THE BLOG
07/29/2015 11:00 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

Getting as Serious About Prevention as We Are About Punishment

SHUTTERSTOCK / DAN BANNISTER

President Obama recently shone the national spotlight on our criminal justice system; a system which has historically and disproportionately impacted communities of color, is costing taxpayers too much money, and hasn't been smart or efficient enough in addressing the factors that push people to come in contact with the system in the first place.

It was a watershed moment, one that has raised the following questions: What does public safety really look like in our nation? And how do we build a system which reinforces that notion of safety and justice?

During his speech to the NAACP's national convention, President Obama offered the following as a way to begin thinking about our justice system: "Justice is not only the absence of oppression; it is the presence of opportunity."

The reality is that for far too long our criminal justice system has prioritized punishment and done very little to focus on prevention and expanding opportunities.

The result?

Prisons are overflowing due to harsh and automatic sentencing, school suspensions have become commonplace across our nation, and children as young as 12 are sentenced to life in prison without parole.

As a health foundation that is working to build healthy, safe and thriving communities across California; we have worked with youth, community and system leaders to ensure our justice system in California prioritizes prevention and opportunity. We know it'll make us a healthier nation.

We worked with young leaders to address the fact that, for many of our young people, their criminalization begins as early as elementary school. Rather than asking why our students are acting out, they are being pushed out of school and police are being called in to deal with things such as talking back to teachers.

Through our grantees' efforts, more schools in California are now adopting positive school discipline--giving students the opportunity to reconcile their mistakes--rather than pushing students out of schools and into the juvenile justice system.

Not only do our policies reflect prioritization of punishment over prevention, but so does our state spending. In California, we spend $62,300 a year to keep one inmate in prison but just $9,100 per year to educate one student in our public schools, one of many statistics we highlighted through our Do The Math campaign.

Realizing this contradiction, California voters decided to shift spending priorities towards prevention by passing Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which gives Californians a second chance at opportunity by lowering some non-violent offenses to misdemeanors rather than felonies and shifts up to $1 billion dollars every year toward community health programs.

These efforts will help turn the tide on our prison population, which has grown 430 percent nationally since 1970. At the same time that we seek to break the school-to-prison pipeline, we cannot forget those who have ended up in prison.

One of the most moving things we did last year was visit one of our prisons here in California, to be able to hear from incarcerated people about the type of opportunities they'd like while behind bars to prepare them to best re-enter their lives and communities.

What we heard is they'd like to further their education, be offered opportunities to heal from intense trauma, and have more communication with their families.

We applaud President Obama for visiting El Reno Correctional Institution and we encourage more of our national leaders to do the same. And to take time listening to our youth, you'd be surprised how much information they'll share about the type of opportunities and future they'd like us to build for them, but it's up to us to act on that information.

California is paving the way for a state that takes prevention as seriously as we take punishment. We hope the rest of the nation can do the same and thank President Obama for reminding us about the urgent need to create health and justice for all.