Where Do We Go from Here: Reimagining a Broken Criminal Justice System By MegAnne Liebsch

Part Two: Does the Criminal Justice System Solve Systemic Problems?

This article is part of a three-part series about the U.S. criminal justice system. Part One details mass incarceration through a personal lens. In Part Two, we zoom in to ask: Are we really solving systemic problems? How can we build a social and criminal justice system that eradicates inequity?

“You can’t change if you’re comfortable,” says Nicholas Mitchell. As the former policy and research fellow for race and racism at Loyola University New Orleans’ Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI), Mitchell knows that social change is arduous, uncomfortable.

“To me, America is still learning how to be a liberal democracy, and we haven't escaped the ghosts of the Confederacy and the ghosts of Jim Crow because they're too recent,” says Mitchell. “I think it was inevitable that we were going to have, looking back on it, this sort of reckoning because the United States was born with, was created as a slave state.”

Nick Mitchell

Mitchell is Black. At 37, he represents the first generation of African Americans not born into slavery or Jim Crow. The wounds are fresh, and we haven’t healed them.

“I'm hoping it'll be the final chapter, that we finally get it right this time and have the full reckoning because we tend to pull back on the reckoning,” Mitchell says. “After the Civil War, we pulled back on Reconstruction. We’ve never really dealt with what Jim Crow was. We call it a lot of things. We don't call it what it was, which was a form of American fascism. And coming to terms with that is very, very hard, but necessary.”

Coming to terms with history

Slavery and Jim Crow were codified systems of white control over Black people. Racism is “baked into” our legal system, Mitchell says. While some of these explicit Black codes were scratched out, others remained because they were implicit.

Until 2018, divided juries could still convict people in Louisiana by a majority of ten. Two jurors could find a person innocent and that person would still go to prison.

“That was a straight-up Jim Crow law,” says Mitchell. “They wrote that specifically in there because, constitutionally, you couldn't discriminate on juries. So, they came up with this non-unanimous jury piece.”

At JSRI, Mitchell helped organize the ballot measure that repealed the law. He remembers the repeal as a great victory and a model for transforming the criminal justice system. To redesign systems toward justice, we need pragmatic policy work and prophetic vision.

Words like “reform,” “defund” and “abolish” feature heavily in public discussions on systemic racism and the criminal justice system. Their definitions and associated policy proposals have a polarizing effect, but the Ignatian tradition calls us to dig deeper.

Incarceration substitutes social services

While recent protests for racial justice were sparked by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they point to profound social, political and economic oppression, which cannot be extricated from the criminal justice system. In communities of color, where crucial social safety nets are underfunded or absent, the criminal justice system substitutes those supports.

Slavery and Jim Crow inflicted inhuman cruelty and incalculable destruction on generations of Black Americans, and it spawned a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly targets people of color. It operates with the flawed notion that more police officers, more enforcement, more prisons and more prisoners will make communities safer.

Safer for whom?

Higher incarceration rates do not cause significant drops in crime, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead, mass incarceration creates a devastating feedback loop in poor, segregated communities.

Poor zip codes are policed more heavily, resulting in more arrests and incarceration. This erodes community trust and weakens local economies. When people return from prison, they are locked out of social and economic opportunity by “The Box.” Many job and education applications require people to check a box if they have a criminal record. Due to “The Box,” people with records struggle to secure employment, housing vouchers and food assistance, spurring a cycle of chronic poverty and repeat crime.

It is important that we understand this cycle as a societal choice. Instead of improving social service infrastructure and delivery in poor communities — which prevents crime and improves quality of life — we respond with punishment.

Pictured: People pray at a mass inside a Philadelphia prison.

People living below the federal poverty line are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crime than those in high-income households.

Over-policing and mass incarceration put a crude bandage on crime. The criminal justice system fails to address the stark inequities in low-income communities. Crime is only a symptom of these deeper systemic issues.

Pictured: An incarcerated man works in a prison's furniture shop.

What role does policing play?

Police are often the most public vestige of the criminal justice system, and their role is at the center of public outcry.

“[Police] are the front lines of solving many community problems, problems that require skills that go beyond what we have traditionally expected of the police,” says Michael Jenkins, chair of the criminology department at the University of Scranton.

Mike Jenkins

We often think police respond to violent or dangerous situations, but in reality, day-to-day policing is consumed by community problem-solving and providing resources. Tasks that are associated with social work rather than “running and gunning” like we expect, says Jenkins.

Many police departments lack adequate training and education on how to implement services. Instead, their training often focuses on use of force and high-threat situations rather than de-escalation.

One in 2,000 American men will die by police violence in their lifetime, and for men of color, that risk is even higher.

As Jenkins points out, though, police also provide essential services to communities in need. Police respond to mental health calls, family disputes, child abuse cases and other non-violent crises. Jenkins envisions the police as quarterbacks who could respond to a call by a community member and then refer them to a more appropriate service. Ideally, police would help identify resources and connect people to local non-profits, state programs like SNAP and counseling services.

For police to serve as quarterbacks they would need to be trained and equipped as social workers. But, in many low-income neighborhoods those crucial resources — after-school programs, substance abuse treatment, housing assistance — aren’t available.

“It’s impossible for [the police] to actually solve any of those problems that they're being called to,” says Jenkins.

At the same time, research shows that police presence can help decrease the rate of violent crime. While many communities of color grapple with racial bias in policing and brutality, they still want police in their communities.

According to a Gallup poll from June and July of 2020, 81 percent of Black Americans want police to spend the same amount or more time in their communities.

The reality of policing, especially in low-income communities of color, is complicated. Too often, policing perpetuates harm and racial inequities, and it fails to solve community problems. But, policing is just one piece of a social and economic system that abandons and marginalizes vulnerable communities.


Jenkins and Mitchell agree: We need to transform these systems.

“As we think about the transformation of police education, as we're talking about a transformation of what police are responsible for, a reorientation of our view of what we as a society expect,” says Jenkins. “I think what it all comes down to in the end is government services being used to attack these problems more holistically.”

Pictured: Former President Barack Obama meets with New Jersey police and community leaders.

Federally and locally, communities must re-evaluate the function of police. Should police be trained in social work? What educational and professional standards will make them accountable to this new expectation?

As an academic, Jenkins believes in the power of education. He has facilitated management trainings for mid-career police officers. “We know that higher education does result in positive outcomes across the board for policing,” he says.

Police are funded by taxes, so communities have a right to tell police departments: “You have great authority, you have great power, we want to give you greater training and education in that area to do your jobs better and have better impact," Jenkins says.

Learn more about policing reform policies at the national level with our policy guide.

Fund social services

To disentangle poverty and race from the criminal justice system, we must address the roots of marginalization — segregation, resource deprivation, community trust.

“I wouldn’t even say defund the police,” says Mitchell. “I would say fund social services. It’s in the best public interest for robust allocations to health and human services, to mental health, to providing food — food pantries and food banks — and creating affordable housing.”

When communities receive more resources — funding, substance abuse programs, workforce development and more non-profit support — crime rates fall. Trust in institutions, including police departments, rises.

Pictured: Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, which supports incarcerated youth, celebrates program graduation (Courtesy of JRJI).

In writing this series, I’ve thought a lot about reconciliation. It’s a key tenet of the Catholic faith, yet rarely applied in American public life. When we think about transformation of the criminal justice system and our culture at large, we need to ask: What healing and support is owed to those we have marginalized?

The U.S. criminal justice system chooses to prioritize punishment over reconciliation. What if we made a different choice?

Thrive for Life is a Jesuit work that envisions a different possibility for communities impacted by crime and structural inequality. Part Three explores the radical outcomes of a program that chooses justice and healing.

Part Three Coming on October 13