For far too long, America’s criminal system and its actors have tried to blind us with rhetoric that justice is inherently color-blind and equally delivered. However, in the last several weeks and months the public has witnessed the moral apathy in our law enforcement and justice institutions.
The abandonment of incarcerated men and women amid the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in U.S. jails and prisons further exposed a system where people are exiled and punished on top of punishment. Now, the unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, and global protests calling to defund the police, have forever upended the false narrative that blind justice is the foundation of our country.
What is justice really? Justice isn’t death. Justice isn’t suffering. Perhaps the better question is, what should justice be?
Justice should be equity. Justice should be righteousness. Most importantly, justice should be accountable. The time has come to hold the system and all of its actors responsible for the countlessly inequitable and inhumane decisions made in the name of justice. To do so, the communities bearing the brunt of the system’s dysfunction must be involved in the dismantlement and remaking of the criminal justice system as we know it today. For Black, brown and poor communities to be empowered to move the criminal system toward justice, we must demand increased transparency from every office within the system.
Florida, Colorado, Connecticut and others have passed laws requiring increased transparency from system agencies and imposing penalties should they fail to comply. What uniquely sets Florida’s Criminal Justice Data Transparency Initiative apart is that unlike the other states that call upon one or two institutions to publicly share data, Florida requires all agencies that represent major points of intervention throughout the criminal process from arrest to conviction to publicly share information. Comprehensive data like this will allow those of us who are outside of the system to pose the challenging questions that continuously push the system towards improvements. While laws such as these are pushing the criminal system towards greater transparency, community members, including those directly impacted or who have loved ones that are system-involved, must be included as key stakeholders if we want to progress towards real justice.
One way to accomplish this is through the development of community advisory boards, particularly those that include people with strong community ties and those who have been directly impacted by the system. Community advisory boards have demonstrated success in identifying and dealing with problems of the criminal justice system by initiating new programs, securing resources, and improving communication and relationships between system actors and the community.
It is through the active engagement of community that we might build effective models of community policing and restorative justice to cease the overuse of force, jails and prisons as forms of punishment. In states like California, advocates and lawmakers have championed policy solutions like the CRISES Act as a pathway towards “public safety responses that are rooted in community, not punishment.” We can develop a strategic investment plan for Black, brown and poor communities that reduces the disparate impact the criminal system has on them.
We can improve conditions of confinement in our correctional institutions and acknowledge the need for family connection and rehabilitative programs to build people up and take on the responsibilities of productive kinship and citizenship. For example, implementation of in-person voting within jails emphasizes the importance of one of the primary ways we can participate in our democracy. Additionally, the implementation of effective correctional programs that are centered on humanity and dignity and focused on the pivotal role the incarcerated individuals can continue to have in their families throughout the period of incarceration is vital to the health of the individual, the family unit, as well as the larger community within and outside the correctional institution.
The unfortunate reality today is that most correctional practices are only effective at stripping individuals of the important and necessary roles they play in their families and the communities. Mothers and fathers are forced to transition from family leaders to infantile beings, having to ask permission before taking action and oftentimes getting demeaned in front of their families (e.g., being handcuffed and searched in front of their families; the ways in which staff often speak of and with the men and women housed in the institutions; etc).
Further, we can bridge the gap between the needs of individuals identified in correctional institutions and the supports that are readily available in the community prior to and immediately upon release from the institution, so we have fewer people returning. In response to the importance of kinship and community supports for men and women who are incarcerated, Chicago Beyond and our partners launched the Beyond Incarceration Initiative, which leverages a trauma-informed approach to facilitate and support familial bonds that make successful re-entry and lower recidivism possible.
Through replicating and scaling these innovations and investments, we as a nation can rebuild and sustain a truly just system — one where healing is at the center and punishment is left to the past.
Nneka Jones Tapia is Leader-In-Residence at Chicago Beyond, an impact investor backing the fight for youth and racial equity.