Mending Criminal Justice

By Reverend David K. Brawley and Michael Gecan, Industrial Areas Foundation
                  
After many weeks of stunning violence and numbing conventions, three events occurred recently in widely separated parts of the country -- a meeting of community and religious leaders in Baton Rouge with United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the aftermath of the two shootings there (one of an African American by local police, the second of three police officers ambushed by a killer), a gathering of 250 leaders in Kane County Illinois to discuss better training for police who deal with individuals who are mentally ill and an improved mental health system for those struggling with this illness, and an assembly of 600 unionized transit workers in Washington DC who are concerned about conditions, including safety conditions for riders and workers, in and around the nation's Capitol.  
 
Each event touched on a different aspect of the multi-faceted world of public safety, police preparation and accountability, and criminal justice. What the leaders of Industrial Areas Foundation affiliates in these areas, as well as New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, Durham, Milwaukee, Bridgeport, and Chicago, have realized is that the problems with the nation's criminal justice system are not simply political or programmatic; they are cultural.  They involve a set of overlapping and complex habits, patterns, and beliefs that cannot be solved by one leader, one policy change, or one legislative action. They require a set of interconnected and simultaneous improvements.  
 
The good news is that, over the past two years, IAF leaders have seen signs of significant improvement in many of these areas.The challenge is that the improvements have emerged slowly and have not yet hit the kind of critical mass that can generate a series of positive chain reactions.  
 
*In the Chicago metropolitan area, organizations in Kane and DuPage counties have identified the need for Crisis Intervention Training for local police, along with the creation of a robust mental health alternative to arrest and incarceration that includes crisis centers, mental health professional intervention, and longer term housing.

*These leaders have studied the extraordinary work already done by Judge Steven Leifman in Miami-Dade County. Judge Leifman has implemented a mental health alternative to jail or prison that has equipped law enforcement with the training necessary to deal effectively with those struggling with mentally illness.  His approach has provided housing and treatment options that lead to recovery. The prisoner population has decreased so dramatically -- by 35% -- that the county has closed a jail. Police officers are enthusiastic about the approach, and the community benefits in many ways from the proper treatment of those who need treatment, not incarceration.   
 
*In Cleveland, Greater Cleveland Congregations has documented that minority youth are arrested and imprisoned at far higher rates than other youth. In response, the law enforcement community has reduced the rate of arrest and incarceration for minority individuals and begun to provide them with the same alternatives and supports offered to other youth.  In Baton Rouge, leaders have conducted research that reveals an astonishing gap in police response to citizens who possess drugs -- with African Americans there 700% more likely to be arrested than whites.  In Durham, local community leaders won a precedent-setting reform requiring police to obtain written consent to search cars of motorists without probably cause and removing a police chief who refused to implement reforms that protected the rights of local residents. The two twin curses in minority communities -- over-policing (profiling, unjustified use of force, wholesale arrest and incarceration rates), alternating with under-policing (the lack of consistent and professional attention that protects the safety of the overwhelming majority of innocent residents in minority communities) -- are being systematically exposed and exorcized.
 
*At the same time, local citizens organizations are initiating the creation of meaningful relationships of mutual respect between community members and local police officers.
 
*In Baltimore, the BUILD organization has secured job commitments for Johns Hopkins Hospital and University for those returning from jail or prison, thus giving them a path back into the community and economic mainstream.
 
*In Brooklyn, St. Paul Community Baptist Church has worked closely with the District Attorney and court system to set up a Saturday court within a trusted local congregation.In one day, 700 criminal records for minor offenses were officially expunged, thus giving people a new lease on employment and other opportunities.    
 
*All across the country, IAF affiliates have recruited 101 police departments and municipalities to agree to push gun manufacturers to integrate gun safety technology into their weapons and to isolate and pressure the very small number of gun sellers that supplies weapons to criminals and killers.  

This set of changes, if implemented persistently and with good judgement, can generate a change in culture -- resulting in better, fairer, and safer outcomes for police and citizens.
 
In a world of quick fixes, theatrical performers, and media spectacles, this process of change is itself counter cultural. It depends on local institutions that are trusted by skeptical community residents. It relies on police leaders who take the time to build long-term relationships in local settings and who resist the demands for more insularity and defensiveness heard in some law enforcement quarters. It makes new demands on political leaders, who now need to make investments in training and mental health solutions that will save millions in the middle and long run but will cost more up front. And it needs the involvement and staying power of local employers -- hospitals, universities, agencies -- whose jobs are the surest guarantee of family prosperity and community stability.      
 
The leaders involved are spirited, determined, and hopeful.  They simply need more public and private sector partners willing to deepen and accelerate this culture change in every American community.