Forging a New Path on Racial Equity in Local Justice Systems
January 9, 2020 | Perspectives | Criminal Justice

Laurie Garduque, Director of Criminal Justice, explores lessons learned as grantees work to address racial disparities in jail incarceration.


Creating a more fair, just, and equitable system is an integral element of our criminal justice reform work. Yet, despite notable progress toward reducing jail populations, the 50 jurisdictions participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge Network continue to struggle to make inroads toward addressing the disproportionate harm their local justice systems have on communities of color.

Reducing the jail population of course means fewer people of color are incarcerated, but that is not enough. We must do more to address inequities and ensure that communities of color are not overrepresented in our country’s jails.

The Network’s technical assistance providers took a step back in 2018 and 2019 to acknowledge this challenge and to develop a path forward. Two things became clear as we paused to think more deeply: Network sites have an opportunity to be pioneers in disparity reduction work for the adult criminal justice system, and MacArthur must do more to support sites as they seek solutions.

When it comes to tackling disparities in local justice systems, there are more questions than answers: What are the drivers of disparities? How can jurisdictions be more transparent about their disparities? What specific strategies reduce disparities? Local justice systems are eager for effective strategies, but there are no quick fixes, and there is no roadmap. This provides an opening for Network sites to experiment with reforms and evaluate their results.

While Network sites have a real opportunity to address disparities, they need more support to create momentum for this work. We created a disparities working group among the initiative’s technical assistance providers, charging members with developing a plan for assisting Network sites and measuring success. What emerged was a framework and process to focus and support disparity reduction work. We paired this guidance with a series of webinars and used our grantee convenings as a platform to support peer learning opportunities across the Network and reinforce MacArthur’s commitment.

We are already seeing the value and impact of this course correction.

We learned four important lessons from reevaluating our approach. Each lesson represents a key element of addressing disparities and can be embraced by both Network sites and other jurisdictions across the country.

The first lesson is that to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, we need to face the issue head on and acknowledge how our country’s history led to the disturbing disparities we see today. That means understanding how federal, state, and local policies have shaped our current criminal justice system and unpacking the role the unique local history has played.

Second, we found that we cannot underestimate the importance of the leadership of each Network site in addressing disparities. These individuals set the tone, pace, and urgency of reform efforts. To reduce disparities, local leaders, not only in the justice system but across the board, must make racial equity a central tenet of the site’s work.

The third lesson we have learned is that making progress and achieving success can hinge on creating an intentional infrastructure that keeps the jurisdiction focused on addressing disparities. This infrastructure—often a local racial equity working group—should be as inclusive and diverse as possible, with community representation as well as individuals with lived experience with the criminal justice system. This inclusive approach ensures transparency and accountability and provides a variety of important perspectives.

Our final—and perhaps most important—lesson is that racial equity must both be a widely held goal and an overarching focus of all those involved with reform. It is not a single exercise completed at a single point in time. It is not a box that can be checked. Though it is important to have buy-in from leadership and dedicated resources and capacity focused on equity work, everyone has a role to play. Everyone must build their own capacity to be champions of equity.

We are already seeing the value and impact of this course correction. Reducing disparities has moved from an afterthought to a series of concrete steps and strategies for Network sites. Those that did not have formal racial equity working groups are developing them, and sites that did are expanding them to include members of the community and people who have experienced the criminal justice system first-hand. Some sites now have a local leader to spearhead the work of addressing disparities and others are looking at their data through a racial equity lens. In places where it was challenging to even start the conversation, the guidance and resources developed this year by the Network has created a common framework.

With these exciting developments, the Network is starting to visualize a path forward, and we are eager to see the progress we can make in 2020 and beyond.


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