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There Is No One Answer to Over-Policing and Mass Incarceration — There Are Many

Examples abound for successful alternative methods that can greatly improve the current criminal legal system.

Teens sit in on a group counseling session.
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty
View the entire Punitive Excess series

This essay is part of the Bren­nan Center’s series examin­ing the punit­ive excess that has come to define Amer­ica’s crim­inal legal system.

Amer­ica is a carceral soci­ety. We releg­ate more than 6 million people to some form of correc­tional control, 2.1 million of them behind bars. We confine people to correc­tional facil­it­ies plagued with inhu­mane condi­tions. We rely on crim­inal punish­ment to respond to basic human needs and solve social issues, like home­less­ness and drug addic­tion. We penal­ize people even after they’ve served their sentence by permit­ting limit­a­tions on their civil liber­ties and saddling them with unbear­able debt, two burdens that prevent indi­vidu­als with crim­inal records from hold­ing full-fledged member­ship in our polity. And we dispro­por­tion­ately punish our soci­ety’s most disem­powered members, the largest share of whom are descend­ants of the enslaved.

There is obvi­ously no easy solu­tion to a prob­lem so complex, so deeply ingrained in the Amer­ican exper­i­ence. But some juris­dic­tions have already taken steps toward reima­gin­ing and unwind­ing our legal system’s reli­ance on punit­ive excess by devel­op­ing hyper-local, community-led systems of account­ab­il­ity, public safety, and finan­cial and polit­ical empower­ment. Each of these provides a model, or at the very least a test case, of mean­ing­ful reform.

In an effort to divert people from the crim­inal legal system, New York City intro­duced plans to trans­fer control of its school-safety program from the police to the city’s Depart­ment of Educa­tion and relieved the police from respons­ib­il­it­ies as inap­pro­pri­ate as serving as cross­ing guards and as import­ant as perform­ing outreach services for unhoused people. Both activ­it­ies will be reas­signed to civil­ian agen­cies.

In Shreve­port, Louisi­ana, after 23 students were arres­ted at South­wood High School for fight­ing, famil­ies respon­ded by form­ing a group called Dads on Duty. The dads take shifts “greet­ing students in the morn­ing and help­ing main­tain a posit­ive envir­on­ment for learn­ing.” Since the initi­at­ive launched this Septem­ber, the school has not exper­i­enced a single incid­ent. This shift embod­ies a welcome break from how things had been: accord­ing to the school’s prin­cipal, Dr. Kim H. Pendleton, trouble­some viol­ence had beset the insti­tu­tion at the start of the academic year.

More than 25 other cities have addressed the school-to-prison pipeline by remov­ing police from their schools. Berke­ley, Cali­for­nia, and Brook­lyn Center, Minnesota, have also over­hauled police involve­ment in traffic enforce­ment. Berke­ley’s city coun­cil has proposed estab­lish­ing a new Depart­ment of Trans­port­a­tion (dubbed “Berk­DOT”) that would task unarmed civil­ians with low-level traffic enforce­ment.

Several cities have redir­ec­ted fund­ing to address the root causes of crime, includ­ing hous­ing and job insec­ur­ity. Austin’s city coun­cil voted to use diver­ted funds to trans­form two hotels into perman­ent support­ive hous­ing units for indi­vidu­als exper­i­en­cing chronic home­less­ness, where resid­ents will have access to case manage­ment services that include mental health and substance use coun­sel­ing, work­force devel­op­ment programs, and job place­ment services.

In an effort to redress decades of inequit­able resource distri­bu­tion, both Los Angeles and San Fran­cisco have rein­ves­ted police funds in youth program­ming, work­force train­ing, and hous­ing support for histor­ic­ally under-inves­ted communit­ies.

Other juris­dic­tions have begun to alter their emer­gency response systems to reduce police contact that dispro­por­tion­ately harms nonwhite resid­ents. In Eugene, Oregon, the Crisis Assist­ance Help­ing Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program has redir­ec­ted a func­tion previ­ously performed by the police by creat­ing a program that sends two-person teams of crisis work­ers and medics to respond to 911 and non-emer­gency calls involving people suffer­ing a mental health crisis. CAHOOTS is so success­ful that the organ­iz­a­tion has begun collab­or­at­ing with at least nine other cities to develop similar non-poli­cing models of response.

Along with these revised visions of community safety comes the work of drain­ing our bloated network of pris­ons and jails. In St. Louis, an extens­ive organ­iz­ing campaign succeeded this year in forcing the clos­ure of the city’s infam­ous “Work­house” jail. In Virginia, the RISE for Youth campaign brought about the perman­ent shut­down of 130-year-old Beau­mont Youth Prison, enabling the real­loc­a­tion of millions of dollars toward community-based programs for youth. Among other services, the state has provided evid­ence-based family ther­apy for court-involved youth in under­served communit­ies. RISE for Youth was also success­ful in stop­ping the construc­tion of a new youth prison in the city of Ches­apeake. More recently, the Los Angeles County Board of Super­visors has begun to imple­ment the long-prom­ised clos­ure of the Men’s Cent­ral Jail in down­town L.A., with plans to release, relo­cate into resid­en­tial programs, or divert into community-based treat­ment thou­sands of incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als.

Also approach­ing the issue from a differ­ent angle, groups such as New York City’s Common Justice, focus on redu­cing and address­ing crime without rely­ing on incar­cer­a­tion. The organ­iz­a­tion has developed success­ful altern­at­ive-to-incar­cer­a­tion programs that divert cases into a restor­at­ive justice process “designed to recog­nize the harm done, honor the needs and interests of those harmed, and develop appro­pri­ate responses to hold the respons­ible party account­able.”

The concept of restor­at­ive justice is a proven method of tack­ling culp­ab­il­ity that works to avoid a reli­ance on impris­on­ment. But even aside from scientific analysis of its merits, it is qual­it­at­ively clear that restor­at­ive justice trans­forms rela­tion­ships and communit­ies by offer­ing a differ­ent approach to redress than the often trau­mat­iz­ing and inef­fect­ive crim­inal legal system. It provides crime victims with the oppor­tun­ity to engage directly with those who have harmed them while still foster­ing account­ab­il­ity for those who caused the harm.

Many of the guid­ing prin­ciples of restor­at­ive justice can be traced to indi­gen­ous prac­tices, such as peace­mak­ing and talk­ing circles used to resolve conflict and injury in Native Amer­ican and First Nation Cana­dian cultures. However, the contem­por­ary exer­cise of restor­at­ive justice in crim­inal legal settings comes from a Cana­dian exper­i­ment that began in 1974 and has provided nearly half a century of know­ledge that can be used to refine best prac­tices.

Its popular­ity has grown in recent years, and today restor­at­ive justice is estab­lished as a valu­able mech­an­ism to address the needs of victims and their communit­ies while promot­ing account­ab­il­ity and the cessa­tion of destruct­ive actions. Some version of the prac­tice now exists in nearly all 50 states. In San Fran­cisco, District Attor­ney Chesa Boudin has put forth a vision for a dramatic expan­sion of the restor­at­ive justice model, prom­ising to make the option of restor­at­ive justice avail­able to victims of all crime.

All told, a wide body of evid­ence illus­trates the grow­ing number of solu­tions to our nation’s reli­ance on incar­cer­a­tion and poli­cing. To oper­ate at scale, these prac­tices require both govern­ment invest­ment and commit­ment from the public to supple­ment exist­ing grass­roots networks.

No single one of these changes is perfect — in fact, they fail even collect­ively to create a completely new vision for justice in Amer­ica. We know these systemic adjust­ments, even if juris­dic­tions every­where imple­ment them, won’t entirely trans­form our soci­ety into one that no longer harms our most margin­al­ized groups.

Yet our nation’s most radical changes — ending slavery, mandat­ing racial integ­ra­tion of public facil­it­ies, root­ing out racial voter suppres­sion tactics such as liter­acy tests and poll taxes — arose from incre­mental steps toward vision­ary goals. We have to start some­where. Perhaps the best way to do so is to acknow­ledge the people and places already improv­ing their communit­ies and adopt­ing their success­ful meth­ods every­where we can.