I’ve spent 25 years working to reform the youth justice system. I know from experience how the response to “reform” works. Policy makers and police departments around the country will deflect calls for a new abolitionist vision of “defunding the police” with measured levels of determination to change policy, practice, and procedures, while exhibiting firm political will and proclaiming highly respected leaders to chair diverse collaborations with the charge to reform police departments.
And so, the predictable machinery of “change-not change” will begin. The outcomes will mimic the social outcry: to end lethal use of force against Black Lives and other people of color. Yet, the outcomes will fall short after years with little to no change. Meanwhile, there will be more George Floyds, Breonna Taylors, Sean Monterrosa, Rayshard Brooks and Andres Guardado; more Black and Brown lives shot and killed; more families shattered.
This is not about being pessimistic of well-intended efforts, this is about utilizing well-established lessons learned from twenty-five years of youth justice reform to instruct steps not to take and actions that are required for authentic transformation. Yet, my experience has provided me with three major lessons that lead me to have no confidence that reform will stop the lethally racist practices of police officers whose department culture is built and sustained by structural racism. Here’s what I’ve learned.
- “Defund the Police” is equivalent to Closing Down Juvenile Detention aka Ending Incarceration. Reform was determined, by early system advocates of change, as a good first step to ease governmental institutions into corrective change to decrease an overpopulation of mostly youth of color. This change was not particularly welcomed by these institutions, especially when this decrease resulted in downsizing staff and ending well-paid jobs. Over 25 years, our “reform process” has decreased the numbers of all youth in detention, but it has not ended racial inequities. In fact, racial inequity persists in the youth justice system and. in some cases, it has increased, despite well-intentioned change. Reform in the youth justice system did not equate to staff working themselves, effectively and efficiently, out of a job, nor has it guaranteed changes that benefit the youth most impacted. Research shows that community-based, healing, and culturally centered alternative solutions are better equipped than detention or probation to change behavior. After 25 years of reform, data continues to show mostly nonviolent youth of color are who sit disproportionately in detention facilities across this country while the youth justice system’s own tools state these youth should be released without compromising public safety. Interestingly, it has taken this unprecedented time of COVID 19, rather than the voices, demands, and actions of formerly system impacted youth and tireless advocates and activists of color, to get systems to release these youth, without compromising public safety. While costs for juvenile hall beds has increased by 29 to 214 percent in the Bay Area of California, these detention facilities have currently the lowest numbers of youth in recent times. Yet there is no conversation from the system about closing these facilities as the best outcome for youth of color, their families, and the community.
- “Refund the Community.” Equal funds are to be invested in communities most impacted as that of police departments to conduct the work with a shared power structure between community and community public safety leaders (police). For nearly 20 years, the youth justice reform funders invested solely in system stakeholders. Limited funds have been invested in community leaders, activists, and system-impacted youth leaders to participate in the change efforts. As a result, accountability and oversight for outcomes and progress were held by juvenile detention system players; the community was not aware — and in some cases had limited volunteer time to oversee — such large initiatives to provide ongoing accountability, impacting the amount and length of time for demonstrated progress. Police executives and line staff alone will not lead their internal culture to change. While in some jurisdictions there will be the political will to reform, the police department will only go so far on internal change. Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives will continue to perish at the hands of police. Community leaders need equal amounts of investment to build their leadership, voice, and power. Funding is required to learn the system of current policing, build knowledge, and explore the linkages for the overreaching, intertwined roles policing has come to play, and to develop effective programs that are community based, healing centered, and provide restorative justice. Community leaders are best positioned to identify strengths in community to uplift for strengthening community public safety.
- “Nothing About Us Without Us.” All community public safety must be developed and centered around the voices, participation, and recommendations from the communities most impacted. The youth justice reform movement mostly heard stories of formerly impacted youth with a purpose to influence how policymakers changed policies, practices, and protocols for reform. Rarely were formerly impacted youth asked to sit at policy tables to participate in the development of long-standing solutions. The End Incarceration movement has now elevated youth voices to these policy development conversations so that those most impacted are at the table developing the solutions. To only have legacy system stakeholders shaping policy defeats the purpose serving the community. They lose relationship with those they are charged to protect and defend, with the “community” in the “community public safety.” Local community champions are to be paid to participate and build the radical new vision of public safety. Nothing about us without us.
Reform, at its best, has been a 24-hour per day/7 day a week test of willpower by institutions to defend the status quo in order to protect jobs at the expense of children of color. We’ve tried reforming a culture of control fashioned to be lethal to people of color for the privileged “protection” of non-people of color. We’ve tried reform; reform is not the answer. To end use of lethal force against people of color in the United States will require public will to defund these systems, invest in effective community public safety, and center the experience of those most impacted. True public safety for all is achievable. Don’t Americans deserve “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all?
Oct 6, 2020