“It angers me how we keep going down the same path [with respect to policing] expecting a different result. We believe over-incarceration and over-policing leads to less crime, yet we have more crime,” Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, told me recently. Lumumba, elected last June with the endorsement of the political organization Our Revolution, added that his plans for criminal-justice reform are manifold; for instance, he supports a proposed ordinance to reduce penalties for marijuana possession in his city and a citizen-review board to assess complaints from the community.
Lumumba is one of several American mayors who intend to use their time in office to change the way the criminal-justice system functions. Ras Baraka, son of the late poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, was elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2014. In 2016, after a three-year federal investigation, the city entered into a consent decree with the federal government to improve its policing practices. Since Baraka took office, criminal-justice reform has been one of his top priorities. Behind a variety of initiatives is one core conviction: “Number one,” Baraka told me by phone, “is to make police understand that they’re part of the community and not occupying it.” To hold police officers accountable, his administration has created a civilian complaint review board and increased training for police officers to learn how to form better relationships with civilians. Part of that effort is “coffee with a cop,” in which officers go into communities with the express purpose of hearing the concerns of Newark residents, especially in neighborhoods that have been identified as “high crime” areas. During the holidays, police hand out toys to children. “We want to change the way people perceive the police and the way police perceive the community,” Baraka said.
In order to address over-incarceration, Baraka’s predecessor, Cory Booker, created an alternative to the traditional court system that can impose punishments other than fines or jail time. This “community court,” spearheaded by then-municipal judge Victoria Pratt, might impose community service, essay writing, or counseling on offenders who are charged with low-level misdemeanors, like marijuana possession or driving with a broken tail-light. Once he was mayor, Baraka appointed Pratt Newark’s chief judge. The motivation behind the community court, Baraka says, is to stop “the prison pipeline, divert [Newark residents] from incarceration, get them help and support they need to change their behavior.”
Another major initiative is a program to send members of a street team, trained residents from the community, into the field to resolve interpersonal conflict in order to prevent violence. “Over 60 percent of our violent crime is centered around personal conflict,” Baraka said. And the police department, he says, is committed to allowing the street team do its work. Often, Baraka said, the street team members find out that individuals in conflict need jobs, and the city workers then try to help them find one, in addition to helping de-escalate the conflict. “And police give them a certain amount of leeway to do that,” he said. “Ultimately we want to save lives. We’re not interested in just putting people in jail.” The program is still in its infancy, but has shown signs of success, Baraka says, and he is trying to get city funding to expand the program to more neighborhoods.