Elevating Crime Victims’ Voices in Safety and Well-Being Investment
Community EngagementCrimeInteragency CollaborationVictimsNovember 3, 2023
Bria Gillum, Senior Program Officer, Criminal Justice for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Aswad Thomas, Vice President of the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), appeared at The Atlantic Festival 2023 in Washington, D.C., in a talk entitled “How to Invest in Safety and Well-Being.” It was part of a session underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation on criminal justice reform.
Bria interviewed Aswad, who survived a robbery attempt that left him with two life-altering gunshot wounds, about his experience as a survivor of violence, and his journey to embrace the Trauma Recovery Center (TRC) model of addressing the needs of crime survivors, who often face the biggest barriers to accessing healing services.
After Aswad left the hospital with his gunshot wounds, there were no support services, or even information about where to look.
“My story might sound unique, but it’s not unique at all,” he said at the conference. “In this country, three million people are crime victims every year, but only nine percent of people get access to victim services.”
Thomas began organizing crime victims and advocating for victims’ rights, and today he is working to expand the ASJ’s national network of crime survivors to elevate their voices in criminal justice reform.
“When you think about the criminal justice system, the voices of crime victims like me have never been at the center of criminal justice policies,” he said. “One thing that we are trying to do is to elevate this new victims’ rights movement, this is calling for new safety solutions to help stop the cycle of violence.”
In addressing this need for advocacy, services, and resources, Aswad spoke about his organization’s TRC model as a “one-stop shop that provides you with all of the recovery services that you need, without all of the red tape.” The first center was developed at San Francisco General Hospital in 2001. Today, there are 52 TRCs in the United States.
He said community is at the heart of what ASJ does. “What we do is we build community,” Aswad said. “We build community with survivors, providing peer-to-peer support. We build community with law enforcement, with advocates, with legislators, and we build that community so that we can start having conversations around our public safety policies.”
Aswad shared some of ASJ’s accomplishments. “In the past 10 years, we passed about 91 criminal justice and public safety reforms across the country. We’ve changed victim compensation programs in about ten states. We’re helping to provide more protections for victims to be safe from employment protections and housing and protections.”
Another area of advocacy for ASJ is criminal justice reform. “Across this country, crime victims are now organizing to change criminal justice policies,” he said. “Past reforms have reduced incarceration and helped to incentivize more rehabilitation for folks who have caused harm. But also working on reforms to remove the barriers for people coming out of the justice system and back into our communities. We also passed laws, so [that crime victims can] access housing, jobs, education, things that help promote stability. Those are the things that help keep communities safe as well.”
In response to a question from Bria about what it means to be safe in your community, Aswad asked the audience to close their eyes and think about where they feel most safe.
“Is it a garden? Is it at church? Is it with family? Think about where you feel most safe. The majority of us in this room, I don’t think we say more police, or that we feel safe with more prisons. We feel more safe in community with each other. So that’s what we need to invest in, more Trauma Recovery Centers, more mental health programs, more solutions to help stop the cycle. That’s how we actually get to true safety in this country.”
Community EngagementFeatured JurisdictionsInteragency CollaborationAugust 28, 2023
It has now been just over a year since the U.S. government allotted approximately a billion dollars to roll out a new nationwide phone number, 988, to call when people need help with a mental health crisis or behavioral health support. The goal of the initiative is to divert individuals in crisis to community-based services, including stabilization centers, rather than encounter law enforcement.
Over the past year, my organization has run a bimonthly virtual learning community for criminal justice systems around the country to help them with this transition. Twenty-eight sites involved in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge have attended the meetings focusing on operationalizing the 988 phone lines and associated crisis stabilization centers in their communities.
The mission of the SJC is to lower jail populations in participating communities across the country so the goals of the 988 system are aligned. It is still difficult to empirically measure how many people are staying out of jail because of 988. If someone avoids arrest and is instead diverted to a stabilization center or other community-based service after a 988 call, instead of a 911 call, there is simply no arrest in the public record. Still, the usage of the 988 lines has been promising.
In the first year of implementation, people placed five million calls, chats, and texts to 988 across the country. That’s a 35 percent increase in calls to the federally run suicide prevention line (1-800-273-TALK) it replaced. It includes 665,000 texts, more than a 1,000 percent increase over texts to the old suicide prevention number. By simplifying the process of seeking assistance with a three-digit number, people are more likely to call.
In addition to serving as a Strategic Ally of the Safety and Justice Challenge, I have worked for the past 20 years as a mobile crisis response counselor in Southeast Nebraska. My role has been to assist community members in crisis, whether they are suicidal or homicidal. In the past year, I have seen and heard locally how the 988 number has eased the burden on overstretched law enforcement officers. However, there is now a workforce concern in the behavioral health field. As 988 lines become more successful, communities across America will need to address gaps in the behavioral health system. This is a significant challenge.
Some sites are advanced in their implementation of the 988 number and others are still coming up to speed. More populated states such as California have multiple 988 centers. Others, such as Nebraska, have just one. There are also some concerns about cell tower coordination. For example, if somebody with a Nebraska number calls 988 in California, there is still some concern that their call could route to a center in Nebraska by mistake. That costs time when individuals in crisis face emergencies, but we expect these concerns to be worked out soon.
Meanwhile, three examples of SJC sites and their experiences of implementing the 988 number are as follows:
In Harris County, Texas, the first-year rollout has gone well. At first, there was some concern about the line being overwhelmed and the volume did increase significantly in the first few months. The staff have now acclimatized, and the system is proving effective.
In Middlesex County, Massachusetts, stakeholders integrated 988 planning into their existing “Roadmap to Behavioral Health Reform” plan. Over 50 city dispatch centers in Middlesex County were previously surveyed—before the implementation of 988—to gather information on their call codes and who is dispatched for mental health-related calls. Findings demonstrated little consistency across these dispatch centers. There are currently five 988 call centers in Massachusetts, which is more than almost any other state and represents a significant investment in 988.
In the “Embedding Equity into 988: National Scorecard,” only two states referenced reaching out to older adults. One of those two states is South Dakota. It is noteworthy that only South Dakota and Alaska specified strategies, materials, or efforts to reach older adults through their 988 implementation approaches since older adults are especially vulnerable to suicide or mental health crisis with causes ranging from grief, isolation, to chronic illness. In South Dakota, both Minnehaha and Pennington Counties are part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, with the two communities on opposite sides of the state.
Meanwhile, state legislators in more rural areas have shown a lack of knowledge about 988. They will be key allies in securing funding to support ongoing implementation, so it remains important for there to be more conversation and awareness building about the value of 988 as a public safety measure.
While there is clearly a good deal of work remaining across our states and territories until we can consider 988 to be fully implemented, there are positive signs in the first year of 988’s implementation. I expect that together, in the years ahead, we will continue to build on the momentum we have created so far and offer anyone in need of behavioral health supports and/or services an excellent alternative to first dialing 911.
Travis Parker is the Criminal Legal System Program Area Director at with Policy Research Associates, Inc..
What Has Changed in The Three Years Since George Floyd’s Death?
Chandra Tyler, Wilford Pinkney Jr., Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons, Lisa Varon
Community EngagementFeatured JurisdictionsRacial DisparitiesMay 24, 2023
It has been three years since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Mr. Floyd’s murder energized an international movement for racial justice with many pledging to change the role of law enforcement and more.
But what has changed? We asked individuals involved with the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) to reflect on the landscape for criminal justice reform.
Chandra Tyler, Safety and Justice Challenge Equity Inclusion Consultant for Mecklenburg County
As we approach the three-year anniversary of George Floyd’s brutal death, I sit in deep reflection with both heaviness and hope. The devastating tragedy on May 25, 2020, which ignited an enormous blaze of protests, policy changes and social movements, appeared to be the long overdue awakening that so many fought and prayed for. Fast-forward to present day. America’s sense of urgency and progressive efforts has slowly lost its fire.
“It feels more like a Superbowl commercial. It came and it went,” Gemini Boyd, a member of the Mecklenburg County Community Engagement Task Group recently told me.
Though disappointing, these are the moments that remind us why we continue this race. Mecklenburg County Criminal Justice Community Engagement Task Group is just getting started. With intentionality and vision, we are mending the relationships between community and systems, pouring into our youth, and identifying gaps and resources needed to build a viable, sustainable, and equitable greater Mecklenburg County community. Through our 3 E’s: Engagement, Education, and Empowerment, our mission is to lead with collaboration and improve policy and practice changes in the criminal justice system. In honor of George Floyd and countless others, we press on. The marathon continues!
Wilford Pinkney Jr., Director of the Office of Violence Prevention at the City of St. Louis
The murder of George Floyd was a catalyzing moment. It created a window of opportunity, but sustaining the momentum is the challenge. The key to sustaining reform is collaboration, a comprehensive approach and sustainable infrastructure.
Since 2020, St. Louis has enacted numerous policies related to reimagining public safety. We did not have to look far for solutions. Numerous reports were published in the last nine years that created a comprehensive picture and outline for a strategic focus. The reports promoted collaboration and pointed to the need for a comprehensive approach to address existing inequities in order to create safe and healthy communities. The challenge was not ideas; it was action. Collaborations were created in 2020 that started the process of better aligning resources and redesigning systems, structures, and policies. We started building the infrastructure for a new system of public safety.
In 2021 Tishaura Jones was elected mayor on a platform of using national models of public safety and rejecting the false choice between being “tough” on crime and addressing the root causes of violence. This approach garnered support from diverse stakeholders ranging from the elected leaders and community organizations to residents in the cities most impacted neighborhoods. Under Mayor Jones’ leadership the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) was created by ordinance and seeded with ten million dollars which ensures it is a permanent part of the city’s government structure.
The mayor’s comprehensive approach to public safety also includes policies aimed at designing safer streets, offering down payment assistance and guaranteed basic income to low-income residents, and year-round jobs for youth. St. Louis has the model for sustaining reform, a committed chief executive, a strategic focus, support from a diverse group of stakeholders, and sustainable strategies.
Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons, Founder and Executive Director of Why Not Prosper, Inc.
George Floyd’s death brought people’s awareness of racism back to life. People have a new lens on since it happened, and it’s still an intense change in how we are all looking at the world. There needs to be a differentiation between the understanding of racism and this focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training, though, because it’s different. The city of Philadelphia has done a lot to intentionally focus on DEI. And funding has shifted because of it. But there does need to be that deep commitment to focusing on racism.
In Philadelphia, specifically, the advocates and the organizers are taking no stuff. We’ve got commissions for jail, the police, parole, the prisons, and probation. Because the funding is there and people are sick and tired of the historical racism, all those things are coming together. And you can’t miss out on the anti-violence work either. People are more aware of things now. I feel our justice partners are coming around. They’re used to the same old systems. But they’re starting to pull back the curtain on racism and realize how they can change things. They’re just beginning to pull the curtain apart and say, “Now let me see what this is about, and how I might help.”
Lisa Varon, Deputy Director of the Office of Criminal Justice at the City of Philadelphia
In the three years since the murder of George Floyd, there has been a shift to focus on community strength instead of community suffering. In Philadelphia, an innovative sustainability plan is in place to bring in more meaningful community involvement and to continuously engage justice stakeholders in actionable reform efforts. To date, the city of Philadelphia has made an annual commitment north of two million dollars in the General Fund to support a wide range of initiatives and related personnel, that supplement the series of investments made through SJC. This work has three major components: experiential learning opportunities for criminal legal system stakeholders, several capstone-focused workgroups (all with a racial equity focus), and the eventual merging with the county Community Justice Advisory Board (CJAB).
The experiential learning opportunities are an imaginative way of breaking down some of the silos that exist in the various criminal legal systems sectors. The learning opportunities look like robust pieces of training in racial equity and implementing reforms, site visits to local community-based organizations, and chances to explore the criminal legal system by learning how people travel through the legal system and identifying where people are most likely to get caught up in the system.
As previously mentioned, sustainability efforts in Philadelphia have already begun. There are five SJC-focused workgroups that are continuing to propel this work forward: jail reduction strategy, data, community engagement/ racial and ethnic disparities, pretrial, and the common pleas case processing workgroups. All these groups have two things in common: dedication to the sustainability of promising practices and a commitment to have racial equity built into the reforms the groups hope to produce.
Lastly, when we think of how far we have come in criminal legal system reform in the three years since the death of George Floyd, the most important thing to do is look forward. The work of the SJC will only be ending in name in Philadelphia. Strategic workgroups will continue to convene through the Philadelphia CJAB with the expectation that they will produce actionable recommendations for change in the local system. In addition, we are maintaining our commitment to bring the necessary City resources to sustain these efforts and outcomes as a long-term investment strategy in our community.
Chandra Tyler is the Safety and Justice Challenge Equity Inclusion Consultant at for Mecklenburg County.
Wilford Pinkney Jr. is the Director of the Office of Violence Prevention at the City of St. Louis.
Rev. Dr. Michelle Anne Simmons is the Founder and Executive Director at Why Not Prosper, Inc..
Lisa Varon is the Deputy Director of the Office of Criminal Justice at the City of Philadelphia.
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Establishing, Implementing, and Maintaining a Language Access Program
UCI School of Sociology: Department of Criminology, Law and Society
The MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) in 2015 with the goals of safely reducing jail incarceration and addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. The SJC Network currently includes fifty-seven sites. The local criminal justice systems in these localities serve racially and ethnically diverse populations comprised of subgroups with different characteristics and needs, including people who are limited English proficient (LEP). As defined by the U.S. Department of Justice (Guidance to Federal Financial Assistance Recipients Regarding Title VI Prohibition Against National Origin Discrimination Affecting Limited English Proficient Persons, 2002), a person is LEP if their primary language is anything other than English and if they have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English. An estimated 25 million people in the United States are LEP (2020 American Community Survey, 5-Year Estimates). The national origin nondiscrimination provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”) require recipients of federal financial assistance to provide people who are LEP with meaningful access to their programs and activities (e.g., in-language communication, telephonic interpretation, and translation of vital documents).
Many organizations and agencies within local criminal justice systems receive federal financial assistance and are thus legally obligated to provide language services. When law enforcement agencies, court systems, and correctional systems provide adequate language services they strengthen access to justice for people who are LEP - e.g., providing life-saving public safety assistance, supporting victims of crime, and delivering vital medical and behavioral care to people who are incarcerated. While national guidance for improving language accessibility exists, the extent to which language services are available in local justice systems is relatively unknown.
Reflections on Power During Black History Month
Gordon Goodwin, Alex Frank
Community EngagementRacial DisparitiesFebruary 21, 2023
This past November, during our bi-annual Facing Race Conference, community organizer Sendolo Diaminah–Co-Director and Founder of the Carolina Federation–made the following statement: “We have power, we want more, and we want to be responsible with it and be accountable to an ethic.” This bold statement was shared to challenge the audience of 3,000 racial justice advocates to “release our fear of power”, while elevating the importance of “being responsible with power”.
We offer this in the spirit of deep reflection this Black History month. We at Race Forward and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) believe in the audacious dream of a multi-racial democracy. We envision a world without prisons, and one in which people of color thrive with power and purpose. But we have a long way to go.
In GARE, we support a network of over 400 city, state, regional jurisdictions, and state departments committed to advancing racial equity. And as we know, the work to advance racial equity requires disrupting and shifting power to the people most harmed and impacted by systemic racism. Within the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) community, this often means letting go, making space, and centering the expertise of system-impacted people and frontline staff, while investing in infrastructure for community-led government accountability.
On the heels of Black History Month, our team will be hosting the SJC Racial Equity Cohort sites–Cook County, Pima County, Philadelphia, and New Orleans–in Montgomery, Alabama, on the Indigenous land of the Muscogee people, as the first of a three-part Learning Exchange Retreat series. We are gathering there to hold space, build solidarity, and deepen our collective learning about our history of colonization, genocide, enslavement, and mass incarceration, in order to support the Focused Racial Equity Cohort Sites’ work in that social, historical, and political analysis.
We will be joined by community leaders, people who have been harmed by the justice system, and government leaders seeking to make change from the inside. Preparing for this event reminds us of the generational trauma of our people, and the impact of that trauma today. But we do not want to use this platform to focus on trauma. Instead, let us center generational resilience.
Generational resilience lives in every cell of our bodies. It surfaces when we cook, share a meal, listen to music, soak our feet, dance, laugh, and cry. While generational resilience is a personal experience, it is also a political expression. We are reminded of Shaun Ginwright, an author, activist, and professor in the Africana Studies Department at San Francisco State University, and his writing about this: “Healing centered engagement is explicitly political, rather than clinical,” he writes. “When people advocate for policies and opportunities that address causes of trauma, such as lack of access to mental health, these activities contribute to a sense of purpose, power and control over life situations.”
Earlier this month, we all witnessed Tyre Nichols killing at the hands of Memphis, Tennessee law enforcement as a result of being severely beaten and left uncared for. We, along with others across the country, grieve for Tyre’s family and his community which continues to recount how they have been terrorized by law enforcement. Public safety requires public trust; but the history of law enforcement was not built on trust, it was built on White supremacist “slave patrols” and a “law and order” paradigm that continues to haunt Black and Indigenous People of Color today.
Every day across the country, law enforcement agencies welcome a new cadre of officers who swear an oath not to a Governor, or a legislature, a Police Chief, Commissioner, or a political party, but to the United States Constitution. Yet, every year, thousands of Black and Indigenous People of Color lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement.
We cannot train or program our way out of this human rights crisis. We need to disrupt and shift power. What would it look like, and feel like, to shift power? To truly listen to and follow the leadership of the people most harmed by police brutality? To center our generational resilience? And in the words of Sendolo Diaminah, to “release our fear of power” while building our capacity to “be responsible with power”?