OPINION: Community Correspondent
OPINION: Community Correspondent

Troubled waters In California: unbalanced scales of justice

Erica Mu's picture

As we acknowledge the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy from the March on Washington, it is hard to resist the metaphorical use of water in reference to the administration of justice in our nation.

Katrina prompted a debate about the failure of the Bush administration to provide competent and just services to the poor and mostly Black flood victims of New Orleans. Decades earlier, when faced with the "interposition and nullification" of legalized segregation, Dr. King clamored for justice to roll like water in a mighty stream.

Unfortunately, in California today, the waters of justice are not a mighty stream of righteousness, but a toxic brew of budget shortfalls, institutional neglect and misguided priorities. Policies that govern schools, housing and employment are cascading young people and adults into the justice system in record numbers.

The criminal justice system has become the dumping ground for other public systems that are failing to serve their intended clients. In essence, the state of California would rather use prison as a social service agency. So while critical welfare-to-work, housing subsidy and mental health treatment programs experience devastating cuts, the State is eager to fund incarceration. This misguided approach reduces public safety, wastes scarce resources and decimates community strengths.

Moreover this approach is not "tough on crime." Rather it reflects priorities that echo an old "lock 'em up" paradigm that does not work and that we can no longer afford. Why do we as a State continue to be stuck on stupid when it comes to justice policies, rather than being smart and effective?

A new study that we at the W. Haywood Burns Institute have co-authored with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, "Balancing The Scales of Justice," offers some insight into this phenomenon by examining California's priorities in three counties: Alameda, Fresno and Los Angeles. We were astonished to discover that agencies responsible for education, employment and housing did not collect the most basic data, which would enable them to fully understand the impact and efficacy of their policies.

This type of institutional neglect is intolerable and should be addressed immediately. We are spending billions of dollars on systems that do not gather or analyze the most rudimentary information about their outcomes. Predictably, our study reveals that these institutional failures fall most heavily on people of color and increasingly, on women.

Since quantitative data was unavailable, we conducted qualitative interviews. In Alameda County, we found that people on probation were less likely to have graduated high school, compared to the county average. For example, 82% of Black youth and 80% of Latino youth in the county graduated high school, yet only 62% of Black and no Latino probationers we interviewed had graduated. Similarly, whereas nearly 86% of men and 92% of women in the county graduated from high school, only 38% of men and 50% of women on probation who we interviewed had graduated.

In Fresno County we found that, with an unemployment rate of less than 10%, 29% of men interviewed and 59% of women who we interviewed were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest. Similarly, nearly 21% of the Black labor force in Fresno County is unemployed, but 64% of Black interviewees were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest.

As state and local budgets continue to eliminate necessary services, people of color without resources or opportunity are ending up in the criminal justice system. This report provides the spark to demand that housing, employment and education sectors provide appropriate interventions to halt the rapid rush of people of color and women into incarceration. Simply put, the status quo is ill-informed and unsustainable.

This report sets the predicate for a conversation about a new way of doing business that intervenes with intelligence and efficiency. Among our suggestions for forward movement are: Counties should institute a standardized collection method for data on education, employment, and housing to allow state and local officials to make data-driven decisions that could improve the effectiveness of policies and reduce racial, ethnic, and gender disparities; additional and more extensive research regarding the connection between access to quality education, employment, and housing and the increase in California's prison population; and further study of the effects of police presence on public school campuses and an analysis of alternatives to school policing.

We simply cannot afford to continue a 21st century version of "interposition and nullification." It's time to untrouble these waters.

James Bell is the Founder and Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a leading nonprofit in the field of juvenile justice and the reduction of ethnic and racial disparities.