THE BLOG

Changing the Odds for Boys and Men of Color

07/10/2014 04:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2014

When the Rosenberg Foundation began investing in criminal justice reform in 2006, we were driven to take action because of the disproportionate impact of incarceration and the lifelong consequences of felony convictions on boys and men of color and low-income communities in California.

A responsible approach to criminal justice can make our communities safer, save tax dollars and help all of us, but our current system is falling terribly short -- at great economic, human and moral cost. Most acutely, our juvenile and criminal justice systems present tremendous barriers to success for boys and young men of color. That's why it is exciting to see the White House courageously joining forces with philanthropic leaders to address this issue head on.

In February of this year, President Obama launched My Brother's Keeper, an initiative focused on fixing the persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color, including addressing racial and ethnic bias within the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

Among the recommendations endorsed by My Brother's Keeper: tackling over-incarceration and racial bias in the justice system, improving trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and removing unnecessary barriers to successful reentry and employment.

In addition, dozens of foundations across the country have come together to launch a coordinated strategy to remove the barriers that constrain the life prospects of boys and men of color. Among their bold calls to action: ensuring that boys and young men of color's exposure to harm from the juvenile and criminal justice systems is dramatically reduced.

Together, these efforts are helping to spark a frank, national dialogue about the intersections between criminal justice policy and racial bias and inequality. As the My Brother's Keeper's taskforce report points out, in schools, in communities and in courtrooms, boys and young men of color are less likely to be given a second chance, and are much more likely to receive harsher punishments and be victimized by crime.

  • Students of color, including those as young as preschoolers, are far more likely to face harsh discipline in school for minor offenses -- including suspensions and expulsions -- starting a spiral that funnels them into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
  • Latinos and African Americans are more likely than their White peers to be the victims of crime and violence, and nearly half of all homicide victims are Black males.
  • Black and Latino boys and young men are far more likely to be arrested and jailed than White males.
  • And, once entangled in the criminal justice system, young people who have paid their debt to society all too often are shut out -- sometimes for life -- from the education, employment, housing and other opportunities they need to get their lives back on track.

Clearly, our broken approach to criminal justice is taking a tremendous toll on our federal, state and local budgets, and on struggling communities and boys and men of color in particular. But we now have a real opportunity to roll up our sleeves and work to make a difference on these issues.

Increasingly, Republican and Democratic leaders alike are calling for new approaches to address mass incarceration and to close the school to prison pipeline. The Department of Justice has laid out a set of promising reforms at the federal level, including doing away with draconian mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. A handful of states are closing prisons by investing in drug and mental health treatment and community-based supervision to prevent crime.

Lasting success requires that we bring together likely and unlikely allies -- certainly reform advocates and policymakers, but also businesses, labor, community colleges, law enforcement and others -- to ensure that we engage all sectors in finding common ground and focus collectively on the task at hand.

In schools, we can stop expulsions for young children and limit suspensions and expulsions at any age to actual offenses such as possession of drugs or weapons. Most children are disciplined now for minor infractions of school rules and "willful defiance" or mouthing off. In the juvenile justice system, we can stop locking up so many boys of color, significantly reduce the prosecution of children as adults, and instead rely on proven interventions that can help young people successfully enter adulthood.

We also can once and for all move away from our "incarceration only" approach and champion sentencing reform. For example, decades-old penal code sections in most states treat non-violent drug crimes as felonies, which means people end up with real time behind bars and lifelong consequences, instead of getting the addiction treatment they need. We can dig deep into those state penal codes and rid them of the legacy of the failed War on Drugs.

We can use the savings from reducing the number of children and adults locked up at enormous expense to invest in crime prevention, education, proven alternatives to incarceration and re-entry services, and for programs that help victims of crime and violence rebuild their lives.

All young people -- regardless of race, ethnicity or background -- deserve access to the opportunities and the tools they need to thrive. Young men and boys of color are our future -- they are one the fastest growing segments of our population -- and they are invaluable assets to our families, communities and our nation. By dismantling the disparities that exist in our criminal justice system, we can change the odds for boys and young men of color, and achieve real justice and safety for our communities. Doing so is a moral and economic imperative of our time.