Friends and Colleagues,
The tragedies of the past week weigh heavily on us. As public safety officials in our respective states, we were outraged to see the very people working to protect the public murdered because of the uniform they wear.
We also feel deeply for residents of communities who, because of the color of their skin, fear the people who have sworn an oath to protect them.
It is impossible to talk about the justice system without talking about race. Police officers, judges, prosecutors, and corrections officers will tell you that much of their day is spent working with people who are poor and nonwhite, and they go to great lengths to ensure that they treat people fairly. Meanwhile, people of color who have been the victim of a crime, who have been stopped by a police officer, who have been charged with a crime, or who have a loved one who is incarcerated routinely report that the justice system is biased against them.
In short, the justice system is ground zero for race relations in this extraordinarily diverse country. For people who administer criminal justice agencies and for advocates and community leaders, the atmosphere today is especially strained. The tension that erupted last week didn’t just appear out of nowhere; the steam has been building over the last several years, with increasing documentation of racial disparities in the justice system.
As leaders of The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center’s Board of Directors, we have proudly positioned this organization to base criminal justice policy discussions in data, and to bring stakeholders across political parties and multiple systems together to find common ground.
We are under no illusion that data and bipartisanship will bridge the divides that exist among Americans who are angry about recent killings and demand accountability. In every community, there need to be honest, frank conversations among people who are fed up and afraid. Every American needs to understand and appreciate the unwavering commitment hundreds of thousands of people working in the justice system have to protect the public and to treat all people fairly. Similarly, every American should be upset and feel a sense of grief watching videos that have triggered protests across the country.
There is a place for data in these discussions, because statistics do demonstrate that, across the criminal justice system, there is racial disparity. But making sure these data are specific to that jurisdiction, and then interpreting and explaining these data, at a time when communities are so polarized is, to say the least, a complicated endeavor.
We have insisted that in fulfilling the mission of the CSG Justice Center—increasing public safety and strengthening communities—we must account for race. We have considered particular aspects of the system and posed questions specifically related to race: Does risk assessment contribute to racial disparity in the justice system? How do approaches to school discipline increase the likelihood a nonwhite student may be referred to the juvenile justice system? To what extent has the racial composition of a state’s adult or juvenile justice system population changed since the enactment of major changes to its sentencing and corrections policy? How can the clearance of criminal records both reduce unemployment among black men and help businesses that seek to fill vacant positions? In what ways can improved access to health, behavioral health, housing, and other services affect the racial composition of county jail populations?
These and other questions should be part of the discussions that every community should be having about race and the justice system, discussions that will be only a first step on the long, complicated path toward progress.
Rest assured that nothing will deter us from our core responsibility of supporting elected and appointed officials in state and local government from across the political spectrum in their efforts to improve the criminal justice system, and equipping them with proven strategies to combat rising crime and high recidivism. We will also continue to highlight the challenging situation in which men and women patrolling a neighborhood, working in a courtroom, or staffing a detention facility find themselves. They work for a system that runs 24/7 and, as a result, are the de facto front line of response for people battling addictions, suffering from mental illnesses, and homeless and sleeping on the streets.
In grieving over the events of last week, people will seek the company of others who share their views and perspectives. That’s understandable and inevitable. But especially when social media provides a venue to be accusatory and antagonistic with little accountability, people must resist the temptation to retreat into their own echo chambers. In this environment, the CSG Justice Center’s commitment to consensus-based, data-driven policymaking is particularly important. But it will hardly be a sufficient response to anger stemming from last week’s deaths that is also nested in a particularly contentious presidential campaign.
To maintain and build upon the bipartisan commitment that so many of us have worked so hard to cultivate in order to improve the criminal justice system, we need to purposely seek out people with different perspectives, listen carefully, and demonstrate a willingness to be constructive as we all engage in this dialogue.
Michael Lawlor, Under Secretary, Criminal Justice Policy and Planning, Office of Policy and Management, State of Connecticut; Chair of the Executive Committee of The Council of State Governments Justice Center