To Fix the Justice System, Go Outside

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Leaders in the new federal administration have emphasized that they want Americans to feel safe in their communities. They want to put a stop to the violence that permeates some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods of our cities.

Stopping violence and increasing public safety are goals that I strongly support, as I imagine most Americans do. What does not make sense to me, however, or align with research evidence, is the resurrection of a tough-on-crime approach to achieve those goals.

The problem of community violence is real and urgent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 homicide was the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34. An average of 1,374 young people end up in hospital emergency rooms each day due to injuries from physical assault. Youth violence — including medical costs, lost productivity and quality of life — costs our nation more than $158 billion a year.

Already, our country’s jail and prison populations strain local, state and federal resources, yet have a highly questionable impact on crime rates. High incarceration rates also disproportionately affect youth and communities of color. The National Center for Juvenile Justice found that in 2010, African Americans were only 17 percent of the U.S. juvenile population but made up 51 percent of violent crime arrests. We desperately need to increase public safety, reduce costs for taxpayers and improve the lives of the people most affected by structural inequalities such as racism and poverty. But research and data show us that a tough-on-crime strategy makes all these things worse, not better.

Instead of regressing to failed tough-on-crime practices and policies that have devastating, long-term impact, we should be committing resources to addressing root causes of crime, and investing in proven strategies that help prevent individuals from becoming involved in crime and the criminal justice system to begin with.

Being at risk for both experiencing and perpetrating violence comes from a combination of factors, including early childhood experiences, relationships and community norms. These are determined in large part by socioeconomic status and access to family-sustaining employment, good schools, reliable transportation, safe and stable housing, clean water, healthy and affordable food, safe places for children to play and networks of supportive family and friends. Barriers to economic mobility, such as difficulty securing home mortgages and loans for higher education, also affect communities with higher rates of violence. Crucially, barriers like these are inherent in the structural inequalities faced by communities of color.

When communities lack these basic supports, its members are at higher risk of contact with the justice system. And unfortunately, system-involvement has its own bad outcomes, especially for young people. Secure confinement can impair a young person’s development, leading to problems with decision making, impulse control and functioning at school and work. Incarcerated youth are also more likely to be arrested again as juveniles and involved in the criminal justice system as adults, which further affects their families and communities.

Adding to the prison population will not solve any of these problems. If we want equitable, fair and cost-effective justice systems, we must work to help communities address the driving forces that push people into those systems in the first place.

We can move toward our goal of safe and healthy neighborhoods by working with communities to prevent initial youth contact with violence and the justice system. Prevention efforts reduce costs, increase safety and avoid the negative outcomes brought on by incarceration. They are also an important way to get at the racial disparities that exist inside the system.

For prevention to succeed, those directly affected by violence, as well as those who serve them directly, must be the leaders at the table. Community members are the experts on the structural struggles and needs of their own neighborhoods. We have to ask what they need — and, even more importantly, actually listen to their answers.

Once community needs have been identified, it is crucial to evaluate how direct-service programs are put into place and their effectiveness at preventing violence. In doing so, we have to recognize the tension between evidence-based programs that have been evaluated and demonstrated to be effective, and those that have not gained that label but may be having a positive impact. Grassroots, culturally responsive and culturally specific programs are critical — yet what makes those programs successful can be washed away in the process of seeking an evidence-based designation. We need to find ways to help these programs succeed and learn from them.

Getting tough is not going to get us where we want to go. Without a new emphasis on meaningful prevention, the stream of people cycling in and out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems will never change. But if we truly focus on communities and their specific needs, we can advance our shared goals of ending violence — and achieving real safety — for all.

Kathy Park is chief executive officer of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), which works to improve outcomes for at-risk children, adults, families, and communities by bringing research and data-driven decision making to the juvenile and adult criminal justice, child welfare, and adult protection systems.

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