Such relationships must be the “North Star” in foster care, Rodriguez said. Other critical avenues for improving the child welfare system include limiting the use of congregate care facilities, prohibiting the use of law enforcement in congregate facilities, and ensuring due process and vigorous advocacy for young people who are at risk of entering the delinquency system. Finally, and most importantly, Rodriguez said, society needs to create space to enable the young people and families most directly impacted by foster care and juvenile justice to design the blueprint for “a new approach that can truly provide creative and innovative supports for young people.”
CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The racial injustice that is evident throughout the criminal justice system is particularly prevalent in the “war on drugs,” said Theshia Naidoo (Drug Policy Alliance). The decision to criminalize certain substances was not based on science or relative harms, she said, but rather was a policy choice based on the perceived consumers of those substances. For example, the first anti-opium laws were directed at Chinese immigrants; laws against cocaine and marijuana had similar motivations. The criminalization of drug possession has had profound consequences: In 2019, there were more than 1.3 million arrests for drug possession, more than for any other offense. Those arrested are disproportionately Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income people, despite the fact that rates of drug use and sales are relatively comparable across races, she said. In addition to disparities in arrests, there are vast racial disparities in incarceration rates and length of stay; for example, possession and sale of crack cocaine are punished more harshly than possession of powder cocaine. Moreover, “habitual offender laws” further compound racial disparities by increasing sentencing for subsequent convictions, and drug diversion programs are generally unavailable to those with prior criminal convictions. Once people are “caught in the net of the system” through an arrest for drug possession, “it is very hard to get out,” she said.
Naidoo offered several approaches for addressing the racial inequalities in drug policy: repealing barriers to housing, educational opportunities, employment, and voting that are based on drug convictions; expunging or sealing drug-related criminal convictions and evaluating those for people who are currently serving long sentences; eliminating sentencing enhancements based on prior drug offenses; eliminating sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine; and requiring a racial impact analysis for any criminal justice legislation. Beyond those specific policy changes, said Naidoo, our country needs a fundamental paradigm shift in drug policy that moves away from criminalization and toward a health-centered approach. For example, Oregon decriminalized the possession of drugs for personal use in 2020; it is estimated that this will result in a 95 percent decrease in racial disparities in drug-related arrests.
One approach for reforming the criminal justice system, said Brendan O’Flaherty (Columbia University), is to view law enforcement agencies not as collections of individuals but rather as systems that operate like firms. O’Flaherty compared the police department and individual officers to Facebook and individual employees; if we are concerned about the anticompetitive practices of Facebook, we do not look at whether individual employees are deficient in some way. However, the predominant view of police departments is of a “group of individuals who happen to do things,” rather than of a system with its own incentives that drive actions. This “free agent” model—in which researchers examine whether individual officers are prejudiced—is not useful for reducing racial disparities, said O’Flaherty. Instead, viewing departments as firms allows the creation of structures that disincentivize certain behaviors and choices. Reducing lethal use of force is complicated, he said, but could involve separating liability insurance for officer-involved deaths from general liability insurance; insurance companies could require that departments adhere to certain standards in recruitment, training, and supervision.
Page May (Assata’s Daughters) explained that her work is aimed at creating “the necessary conditions to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons.” In order to achieve this vision of abolition,
she said, the work must be done by the people who are directly impacted, and people must challenge the fundamental assumptions of why things are the way they are. The organization Assata’s Daughters focuses on building the power of Black youth. May said that young people have a long history in the fight for freedom; for example, the Children’s March in Birmingham was a pivotal event in the path toward passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
May emphasized that abolition is not only about defunding the police, but also about transferring responsibility and resources into the community. Part of the work of Assata’s Daughters is identifying and building resources and institutions to provide support to the community. In particular, she said, the prison abolitionist movement’s approach to violence is not punitive but instead seeks to understand “who was harmed, how do we help them, and how do we make sure this never happens again.” For example, she said, violence is deeply connected to the patriarchy and toxic masculinity; until we address these issues, “we will continue to see massive amounts of violence.”
In recent years, said Michael Mueller-Smith (University of Michigan), there has been a proliferation of high-quality research about the intersection among economic opportunity, race, and criminal activity. The results of these studies highlight the barriers that some individuals face in accessing employment. The first study Mueller-Smith discussed was a randomized controlled trial that placed individuals returning from prison into subsidized employment. The theory, he said, was that these jobs would help the individuals develop job skills and add to their resume, while also alleviating employers’ concerns about hiring previously incarcerated individuals. While rates of employment were higher among the test group during the experiment, there was no discernable conversion of these opportunities to long-term employment, nor was there an impact on recidivism rates. Another study looked at the impact of “ban the box” policies, which prohibit employers from asking about criminal history in initial employment screening. These policies aim to reduce racial disparities in employment outcomes, but the study found that disparities were actually exacerbated. White applicants were far more likely than Black applicants to receive call-backs after the policy was implemented; the study’s authors theorized that without information on criminal records, employers made assumptions about the criminal history of individuals based on race. Finally, said Mueller-Smith, another study found that there are long-lasting benefits to offering a diversionary program to individuals facing their first felony conviction. The Deferred Adjudication of Guilt program, he said, has positive impacts on future employment, reoffending rates, and recidivism.
DATA LIMITATIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES ACROSS SYSTEMS
Across topics, many speakers noted the benefit of having better data, and more data, about the criminal justice system and the drivers of involvement in the system, as well as a more integrated way to share data across systems. Michael Mueller-Smith (University of Michigan) said that there are three main characteristics of criminal justice data in the United States that contribute to a siloed and fragmented system. First, data collection efforts are divided by the stage of the criminal justice system—such as by arrests, by court proceedings, or by prisons—and there is nothing that ties these data systems together. Second, many datasets are collected and reported at the aggregate level, which limits monitoring and understanding a variety of issues, such as the number of new individuals having contact with the justice system each year. Third, there is a “fundamental lack of integration of data” across systems. Mueller-Smith said that every National Academies’ report on the criminal justice system has noted the lack of an integrated data repository. In response to these gaps, Mueller-Smith and his colleague developed a data platform called the Criminal Justice Administrative Record System (CJARS). CJARS brings together data about arrests, criminal charges, convictions, institutional corrections, and community supervision. The platform will allow researchers to trace the evolution of a criminal episode through the stages of the justice system, and is designed to be integrated with socioeconomic data through the U.S. Census Bureau.
Other speakers also emphasized the benefit of having more data. Angela Irvine-Baker (Ceres Policy Research) said more data on gender identity and sexual expression, and shared details about the Whole Youth Project, which has developed a model for training probation departments to collect data on gender and sexual orientation, could enable intersectional analysis of data. This initiative involves training, policy development, data collection analysis, and ongoing peer-to-peer support. Ebony Underwood (We Got Us Now) said that there is a lack of comprehensive quantitative data to support solutions for children with incarcerated parents, while Jennifer Rodriguez (Youth Law Center) said that the data are insufficient for understanding youth who cross over from the child welfare system to the juvenile or adult justice system. She argued that “the data that we have reflects what we believe to be important,” and that the lack of data in this area reflects a lack of prioritization of this population.
Emily Wang (Yale University) noted that there are not “high-quality data on how health systems either contribute to, augment, or mitigate racial inequity in the criminal justice system.” She said that correctional facilities all operate differently, and there is no systematic method for measuring the quality of health care within the system, tracking transitions of care after incarceration, or identifying previously incarcerated individuals in electronic health records. However, she emphasized that while this research is needed, “we can’t wait before we act.” The country’s systems are failing those who are involved in the criminal justice system, she said, and it is critical to begin to address these issues while simultaneously conducting the needed research.
Reflecting on the committee’s first workshop,3 Bruce Western (committee co-chair) said that while it focused heavily on inequalities in the criminal justice system itself, this workshop delved into “the social inequalities in society to which we can ultimately trace the inequalities in the system.” The committee heard a broad range of perspectives from different fields, as well as from individuals working directly on the frontlines in impacted communities. These speakers provided the committee with both evidence and first-person stories about safety and well-being in communities, noted Khalil Muhammad (committee co-chair). Western observed that many of the issues that intersect with the criminal justice system are related to health generally, or to public health, and offered his view that “the criminal justice system is a blaming institution and public health … is non-blaming.” Rather than addressing victims and offenders, a public health approach addresses people. Based on the discussions at both the first and second workshops, Western concluded that a major question that the committee will need to grapple with is, “Why is it that our criminal justice system is overwhelmingly focused on low-income communities of color?”
3 For more information on the committee’s first workshop, see National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2021). Community Safety and Policing: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26099.
COMMITTEE ON REDUCING RACIAL INEQUALITIES IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Khalil G. Muhammad (Co-Chair), Kennedy School, Harvard University, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies; Bruce Western (Co-Chair), Justice Lab, Columbia University; Daryl Atkinson, Forward Justice, Durham, NC; Robert D. Crutchfield, Department of Sociology, University of Washington; Ronald L. Davis, 21CP Solutions, LLC; Bernice Donald, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit; Francis Guzman, National Center for Youth Law, Oakland, CA; Elizabeth Hinton, Yale University School of Law; Nikki Jones, Department of African American Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Tracey L. Meares, Yale University School of Law; Derek Neal, Department of Economics, University of Chicago; Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, Department of Psychology, Columbia University; Steven Raphael, School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley; Nancy Rodriguez, Criminlogy, Law, and Society, University of California, Irvine; Addie Rolnick, School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Robert J. Sampson, Department of Sociology, Harvard University; Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, Justice Research and Statistical Association; Maria B. Velez, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland; Yamrot Negussie, study director.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceeding of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Erin Hammers Forstag, rapporteur, as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteur or individual meeting participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all meeting participants; the committee; the Committee on Law and Justice; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The study committee was responsible only for organizing the public session, identifying the topics, and choosing speakers.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed by Robert D. Crutchfield, University of Washington. We also thank staff member Jennifer A. Cohen for reading and providing helpful comments on this manuscript. Kirsten Sampson Snyder, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, served as review coordinator.
SPONSORS: The workshop was supported by Arnold Ventures, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Academy of Sciences Cecil and Ida Green Fund, National Academy of Sciences W.K. Kellogg Fund, and the William T. Grant Foundation.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2021). Addressing the Drivers of Criminal Justice Involvement to Advance Racial Equity: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26151
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
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