Finding Our Voice to Reduce Native American Incarceration Across SJC Sites

By: Michaela Seiber, MPH

Community Engagement Racial Disparities November 21, 2022

November is Native American Heritage month. It gives a platform for Native people in the United States of America to share our culture, traditions, music, crafts, dance, and ways and concepts of life. It’s also an appropriate time to highlight the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in jails across the country while actively pursuing solutions. Some estimates suggest that Indigenous people are jailed at twice the rate of White people in the U.S. In the past, people in communities participating in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) have spoken about how to address the disparity.

This blog is about a recent trip I took to Pima County, Arizona, from Minnehaha County in South Dakota to see how Pima County’s SJC initiative is working with the community to reduce incarceration and improve health outcomes.

I’m Executive Director of South Dakota Urban Indian Health (SDUIH), which recently joined Minnehaha County’s SJC team in 2021. We provide support for our Native American relatives impacted by the justice system. SDUIH is one of 41 Urban Indian Health Programs that operate under a Title V contract with the Indian Health Service to provide medical, behavioral health, and cultural health services to Natives living in urban settings throughout the country. We are also a 501c3 non-profit and able to pursue initiatives, grants, and programs specific to the communities we operate within, such as joining Minnehaha County’s SJC work. South Dakota is home to nine tribal nations, which make up part of the larger Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires).

Through my work with SJC, I am also part of the Wičhóyaŋke Network (WN), a convening of Indigenous leaders from both community and criminal justice systems. WN’s mission is to identify Indigenous community-led solutions and strategies that have successfully helped in lowering or eliminating racial disparities in community criminal justice systems related to the incarceration of Indigenous people, with the ultimate goal of disseminating that information for Indigenous communities nationwide to assist in Indigenous-led efforts to eliminate racial disparities.

Last week, I visited Tucson, AZ to see how Pima County’s SJC is working with the community to reduce incarceration and improve health outcomes. I was also able to visit and meet with leaders at the Tucson Indian Center during the same week, giving me the ability to see SJC work from both the systems perspective and from the perspective of the Native community in Pima County.

Tucson has two major tribal nations nearby, the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui. I visited both communities and met with tribal members to discuss the justice system. I visited the San Xavier Mission Market where local tribal food vendors set up and, of course, sampled some southwest style frybread (yum!) and browsed the jewelry vendors nearby. Both tribal communities have an abundance of programs and services available to Native relatives in the Tucson area.

During my visit, I saw an obvious desire for both the criminal justice systems players and community members to decrease jail populations and improve substance use and mental health services for Native people in their community. However, I also observed that the two groups seemed disconnected in their approaches toward their shared goals. This isn’t unique to Pima County, and it was somewhat comforting to know this problem exists beyond Minnehaha County. The criminal justice system folks were unaware of the existing programs and work within Native communities, and the Native community leaders had several questions about SJC programming. This prompted thoughts examining the root cause behind the prevalence of this problem for so many communities.

People representing and working within the courts, police departments, etc. often don’t understand why Native people aren’t represented in conversations identifying solutions for the Native community. The difficult truth is that the spaces where these conversations are taking place weren’t made for us, and often our thoughts and concerns are dismissed or met with hostility when we try to contribute.

We had a discussion within Wičhóyaŋke Network about the things we’ve all had to give up to be part of this work, and why it’s so hard to continue working with our criminal justice system counterparts. As Native leaders, we have to set aside or ignore so many pieces of ourselves to have a seat at the table of this work: the tears that come to my eyes in these meetings when I think of the hurt caused by these systems and feeling like a traitor; the endless questions I ask myself wondering whether I’m part of the problem because I’m sitting in these rooms. It’s hard to be the only one in these meetings asking, “How does this impact the Native community?” or “What does the data show for the Native community?” And while it is exhausting, I realize that if I’m not there, those questions won’t get asked—no one else will make uncomfortable statements about how we’re failing our Native relatives.

At the recent SJC convening in Atlanta, I was able to discuss these same things with relatives from San Francisco. I was comforted by the realization that many working on this project face these same feelings and have had to make these same concessions to improve the systems that have torn our communities apart. As Native people, it’s often easy to ignore the invitation or stay silent during the meetings because we don’t know where our voices fit. It’s often the safest thing to do but without our notable presence and hard questions, this work won’t lead to the change we need so our relatives can heal.

The visit to Pima County was incredibly meaningful and gave me insight into how to move forward with the Wičhóyaŋke Network, as well as a clearer vision for SDUIH’s place in Minnehaha County’s SJC work. Wopida tanka (many thanks)!

Counties Enhancing Racial Equity in the Criminal Justice System through Grantmaking

By: Chelsea Thomson

Community Engagement Racial Disparities September 12, 2022

The National Association of Counties, in partnership with the National Criminal Justice Association and with support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, has released a toolkit for counties interested in addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal legal system through grantmaking. The toolkit outlines eight principles, developed by a working group of county stakeholders, state administering agency representatives, and community-led organization leaders, to help enhance equity in the criminal legal system. It features several communities participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) that are undertaking initiatives such as grants to community-led organizations.

More information about the toolkit is found here.

County governments play an important role in funding programs and services that support the well-being of community members. With this budget authority, county governments have a unique opportunity to invest in community-led organizations that often provide critical services and supports to communities underserved by social service systems and overrepresented in the justice system. By strategically investing in and partnering with such organizations, counties are also working to close these gaps to correct for historic disinvestment that has led to racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal legal system. To achieve this goal, counties can help ensure equitable access to funding opportunities and minimize barriers to implementation of grant-funded programs and services.

When deploying resources and managing implementation of programs or policies, county leaders pursuing equity in procurement and grantmaking may choose to guide their decision making with the following guiding principles in mind: Trust, Transparency, Community, Fairness, Intentional Access & Inclusion, Support, Creativity, and Joint Accountability.

These guiding principles are supported by several strategies and practices counties can implement to bring them to life and demonstrate a commitment to equity in our communities. Some examples of SJC communities, drawn from the toolkit, include:

Building Trust in Lucas County, Ohio

Trusting partnerships can open lines of communication, encourage a willingness to innovate, and create opportunities for mutual respect. To help build trust with community-led organizations, counties can invest in the capacity and expertise of community leadership, anchor the relationship in a common goal, reject the funder/recipient power dynamic that can stifle relationships, and learn from and listen to one another as partners.

In Lucas County, Ohio, commissioners dedicated $200,000 to community-led organizations engaging in criminal justice reform efforts and addressing racial disparities. The grant fund provides awards of up to $10,000 to grassroot organizations working in four zip codes. The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) also administers federal criminal and juvenile justice funds on behalf of the state, to allow for greater flexibility while continuing to provide oversight and technical assistance.

Advancing Joint Accountability in Cook County, Illinois

As stewards of public dollars, government funders and community-led organizations play a critical role in responding to and serving community members’ needs. Prioritizing intentional investments in communities traditionally left out of the funding process, communicating funder expectations, committing to sharing data, and building a working relationship with continued communication and support can help counties work towards joint accountability.

Cook County, Illinois launched a 50-member taskforce to advise on the county’s strategic investments. One of the grant programs invests in community-led organizations that serve areas with disproportionately high rates of gun violence. Tiered funding tracks with staggered deadlines provide organizations that may have smaller budgets and/or grant writing capacity with time to submit strong applications and be evaluated among similarly situated organizations. The grant funding is provided on a quarterly basis, rather than a reimbursement, and grantees may request a funding advance. Organizations that are led by, support, or employ community members with criminal convictions are not barred from applying on that basis.

Enhancing Fairness in Multnomah County, Oregon

Implementing new processes to enhance fairness in the types of organizations funded and how these funds are administered will help improve access and equity. Strategies to advance fairness include training staff to recognize and address personal and organizational biases, promote practices that allow grantees to contribute to the grantmaking process, raise up champions, and not lower the bar but raise the platform.

Leaders in Multnomah County, Oregon evaluated county investments to fund programs that address the underlying drivers of harmful behavior and uplift communities of color.  The county expanded the Community Healing Initiative that invests resources in community-based partnerships to support youth and families. The program deploys culturally specific services and provides direct relief such as rent, utilities, and internet access. To support smaller and emerging organizations, the county is piloting an initiative to provide 13 months of funding for year-long projects to jumpstart their programming with resources.

Promoting Intentional Access and Inclusion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Aligning resources with equity goals and removing barriers to participation and use of funding will expand and diversify grantee opportunities and potential relationships. By considering the structure and level of funding, allowing for various entry points, evaluating needed changes in the application process and components, and measuring and broadening success, counties can support access and inclusion for all potential grantees.

The Criminal Justice Microgrant Fund in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania provides resources to community-led organizations engaged in innovative criminal justice reform efforts. Funding can be used to support communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal legal system or provide services to residents who are involved in the system. Organizations led by people of color may also seek general operating support.

Honoring and Uplifting Creativity in Los Angeles County, California

While working within the confines of funding rules and requirements may pose challenges, it can be beneficial to evaluate and revise processes. Honoring and uplifting creativity and innovation, through learning, sharing, and evolving beyond the status quo and utilizing the tools, discretion, and flexibility available to counties, can help to challenge and expand standard practices to work for both sides of the grantmaking equation more effectively.

Residents of Los Angeles County, California approved Measure J in 2020 to dedicate no less than 10 percent of the county’s locally generated, unrestricted funding to community investments that address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice. The county established a 24-member committee that can garner community input and project recommendations through an online form, in both English and Spanish. A community-based, third-party administrator and a community engagement consultant ensure diverse community voices are elevated and incorporated into the decision-making process.

Offering Support in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin

Providing an infrastructure of support and resources for community-led organizations, particularly those new to applying for and/or receiving government funding, can help successfully manage funds. To expand support, counties can provide culturally and socially responsive training, technical assistance, and coaching, invest in funder internal capacity, and engage in intermediaries.

Milwaukee County, Wisconsin’s Community Justice Council is providing grants of $34,500 to each of four grassroots organizations working to reduce or prevent criminal legal system involvement, promote racial equity and engage the community. To support applications, the Community Justice Council sponsored a community grant writing training, hosted an optional information session prior to the submission deadline and published the scoring rubric. During the grant period, grantees are required to attend a new grantee orientation and meetings to discuss expectations, support grant administration and offer connections among the group. A local university serves as the fiscal agent to help grantees meet reporting requirements and disperse funds more quickly.

Improving Transparency in Dane County, Wisconsin

Publishing and sharing materials and decisions often contributes to increased buy-in, accountability and mutual understanding. By prioritizing an open and ongoing commitment to share information in a timely and helpful manner, announcing the process surrounding decision making and personnel/advisors involved, and communicating the purpose of data-collection efforts and results, counties can improve transparency.

Via working group recommendations in Dane County, Wisconsin, county leaders developed the Partners in Equity Grant Program to fund grassroots organizations that aim to reduce legal system involvement and address systemic racial inequities. Organizations can apply for up to $15,000 in funding. Additionally, the county requested an external evaluation of grantmaking policies and practices to enhance racial and social equity across departments.

The Opportunity for Counties

This equity toolkit, and the principles and strategies outlined within, can assist counties to reflect on grantmaking processes to administer funds more equitably and for greater impact. Capitalizing on national momentum to address and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal legal system, counties can find critical partners and trustees in community-led organizations.

Reflections on My Time Reducing Jail Populations in Charleston County and the Journey Ahead

By: Kristy Danford

Community Engagement Data Analysis Jail Populations August 3, 2022

As I step down from a Safety and Justice Challenge role I’ve served in since 2015, I’m proud of what we achieved together in Charleston, SC and hopeful for the future of justice reform. I am optimistic the progress can provide a path for other communities to sustainably improve their local systems while safely reducing the misuse and overuse of jails.

As reported in our 2021 Annual Report, Charleston County’s local jail population was reduced 40 percent from our initial baseline in 2014 to 2021. Municipal and Magistrate charges booked into our jail were cut by 80 percent. The rate of local bookings among our adult population decreased by 67 percent. The rate of local bookings among Black adults decreased from 178 per 1,000 Black adults to 58. The number of unique individuals repeatedly cycling through our jail, most often on lower-level charges, decreased by 71 percent. At the same time, Circuit Court charges booked into our jail kept steady and our crime trends remained similar to that in the rest of our state–which did not enact our reforms. We now have even more refined data and expertise to lead the way forward in making our local system more effective, equitable and efficient.

Those results have not happened by accident. They are the result of intentional data-guided collaborations between diverse stakeholders in Charleston, from executives leading agencies within the system to diverse members of our community. We came together, cutting across lines of responsibility and power, to objectively look at how our system was serving all of us and found sustainable ways to do more good than harm. We made it better by forming a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), assuming nothing, rethinking expectations, and continually using data to guide us. While there is more work to be done, the CJCC’s efforts moving forward will continue to be focused and intentional. For instance, the evidence-base is clearly pointing the way forward to reducing the time from arrest to disposition and improving pretrial outcomes.

Before joining the SJC I experienced the gap between what jurisdictions and/or independent justice system agencies were trying to do with reform measures and what was happening on the ground in local communities. If you have seen my TEDx talk you know my journey led me from experiencing the system first-hand, to working on the front lines in probation and parole, to working within organizations and legislative spaces trying to bring about greater alignment between what the research shows works and what actually happens, day-in and day-out.

Wherever I was working in the country, the gap between intentions for reform, and what was happening on the ground, persisted. It was natural because change is challenging. The challenges are also exacerbated by the constant barrage of hot button issues in the news. I found that jurisdictions often whacked one mole on the road to reform, only to find another mole pop up. It was disorienting and exhausting. I’d had enough of the reactive whack-a-mole approach and wanted to take a more proactive and sustainable localized approach to reform.

I came to realize if I really wanted to help make a system work better for the families and communities it served, I had to go local, and it had to be done with a collective body of system leaders and representatives of the community they served. I was convinced if we singularly focused our reform efforts on pulling one policy lever or another, or focused too much on one decision-maker or another, reforms would continue to come up short. To truly reform the system, we had to focus on the whole system.

Every decision-maker in the “system” and every decision mattered. Together, we could form a CJCC, assess how our system was working, set specific goals, and measure progress against those goals. After a lot of reflection, I came up with my dream job. I wanted to work hand-in-hand with local system actors and the communities they served. I wanted to form a CJCC, to use data to ground the dialogue, and to look beyond the next mole that pops up. While I was convinced this had to be the way forward, there were not many others willing to give it a shot, and there were no staffed CJCCs in South Carolina.

Then along came MacArthur’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC). When it launched, I stepped up to serve as a volunteer in Charleston alongside some brave early adopters. Together, we eventually formed the Charleston CJCC.  We challenged one another, learned from each other, and became one of the first communities to join SJC. Over the last seven years, our CJCC has grown. It went from a scrappy startup to a mainstay in the community leading the way for others. While we remain the only community from South Carolina in the SJC, additional CJCCs are forming across the state. The collaborative, data-guided work of our CJCC is also contributing to the development of the first-ever national standards for CJCCs.

My vision is to see this kind of transformation take place across the country. There are roughly 3,000 counties across America and many of them lack the kind of sustained data-guided collaboration we have managed to pull together in Charleston and across many SJC cities and counties. Every community can and should have a high-functioning CJCC that brings diverse stakeholders together to look at its data, to see how its system is functioning, set specific goals, monitor their progress, and make it happen. Inevitably, the data will point to inefficiencies and inequities and countless stories of harms done. The data will also point to a number of opportunities to do more good than harm. I implore anyone reading this to be on the lookout for the forthcoming CJCC national standards published by the National Institute of Corrections in conjunction with the National Network of CJCCs and to strive to live them out.

As criminal justice reforms continue to evolve, I urge my colleagues to embrace data and constructive dialogue as their guide, stay focused on what makes their community safer and more just, and keep coming together. CJCC’s provide a sustainable forum for us all to demand collective accountability from the entire system and foster the learning environment necessary to make it happen.

Personally, it has been a challenging and rewarding experience to get to live out this journey, and I am excited for the continued efforts of the Charleston CJCC and CJCCs across the country. Meanwhile, I am also a mother who feels like time is moving way too fast. So, I am about to embark on my next journey to spend more time with my kids. For now, I am taking a step back from full-time work before that brief window of childhood closes and the next chapter opens.

I wish my colleagues at SJC sites across the country continued success as we continue to collaborate locally and across the country to do more good than harm.

Publication

Bail Community Engagement Crime Data Analysis Featured Jurisdictions Human Toll of Jail Jail Populations Pretrial and Bail Pretrial and Jails Pretrial Justice Pretrial Services Racial Disparities July 1, 2022

Expanding Supervised Release in New York City

Safety and Justice Challenge, Center for Court Innovation

In 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative to reduce populations and racial disparities in American jails. To advance knowledge development grounded in a research agenda that explores, evaluates, and documents site-specific strategies to safely and effectively reduce jail populations and address racial and ethnic disparities, the Foundation engaged the Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) at the City University of New York (CUNY) to establish and oversee an SJC Research Consortium. Consortium members are nationally renowned research, policy, and academic organizations collaborating with SJC sites to build an evidence base focused on pretrial reform efforts.

Under New York City’s Supervised Release Program (SRP) individuals awaiting trial are released under community supervision to ensure their return to court, instead of via bail or pretrial detention. Defendants are eligible for the citywide SRP if they meet specific criteria, including arrest charge type, estimated risk status, and community ties. Towards the goal of reducing the jail population, New York City expanded the City’s Supervised Release Program (SRP) several times by altering the eligibility criteria to include a wider range of individuals. The first large expansion of SRP since 2016 occurred at the beginning of June 2019. A subsequent program expansion occurred in December 2019 as New York State prepared for 2020 bail reform legislation to go into effect.

In an effort to better understand the impact of expansion of SRP as a jail-reduction strategy, ISLG and the SJC Research Consortium funded the Center for Court Innovation to examine the impact of the June 2019 expansion. The Center conducted a time series analysis to determine if observed post-expansion SRP enrollment and/or detention rates significantly differed from predicted rates. The study found that the expansion increased SRP rates across racial groups and reduced detention for non-violent felony offenses, though not for misdemeanor offenses. In addition, the findings show increased use of SRP for misdemeanor offenses, which may suggest net-widening.

Key takeaways:

  1. Increasing program participation does not always decrease detention. For small program expansions (like the 2019 expansion) to have a true impact on detention, these initiatives must target serious crimes that are likely to be detained.

  2. Large changes are needed for large impact. Larger expansions, especially those that are driven by legislative change (like the December 2019 expansion in preparation for bail reform), can have a greater impact on detention compared to smaller expansions.

  3. Targeted efforts to reduce racial disparities are necessary. Disparities are not automatically impacted by increasing program participation and decreasing detention across the board. To reduce racial disparities, targeted efforts must be made.

Together, the findings suggest that the SRP expansion reduced detention for some offenses and highlight the importance of measuring the impact of program implementation and expansion to inform future work and jail reduction efforts in New York City and other jurisdictions.

Focusing on Racial Equity in The Justice System

By: Matt Davis

Community Engagement Racial Disparities June 17, 2022

Cities and counties participating in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) significantly reduced their jail populations over the past few years – both prior to and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that progress, racial and ethnic disparities in jails persist. You can read more about the data here.

In January 2022, the Challenge deepened its commitment to learning and investing in more intentional and effective strategies to eliminate institutional and systemic racism within the justice system. It selected four jurisdictions to join a new Racial Equity Cohort based on proposals that explicitly focused on racial and ethnic equity in the criminal justice system.

The four cities and counties selected to participate in the Racial Equity Cohort were Cook County (IL), New Orleans (LA), Philadelphia (PA), and Pima County (AZ). Their proposals centered lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color. They also emphasized the SJC Community Engagement Pillars of authenticity, accessibility and transparency, respect for diversity, and commitment to ongoing engagement. Participation in the Racial Equity Cohort provides communities with training and technical assistance focused on racial equity and authentic community engagement, peer-to-peer support from other cohort members, and qualitative and quantitative data and analytic support.

Nearly six months into the project, we spoke to people in Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia about the progress of the initiative so far.

Sisters With a Goal Research Budgets in Philadelphia

The author of three books, Reverend Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons is the founder and Executive Director of Why Not Prosper, Inc., a grassroots Philadelphia nonprofit devoted to helping incarcerated women make a smooth transition back into society. Michelle has lived experience of incarceration and overcoming addiction, achieving sobriety in 1999. In 2014, she helped form and implement a pilot program for women escaping trafficking. Since then, she has created several services supporting Philadelphia women including graphic arts programs, leadership advocacy programs helping women recognize their leadership abilities, domestic violence programs, and women’s advocacy workshops. She received a full and unconditional pardon for her conviction in 2015.

Michelle’s team of Sisters With A Goal (“SWAG” for short) is leading an exploration into justice investment in Philadelphia through a participatory action research project—a kind of research project where people who are traditionally subject to research are viewed as experts in their own experience and stories, and are involved in the question development. They are working with academics at Bryn Mawr College on the project. As part of the project the Vera Institute of Justice worked with Philadelphia’s Office of the Director of Finance to produce an analysis of criminal justice spending. Based on that analysis, Michelle and her sisters are coming up with deeper questions for further research around racial and ethnic disparities.

“We’ve all been involved in the criminal justice system,” Michelle said. “Now we’re leaders in the community. And we’ve not historically been involved in looking at the data or the budgets. If you look at the budget with a regular lens, you might not see what we’re seeing. But if you look at the budget with an equity lens and you look at how many people are arrested and where the money is being spent, it gives you a whole different picture. And we’re also having an intentional dialogue around that as we come up with a pilot program to do things differently.”

The goal is to look at reinvesting some of Philadelphia’s criminal justice dollars into a community-based alternative under a pilot program suggested by the community, said Lisa Varon, the Interim Deputy Director in the Office of Criminal Justice at the City of Philadelphia, which is also a partner in the research project.

“This is an example of people closest to the issue looking at the possible solutions themselves, and we’re excited to learn from the ideas coming from the community,” Lisa said. “Government can’t solve the racial equity issue on its own, so I do appreciate that we’ve had the opportunity to partner with the community to come up with solutions.”

Meanwhile, the city is also partnering with the Center for Carceral Communities, an initiative of the University of Pennsylvania, to work collaboratively with neighborhoods in West Philadelphia to help people with a history of incarceration re-engage with the community. In partnership with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, CCC will deliver services as part of a diversion program pilot, providing free, evidence-based psychosocial services to participants.

 Intentional Conversations in Chicago

Kim Davis-Ambrose is the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Justice Advisory Council in Cook County. She describes Chicago’s history in Dickensian terms: “We absolutely see Chicago as the tale of two cities,” she said. “And I’ve lived and breathed that because I grew up in public housing. So, I understand how we got here.”

She has been working in partnership with Everyday Democracy as technical assistance providers on a dialogue-to-change process in three of Cook County’s most vulnerable communities based on data about recidivism, violence, and disparities.

“We’ve started to have conversations intentionally to hear from community members what their feelings were toward the criminal justice system, what their feelings were, and what they think needs to be done to improve the system,” she said. “And how we could best partner with community to continue to have their voices at the table in a shared power space.”

As part of the racial equity cohort, Kim’s team is working in six communities and identifying people who would like to become fellows and be paid a stipend so that their voices can be part of ongoing efforts to reform.

“We take for granted that people understand the criminal justice system, but that’s not true,” she said. “And we want people to be able to continue to educate the community about what the different wheels are of the system and how they can continue or start to become involved.”

The fellows will go through a rigorous trauma-informed curriculum covering violence intervention, restorative justice, community organizer facilitation and training.

“We want them to be equipped to go into the community and continue that dialogue to change process,” Kim said.

Derrick Dawson is a National Organizer and Workshop Facilitator for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training in Chicago. As an Equity Cohort Partner to the Cook County Racial Equity Cohort, he is focused on addressing long-term systemic and institutional racism as a factor in who goes to jail and who does not.

Right now, Derrick is working to identify fellows within ten organizations working on the ground on these issues, who will be paid a stipend to participate in a training program. He will also identify ten internal system representatives across criminal justice offices for the same program, to provide a collaborative learning experience.

The goal is to give the fellows a shared language on long-term systemic and institutional racism to take back to their everyday work. The big challenge, Derrick said, is helping people to see how their day-to-day work fits into the bigger picture so that they are more empowered to advocate successfully for change.

“Many organizations dealing with jail and justice and men and women going to jail get consumed with issues of the day,” he said. “Feeding, housing, getting jobs–those very important things. It takes a lot to get to the deeper issues of systemic racism when people’s lives are at stake every day.”

In that context, building an understanding of long-term systemic racism is crucial if Cook County’s justice system can move forward, Derrick said. From colonialism to slavery, “the jails would not exist today if it were not for systemic and institutional racism,” he said.  “The more folks we can get to think about these issues systemically and institutionally, perhaps the next generation will have less of a slog than we have. Otherwise, we will be in the same place 20 or 30 years from now as we are today.”

Supporting Community Engagement in New Orleans

New Orleans convened an Ethnic and Racial Disparity Working Group in 2020 to set goals to reduce justice system involvement for people of color. Half of the group were government agency staff and half were community members, and it analyzed disparities across the justice system. It came together quickly with commitment from all players and published a report in just 10 months with concrete recommendations supported by all the agencies and community members involved. The report recommended regular and authentic engagement by system stakeholders with system-impacted individuals. The group also recommended making grants to BIPOC-centered organizations to try innovative approaches to criminal legal system prevention and reform efforts.

New Orleans’ racial equity cohort is taking the next step in that process with the creation of a Blueprint for Racial Justice and Criminal Legal System Reimagination through data-driven analysis and community engagement. The City of New Orleans is partnering with nonprofit Total Community Action on the community engagement work.

“Our mission is to reduce poverty,” said Glenis Scott, Director of Community and Energy Services at Total Community Action. “And oftentimes when you’re working in the judicial system, both the adult and juvenile judicial system, we find it’s important to work with low-income families to ensure that there’s a path forward. When you’re looking at reentry from the judicial system or at housing funding, or at low-income food and energy programs, what we’re really trying to do is help people build a better life for themselves. Having the funding available to help educate people and provide supportive services is paramount if we’re going to be able to change what is happening inside the system right now. And that’s what the voice of the community is talking about. These systems are interconnected.”

New Orleans is also looking to convene leaders in the system around what the future looks like from a policy perspective, said Kate Hoadley, Racial Justice Program Manager at the City of New Orleans.

“The country has come to terms with the need to rectify systemic racism,” she said. “But right now, in New Orleans, we are seeing a rise in community harm. Gun violence is up and many people are proposing different solutions. But key to fixing that rise in community harm is to talk about the systemic issues that underlie it, and those include systemic racism and poverty. This is the time for us to have those conversations on all sides.”