People of color – especially young men – face many institutional hurdles to reaching their full potential. Chief among these is the expansive net of the criminal justice system— a net that is more likely to ensnare black and brown men at every step in the process. They are more likely to be stopped and frisked, to have their cars searched during traffic stops, and, when convicted of a crime, to receive longer prison sentences than whites.
This disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system compounds the many other systemic barriers young men of color often face, like living in high-poverty neighborhoods with poor schools, more crime, and fewer job opportunities.
That’s why I’m so pleased that the Obama administration’s upcoming initiative to support young men of color as they surmount these barriers includes mention of the criminal justice system. The announcement also includes two other key points: Data will drive the identification and establishment of best practices, and it will focus on “key moments in the lives of these young men where interventions have been shown to have the greatest impact.”
Some of these key moments occur early in young men’s lives, as they first encounter the criminal justice system in the form of police officers on the street, in their schools, and in their homes.
Roughly 30 percent of incarcerated parents report that their minor children were present at the time of their arrest. Boys who witness arrests that are violent, disrespectful, or involve foul language or physical violence are unlikely to view cops as the good guys. The manner in which police interact with children of the arrested – as well as with the arrested parents themselves – has particularly important implications for future community relationships. If handled inappropriately, the community could begin to view the police as an oppressive force in the neighborhood, undermining law enforcement’s legitimacy.
Yet most law enforcement agencies offer little guidance on an officer’s role in ensuring the safety of a child whose custodial parent has been arrested, and few uniform policies exist to guide law enforcement in attending to the arrestee’s children or determining where these children will be placed.
Negative perceptions of the police are further aggravated in cities that use intensive “stop and frisk” practices in high-crime areas. These tactics disproportionately target people of color, often arresting them for low-level drug possession that would otherwise go unnoticed, and further erode relationships between police officers and the communities they serve. In other words, a widespread crime-fighting tactic is teaching young men of color to distrust the criminal justice system while pulling them disproportionately into it.
This, then, is a key moment of intervention. How could we do better? Evidence points to one of the basic tenets of community policing, which is to enlist the community as equal partners in public safety. Doing so demands interacting with residents respectfully and justifiably. When citizens feel like the police are treating them with respect, they are more likely to judge their treatment as fair, whether they’re arrested or released.
Other key moments in the lives of young men of color occur within public schools, where increased use of zero tolerance policies, enhanced police presence of school resource officers post-9/11, and rising rates of suspensions can eventually channel boys into the juvenile justice system.
These three ways the criminal justice system can restrain the advancement of young men of color also also offer critical opportunities for tearing down barriers to life success. We already know so much about best practices, and encouraging rigorous evaluation and implementation will help us continue to find new solutions. Doing so can dramatically improve young men’s life chances by reducing the odds of negative encounters with the criminal justice system.
In this Wednesday,