Community Tools to Change Mass Incarceration of Youth of Color

Last month the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice, Fairness and Equity (BI) conducted a webinar for the Healing Violence Alliance, highlighting the causes and consequences of racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system and how these disparities relate to community-based efforts to address violence. If you missed it, you can download the webinar.

The BI offers a historical perspective on racism in the youth and adult justice systems, detailing how current policies exacerbate disparities created by the racist practices of our not-so-distant past.  Systemic barriers, such as the zero tolerance policies, the criminalization of age-appropriate behavior, and the disparate use of law enforcement resources make it more likely that people of color are disproportionately affected by the collateral consequences of incarceration.

These consequences include disruptions in education, reduced income, loss of employment opportunities, separated families, housing evictions and other barriers that affect individuals, harm families and negatively impact community well-being. The individual, social and cultural trauma caused by mass incarceration and its collateral consequences are significant issues that system and community leaders must consider to effectively address the complex origins of community violence.

BI staff also outline their community-driven, data-informed approach to reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. The BI believes that successfully reducing disparities requires collaboration between system and community stakeholders. This collaboration must include substantial community involvement throughout the decision-making processes, full utilization of available community resources, and the development of new community-based interventions. Additionally, by emphasizing the ongoing use of quantitative and qualitative data during the decision-making process, advocates can make targeted improvements to policies that perpetuate existing disparities while avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with racial equity reform.

In addition to the BI webinar cited above, here are links to informational resources on working collaboratively with communities of color to reduce racial and ethnic disparities:

Stemming the Rising Tide: Racial and ethnic disparities in youth incarceration and strategies for change — This report highlights troubling trends in the incarceration of youth of color and offers several strategies for addressing the causes of racial inequities that promote restorative justice and overall well-being for youth of color.

What Happens When the Bargain of Civil Society is Breached? — In many communities across this nation, children are expected to exhibit all of the characteristics of childhood—good and bad—as part of their normal adolescent development. However, in far too many communities of color, we have eliminated the space for children to exhibit age appropriate behavior by criminalizing their conduct through fear-based policies and practices. In this piece, BI founder, James Bell, discusses why we must apply a child well-being framework to young men of color.

A Shared Sentence: The devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities — “More than 5 million U.S. children have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their lives. The incarceration of a parent can have as much impact on a child’s well-being as abuse or domestic violence. But while states spend heavily on corrections, few resources exist to support those left behind. A Shared Sentence offers commonsense proposals to address the increased poverty and stress that children of incarcerated parents experience.”

Racial Equity Tools — “Racial Equity Tools is designed to support individuals and groups working to achieve racial equity. This site offers tools, research, tips, curricula and ideas for people who want to increase their own understanding and to help those working toward justice at every level – in systems, organizations, communities and the culture at large.”

Racial Equity Toolkit — “Racial equity tools are designed to integrate explicit consideration of racial equity in decisions, including policies, practices, programs, and budgets. It is both a product and a process. Use of a racial equity tool can help to develop strategies and actions that reduce racial inequities and improve success for all groups.”

Decriminalizing Childhood for Youth of Color: A Policy Framework

help kids don't jail them

The Burns Institute recently collaborated with the Urban America Forward: Civil Rights Roundtable Series to produce a thought piece on a new, transformative youth justice policy framework that would challenge the structural racial injustices that contribute to and perpetuate disparities in youth justice.

We joined a diverse group of civil rights leaders, scholars, activists, practitioners, representatives of philanthropy, and representatives of the private sector to share evidence-based and practice-proven policies that are working to dismantle inequality in urban America today.

You can download a copy of the BI’s policy framework towards the transformation of youth justice here.

Op-Ed: The Future of Justice Administration Must Not Be a Repeat of Today


One year ago, a grand jury voted not to charge Officer Darren Wilson for shooting dead 18-year old Michael Brown, in an incident that sparked a powerful movement against police brutality and the disparate treatment of Black people by the justice system. In the year that followed, the nation has borne witness to a seemingly constant onslaught of evidence that is forcing civil society, in my opinion, to confront uncomfortable yet necessary truths about society’s longstanding negative perceptions of people of color and its racially inequitable administration of justice.

President Obama’s criminal justice tour taking place this fall is providing opportunities that bring the justice conversation into the public sphere. It is a conversation that was resisted by a majority of our society for hundreds of years, as long as we perceived ourselves to be protected from people that will hurt us. Despite the good intentions of the President, much of the justice conversation continues to be defined by judgments about how communities of color are to be policed in order to deliver on the state’s mandate to protect public safety. By and large, we have failed to adequately engage the roots of unequal justice for people of color and address the lack of accountability and transparency within the system.

Clearly, every society needs a justice apparatus to administer the principles necessary to maintain democratic institutions with salience in all our lives. However, justice has never been administered in a vacuum. Long ago, our society struck a dangerous bargain with the justice system; we ignore our mistreatment of people of color in order to feel safe and free from fear of them. Let us not be naïve about how powerful that agreement is and the depth of its roots. These historical roots are embedded in our jurisprudential DNA. They inform impulses, biases, and notions of who should suffer punishment and who should be protected from harm.

The foundation of today’s justice system encompasses three centuries of social and legal norms built on the belief that people of color were at different times savages (Native Americans), feebleminded (Latinos), incapable of normal function (Asians), or not even human (Blacks). The historical narrative guiding the administration of justice today is that communities of color must be controlled in order for law, order, peace and tranquility to be achieved. Thus custody, control and suppression of people of color were seen as synonymous with public safety.

We have evolved, through movement-based struggle, to a place where laws can no longer be explicitly aimed at particular races. However, centuries of laws, policies and practices have built a justice infrastructure that is filled with race effects. Indeed, custody and control of people of color has been so inextricably linked to safety that any response to law violations that challenges the use of incarceration is viewed with suspicion, deemed unworkable, or worse yet, unimaginable. Proponents of the status quo justice apparatus deny this premise of structural racism, using seductive but ultimately hollow and supposedly race-neutral phrases like “tough on crime” and “do the crime, do the time” to support current practices as the best way to public safety.

Recently, F.B.I. Director James B. Comey stated, without any data or research to support his position, that the reason certain crimes may be rising was the so-called “Ferguson effect” in Black communities. He stated:

“I don’t know whether that explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year,”

 That one of the highest law enforcement officials in the land can comfortably comment on the complex factors of race, crime and justice by only having a “strong sense” with no facts in support, speaks volumes about the need for a new narrative on race and justice.

A new justice narrative must have racial equity as a guiding principle and it must also acknowledge the cumulative effects of structural racism on the administration of justice today. New frameworks should assume that the human condition will always have violations of the law, but that the best way for us to be kept safe is to change our justice system from one of revenge and punishment to one of interventions, services and proportionate monitoring of behavior.

It is time we struck a new bargain for how we administer justice and public safety. After centuries of retribution and punishment that has disproportionately affected people of color, it is time to cure the ills of humanity with greater humanity. As Americans, it is so hard for us to use humanity and safety from crime in the same sentence. However, we know that our current model needs an overhaul, as the evidence continues to mount. The mistreatment and mass incarceration of people of color by the justice system is not sustainable. The future administration of justice cannot and should not be a repetition of what we do today.

James Bell, Founding Executive Director, The W. Haywood Burns Institute