Pandemic Justice

Last year, before social distancing was a thing, I participated in a meeting where a justice stakeholder passionately explained to me why focusing on reducing racial and ethnic disparities was a mistake that threatened the public safety of victims that they were sworn to protect. For nearly twenty years, I have participated in these discussions. Over and over, experienced decision-makers have told me that they cannot change a particular policy or practice because it would risk violating their professional commitment to our most personal social contract – ensuring public safety.

And then COVID-19 happened. The world changed quickly and dramatically. And, in many jurisdictions, the administration of justice changed just as quickly and dramatically. In the last two months states such as California and Virginia and counties such as Harris (Houston) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland) have stopped or significantly reduced admissions to jails and/or youth detentions centers.  Several jurisdictions decreased their jail populations by more than 30% in less than 30 days. In March, one large metropolitan area reduced its drug related arrests by more than 95% from the previous weekly average. These policy and practice changes are happening in youth and adult systems and in counties, large and small, across our nation. Interestingly, these decisions are being done in the name of public safety. And that’s where things get really complicated. Or, maybe, not so much.

Crisis creates clarity – locking people in cages during a pandemic is bad for public health and safety. In the midst of a global pandemic these traditionally glacial-moving bureaucratic institutions have moved at light speed to shift policing strategies away from an overreliance on arrest resulting in fewer people being admitted into jails and secure facilities while releasing significant numbers of people from the very institutions where jail reduction efforts seemed impossible just days before. Naysayers will argue that we should relegate pandemic policy and practices to pandemic times and when COVID-19 moves on we should return to the administration of pre-pandemic justice. They will contend that we cannot accept any of the new policies long term until we have studied, ad nauseam, the impact of these policy and practice changes on community public safety. While we need to understand the impact of these changes, we should not overthink what is happening. We are in the midst of a moment of truth and we can choose to look away from what is before us or we can use this crisis to come to terms with the legacy of our incarceration dependence and reimagine how our country administers justice moving forward.

We need to use this crisis to demand that justice sector leaders demonstrate the same urgency and innovation reflected in the policy and practice changes highlighted above and in similar jurisdictions, during non-pandemic times. We must first recognize that this global pandemic has placed a focus on our value of life, and when forced between a rock and a hard place (a cell or a deadly virus) we choose life. Understanding this, we must then wrestle with the reality that COVID-19 is exposing the fallacy that public safety is a primary driver of our nation’s incarceration dependence. We can face the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color which mirrors the disparities we see daily in the administration of justice.

Most importantly, we can understand that these disparities are inextricably linked to and reflect our nation’s history of structural racism. A history that lacks the basic humanity for the well-being of others, with an opportunity moment to change course. The road to transformative change – is not paved with good intentions, rather it must be anchored in our renewed value for life, and our basic humanity for the well-being of others.

Written by: Michael Finley and Samantha Mellerson

Illustration by: Eddye Vanderkwaak

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Reflections from the Field

2017 has been a year of significant change for both the nation and the Burns Institute. For us here at the BI, the looming year’s end signals a time for deep reflection on where we stand and how we will move forward. As we take stock of the lessons we have learned over the past decade of working in the justice sector and assess the current political climate, we find that now more than ever, it is crucial to intentionally expand our thinking in how we approach racial and ethnic disparity work. In order to do so, we believe it is necessary to engage in serious thought partnership and collaboration with those willing to share a vision of how to combat the forces of institutional racism and the growing hostility towards addressing issues of race, equity, and justice.

Disparities related work is complicated. To achieve racial justice, the work must become personal in nature for those involved. Stakeholders, particularly justice system stakeholders, must re-imagine their positions, their authority and their relationships to people of color and the communities from which they come. Conversely, the personal nature of racial and ethnic disparities work requires the BI to relate to justice stakeholders within the context of our professional positions and the larger society, with all of its foibles, within which we all exist as individuals living our personal lives. This combination of the personal and the professional, the local and the global, has been and continues to be a challenge.

Engaging in discussions of justice, race, ethnicity, punishment, rehabilitation and restoration has always required a dancer’s feet, parental patience and elephant thick skin. We tip toe, stomp, push and pull – speaking loudly with a whisper, sometimes simultaneously, to help justice stakeholders re-imagine their preconceptions about how to respond to those individuals who find themselves entangled in the halls of justice throughout our country. The past few years have pushed us, as our work was impacted by the multitude of highly publicized police shootings of unarmed African-American men across the country which intensified peoples’ sensitivity and discomfort about discussing race, ethnicity and the relationship between the justice system and communities of color. Yet the extraordinary nature of the Presidential election, which further divided the nation along racial and ethnic lines, has made engaging in the work of racial and ethnic justice even more difficult and signals that we are entering a new era of work within the justice system.

Stakeholders from jurisdictions across the country repeatedly explain that it is “politically unsafe” for them to move forward with their work to address racial and ethnic disparities within their system. Often times, however, “politically unsafe” has been simply another way of signaling that within our current divisive national climate of heightened sensitivity, many are personally uncomfortable pushing discussions regarding racial/ethnic equity among their colleagues. In reality, there is little, if any, professional incentive for a justice system leader to voluntarily engage in an introspective analysis of how their policies and practices, formal and informal, may impact racial and ethnic disparities. In fact, increasingly, in this current climate, the opposite is true and there is an active disincentive for stakeholders to speak openly about the challenging issues involved in disparities work.

At this moment is history, we find ourselves in a particularly demanding position. While the political environment is increasingly hostile to conversations around institutional racism, the urgency of our work has never been clearer. It is amid this that we at the Burns Institute are drawing upon our experience and calling out to our partners to craft a new narrative with which to approach our work; a narrative that stands firmly and unapologetically in dismantling current systems of oppression. We recognize that this is a huge task, one that needs to be diverse and inclusive. With that in mind, we encourage all of you to join the discussion and challenge us and yourself to think beyond anything that currently exists, and help us create a vision anchored in a racially and ethnically just society. Together, we can envision a future that ensures the well-being of all youth of color and their communities.

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