Burns Statement on the Human Rights Crisis at the Border

The W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) was founded on principles of human dignity and fair treatment for communities of color that are too often subject to policies and practices that are steeped in racialized institutional social control. The current immigration crisis represents this nation’s continuing tragic history of formally justifying inhumane treatment and the cruelty of “the other.” Beginning with the genocide of Native Americans and the barbaric enslavement of African people, the country has developed a playbook for how it engages communities of color. This sad predictable script begins by using false and exaggerated claims to create threats to national safety and exploit those threats to gin up fear of “savages” “rapists” “gangs” “super predators” “coolies” “anchor-babies” and “terrorists”.

When the hysteria reaches the correct pitch, an authority figure, in this case the President of the United States, normalizes unconscionable acts by saying “these aren’t people, these are animals” thereby unleashing violent racialized oppression with little regard for long term consequences.

The current iteration of this too familiar playbook is falling on asylum seekers from Mexico, Central America and Arabs that practice Islam. Mainstream and social media have well documented cruelty involving thousands of children being separated from parents, “disappeared” without due process and prevented from the basic nurturing necessary for infants and toddlers to thrive. The tsunami of racism, intolerance, dehumanizing language, family disruption and separation provide real world evidence of what racialized oppression looks like today. We need only look to our nation’s recent past to understand that this level of familial trauma will have catastrophic consequences for generations. The need for health and healing services will reveal themselves soon enough and the predictable failure to deliver them will lead to more stress and morbidity for communities of color.

The BI forcefully opposes these policies and rejects any rationale for their existence. Indeed, they are shocking and visible demonstrations of the more mainstream uses of state sanctioned family and community violence. The overuse of foster care, mass incarceration and the racial and ethnic disparities present therein must be considered part of this continuum. We must examine this current crisis in the context of all instruments of social control and the destruction and trauma that communities of color confront daily.

The BI believes we must combat the structural and institutional racism that cause the existence and implementation of these deplorable policies and practices. Regardless of political party or affiliation, we know the origins of our country’s social and legal fabric are ingrained in the targeted and inhumane treatment of communities of color.

The BI believes that the root causes of state sanctioned violence must be confronted. We support challenging the existence and mission of ICE, increasing the capacity of rapid and quality legal services, providing health and healing services and forever ending the separation of children from parents and families. The BI fully supports any individual, collective, institution, network and advocacy organization committed to fighting for justice, fairness and equity for all of humanity.

The echoes of the cries of our ancestors that were the previous recipients of similar acts of cruelty must be heard and inform our voices and actions of defiance. This country is in transition as we now have the first minority white generation and it is clear that those in power intend to use draconian policies to maintain power. Let us not forget that our future is at stake and worth the fight.

Tshaka Barrows, Chief Executive Officer
James Bell, President

Addicted to Incarceration but Can’t Afford the Habit

tshaka-barrow-photoThe United States of America has been addicted to incarceration for quite some time. It is a costly addiction both in terms of its impact on people, families and the community; not to mention the financial costs which run into the billions. The damages inflicted on communities by the costliness of this addiction to prisons deprives necessary resources to other services: like education and healthcare. An addict’s behavior patterns allow him to continue using at all costs until literally there is nothing left. The State of California has reached that point. The most significant budget crisis in the State’s history has the addict looking in the mirror and doing some serious soul searching. Instead of continuing to hock off education infrastructure and other important functions to subsidize the addiction, Governor Jerry Brown is taking steps to close the Department of Juvenile Justice’s (DJJ) youth prisons and end at least one serious component of the addiction.

The budget crisis in California led Governor Jerry Brown to propose massive cuts to the California’s DJJ, effectively closing the State’s juvenile prisons. By any measure this is considered radical reform. Previously there had not been an appetite for such broad and sweeping change; even though these facilities historically have had horrendous recidivism rates hovering above 80 percent. For decades states like California have blindly invested enormous amounts of tax dollars—$226 million last year to be specific— to maintain and expand these failed youth prisons. Even doing so in the face of criticism from community leaders, advocates, policy shapers and former inmates who all decry it a massive failure. Even federal lawsuits were not enough to force the elected leaders to take the necessary steps to address this epic failure, so it is important to acknowledge the role of the financial crisis and the pressure it has put on states to address this destructive and costly addiction to incarceration.

The tightening of budgets is obviously a strong motivator for government agencies but it alone unfortunately does not lead to inventive reform efforts. The fact that Gov. Brown decided to close such a significant and dilapidated arm of the justice system should open the door to reform efforts that are more far reaching than we have seen heretofore. The entire justice system is in dire need of overhaul. Instead of reforming it piece by piece, we should seize the opportunity presented to take a step back, zoom out and aim at the big picture.

We need a new system for addressing our social issues, a system that is smart on crime. We need a system that actively seeks community participation and is rooted in restorative justice practices. These are not lofty solutions lacking practicality. On the contrary six counties in California have already taken steps to cut back on their addiction to incarceration. According to a policy brief on realignment from the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice Marin, Ventura, Placer, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco have all implemented innovative practices specific to their localities for rehabilitating serious offenders and are already seeing reductions in recidivism.

Millions of dollars are spent on a model of social control that is a proven utter failure. While youth, families and the people who work in the system share this sentiment the flow of money continues. Why then do we continue to tinker with policy and practice change when intelligence should point us in an entirely different direction? Those of us who have been pushing for reforms and system change should seize the moment aiming for the biggest ideas and most visionary changes we can imagine. We should be bold, brave and relentless. Now, as budgets continue to dry up and the political will for this antiquated justice system decays, we stand at the gates of opportunity to create a truly community-driven, restorative justice system.