When I listen to the media, lawmakers, researchers, and activists debate the state of public safety in this country, including the FBI’s recent report on annual crime trends, it’s clear that what we really need is a fundamental shift in our understanding of what public safety truly means. We are told we need police to protect our neighborhoods while incidents of police brutality and discriminatory behavior are documented with little consequence. Most recently, officers nationwide are defying laws and departmental regulations by protesting COVID-19 vaccination mandates without regard for the health and safety for the public they are supposed to serve.
Everyone wants to feel protected and supported in their communities, but for too long, the approach to achieving public safety has relied on law enforcement, incarceration, and other punitive measures—without much holistic thinking about what it means for all people to feel protected and supported.
Safe, healthy, and thriving communities are not places with the fullest jails or the most militarized police forces—they are places that keep people out of jail by ensuring equitable access to education, housing, physical and mental health care, substance use services, and trauma-informed care for victims. This is the vision of public safety I urge our leaders to keep in mind as they address violent crime rates nationwide and to end our history of mass incarceration.
Consider this: Chronic homelessness has been found to increase a person’s risk of entering the justice system, and those in jail are between seven to 11 times more likely to have been homeless than someone with no history of incarceration. Yet in my hometown of Cincinnati, I’ve seen the neighborhood where I grew up replaced by luxury condos while the cost of housing across the city goes up and up. Investing in public safety for all means investing in equitable access to housing.
The evidence for investment in services that provide for basic needs to ensure public safety is clear. First, we know the human and societal costs of over-policing, over-charging, and over-incarcerating Black people and other communities of color. Though jails are intended to hold people who pose a flight or safety risk before trial, they often become warehouses for people who are poor, unhoused, or have a mental health issue or substance use disorder. Research shows that unnecessarily spending as few as three days in jail can have serious adverse consequences for a person’s life, such as the loss of a job and health benefits, and the weakening of family connections. Time in jail also makes a person more likely to reoffend and end up back in the system. This is on top of the trauma and violence communities of color have endured through our justice system’s long history of systemic racism.
What’s more, we know cities and counties can transform their justice systems while keeping communities safe. Research released this summer by the City University of New York’s Institute of State and Local Governance found that crime rates declined or remained the same in jurisdictions working to end the overuse and misuse of jails through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, with some even outpacing the national reduction in crime. Research by the JFA Institute looked at a subset of those jurisdictions in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that jail populations declined to historic lows while overall crime declined. Looking at this research, it’s clear that those who say we need to choose between transforming our justice system and keeping communities safe are wrong.
Once local leaders accept that more police and incarceration don’t equal safety, what’s the next step? First, it’s critical that those most impacted by the criminal justice system be involved in reshaping it. I experienced America’s justice system firsthand, spending years caught in unjust cycles of punishment and incarceration when what I really needed was support. I saw how others just like me and their families and communities, were hurt by discriminatory programs and policies we never had a say in.
Since my time in the judicial system, I have fought for the inclusion of formerly and currently incarcerated people in our conversations around criminal justice reform at every level of government. As the president of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization led by formerly incarcerated members, I want to make sure that our voices and our stories are heard so that we can come together to end the criminal justice system’s historical legacy of harmful marginalization and build a better, more just society for all.
Rethinking where communities invest resources is also critical to advancing a more holistic approach to public safety. Even before the pandemic, which exposed the negative ripple effect of losing public services, budget cuts had already ended public school transportation, free summer lunches for public school students, after-school programs (no admission for youth prior 6 PM on weekdays), summer youth employment, and programs that helped residents with home repairs, just to name a few. Under the excuse of government austerity, the resources that helped our most vulnerable community members in Cincinnati survive and build better lives for their families were taken away while investments in private investors, developers and the city’s police budget continued to grow.
These cuts did nothing to make Cincinnati a better, safer city. It only pushed already vulnerable people into precarious, desperate situations and worsened preexisting inequities. Equitable investments in these programs that provide social support and basic needs, as well as services for those living with mental health issues and substance use disorders, are how we create communities where everyone feels protected and supported—not more funding for law enforcement and other measures that created our mass incarceration crisis to begin with.
We all deserve to live in communities where every person’s dignity is valued and upheld. Achieving a new vision of public safety means not only transforming our justice systems to be more just, equitable, and fairer for all, but also expanding our approach to include all the ways communities—particularly those that have been traditionally harmed and marginalized—feel safe. It’s time to divest from oppression (police) and refund the communities.