Make Justice Local

December 1, 2020  • Douglas Wood

After a searing summer of protests, the continuing impact of Covid-19, and a time of deep, serious discussion and reflection, communities across the country are reimagining what safety and justice mean to them. Many have called for defunding the police. Others have called for an expansion of policing in communities where peaceful protests have, at times, been marred by disruptions. Still others are calling for what is known as “justice reinvestment.” This concept is anchored in community-driven approaches like the ones taken by Oakland’s Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Board, which provides healing-centered alternatives for young people who get involved in the justice system, and “Neighborhood Stat,” a program in the New York City mayor’s office that works closely with communities and their needs to develop safety priorities. And at the newly formed Aspen Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, justice reinvestment is informing the work.

There is no doubt that the United States has a justice problem. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds over 20 percent of all the world’s prisoners. The deeper you look at the data, the worse it gets.

In 2003, Susan Tucker, the vice president of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy center working for decarceration, and Eric Cadora, of the Justice Mapping Center, developed the concept of justice reinvestment. Their model uses data-driven management tools to determine how much money is being invested in the criminal justice system community by community, how to reduce excessive incarceration, and then how to divert savings back into social sectors such as health care, education, housing, and employment. Accountability and responsibility for reducing incarceration is thus returned to the local level. By using local discretionary policy focused on justice reinvestment, communities begin to address neighborhood-level high rates of incarceration and the resulting impact. This idea would not only begin to address neighborhood-level high rates of incarceration and their impact on communities. It would also strike at the heart of what criminologist Todd Clear calls “coercive mobility”—a phenomenon that destabilizes neighborhoods by “increasing levels of disorganization, first when a person is removed to go to prison, then later when that person reenters the community.”

With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds over 20 percent of all the world’s prisoners.

Since the idea of justice reinvestment was first introduced, it evolved into a federal public-private partnership program known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The program has had mixed results, moving away from community-level implementation to primarily state-level implementation. Long-term financial sustainability has also been problematic. Researchers concluded that the model “did not demonstrate … reductions in prison populations, cost savings, or improvements in public safety.”

The fault was the wrong focus. More community-involved justice approaches, informed by research on the efficacy and impact of long-standing criminal justice reform efforts, can create nuanced ideas and policies that go beyond defunding the police or federal programs—including the Justice Reinvestment Initiative itself.

Experience shows that most jurisdictions that have substantially lowered their use of jail and prison have done so through intentional policies at the local level. Unfortunately, such jurisdictions are the exception rather than the rule. Today, most localities lack the analytic tools to systematically conduct, implement, and evaluate data-driven justice policy reform on their own. Where analytic capacity does exist, it is often unevenly distributed among criminal justice agencies. These data are essential at the local level to shape policies and practices that generate actual safety and justice.

But good data are not enough. Even the best data-driven criminal justice reform efforts often fail to incorporate empirical accounts of community experiences, interests, and priorities regarding safety and justice, or the perspectives of justice system practitioners and those who have been involved in the justice system. This is an especially problematic omission, considering the well-documented concentrations of incarceration in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, which already suffer multiple layers of inequality.

To address this need, the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative is working with a cadre of national technical-assistance partners to launch a five-year national criminal justice transformation initiative in mid-size cities and rural jurisdictions across the country. Working with local justice intermediaries, the technical-assistance partners will develop and launch the Justice Mapping Center’s Justice Audit, support implementation of policy priorities at the local level, and press for supportive state and federal policy and statutory reforms.

For example, working with the Justice Mapping Center, the initiative will gather qualitative and quantitative data to reduce the criminal justice footprint, as measured by stops, summons, arrests, probation and parole surveillance, and jail and prison admissions; the critical health care footprint, as measured by emergency room admissions for chronic illness and behavioral health crises, as well as for shootings, domestic violence, and other assaults; the school discipline footprint, as measured by disruptive school arrests, suspensions, expulsions, and metal detectors; the residential and family crisis footprint, as measured by evictions, emergency shelter placements, child protective orders, and behavioral health commitments; and the subsistence dependency footprint, as measured by unemployment claims and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program filings.

As communities continue to think about how to transform the criminal legal system while taking into consideration the larger justice ecosystem, government funding and policy should support a comprehensive, cross-agency funding structure that supports and sustains this work over time. A collective approach could, in fact, promote much-needed collaboration among the police, education, health, housing, employment, and transportation agencies in communities marked by overlapping inequities, excessive incarceration, and poverty.

The United States must think beyond the failed systems and rhetoric of the past, and beyond a narrow focus on policing, to embrace—finally—justice for all.