One in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 incarcerated in the United States?1
“Yet you have turned into venom the process of law and justice itself into poison.”2
As the Pew Center for the States released its report at the end of February, the numbers sent me reeling. Again. The astounding reality and impact of incarceration being the policy choice for addressing poverty in America has been building for some time. As a community economic development lawyer, I have been working on the ground in Baltimore to support clients trying to stabilize and grow positive communities where the raw numbers of incarcerated adults are astounding.
I once believed that if we could find/rehab/build enough housing, we could create communities that were safe and good places to live. I still believe that sticks and bricks are the anchor, because if you have no place to call home, the chaos that ensues leaves you (and your family) vulnerable to predators and dangers inherent in a system built around assumptions that you are stable. But, I have come to understand that housing alone is not enough.
Through Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone, I learned the importance of reducing barriers to employment. Having a job through which one can provide for oneself and those you love brings meaning into a person’s life, and can mean the difference between stability and chaos. Again, without a living wage job, a person is vulnerable to predators and dangers inherent in a system built around assumptions that you are stable. But, I have come to understand that linkage to jobs is not enough.
As long as there is not justice in the poorest of our neighborhoods, housing and employment cannot stabilize them. As long as the biggest predictor of whether you will go to prison is the zip code into which you are born, we cannot stabilize our neighborhoods, because our population is cycling in and out of prison, each time reducing the odds that the stabilizers of housing and employment will be available to them when they return home. As long as justice (fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made3) is linked to the color of your skin or the currency in your pocket, we will not stabilize the neighborhoods of Baltimore.
So – the audacious idea I want to promote is that we keep people out of prison! Let’s take on the problems of poverty, rather than just lock up the people who are born into poverty. One way that we might do that is to create Neighborhood Justice Centers4. These centers might be related to the court system, but just as likely, might not. We might well undermine our quest by linking anti-crime and anti-poverty initiatives to increasing the mechanisms of the court system itself, even though the Red Hook Justice Center has done an amazing job of building a model to be lauded.
Neighbors could together engage in a planning process that would vision, design and implement a place where people could go to find help in solving complex and challenging problems and disputes. Services that might be offered could include: mediation, community conferencing, access to lawyers to help with basic problems of housing (foreclosure resistance, eviction assistance), consumer fraud, family disputes, custody and truancy support and assistance, referrals for services of all kinds, and who knows, even tutoring and mentoring services might be centered there. Maybe these could be the “home base” for the gang workers that Marc Steiner proposed in his January 22, 2008 blog. Or a place for mentors to be assigned to kids in trouble, honoring Judge Andre Davis’ blog of December 3, 2007 I know that there are ex-offenders who are reaching out to kids in East Baltimore, and their energy could be linked to a larger initiative. Each center will be different, but together, they will built a culture that says that we, the citizens of Baltimore, can stand shoulder to shoulder to keep our people out of prisons by providing justice here at home. We can both imagine and implement a world, neighborhood by neighborhood, where we are all the best and brightest because we are all supported and treated fairly, from the youngest to the oldest, no matter our wealth or color.
In Baltimore, we can “Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”5 Let’s provide housing and jobs, and take on the barriers to employment, rather than rely on bars to divide us. Let’s keep our people home.
1One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, The Pew Center on the States, February 2008
4The Community Justice Initiative at the University of Maryland School of Law is working with citizens, academic institutions, community organizations , ex-offenders and justice system stakeholders to create momentum that might make such centers possible.