By Franklin Cruz
“Our system is broken.” We hear this again and again about the criminal justice system, and it has resonated nationally in the wake of numerous violent and fatal clashes between communities of color and the police.
Last week, Recommendations for Reform: Restoring Trust between the Chicago Police and the Communities They Serve was released by the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force. Craig B. Futterman, Chaclyn Hunt, and Jamie Kalven also recently released “They Have All The Power,” Youth/Police Encounters On Chicago’s South Side through the University of Chicago Law School.
The two studies paint a grim picture of law enforcement in Chicago. They draw attention to the extent of racial and ethnic bias in the Chicago Police Department, cataloging instances of abuse, negligence and complicity by law enforcement.
But the framework for the larger national conversation about race and justice remains narrow. It fails to address the broader system in which law enforcement operates, nor does it offer solutions that are truly systemic. Both as a lament and a rallying cry, “Our system is broken” demands a seismic shift in the way we think about our legal system and the extent to which it meets our expectations of justice, including fairness, equity and access.
To fix justice, we must consider the broader system, not only the single part law enforcement represents.
We must look beyond the precinct to the courts, the offices of the prosecutors and defenders, to the jails and prisons, to the diversion and treatment programs, and to probation and parole. We need to pan out from strategies that focus on identifying “problem individuals” to those that look at how the entire system can promote and support a completely different culture and approach to justice.
If the discourse stops short of addressing the system in its entirety, then we ignore the true breadth of the equity issues, and run the risk of conceiving solutions that are incomplete and unsustainable. Removing the disproportionality and bias seen at the front end of the system—contact with law enforcement—is only the beginning of a long process. Otherwise, the rates at which African Americans experience negative consequences relative to whites will at best be maintained, if not amplified, with every decision point from bail setting to diversion, to sentencing and community corrections.
Just as Chicago does not have a monopoly on deep-seated failures of justice for racial and ethnic minorities, the police in any jurisdiction do not possess a monopoly on the racist impacts of the criminal justice system. African Americans and Hispanics (also Native Americans, Southeast Asians, and other less commonly discussed groups) are subject to disproportionately higher rates of negative consequences throughout the criminal justice system.
We get glimpses of the failures of the system when videos of shootings and beatings are released, an increasingly common phenomenon in an age where cell phone cameras have become ubiquitous.
However, when I look at a system’s data to identify where disproportionality and disparity exist, I am far more concerned about the many places where there are no cameras, and about the many decisions that are invisible to the public. Who gets access to diversion and treatment programs? Who is given higher bail? Who must meet more severe pretrial conditions?
If the problems are systemic, so too must the solutions be systemic and structural in nature.
The reports about the recent abuses by Chicago police offer compelling, valuable, and appropriate responses, but they only go so far. They focus on the individual by supporting training, stronger community oversight, transparency, and more timely disciplinary procedures. These are all sound and well-informed strategies, given the data presented.
Yet, much more is needed to transform an institution like a police force and to reshape the culture of the criminal justice system as a whole.
If we want police, judges, prosecutors, defenders, and others to look at the totality of the person before them and not just at the color of their skin, then we must ask how the criminal justice system can support those behaviors. We could mitigate implicit biases by slowing down snap decisions in certain instances, by asking police officers to go through a structured process to decide for arrest, summons, release, diversion, or some other response. We could institutionalize checklists of questions to consider before deciding whether to proceed with prosecuting a case and for what charges, so that we ensure consistency and equity in decision-making. We could require that judges record why they chose to require bail, rather than release a defendant pretrial and include that in the court record.
Any or all of these can be introduced and implemented through court rule, local ordinance, or, in many instances, simply via long term use. They can be integrated into the training of personnel, but also the performance measures used to evaluate them. Individuals then become supervisors and managers, because they are high achievers – exhibiting the very behaviors justice leaders and the community agree are consistent with equity, fairness, and justice.
Building a better system that structurally promotes the outcomes of equity, for instance, helps ensure that the changes last. Task forces come and go. Programs change with financial and political tides. The impact of training fades quickly. But systems endure.
System improvement requires an expansion in the breadth of the conversation. We cannot reform the criminal justice system without looking at all of it, based on the data, with an eye toward sustaining the gains made during this unique opportunity in time. Building and rebuilding our justice systems is very difficult work and involves major cultural shifts. But the changes and the outcomes they can yield are more just, more sustainable, and far harder to undo.
Franklin Cruz is Chief Operating Officer and Program Director of the Justice Management Institute (JMI), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice. Franklin, who currently leads JMI’s Fair Justice Initiative promoting equity improvement efforts in criminal justice, previously spent over a decade as a manager at a public defender office in Bronx, NY. He welcomes comments from readers.