Criminal Law and Justice

How Can We Make Communities Safer? Listen to Residents First.

April 12, 2022  • Douglas Wood, Criminal Justice Reform Initiative & Eric Cadora

While recent headlines scream that “crime is up,” the reality on the ground in American neighborhoods has many nuances—details not always understood by local governments, but understood all too well by the residents most impacted by the justice system. Communities best know how to design solutions that will make their neighborhoods safer and more just. 

And we do need better, specialized solutions that go beyond the myopic “fund/defund the police” back-and-forth. Though it’s true some crimes are up—regrettably and most notably homicides—most are down, continuing a steep, twenty-five year decline. Even with homicides, about a third of large cities saw a decrease in 2021 – including places such as St. Louis, which is trying new community-led solutions 

To be clear, to highlight these differences is not to dismiss the impact of violent crime. We live in New York, and one of us lives in Harlem on 137th street a few blocks away from where two officers were recently gunned down. The conversations happening now in communities are real: How can our response to crime avoid the draconian policies of the past that led to mass incarceration, while meeting the growing demand to reimagine public safety? 

In these conversations, reactions tend to focus on discrete components of the criminal justice system that some deem in need of tinkering or adjusting. But a siloed view of parts or pieces of a broken system neglects the need to think more comprehensively and act with the agility demanded by such a complex and challenging experience as crime and safety. 

The major challenge is that we aren’t organized to answer these questions. We need much better ways — beyond the piecemeal analysis of criminal justice agency data — to bring the right information together. Better data from local justice, health, and human services systems, in particular broken down to the neighborhood level, is no doubt a part of the solution, but it’s not enough. Better local cross-sector data must be paired with, and analyzed alongside, direct research and input from the community members most impacted by crime and safety issues. 

This was among the recent recommendations from the Council on Criminal Justice, and reflects a nascent movement within criminal justice research to use more community-focused research methods that reflect methodological pluralism. These are approaches that have been effectively used in other fields, most notably public health, but are woefully underutilized in justice research. These tools, known collectively as community-based action research techniques, can provide startlingly different evidence, and lead to different problem framing, analysis, and solutions than only crunching ‘big data’ could ever yield. 

For example, a program of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice called NeighborhoodStat focuses on creating safer environments in New York City Housing Authority developments. It starts by bringing together and actively appreciating what residents have to say. Renita Francois, executive director of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, told us in an interview: “One of the beautiful things about NeighborhoodStat is when we tell residents we’re giving them money to do projects that affect public safety, we don’t tell them what the safety issue is. We let them identify what they need, and crime is usually somewhere way down the line. The stuff that they talk about beforehand are more a part of [a] holistic picture. They’re like, ‘We want development opportunities for the youth. We want to talk about reentry support for people who are returning home in our community. We want to talk about how we build connection with people who speak different languages…’.” 

Meanwhile in Colorado, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition has been working successfully to bring together and elevate local community voices in prioritizing, winning, and in fact managing Community Reinvestment dollars around ‘ending the overuse of the criminal justice system and advancing community health and safety’ in the process. Through organizational innovations that amplify community knowledge and priorities, community-facing intermediaries manage government grant programs around transformative crime prevention, crime survivors, harm reduction and reentry initiatives in local communities. 

It’s likely to make local elected and justice system officials heads’ spin to learn that the people most impacted by crime do not necessarily want to talk first and only about policing and the courts in order to be more safe. And that’s exactly the point of having multiple research inputs. It’s too easy to fall back on what you think you know; and if all you’ve got is a hammer, like court or police data, everything starts to look like a nail (i.e. all solutions are about police or courts). Criminal justice research, including the defining of public safety problems and solutions, has to start with a wide lens, both in terms of the social sectors involved in creating ‘safety,’ as well as who gets to opine on what safety is and should be. 

The work of the Aspen Institute’s new Justice and Governance Partnerships is setting out to support communities that want to construct this more complete view of justice and safety. In combination with the deep, local work of bringing together data from across government agencies, community organizations, and neighborhood residents through jurisdiction-wide Justice Audits, we are now assembling a working group of experts on justice research and on community-based action research methods. Together, we’ll make recommendations about how justice reform efforts can put community members with direct experience of the justice system—and who have the most at stake—into the driver’s seat when defining what safety and justice means to them and how to take action to address the most pressing problems. 

While each community will voice its own priorities, we can imagine the new possibilities if community-led research was on par with traditional criminal justice data when determining local safety and justice policies. Proponents from City Council members to community leaders could argue, for example, that we should tackle rising crime through investment in free higher education, or stave off evictions through mediation or other supports that reduce drug use, and thereby alter the face of drug crime in the community. 

Policing and public safety have always been intensely local issues, and in recent years, much of the innovation in justice reform has happened through discretionary policy change in local jurisdictions. Examples like those in New York City and Colorado suggest that expanding the use of community-based research can play a major role in reconstructing our approach to safety and justice. 

Douglas E. Wood, Ed.D, is the Director of the Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. Eric Cadora is the founder and Director of Justice Mapping. 

This article originally appeared as an Op/Ed in the Politics section of The Hill on 3-24-22.