Promote Community Safety through Alternatives to Incarceration
Our criminal justice system should keep us safe, treat people fairly and respectfully, and be flexible and ready to change with the times. However, we are currently saddled with an outdated, unfair and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities. Our prisons are too big and too full, and our reasons for locking people up are not well-thought out. Our policies have been overly punitive and have created incentives that promote inefficiency, systemic racial discrimination, and high levels of incarceration. To promote pragmatic law enforcement that supports communities, the government should prioritize communities over incarceration. Criminal justice policies should incentivize the reduction of the incarceration rate, work to eliminate racial discrimination, and aim to heal communities that have been harmed by the high rates of incarceration through the incorporation of restorative justice practices and the creation of community healing spaces.
Solutions & Actions to Promote Community Safety through Policies that Promote Fairness & Reduce Incarceration
1) Invest in Communities over Incarceration
The President should draft an Executive Order, based on the executive authority to set prosecutorial priorities and to manage the federal prisons system, directing federal law enforcement agencies to prioritize policies and practices that reduce incarceration and prioritize community investment over imprisonment as a strategy for ensuring public safety.
2) Don’t Fund Bad Actors
The DOJ Civil Rights Division and the DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services should work together to ensure police departments that are under investigation or have outstanding cases for statutory and constitutional violations are not awarded grants to hire additional police officers by establishing an interagency taskforce dedicated to ensuring that the DOJ is not inadvertently rewarding bad actors. The Department of Justice (DOJ) should only fund law enforcement agencies that provide specific and demonstrable action plans for addressing unwarranted racial disparities and racial profiling in law enforcement activities in their funding applications to ensure compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
3) Prohibit “Volume-Based” Performance Measures
Legislatures should prohibit performance metrics that reward criminal justice agents for increasing their volumes of prosecutions, tickets, summonses, arrests, probation violations, and other punitive civilian encounters; provide protection for whistle-blowers to report unofficial “volume-based” performance metrics; and create strict penalties for law enforcement agencies with such unofficial policies.
4) Use Restorative Justice in the Criminal Justice System
Local governments and the judiciary should establish restorative justice programs that address community justice matters, including programs that address serious offenses. Restorative justice programs seek to repair the harm caused to victims and communities, and include practices such as family group conferences, mediation, community decision making, and mechanisms for restitution.
5) Use More Pardons and Expedite Commutations
The President ensure that pardons, which fully or conditionally forgive crimes, are used more extensively to address injustice in the criminal justice system, including taking steps to provide additional resources to the Pardons Office. Furthermore, the President should expedite the commutations process and eliminate bureaucratic barriers to relief.
6) Re-Commit to Human Rights
Local, state, and federal governments should re-commit to human rights by complying with human rights standards for racial equity, incorporating human rights into employee trainings, orientations, and handbooks for employees in institutions within the criminal justice system, and allowing United Nations officials and experts unrestricted access to inspect U.S. prisons and jails.
7) Establish Truth & Reconciliation Commissions
Local and state legislatures should pass legislation that establishes commissions for truth and/or reconciliation, where there is a history of past abuse and/or community mistrust of law enforcement. These commissions should be tasked with making recommendations based on their findings.
8) Fund Community Outreach
The DOJ should incentivize healthy relationships between the community and law enforcement agencies by prioritizing law enforcement agencies that have a substantive community outreach strategy detailed in funding applications.
9) Include the Voices of those Directly Impacted
Policymakers should incorporate the voices of people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system, including formerly incarcerated people, and survivors of police violence in the development of laws and policies that impact them. This engagement should include incorporating the substantive policy suggestions of those who have been most impacted by the criminal justice system.
10) Promote Intersectional Approaches
Advocates, activists, cultural workers and artists, and civil society should adopt a framework that highlights issues experienced by community members with intersectional identities, including women of color, formerly incarcerated individuals, black women, migrants, Muslim youth, Native American women and youth, LGBTQ people of color, transgender people of color, amongst others. Policymakers should incorporate an intersectional analysis when evaluating policies.
Solutions in Action
We’ve identified programs and initiatives that incorporate some of these solutions. They may provide inspiration, albeit at times imperfect, for others who are interested in instituting some of these policies.
- Responding to the epidemic of substance abuse in the region and the nation, the mayor of Ithaca, Svante Myrick, formed the Municipal Drug Policy Committee, which released their report, The City of Ithaca’s Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy, after a year-long study on the best approach to substance abuse in the municipality. The plan calls for a multi-pronged strategy to respond to drug use that is rooted in harm reduction.
- Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) in Seattle is a pre-booking diversion program developed with the community to address less serious crimes in Seattle. The program allows law enforcement officers to direct people to community-based services instead of jail.
- The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice is working on interventions in six communities (Stockton, CA, Pittsburgh, PA, Minneapolis, MN, Gary, IN, Fort Worth, TX, and Birmingham, AL) to address implicit bias, and promote procedural justice and reconciliation.
Below are flashcards for you to use the next time you have a media interview, need to write an opinion piece, or just need some ideas as you think through your messaging strategy.
Reducing Incentives to Incarcerate
Our criminal justice system should keep us safe, treat people fairly and respectfully, and be flexible and ready to change with the times. This means taking a careful look at why and how we imprison people in this country, and making changes in the system when it no longer meets our goals or supports our values.
However, we are currently saddled with an outdated, unfair and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities. Our prisons are too big and too full, and our reasons for locking people up are not well-thought out. Adding to this issue, a number of incentives exist that encourage the continuous reliance on prisons. For instance, many communities measure law enforcement success by the volume of prosecutions and prison sentences instead of decreases in crime or improvements in community safety.
To promote pragmatic law enforcement that supports communities, legislatures should prohibit the evaluation of police and prosecutors that focus on arrest, prosecution or imprisonment numbers over increases in public safety.
Tell your legislators to compel prosecutors and police departments to focus on real indicators of community safety instead of numbers that only show their ability to lock people up.
Shrinking Our Bloated System
We need a pragmatic approach to criminal justice reform that is responsible, right for our communities and true to our values.
But our current laws see prison and detention as the main solution to every drug issue, immigration infraction, mental health situation, and so on. As a result, we are disrupting lives and communities by locking away people who pose no harm to society.
We can fix our laws to focus on prevention and alternatives, investing in jobs training, education, drug treatment and mental health programs instead of pouring money into prisons and detention centers.
Tell your elected officials that it’s time to reform our criminal justice system so that it works for all of our communities.
For additional background on the issue of mass incarceration, the importance of a comprehensive commitment to ending the phenomenon, and alternatives, such as restorative justice, check out:
- Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, which describes the ascension of mass incarceration as a contemporary system of racial control;
- Robynn J.A. Cox’s 2015 report Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights, which describes the rise of mass incarceration and highlights policy solutions;
- The Obama Administration’s President’s Memorandum on the Economic Costs of Mass Incarceration, which acknowledges the importance of “holistic” criminal justice transformation;
- Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie’s report, Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, which highlights the importance of intersectionality in criminal justice reform and a racial justice movement;
- The American Civil Liberties Union and Sentencing Project report, Ending Mass Incarceration Charting a New Justice Reinvestment Ending Mass Incarceration Charting a New Justice Reinvestment, which focuses on justice reinvestment as a tool for reducing incarceration;
- Howard Zehr, the grandfather of the restorative justice movement, who outlines its principles and practice in The Little Book of Restorative Justice; and
- Impact Justice, an innovation and research center committed to “fostering a more humane, responsive, and restorative system of justice in our nation” that creates resources and provides training to implement restorative justice.
- The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is “dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and has issued several calls to ensure that the criminal justice system is aligned with human rights norms, including its Submission to the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. (Our former Communications Institute Fellow, Vince Warren, is the Executive Director of CCR.);
- The Movement for Black Lives has outlined a comprehensive policy platform for upholding black dignity and black humanity.