Advocates of criminal justice reform are pointing to promising examples of solutions that are reducing incarceration and improving community safety, and in the process changing narratives around crime and punishment.
Too often, tough-on-crime policies fail to address root causes and because of this, fall short of delivering their promised results, according to Phillip Atiba Goff, chair of African American studies and professor of psychology at Yale University.
By contrast, the promising examples work by addressing the root causes of crime through the model of strengthening communities to keep everyone safe, Goff wrote in a Dec. 13, 2022, Op-Ed in the New York Times.
“If throwing money at the police and prisons worked, America would probably already be the safest country in the history of the world. We are not, because insufficient punishment is not the root cause of violence,” Goff wrote.
Root causes of crime have been key elements of several San Quentin discussion forums between incarcerated residents and members of the San Francisco Police Department.
Common themes expressed at these forums about the roots of crime include childhood trauma, parental abuse and neglect, lack of resources, low self-esteem, broken trust, anger, drugs, gangs, and poverty; in other words, systemic problems that need systemic solutions.
“I think it’s often a simple matter of necessity sometimes — no food, no rent, maybe an addiction too,” said Sgt. Eric Solares during one of the forums in 2022.
SQ’s Michael Moore added to Solares’ comment, saying, “I’ve asked myself the last 26 years, ‘Why did this happen?’ For me, it all goes back to my childhood and a lack of intervention when I was young.”
Many participants in these forums — whether wearing a blue prison uniform or carrying a badge — have emphasized the importance of reaching out to youth and having successful interventions at an early age.
One of the solutions Goff cites is in Denver, where a five-year research study examined the benefits of providing housing subsidies to people at risk of being un-housed. The study reported a 40% reduction in arrests for participants related to their stable housing.
In Brooklyn, participants who completed a diversion program for young people facing charges for illegal gun possession had 22% lower rates of re-arrest compared to those who went to prison.
In Washington State’s capital of Olympia, Goff noted a new police unit formed in 2019 provides voluntary and confidential crisis-response assistance by officers. It reduced arrests and logged over 3,108 crisis interventions. Notably, no injuries have occurred to crisis responders.
In a new program, 911 dispatchers in Austin, Texas have the option — in situations with no immediate danger — of transferring calls to mental health clinicians. Since the program’s start in 2019, 82% of transferred calls did not require the involvement of police, resulting in savings to the city of $1,642,213.
According to Goff, such successes are inspiring local governments from New Jersey to New Mexico to restructure their budgets to invest in the “social determinants of health and safety.”
Despite these innovative successes, Goff notes the ingrained narratives about crime and justice are slow to change, in part due to special interests that have a stake in the status quo.
“The tough-on-crime narrative acts like a black hole. It subsumes new ideas and silences discussions of solutions that are already making a difference in people’s lives,” writes Goff.
Goff contends that statistics from successful alternatives help, but that new and more accurate narratives about crime and punishment are needed. He wrote, “If you want policies that actually work, you have to change the political conversation from ‘tough candidates punishing bad people’ to ‘strong communities keeping everyone safe.’”
Goff notes this new narrative is gaining momentum as local governments and nonprofits look to copy programs that aim to address the root causes of crime and show proof of results. He points to organizations like One Million Experiments that “are tracking innovations aimed at producing scalable solutions that do not rely on punishment” for helping to fuel evidenced-based stories that propel the new narrative.
“I have seen the message of ‘strong communities keeping everyone safe’ open the minds of Republican voters, Democratic voters and many in between,” writes Goff. “It is backed up by science.”
The sentiments are mirrored at SQ. In the closing circle of one of the law enforcement forums, resident Desmond Lewis said he appreciated “people coming together to use their highest level of intelligence to come up with solutions for problems we all see.