Today at the White House, President Obama will formally launch his promising new initiative to effectuate meaningful change in the black community, something I had hoped for since that first euphoric moment when I learned that a black man had been elected president of the United States.
The initiative will build on policy changes Attorney General Holder has made in the Department of Justice to address one of the greatest threats to the black community – their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. It also will give practical form to the commitment the president made recently in his State of the Union speech to directly address the disparate negative outcomes young men of color face in America.
Young men of color, especially black and Latino males, suffer from a host of injustices, including disproportionate poverty rates, school suspension and expulsion rates, poor health outcomes, and particularly incarceration rates.
For instance, a recent study published by Public Counsel and the Black Organizing Project revealed that in Oakland, Calif., although only 29 percent of the city’s youth are black, they comprise 73 percent of all juvenile arrests. And the issue is not one of more black crime. As the recent groundbreaking film, “The House I Live In,” revealed, black people use cocaine at the same rate of their population in the country, about 13 percent, but black people make up a shocking 90 percent of all those serving federal cocaine sentences.
When I worked in New York City as the Deputy Commissioner of Probation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a $120 million Young Men’s Initiative to improve the outcomes of young black and Latino males in the city. One of the many programs funded by this initiative is Transformative Mentoring, where young people on probation go through a life skills and cognitive behavior therapy class and are then matched with a mentor from their community.
The president’s team certainly can look to NYC’s initiative as well as to The California Endowment’s $50 million “Sons and Brothers” Campaign, which also seeks to improve the outcomes of young black and Latino men as models for success. It also can learn from other local public-private partnerships, such as Oakland’s anti-violence program, Ceasefire, which exemplifies key tenets of the MBK goal: to build and strengthen positive bridges of understanding and communication between young men of color and law enforcement while reducing incarceration rates.
This is the promise and potential of “My Brother’s Keeper.” It recognizes – as have these local programs – that while the amount of the investment is key, the effectiveness of the interventions are more important. In doing so, MBK should proceed with eyes wide open about the limits of government, the importance of partnership, and the cautionary track record of the numerous former government programs that have spent billions of tax payer dollars and have been proven ineffective.
Indeed, to be most effective, “My Brother’s Keeper” should offer a different policy path: one that will lead to measurable outcomes, and evidence based results, and lead to real savings for our cities, our communities and our tax payers.
One shining example of this new thinking – and new approach – is the president’s Pay for Success (PFS) initiative. Also known as Social Impact Bonds, this program will create an innovative financing structure through which private investment will pay the upfront costs for programs that the government pays back only if the intervention has proven to work. Such programs are currently underway in New York City and Boston, both of which seek to reduce prison recidivism which in turn will produce huge government savings.
Innovative, data-driven partnerships and programs such as these have the potential to achieve – and replicate across the nation -- measurable outcomes that can save tax-payer money while reducing social inequity and building stronger, healthier communities.
At its core, if implemented well, lawmakers can point to “My Brother’s Keeper” as a model for innovative, non-partisan public policy and the kind of practical problem-solving that all Americans want from our political leaders. Together we can create opportunity and much needed justice for boys and men of color in every corner of America. MBK is indeed a keeper, and potentially a transformative one.
Muhammad is the director of National Justice Programs for the National Council on Crime & Delinquency (NCCD). For more about NCCD, visit www.nccdglobal.org