Advocates in Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor white communities that have been most impacted by incarceration have long highlighted its harms and limitations. These stakeholders have indispensable knowledge about the needs and resources of marginalized residents. Genuine partnership between government and community-based organizations, particularly those led by formerly incarcerated people, advances racial equity and facilitates power-sharing by bringing traditionally marginalized people to the center of decision-making. See for example National Institute of Corrections, Implementing Evidence-based Principles in Community Corrections: Collaboration for Systemic Change in the Criminal Justice System (Washington, DC: DOJ, 2004), 2, It can also expand the lenses policymakers use to understand problems and solutions. Without collaboration, reforms may fail to meet the needs of residents and cause unintended harm for communities of color and other marginalized communities that are already overburdened by incarceration and a lack of effective public investment.

Local advocates and organizations have identified assets in their communities, diagnosed needs, and outlined residents’ policy priorities. Nationally, stronger partnerships between policymakers who direct resources and the organizations that support residents in need could provide for more informed government decision-making. And in some places, resident-led efforts independently drive these initiatives to inform change. For example, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Detroit, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; and New York City, community-based organizations have mapped and amplified the perspectives of marginalized residents through grassroots efforts with little to no involvement from local government.

Grassroots Strategies to Elevate Community Expertise

Group Created with Sketch. Read More

In other places, such as Los Angeles and Washington, DC, local governments and community-based organizations have partnered directly to identify improved approaches to safety and justice. For example, Offices of Violence Prevention (OVPs) work to move public safety supports away from being exclusively police- and criminal legal system-oriented and into the hands of community members through learning exchanges, leadership development, and capacity building for data and reporting. OVPs call for investments in community-based interventions, prevention, and development to increase the expertise and effectiveness of city agencies.

Although collaborations like these can be powerful in gathering input from a wide array of local stakeholders, they can also heighten existing distrust between community-based organizations and local government if the information gathered is not meaningfully reflected in future policymaking. Successful, collaborative efforts are built on the principles of respect, transparency, and partnership with a clear plan for the findings to shape future decision-making.

Collaborating with Community-Based Organizations

Group Created with Sketch. Read More

Why Criminal Legal System Responses Are Not Enough

With growing recognition of the human and financial toll of jail incarceration, local governments across the country have sought new ways to promote safety. However, many current approaches to reducing the use of jails still rely on criminal legal system agencies and the threat of incarceration. They focus on growing staff, budgets, and other resources within criminal legal system agencies to expand their options for addressing problems related to poverty and behavioral health.Mike Crowley and Betsy Pearl, “Reimagining Federal Grants for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform,” Center for American Progress, October 7, 2020, These efforts fail to address many of the underlying causes of violence and other criminalized behaviors that would be better addressed through other agencies, organizations, and community-led efforts—issues like unstable housing, poverty, limited educational opportunities, poor health, and inadequate access to services.National Alliance on Mental Illness, Divert to What?, 2020. They also fail to account for the racialized harm caused by decades of investments prioritizing criminal legal system agencies over community-based services and often ignore existing problematic system practices. These shortcomings limit both their efficacy and their reach.

Homelessness courts and police-led diversion are two prominent examples of limited-impact reforms that make access to services dependent on interactions with legal system agencies.

Homelessness courts respond to chronic homelessness with diversionary proceedings to connect unhoused people to resources. However, these courts have been criticized for legitimizing the criminalization of homelessness and failing to address its root causes because they use the court system and prosecution as gateways to services.Sarah Lustbader, “Are Problem-Solving Courts Impeding Progress?” The Appeal, January 7, 2020, Even in jurisdictions where police issue civil citations instead of arresting unhoused people for low-level “quality of life” charges, a person’s inability to pay the associated financial sanctions can trigger other penalties that make continued homelessness or future arrest more likely.Jessica Mogk, Valerie Shmigol, Marvin Futrell et al., “Court-Imposed Fines as a Feature of the Homelessness-Incarceration Nexus: A Cross-Sectional Study of the Relationship Between Legal Debt and Duration of Homelessness in Seattle, Washington, USA,” Journal of Public Health (Oxford, England) 42, no. 2, 2019, 1-6,; and Robinson, “No Right to Rest,” 2019, 41-73, 43-44.

With police-led diversion, law enforcement officers connect a person in crisis to services instead of booking them into jail.S. Rebecca Neusteter, Ram Subramanian, Jennifer Trone et al., Gatekeepers: The Role of Police in Ending Mass Incarceration (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019), 32-35, Although such programs have been associated with fewer jail bookings, their reach is limited.For a more thorough review of existing evaluations of pre-arrest diversion programs, see Robin S. Engel, Robert E. Worden, Nicholas Corsaro et al., Deconstructing the Power to Arrest: Lessons from Research
(Cincinnati, OH: International Association of Chiefs of Police/UC Center for Police Research and the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, 2018), 41-62,
The process usually begins with an officer’s decision to use it, so diversion depends heavily on both the organizational culture of the law enforcement agency and the discretion of individual officers.Ibid., 41-42. In many agencies, the practices, priorities, and organizational culture can be counter to serving people who are experiencing a behavioral health crisis.For example, the crime fighter mentality that often permeates police cultures can result in perceiving people needing help as threats to themselves, officers, or other community members. One study found that law enforcement officers are between 1.4 and 4.5 times more likely to use force in interactions with someone who has a mental health condition. Robin Shepard Engel and Eric Silver, “Policing Mentally Disordered Suspects: A Reexamination of the Criminalization Hypothesis,” Criminology 39, no. 2 (2001), 225-252, See also Westervelt, “Mental Health And Police Violence,” 2020. For example, law enforcement departments often generate a “warrior culture,” in which officers identify primarily as fighters of crime. This creates distance, and sometimes tension, between officers and residents through an “us versus them” mentality.Sue Rahr and Stephen K. Rice, From Warriors to Guardians: Recommitting American Police Culture to Democratic Ideals (Washington, DC: DOJ; 2015), 5-7, Even with diversion programs and additional training, the high costs of relying on law enforcement for behavioral health crisis responses have persisted—including the risk of serious injury or death.