Introduction to Part II
Part I of this report describes the nature, magnitude, and drivers of racial inequality in the criminal justice system. There we examined the roles of the historical legacies of slavery and settler colonialism, sociopolitical forces, and criminal justice policies and practices in creating and maintaining racial inequality. In Part II, we explore policies and programs to reduce racial inequalities in crime and criminal justice involvement. We examine community-based strategies, interventions in social policy areas adjacent to the criminal justice system, and criminal justice reform.
This current chapter outlines guiding principles for policy solutions and presents a historical example of a potentially promising policy agenda that was not fully developed to highlight lessons for decision makers and policy makers as they work to achieve reductions in racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
GUIDING PRINCIPLES TO REDUCE RACIAL INEQUALITY IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
This section outlines a set of guiding principles to the application of public policy solutions to address racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Informed by the committee’s expertise, these principles are meant to inform decision makers as they consider strategies and policy levers for reducing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, though they are not exhaustive nor meant to be prescriptive.
Reckoning and Reconciliation
Criminal justice policies and reform need to be informed by an acknowledgment of the harms perpetrated by the system against specific racial and ethnic groups. Reforms that involve reconciliation can help repair relationships between criminal justice agencies and impacted communities that have been marked by historical tensions, grievances, and misconceptions. For example, the Stockton (CA) police department implemented a racial reconciliation intervention that required the department to acknowledge the past harms of the criminal justice system, to truly listen to the community about their experiences, and then to make policy decisions based on what was learned in the process (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021b).
Participation, Accountability, and Transparency
Any effort to reduce racial inequalities in the criminal justice system needs to include mechanisms for community participation, accountability, and transparent data and evaluation methods. Impacted communities need to be resourced and trained to participate in the research process if their voices are absent in leadership positions. Above all, these efforts need to be accountable to the communities they serve.
Impacted Community Voices
Communities that are disproportionately harmed by racial inequality in the criminal justice system need to be partners in knowledge generation and in the implementation of policy solutions. Communities themselves have multifaceted needs, diverse perspectives, and unique contexts; the fact that community voices are heterogeneous across contexts calls for adequate survey tools and other measures of community representation in decision making.
Criminal justice decision makers must understand the heterogeneity of contexts across jurisdictions and communities and take this into account when considering public policy solutions that have been shown to work in other contexts.
Engaging communities and impacted populations is a central theme across each of these principles. While community engagement can take a variety of forms, ensuring that the perspectives of all key partners are taken into consideration throughout research development and design is critical
to increasing the relevance and effectiveness of any resulting intervention programs or reform efforts and can help to empower populations that have been stigmatized, marginalized, and ignored (the National Academies, 2022a). For example, the Burns Institute has worked to center community voices in reform efforts in Los Angeles County (the National Academies, 2021b). Other examples in public health and climate adaptation rely on using structured decision making processes, facilitating partnerships between decision makers and community organizations, and encouraging public ownership of responses (the National Academies, 2022b,d).
APPLYING A HISTORICAL LENS TO INFORM CRIMINAL JUSTICE POLICY
Chapter 2 presents an overview of the profound disparities among different groups categorized by race and ethnicity at every level of criminal justice system processing. Chapter 1 locates these disparities in historical context; Chapters 3 and 4 place them in contemporary contexts. Demands for strategies, policies, and new conceptual frameworks for organizing the work of the various institutions that comprise the criminal justice system emerge from these contexts.
Evidence concerning the relationship that a policy has on a desired outcome, what Gelman and Imbens (2013) refer to as “forward causal inference,” is critical to future policy making that can address the serious issues detailed in this report. Equally important is a deeper understanding of the reverse of forward causal inference—that is, seeking to uncover the causes of an outcome, such as racial inequality in the criminal justice system. History as a discipline provides insight on questions such as these.
Criminal legal institutions in the United States have a shape, orientation, and function that are dictated in part by laws and legal structures, the organization of the political economy, and cultural contexts. This means that to understand the shape of what these institutions should be, one must first understand what they could be.
In this vein, this section offers an historical account of the first substantial efforts of the federal government to address racial inequality at the intersection of social policy and criminal law enforcement at the national level. During the 1960s, national policy makers recognized the devastating impact of historical discrimination and sought to use national resources to end racial inequality. Guided by social science research, the policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations offered a response to the problems of poverty and crime through a preventative framework that stressed community empowerment. Yet despite unparalleled federal attention to the larger socioeconomic drivers of delinquency, by the end of the 1960s it was clear that racial disparities still existed and were growing rather than abating.
The federal government investments in a promising conceptual framework put forth in the 1960s never reached the scale that some advocates recommended. The failure of national policy makers and social scientists to follow their own research and policy recommendations was due, in part, to the influential view that “cultural pathologies” of broken families and bad behavior were among the root causes of poverty and crime, to which policing and incarceration were often assumed to be appropriate responses. By the early 1980s, federal and state policy makers adopted increasingly punitive responses to the problems of unemployment, failing school systems, housing insecurity, and public health problems, such as gun violence, that involved greater oversight and more intensive enforcement of behavioral standards (Kohler-Hausmann, 2017; Soss et al., 2011; Mead, 1997). Social spending increased greatly in the 1960s, and absolute poverty declined in the 1960s, but the growth in the anti-poverty effort was not sufficient to substantially reduce relative disparities in well-being that had alarmed many policy makers and social scientists at the beginning of the 1960s. Crime-control budgets, particularly at the federal level, began to grow quickly. Ultimately, rising crime rates in the 1960s and 1970s were interpreted as proof that the War on Poverty had failed and that the War on Crime did not go far enough (see Box 5-1).
This history helps us understand the range of alternatives for reducing racial inequality in the criminal justice system today. The Kerner Commission—formally the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—established by President Lyndon Johnson’s executive order during the unrest in Detroit in July 1967 called for large social policy investments to address underlying structural factors. This call was broadcast to a national audience through the Commission’s final report, release in February 1968. The report recommended the creation of two million jobs for “disadvantaged” Americans, continued federal intervention to ensure school desegregation, year-round schooling for low-income youths, the construction of hundreds of thousands of public housing units, and a guaranteed minimum income. Notably, the Commission looked beyond policing and incarceration to address problems of safety in disadvantaged communities. While spending in several of these areas did increase during the 1970s, anti-crime policy at all levels of government also came to rely more on the modernization of urban police forces. Further, changes in sentencing policy at the state level, from the mid-1970s forward (NRC, 1983, Chapter 3), drove significant growth in prison populations, amplifying racial inequality.
In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission carried out just one of several high-level reviews during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that found that serious crime in low-income Black neighborhoods was rooted in a deep racial inequality and that addressing it required significant investment in Black communities. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967) drew parallel conclusions in its report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society. Although the War on Poverty quickly expanded social safety net programs that benefited all low-income Americans, socio-economic disadvantage endured in minority communities.
At the same time, crime was transformed into a national political problem that demanded a federal response. Despite the social analysis of the time, federal crime policy came to rely heavily on grants to local law enforcement. Turning crime into a national political issue that demanded a national response in this way was not the only or even the main driver of high incarceration rates. But it was part of a trend in crime policy that greatly expanded the use of police and prisons disproportionately impacting primarily Black and Latino communities.
That the criminal justice system remains a significant dimension of racial inequality more than 50 years after the nation embarked on its most substantial investment in modernization, professionalization, and reform provides important context for the challenge of reducing racial inequality today. While policy makers should investigate criminal justice reforms that can directly reduce the harms associated with policing and incarceration, reducing racial inequality may also require changes outside the criminal justice system in social policy and community life. Moreover, the decentralized nature of criminal justice policy points us to states and local jurisdictions for policy innovation that can inform or drive change at the state and federal levels.
It is often observed that there is no one criminal justice system but a complex patchwork of agencies and jurisdictions at three different levels of government. Policy innovation and experimentation often happen at the local level, though sometimes buttressed and coordinated through state and federal budgets and legislation. Deep reform that addresses structural racism and severs the close connections between race, criminal harms, and criminal justice involvement may involve facilitating local innovation and coordinating and consolidating local initiatives with state and federal leadership.
The remainder of this report delves into community-driven approaches to safety and reducing harm, non-criminal policy interventions in adjacent social policy domains, criminal justice reform, and the federal role in
supporting communities to address inequalities. The committee’s recommendations set forth in the subsequent chapters offer evidence-based guidance on how public policy might reduce racial inequalities in crime and justice.