In Focus: Building the Capacity of Communities

Apr 7, 2017  |  PERMALINK »

Attorney General Review of DOJ Consent Decrees Threatens Youth of Color

By: Clarence Okoh

On Monday the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a memorandum from Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering a review of the department’s use of consent decrees with cities and law enforcement agencies with documented histories of violent police misconduct. These measures are court-ordered agreements between the DOJ and law enforcement agencies to make structural reforms to local policing practices and policies to ensure the rights of all community members are respected.  The Attorney General and the Trump Administration have expressed skepticism at the value of consent decrees despite their effectiveness at surfacing “patterns or practices” of systemic rights violations and violent policing tactics used against low-income communities, communities of color, young people, and individuals with disabilities. This new effort from Attorney General Sessions is the latest in the administration’s attempts to implement a failed law and order framework for federal criminal justice and law enforcement policies. 

The high-profile police killings of young Black people—including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray and Korryn Gaines in Baltimore, Renisha McBride in Detroit and Laquan McDonald in Chicago—spurred a national conversation on both individual acts of police misconduct and broader, underlying implicit bias and systemic failures of the criminal justice system to protect the civil liberties and safety of communities of color. Under Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch in the Obama Administration, DOJ leveraged consent decrees to investigate these “patterns and practices” of police misconduct and initiate reforms that strengthened the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Advocates for youth should be particularly distressed by this recent development. Data makes it clear that youth of color have disproportionate contact with law enforcement in nearly every measurable way despite committing crime at similar rates to their White peers. For example, Black young men are stopped by police at 2.5 times the rate of young White men, and Black young women are referred to law enforcement from school at over twice the rate of their White counterparts.  In a recent DOJ investigation, one young person in Chicago vividly describes policing as so omnipresent that his neighborhood feels like an “open air prison,” a sentiment that powerfully captures the role of many law enforcement agencies as an occupying force in communities of color. The over-criminalization of youth of color in schools and in their neighborhoods erodes trust in policing and disrupts pathways to careers, higher education, and social mobility.

Jeopardizing the role of federal oversight into abusive policing practices could further marginalize many of our most vulnerable young people and is counterproductive to the growing bipartisan consensus around the value of proven strategies like community policing in achieving safe communities.  In spite of DOJ’s irresponsible perspective, local leaders in Baltimore, including Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, for example, remain steadfast in moving forward in the consent decree process they agreed to in January with the Obama Administration.  They understand that doing business as usual was harmful to their residents—particular to youth and young adults—and did not promote safety, accountability, or trust.

Instead of wasting limited public dollars on failed strategies, the administration should look to strategies developed by local elected officials, law enforcement, youth, and community leaders a outlined in the Report on 21st Century Policing and  in Cities United’s Strategic Resource for Mayors on Police-Involved Shootings and In-Custody Deaths. Both detail evidenced-based approaches that build trust between communities and law enforcement by creating accountability and transparency. More broadly, robust investments in youth-serving systems, including education, workforce, and health care, should be incorporated into any federal, state, or local anti-incarceration and anti-violence strategy.

Federal accountability and oversight in communities that have failed to promote fair and equitable treatment has provided a vital safety net for young people of color disproportionately victimized by law enforcement. Threatening to undo the roles of consent decrees in creating safe communities is both antithetical to the notion of police accountability, and endangers the capacity of DOJ to achieve its mission to “promote a peaceful and lawful society where the civil rights of all persons are valued and protected.” Youth of color deserve safety—not just from violent crime but from violent, abusive systems as well. 

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Mar 17, 2017  |  PERMALINK »

Wrong Direction: President Trump’s Budget Slashes Youth Programs

By Kisha Bird

President Trump’s budget for Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18) sets forth this administration’s values for supporting low-income children, youth, and families. The budget proposes drastic, damaging cuts to employment, education, and training services that enable low-income youth and young adults to stay in school, improve their skills, and be successful in postsecondary education, the workplace, and life.   

The Department of Labor’s budget shrinks by $2.5 billion—a debilitating 21 percent reduction from the 2017 annualized CR level. The budget substantially cuts grants to states and local areas to provide workforce training to low-income youth and adults through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which passed Congress in 2014 with overwhelming bipartisan support. WIOA provides essential career and training services to low-income adults. It’s one of the primary sources of funding that helps states and local communities support out-of-school youth in accessing job training, reengaging in school, and earning their diplomas as well as partner with employers to provide pathways into the workforce. While the budget proposes that states, localities, and employers take more responsibility for these programs, significant funding reductions will mean less help for low-income workers who are striving to build skills and advance along career pathways to better-paying jobs.

The U.S. Department of Education’s budget makes $9.2 billion in cuts (13 percent over the prior year). Student aid and other education programs for low-income students see the biggest cuts, while school choice programs enjoy dramatic increases—ignoring the systemic issues facing America’s public schools. The budget will:

  • Invest an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs, including $1 billion for Title I, $250 million for a new private school choice program, and $168 million for charter schools. The Title I funding is designed to support increased school choice options for students by encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment. These types of policies will help a select group of students but leave behind the vast majority of poor and low-income students that attend Title I schools. High-poverty schools already struggle with lack of funding, crumbling infrastructure, community safety hazards, and teacher shortages—and this budget will divert needed funding from America’s public schools. Students who participate in voucher programs forfeit important civil rights protections; when coupled with the roll back of ESSA accountability regulations, these cuts represent an unprecedented risk for students of color, low-income students, disabled students, and students who have had contact with the foster care, homeless, and justice systems.
  • Eliminate the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. 21CCLC provides critical before-school, after-school, and summer programs for low-income children and youth. This will undermine more than one million children and their parents.  The Trump Administration justifies this cut with claims that the program is not effective; however, there is strong evidence that quality after-school programs help children and youth become more engaged in school, raise their academic performance, and remain safe during non-school hours. 
  • Reduce funding for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) by 10 percent and TRIO by nearly a third. GEAR UP prepares vulnerable youth and low-income, first-generation, and nontraditional students for postsecondary education. TRIO provides services throughout the education pipeline to help students succeed beginning in middle school.

The budget also disinvests in programs that prevent youth from entering the justice system while increasing support for law-and-orderenforcement strategies that have historically targeted communities of color and immigrants. The overall Department of Justice budget is down 3.8 percent from the 2017 annualized CR level. We don’t yet know which discretionary programs will be impacted; however, it’s a good bet that reentry services, the Title II Formula Grants Program and The Title V – Delinquency Prevention Program of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act are on the chopping block. These programs provide funding to support state and local prevention and intervention efforts for court-involved youth and those at risk of justice involvement and juvenile justice system improvements. 

Lastly, the proposed budget eliminates funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This will severely limit states’ and communities’ ability to respond to critical challenges and support low-income youth.  National service is powerful tool for low-income youth and can serve as a pathway out of poverty, increasing access to education, work experience, and civic engagement. CNCS administers the AmeriCorps program, where 80,000 young Americans serve in communities to support natural disaster relief, provide critical education and social services to low-income youth and the elderly, and help local communities solve pressing issues like hunger and poverty. Many local communities use CDBG to support community-based, job training, and workforce development programs for low-income youth.

The president’s budget proposal is just that—a proposal.  It is not expected to be enacted. However, it does reveal the Administration’s expectations for funding levels and priorities. It’s now up to Congress to make the right choices through its appropriations process and invest in low-income youth and their families.   

Jan 31, 2017  |  PERMALINK »

Senator Jeff Sessions: A Threat to American Justice

By Clarence Okoh and Kisha Bird

This week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Senator Jeff Sessions’ (AL-R) nomination for attorney general.  If approved, his nomination will move to the Senate floor. The vote follows a confirmation hearing where Mr. Sessions did not provide any assurances that he would diverge from his 40-year record of eroding civil and human rights and opposing federal protections for vulnerable communities.

This vote also comes in the wake of President Trump's sweeping executive orders that put immigrant and refugee families at risk. This includes provisions to withhold federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions and ban entry for immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Additionally, the orders undermine refugee resettlement programs by significantly reducing the number of refugees accepted into the United States, with strict restrictions on asylum seekers from war-torn Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries.

In light of these developments, the Senate Judiciary Committee should further question Mr. Sessions to determine his perspective on the president’s immigration policies. Given the Administration’s ongoing hostility toward immigrants and religious minorities, it’s more essential than ever to appoint an attorney general who will vigorously defend American civil liberties. Mr. Sessions’ record strongly suggests he isn’t up to the task.

Mr. Sessions has repeatedly opposed legislation and policy advancements that protect women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals; immigrants; and people of color.  He voted ‘no’ on reauthorizing the Violence against Women Act and Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded hate crimes to include sexual orientation. Sessions has strongly supported policies that disenfranchise people of color, supporting voter ID laws and applauding the Supreme Court for dismantling the Voting Rights Act.  Moreover, he has endorsed mandatory minimums as well as legislation allowing states to charge and imprison 14-year-old children as adults. He has also blocked immigration reform and condemned federal investigations into law enforcement misconduct.

In recent years, policymakers have embraced bipartisan criminal and juvenile justice reform. Across the country, state and local governments, law enforcement agencies, school districts, and community stakeholders are coming together around restorative justice policies, alternatives to youth incarceration, school discipline reform, and reentry pathways to jobs and education. However, Sessions has consistently undermined these efforts. His explosive rhetoric and troubling record, coupled with President Trump’s dangerous “law and order” proposals, place immigrants, communities of color, and bipartisan progress at risk. 

Law and order strategies are manifested, in part, through the criminalization of poverty and adolescent behavior; the expansion of law enforcement presence into nontraditional settings such as schools; and insufficient enforcement of civil rights protections. By reviving these antiquated strategies, the Administration will erode trust in the police, destabilize families and communities, and perpetuate disparities based on race, class, gender, and ability. Further, law-and-order interventions will result in higher rates of recidivism—straining already-tenuous state and local budgets.

It’s patently unjust to punish people unevenly based on race, ethnicity, gender, or status.  Youth justice must begin with a set of principles that recognizes the roles of structural racism and systemic barriers in creating disparities. We shouldn’t demonize adolescent behavior; instead, we need to center youth voice and invest in data-driven solutions that empower young people. That includes providing alternatives to incarceration and supporting successful reentry for those young people who have been justice involved.

CLASP calls on policymakers and advocates to reject Mr. Sessions and his blatant hostility toward civil and human rights.  The U.S. cannot afford an attorney general whose legislative and legal records are antithetical to the ideal of equal justice. Several senators, including Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have declared their opposition. We urge the rest of the Senate to follow their lead. And we encourage advocates to fight every effort to undermine principled justice reform with failed law-and-order policies.  There’s too much at stake to remain silent.

Contact your senators and urge them to stop Senator Sessions from becoming America’s next attorney general.  

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