IN Equality: Testing a new model of partnership between community members and juvenile justice system leaders to find innovative alternatives to confining youth in institutions and to transform Ramsey County Juvenile Justice Practices
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
We are experimenting with new models of community engagement that have been well received by community and system. A pivotal moment in our work was a community summit IN Equality led in 2018 changing the way we center community voice and surfacing clarity about new directions to finding alternatives to facilities. Our summit offered a dinner and created space where 12 diverse community representatives were established as a panel. System representatives were invited to join in the dinner and in an observation-only role from tables nearby at the back of the room. We presented both recommendations that came out of a justice-system led committee, as well as a model that came from a community leader who had experience as a young person in the system. Community engagement was robust, vulnerable and honest. The model presented from the community rose clearly far above any interest in the more standard reforms generated in committee. Now we are looking for ways to get the community model funded, and up and running. We are also advancing this new model of community engagement be employed in selecting further service providers and models for change.
Our leadership as a Tri-Chair of the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) positioned us to lead an effort to dissolve a problematic legal agreement signed in 2018 to allow the broad sharing of individualized data between St. Paul schools, police, human services and the criminal justice system. The plan to create a predicative tool to flag youth as “future criminals” revealed the risk in government planning without adequate community engagement.
In the community we generated conversations through forums and summits. Community was clear: it does not feel safe to have the justice system collect data on us; it would lead to more racial profiling; lacked community oversight; the data was vulnerable to criminalizing political agendas; and this was a resource-intensive version of studying individuals, not solving problems of inequality. As Tri-Chair of the JDAI table we had access to leadership of all local elected bodies. We worked through committee meetings and by creating a policy brief to help leadership understand the alarms this plan sent through communities immersed in criminal justice. Elected officials dissolved the agreement.
Our work to embed community voices more deeply in reform by building community capacity has begun to influence outcomes. In the past year we have recruited, oriented and supported the addition of 6 new individuals to participate in two key leadership and decision-making committees around reforming our use of correctional facilities for youth. One committee is the Alternative Governance committee that is charged with leading a plan to spend $500,000 per year in investments in community based, non-facility responses. There has been a demonstrated value for the voice of community at the table, and the clarity we bring around need for change, urgency for change and what this should look like. The diversity of voice from the community seems to be helping a risk-adverse system consider and bring to life actual change.
The other committee, Stakeholders, is leadership rather than action oriented. Here, community voice has raised the issue about the number of children being sent to adult prison as relevant and central to our reforms. The Stakeholders have agreed to add this to our frame of reference and our work, starting by examining data in this area.
Key lessons learned:
We have not been successful getting our healing tribunals off the ground. We need to be realistic about planning resources of time and money for the battles we don’t expect. We have a history of building a plan for our activities that is an “offensive plan”. We want community voice to be in a leadership, pro-active role. We forget, even in our great gains, we are working in the space where two paradigms intersect. One of those paradigms still discounts community voice as a resource, this is pronounced in the criminal justice lens that says community is trying to get leniency, get away with something, or are difficult to work with. While many in the system welcome our partnership, this two-paradigm reality means we have to be prepared to play a good defensive game as well, and we can’t plan on when. Our battle against the joint powers agreement on data sharing was this type of unplanned, urgent opportunity and battle. In order to help system players stay on a reform path, it was highly urgent to close down this legal agreement that would have exposed the personal data of communities of color to criminal justice punishments.
Beyond planning for our work and time in a "defense mode", we learned another lesson from our challenge getting the healing tribunals off the ground. In our Summit to vet alternatives to facilities with the community, we established a deeper relationship with a friend and colleague who is a survivor of the punishment model of our criminal justice system. He shares an interest in this work around healing for those impacted by mass incarceration. We have established a contract with him to help us get these off the ground. We are committed to a path that builds networks in the community that benefit from our intersecting visions and resources. We know we don't need to be at the center of everything we hope to see rise out of this time of innovation, sometimes we need patience to wait for the right people to surface in partnership.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving:
Where true innovation is happening it seems all three elements are present: the work is inclusive, collaborative and resourceful. It is hard to separate one element from the other in our work. Perhaps “inclusive” rises to the top for what we are doing. In criminal justice reform, the system often acts collaboratively with other players in the system ie probation, police, and prosecutors have historically collaborated with good intentions to improve outcomes for individuals and community safety. These systems have also been resourceful in gathering needed funds. What they lacked in the collaborative approach is true partnership with community. What we bring that creates the conditions for full innovation is a lens from the community that sees how specific practices play out. Does that child return from correctional facility restored and rejuvenated, or more isolated, vulnerable and de-stabilized? How is the family doing now?
Including, rather than discounting, impacted community voice seems to be invigorating hope in the community and leading to real solutions being put on the policy table for conversation and funding.
Other key elements of Community Innovation:
New models and skill in community engagement are also playing an important role in our progress. We are experimenting with a new model that has been well received by community and system. It is practical and focused in a way that system decision makers get their questions answered, and community-centric enough that those not usually in a policy conversation are at ease to participate freely. Our model is built around dinner, like many community led conversations, but it is also a structured space where diverse community representatives are established either as a panel or as the audience. In both cases, system representatives are invited to be present to join in the dinner and mingle informally while engaging in an observation-only role in the conversation. This creates a setting where community voice is robust, vulnerable and honest, and system has access to this conversation in a way they typically do not. It is not that community hasn't been talking about crime and justice or that system players have not, our dilemma is that we speak frankly in different spaces. This model shows promise to bridge a much needed divide between government systems that serve and the people served.
Understanding the problem:
In this first year of grant funded activities, we have brought multiple individuals to the policy table who have experienced disruption of family because of prison and youth confinement, and people who were themselves isolated from community in confinement settings. When these individuals get a chance to tell their side of the story of the trauma and violence they experienced in these settings, policy makers and policy is shifting.
One clarity that has surfaced in this work is that we cannot navigate reform in the juvenile system separate from an equal and compelling shift in adult. One: because the cultures are linked. Two: because violent offenders are typically ages 17 – 27, and violence drives our investment in punishment and harsh penalties. Three: punishment and prison only exacerbates rates of violence in our communities.
In this system and community collaboration, IN Equality will be pushing for our alternative to juvenile facilities dollars to not just go where the system has appetite and comfort for change. We need to surface answers and demonstrate we can work with serious juvenile offenders too. We hope this will lead to a link to adult reforms.
If you could do it all over again...:
Expect the unexpected. We are working to assert community voice in system reform, not just as a seat at the table but in a leadership role. Because of this we build a plan for our activities that is proactive, or an “offensive plan”. We forget, even in our great gains, we are working in the space where two paradigms intersect. One of those paradigms still discounts community voice as a resource, this is especially true in the criminal justice lens that says community is trying to get leniency, get away with something, or is difficult to work with. While many in the system welcome our partnership, this two-paradigm reality means there are some tables we are not invited to. We have to plan to play a good defensive game as well, and we can’t plan on when. Our battle against the joint powers agreement on data sharing was this type of unplanned, urgent opportunity and battle. In order to help system players stay on a reform path, it was highly urgent to close down this legal agreement that would have exposed the personal data of communities of color to criminal justice punishments. Advice to our future-selves: expect more of these unexpected, time-intensive additions to our work plan.
One last thought:
We are invigorated and hopeful regarding the trend we are setting locally and in jurisdictions around the country who are looking to Ramsey County as a model for reform and community engagement.