This weekend the nation celebrates Juneteenth, a commemoration of emancipation and an opportunity to reflect on the continuing fight for liberty and the unfinished work of racial justice. Black communities in America remain uniquely underserved, suffering from a legacy of racism and concentrated poverty. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of Black Americans through the criminal justice system, and any attempt at criminal justice reform must honestly reckon with this legacy of injustice if it hopes to effect lasting change.
“To understand that the Black experience is different from the experience of other Americans is basic cultural competency, and that cultural competency is a prerequisite for being able to implement policies that are not only effective but also racially equitable,” said Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures.
Faced with these challenges, advocates are working on the ground to transform the criminal justice system into an institution accountable to Black communities. Their work includes community-led efforts to reduce gun violence, reform police and prison policy, and provide trauma-informed care and services to the people who have historically endured discrimination and violence.
‘It Takes Partnerships’
In New Jersey, Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) is working to address pronounced racial disparities in the state’s justice system. Black residents in the Garden State face a greater likelihood than white counterparts of being stopped, searched, and charged. When stopped, they are three times more likely to be subjected to police use of force, like being punched, kicked, or pepper sprayed by officers. They receive harsher punishments when convicted of a crime, and New Jersey has the country’s highest rate of racial disparities in incarceration: Black people are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than white people.
EJUSA is determined to correct this, but they can’t do it alone.
“It takes partnerships,” said EJUSA Executive Director Jamila Hodge, a former prosecutor who has seen the racial disparities the system produces. The organization maintains connections with more than 20 community-based organizations that work to address violence and break cycles of trauma. These partnerships include front-line workers of the Newark Community Street Team (NCST), who mediate conflicts between high-risk people and offer services, and trauma treatment organizations that provide survivors of violence and their families with counseling and treatment.
The key to building this kind of infrastructure, Hodge said, is keeping authorities accountable to the public — and doing so in a way that taps into the collective power of Black communities. In Newark, EJUSA and NCST co-facilitate public safety roundtables that regularly draw over 100 people to engage in real-time problem-solving with police and public officials on issues of crime and violence.
“We built an ecosystem so that police are not the sole solution when violence happens,” Hodge said. “That’s the kind of ecosystem that needs to exist throughout this country.”
To understand that the Black experience is different from the experience of other Americans is basic cultural competency, and that cultural competency is a prerequisite for being able to implement policies that are not only effective but also racially equitable.Walter Katz Arnold Ventures vice president of criminal justice
EJUSA also pioneered the Trauma to Trust program, which provides a 16-hour curriculum for police and community members to learn about trauma together, from the racist history of policing to present-day suspicion of police in Black communities to the trauma that police face on the job.
A new report by EJUSA released last week and a recent convening of front-line practitioners outline the historical context and continuing work of Newark’s public safety ecosystem.
“We’re so divided in so many ways across this country,” Hodge said. “The problems we face are so big, and we’re not going to solve them in our silos. We have to create a space where police and communities can come together.”
‘Pushing for Alternatives’
In nearby Trenton, New Jersey, Salvation and Social Justice is driving a related slate of reforms. The Rev. Charles Boyer, founding director of the organization, emphasized that Black faith traditions, which grew as a community-led response to enslavement and the abuses of the civil rights era, continue to provide infrastructure for organizing against the punitive policies of today’s criminal justice system.
Meeting in churches across the state, Salvation and Social Justice mounted a movement to change police use-of-force policies and ultimately succeeded through a new set of directives that the state Attorney General’s Office issued in 2020 to limit when officers can use force. Using an $8.4 million appropriation from the state’s Criminal Justice Commission, the organization also developed a restorative justice model in four cities. The model provides a community-led approach to addressing acts of harm that includes all parties involved to resolve conflicts, create accountability, and determine how best to repair harm — often without requiring the intervention of law enforcement. This process includes facilitated one-on-one engagements, group circles, and broader community conferences.
The organization also helped design first-responder models to address nonviolent issues without police intervention. “We’re pushing for alternatives,” Boyer said. “You don’t always need a guy with a gun showing up when someone is going through a mental health crisis.”
Among Salvation and Social Justice’s major achievements is a significant release of incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Trenton, the organization brought together people who were concerned for the safety of their incarcerated loved ones. They advocated for their release during the governor’s daily COVID-19 press briefings and eventually worked to introduce a bill that offered additional prison credit for time served during the pandemic. When enacted, the new law led to the release of approximately 8,000 incarcerated people, reducing their sentences up to eight months. The prison population decreased 40%, and the youth prison population is now one-third what it was prior to the pandemic.
An important part of the advocacy was giving voice to people whom the system had harmed. “The weight of that whole time period, with so many people dying, was really traumatic,” Boyer said. “At the same time, it was powerful to see folks who have been directly impacted actually have a victory.”
‘We Don’t Want Safety at the Expense of Freedom’
In California’s Bay Area and across the country, Live Free is working on what Pastor Mike McBride, the organization’s executive director, identifies as a “liberation struggle.” That struggle includes gaining “self-determination over how Black Americans want our community to be not just policed but granted the benefits of public safety.”
Live Free has worked for over a decade in more than 50 cities on strategies for public safety that include a stronger role for communities, a less intrusive law enforcement presence, and overall more equitable treatment of Black citizens. These strategies include street outreach, hospital-based violence interventions, and carefully managed Group Violence Intervention, all of which engage with the very small population of people at high risk for being victims or perpetrators of gun violence. The goal is to provide services, trauma treatment, and less punitive consequences in order to reduce violence — rather than relying on traditional law enforcement tactics imposed across entire neighborhoods.
“There’s a hunger to imagine a different way to secure public safety, not on the backs of the poor, the traumatized, and the hurting,” McBride said. “And that’s on both sides of the gun. Those who find themselves both victimized by gun violence and those who find themselves perpetrators of gun violence would love to live in a community free from that violence.”
Live Free also advocates for policies that aim to reduce incarceration and end the systemic criminalization of Black and brown people. The organization has pushed for sentencing reform, bail reform, and reintegration plans for people who have been incarcerated. The team also works to address the underlying conditions of violence by creating systems to provide access to mental and physical health services, housing, and economic development in Black and brown communities. A training program for formerly incarcerated leaders ensures that those directly impacted by the justice system can share their lived experiences with elected officials.
“All that is part and parcel of what it means to have self-determination, to be free,” McBride said. “We don’t want freedom at the expense of safety, and we don’t want safety at the expense of freedom.”