Journalists, political pundits and candidates are lining up to make the pronouncement that the Big Issue for 2016 will be criminal justice reform — encompassing everything from police conduct and prosecutorial policies to minimum mandatory sentencing, restoration of felons’ rights, and mass incarceration: the hot new buzz-phrase of the year.
Please excuse groups like The Sentencing Project and the ACLU, who have been working on this constellation of problems for years, if they sigh and say “Told you so” — or do a little happy-dance.
But please also listen patiently to those who come with constructive recommendations for solutions to these problems.
Racism is pervasive and systemic in American society.
Racism is prejudice wedded to power: without power, prejudice is just ugly noise and biased opinion.
Racism can never be eliminated entirely, and meaningful progress will not come quickly or easily. But that is no excuse for not trying to reduce racism — and the key to reducing it is to take power out of the equation.
Doing that will require partnerships between government and the people, with long-term commitments and significant investments by both. Because partnerships are built on trust and respect, and trust and respect have to be earned, both sides must be prepared to meet each other halfway, make adjustments in their attitudes — and take risks.
Government must take the lead here for two reasons. First, most settings in which racism functions in American society are controlled or regulated by government. Second, government’s role as an initiating force for progress has been the reality for as long as we have been a nation. We have roads, bridges, dams and airports because government responded to the needs of the people and built them. We have public schools, social security, Medicare and even the Internet because government responded to the needs of the people and created them. Only government can effect the scope of change that is needed to reduce racism; and the people have clearly expressed their need for such change.
So here’s one idea for how to change things. It’s estimated that this process would take 3-5 years, though it could move faster or slower, depending on what level of government is involved. And much like the Deming Cycle or Six Sigma, it is designed to be a continuous process.
Example: a county sheriff’s office addresses a history of discrimination, brutality and abuse against people of color.
Sheriff makes commitment to make broad, systemic change.
Community groups and sheriff meet to establish priorities and develop a plan of action.
Sheriff initiates action as per plan with cooperation from community groups.
Community groups provide ongoing review, comment and support.
Sheriff and community groups measure progress and evaluate results.
Sheriff makes adjustments as warranted by evaluations.
Sheriff makes progress report.
Community groups and sheriff meet to update priorities and plan of action.
Process begins anew.
Surely, there would be discussion, debate and disagreement about the particulars in any situation, but that is part of Step 2; and there are opportunities for additional input, review and comment in Steps 4, 5 and 8. Depending on the level of government and the setting, a plan of action might involve anything from legislation to hiring practices or housing policies; and as noted, the process would be a continuing one.
The payoff is that at the end of each cycle, there would be less work to do because more progress would have been made; and government costs for a variety of services and programs would be eliminated or at least reduced, because there would be less need for them.