Across the United States, at each and every stage of the criminal justice system people of color fare worse than their white counterparts. The State of Wisconsin has been listed as among the most disparate states in criminal justice and Dane County is reported to be the home to some of the highest levels of disparity within Wisconsin. How do we move toward a criminal justice system that is truly just? What are the steps to increase equity at each step of the process?
The answer is multi-layered and frustratingly non-cohesive at this point. The statistics are, however, clear. Nation-wide, African-Americans are more then 2.5 times likely to be arrested than whites; 1 in 15 African American males are incarcerated compared to 1 in 36 Latino males, and 1 in 106 white males. The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation. It can therefore be reasoned that the Untied States has the most racially disparate criminal justice system in the world. In 2006, Dane County’s relative rate index of black/white disparity in incarceration rate was 25.6. That means relative to population, Blacks were 25.6 times more likely to enter prison from Dane County than whites. While this data is ten years old, a walk through of our police departments and courthouse clearly demonstrates disproportionality exists today.
Dane County has researched and reported on racial disparities in criminal justice since 2008. As staff to the Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice Task Force, we crafted over 80 recommendations intended to provide cross systems reform. The Task Force was created from systems professionals (Law Enforcement, District Attorney, Judges) as well as critical community voices. The recommendations became a blueprint for work on racial equity within the criminal justice system. It also provided multi-system support for grant initiatives and called for increased collaboration among stakeholders.
Most recently, the Dane County Board of Supervisors created three work teams via a resolution charged with “Investigating Solutions to Racial Disparities and Mental Health Challenges in the Dane County Jail and Throughout Dane County’s Criminal Justice System.” The teams were made up of a professional facilitator, county staff member, community advocates and system stakeholders. These workgroups began to meet after a local tragedy—the officer involved killing of a young African-American—Mr. Tony Robinson. Additionally, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office had recently produced a consultant’s report that called for major remodeling and potential reconfiguration of jail facilities. Combined, this added even more passion, commitment and responsibility to each team’s work.
As a member of GARE, Dane County has learned that best practices for effective policy must include strong engagement with community. Within the criminal justice system—this seems even more critical– as the process can seem mysterious, yet the outcomes obvious to communities of color. During the work groups’ tenure, identification of previous efforts was applauded, which include: community policing, “banning the box,” restorative justice options for 12-25 year olds; and the Community Restorative Court. New strategies were crafted and championed by all three workgroups to reform the criminal justice system.
Dane County was intentional in reaching out to community members most impacted by criminal justice outcomes as well as criminal justice system players. The result was work teams with diverse participants who gained perspective from each other, collaborated on the change process, and delivered key recommendations to the Criminal Justice Council and County Board.
The over-arching recommendation from all three work groups was the need for data collection and analysis. The criminal justice system nationwide can be described as a series of “windowless huts”—each system from law enforcement to corrections– unaware of the actions of the other system players. Without data collection strategies, data sharing agreements and the ability to produce known results, we are unable to create and sustain any real change. Simply put, you cannot manage what you do not measure.
After the report was released, the County Board amended the 2016 budget to include a full time research analyst position that will work with me at the direction of the Criminal Justice Council (CJC). The Dane County CJC is made up of all system stakeholders and designed to communicate, collaborate and move policies forward that increase equity and effectiveness for all. As we as a nation look for system reform, we need to ensure stakeholder partnerships—from the constitutional officers to the people most impacted by criminal justice action.
What areas should one focus on in criminal justice to increase equity for all? Juvenile Justice? Law Enforcement? Jails and Pretrial Reform? Sentencing reform? Parole and probation reform? The Criminal justice system—and its disproportionate outcomes—are experienced at each phase of criminal justice.
Pretrial reform is seen as low hanging fruit in overall criminal justice reform. Holding individuals in jail for as little as two days can have huge collateral consequences on the individual – and research demonstrates pretrial jail time increases his/her chances of recidivism. But even as stakeholders cheer the prospect of keeping more people out of jail, some criminal justice reformers worry that risk-assessment algorithms might exclude people from the program who need it the most—and fear additional monitoring of already over-policed areas could realize unintended negative outcomes. Data and further validated studies disaggregated by race, gender and ethnicity are necessary.
Reliance on a money based pretrial system automatically disadvantages people of color who are more likely to be living in poverty. The bail system is dependent on the state statutes (is bail bonding allowed? Is there a state pretrial department? Local court rules, etc.). Overall, the drivers of racial inequity within the pretrial system include: monetary bail system, lack of adequate information to make an informed decision, little oversight to discretionary decision making, and implicit biases of system stakeholders.
Dane County is pleased to announce a partnership with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to use an evidence based, pretrial assessment tool (PSA) which has been validated and does not perpetuate racial-inequities. In a study of more than 55,000 cases in Kentucky, researchers sought to determine whether the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), resulted in disparate impacts based on race and gender. The evaluation demonstrated that at each risk level, black and white defendants fail at virtually the same rate. Implementing a validated pretrial risk assessment tool is one strategy communities can use to remove racial bias in pretrial detention decision making. Additionally, researchers at Harvard University will complete a multi-year study on the outcomes of our use of the PSA.
Dane County has utilized grant funds for implicit bias and racial equity education for all law enforcement throughout the county. As awareness and commitment to equity grows, so have opportunities for the system players to engage in self and system education. Presiding Judge Juan Colas has closed the court house for a day of training for all system stakeholders. “Recognizing and Responding to Implicit Bias in the Criminal Justice System” will be held in the spring of 2016.
The nation is far from racially equitable outcomes in criminal justice. It will take multi-layered reforms from within the system, as well as other systems (health, economics, and education) to transform criminal justice into the fair and equitable system we desire. Transformation will require bold and outspoken leadership, proactive thinking, and intentionality to root out the remnants of historical discrimination and unequal protection of people of color. Procedures, processes, and discretionary decisions need to be reviewed with a racial equity tool or lens—and with an eye to true fairness for all.
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