The recent string of horrific events involving the murders of unarmed Black and brown people like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Daunte Wright at the hands of police, and the long history of brutality that preceded it, has brought much of the nation and onlooking world to a consensus conclusion: “the system is broken.”
To many of us however, the system is actually functioning exactly as it was designed, having been born in blood, molded in the image of its white supremacist authors, and built on the backs of the people it continues to oppress. Making matters worse it is now apparent that even the dream of ever realizing the Constitution’s promise of fairness, equality under the law, and justice has turned into a recurring nightmare of cruelty and subjugation.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” How can we breathe life into those words? And ultimately, how can we imagine and implement processes in which justice is practiced and experienced as an act of love?
Acknowledging, understanding and confronting the ugly origins of any oppressive system is the first step towards transforming it. The disgusting white supremacist backlash we are currently experiencing notwithstanding, confrontation is at hand. A range of voices demanding change including justice-involved individuals, community organizers, human rights champions, advocates, elected officials and the President himself — who admits his tough-on-crime stance of the 1990s was wrong — are raising hopes for real progress towards addressing systemic problems produced by our criminal justice system.
The challenge, however, will be implementing sustainable models for the new experience of justice we envision, and that our youth, families and communities deserve.
During my tenure with the NYC Department of Probation, as part of the agency’s leadership team under then-Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, I led an initiative focused on the following objectives: listen to the voices of the people and communities most impacted by the justice system; stop doing harm; change Probation’s culture; invest resources into community capacity building; and begin to share power.
Armed with this vision, we launched a community engagement campaign through which we reintroduced the department to the most impacted communities, and created neighborhood-based hubs, known as Neighborhood Opportunity Networks or NeON’s. The hubs empowered and facilitated community-led programs addressing healthcare, education, restorative justice, creative arts and other community needs.
To further build community capacity and demonstrate that solutions to reducing incarceration rates and addressing racial disparities in the justice system will come from communities, not systems, we launched “Arches Transformative Mentoring.” Under this initiative “Credible Messengers” – indigenous natural leaders who share similar life experiences with justice-involved young people they serve – were recruited, trained and deployed in communities to have transformative impact on individuals, families and at the community and systemic level.
An Urban Institute study would later show the major success of this effort, including an unprecedented 60 percent reduction in recidivism of Probation’s 16 -24-year-olds. But the impact of this community capacity building effort was much greater. By partnering with credible messengers, the very notion of probation (or community corrections) was being redefined. New voices with credible messages were now gaining access to spaces previously exclusive to parole and probation officers yet closed to the community. Those who had been seen as the source of the pathology were now providing the healing.
When Mayor Muriel Bowser recruited me to lead Washington DC’s juvenile justice system, we built on the New York City experience. In addition to transformative mentoring, life coaching and advocacy to the parents, caregivers and extended families of the youth, we invited youth, families, credible messengers and other grassroots community stakeholders to participate in program design, policy formation and critical decision-making on how justice involved youth would be treated. We were even able to open the detention centers to credible messengers, giving them 24-hour access to the youth, space and opportunity to engage them in restorative programming and the authority to impact how detained youth are treated and engaged, and ultimately released.
These experiences from New York City and Washington DC began with a focus on probation and youth detention centers. But they are fostering alternative approaches along the entire criminal justice continuum – from new ways of defining policing to alternatives to mass incarceration. In fact, in places like Los Angeles, Houston and Jackson MI., organizations are leading highly-successful initiatives that bring justice-involved youth together with grass-roots community leaders to demonstrate the efficacy of this new practice of community-centered justice.
By changing the way justice is defined, practiced and experienced by the most vulnerable people in our society, we can transform the system. Clearly, no one program, initiative or model will serve as the medicine needed to cure the diseases from which our justice system suffers and which it continues to spread. But it will be innovative models of reimagined justice upon which a new paradigm is ultimately built. Only then will the dream of love-infused justice become a sustainable standard and not a fleeting exception to the rule.
Clinton Lacey is a former Deputy Commissioner with the NYC Dept. of Probation and former Director of the District of Columbia Dept. of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.