For new safety solutions, invest in communities

At a time when U.S. politics are hyper-polarized, the national conversation about the FIRST STEP Act for federal sentencing reform indicates that there still is bipartisan agreement that the criminal justice system needs improvement.

Over the past several decades, U.S. policy choices have resulted in an unprecedented national experiment with incarceration that now costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars every year, with significant consequences for individuals, families and communities — and questionable public safety returns. Policymakers are taking notice, and more than half of the states have engaged in reform in recent years to slow or eliminate prison growth.

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With much less fanfare, however, the communities that are most impacted by crime and incarceration have been designing their own innovative solutions. And a new Urban Institute report finds that state and local governments around the country are recognizing these local leaders as key public safety partners and including them in both policy discussions and in public safety budgets. As we envision ways to chart a better public safety path, these community-driven efforts offer critical lessons.

Community-based partners who live and work in the neighborhoods most impacted by incarceration have a distinct perspective that policymakers often lack. They are closest to the problem and, consequently, closest to the solution. In Colorado, for example, the state has provided a $4 million grant to two communities that have the highest crime and incarceration rates. Planning teams made up of local residents — including faith leaders, educators, law enforcement officials, direct service providers and local business owners — met to develop public safety priorities for their neighborhoods. These priorities, such as programming to support youth and crime prevention focusing on vulnerable populations, guided the grant-making process to fund local service providers.

This translates to better outcomes. Recent research shows community organizations that advance diverse strategies such as economic development, treatment and counseling, healthy neighborhoods, and expanded green space have been a critical factor in reduced rates of violent crime.

Community providers also are uniquely positioned to engage directly in public safety work. Some community programs that support people who are involved in the criminal justice system are staffed and managed by people who have had similar experiences, and their message resonates much more effectively with a population that is likely to be mistrustful of parole officials and other representatives of the criminal justice system.

In Washington, D.C., the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services reduced the number of justice-involved youths sent away to out-of-home placements and used the savings to fund a credible messenger mentoring program that pairs system-involved youths with supportive adults who have had similar experiences. Research shows that the credible messenger model has produced promising results, and Washington is among communities around the country pursuing this strategy.

Polling shows that support for community-based public safety solutions spans demographic and political party lines, and voters who have opted to support this approach are seeing the rewards. Oakland, California, residents passed a 2004 ballot initiative, Measure Y, that created a property and parking tax to generate public safety funds. A portion of this money supports a wide range of gang-prevention programs, which have led to lower arrest and re-conviction rates and fewer arrests for violent offenses. In 2014, voters chose to maintain the taxes and re-up the program for another 10 years — a testament to its success.

Bolstered by the growing research showing the promise of locally-driven public safety solutions, these state and local governments have chosen to explore alternative public finance models that ensure resources follow justice-involved people back to the communities that have been hit hardest by crime and incarceration. As we work to shape a fairer and more effective criminal justice system, it’s far past time that we listen to what communities need and support local leaders who are developing their own public safety strategies.

Leah Sakala is a policy associate at the Urban Institute. Her work focuses on criminal and juvenile justice reform and community-driven public safety solutions.