Opio Sokoni, President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Jacksonville
Michael Hallett, University of North Florida
Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated. -Martin Luther King, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958
Just prior to the explosive events in Ferguson, Missouri, alarm about the state of crime in Jacksonville was making headlines. The membership of the SCLC of Jacksonville has come together out of a sense of concern for our community, out of a sense of exasperation about the state of criminal justice in Florida and the nation, and out of a deep desire to see that peace, equality and fairness dictate justice policy and practice. But justice and fairness are not what we have today. Unfortunately, criminal justice policy in Florida has devolved into advocacy of “warning shots” and “standing your ground” instead of civil dialogue and community outreach. We have lost all common sense and attention to the common good. In the spirit of Dr King, our ongoing work is devoted to changing that dynamic. Today we have a justice system that destroys people, not one that heals them; a system where recidivism is higher after release from prison than prior to confinement; a justice system perpetrating a costly, ineffective and unfair war on drugs that disproportionately impacts and impoverishes minority families; a justice system in Jacksonville where black children comprise only one third of all children but two thirds of juvenile arrests and ninety percent of juveniles under confinement; Jacksonville is a place where literally tens of thousands of children live in poverty and where the majority of these children have no after school resources. While crime is down, the concentration of Disproportionate Minority Contact of juveniles with the criminal justice system in Jacksonville has increased since 2005. But we speak of a Jacksonville that is sadly typical of the American urban landscape. As Jacksonville develops its annual budget, SCLC wishes to highlight the importance of community-based programs over policing.
Today, as you know, racial division dominates American criminal justice practice. The incarceration rate for African-American males in the United States is five times higher than that for whites and constitutes the demographic under strictest confinement in any democratic nation on earth. Just because Barack Obama is President of the United States, our nation is not one today that is in any way post-racial. Indeed, we believe Dr King would suggest we’re again becoming a post-Civil Rights society: back on the road to limiting black citizens’ opportunities to vote; back on the road to re-segregation of public schools; back on the road to persistent, dramatic and increasing economic inequality; and fully on the road to seeing a “New Jim Crow” featuring Hyper- Incarceration of black men and boys that only facilitates all the previously mentioned exclusions.
If Dr. King were alive to witness the state of American criminal justice today, he would testify that the “war on drugs” and the “war on poverty” have become, in fact, wars on the same people. Both amounted to highly-racialized containment strategies that further ghettoized the poor by locking citizens into isolated housing projects well outside of the flow of commerce and politics–after which the “war on drugs” locked these same citizens into a prison industrial complex now so vast that it operates in part for profit and actively donates to political campaigns. As illicit drug markets now dominate the collapsing economies of America’s de-industrialized ghettos, Dr King would have to repeat his message: The self-perpetuating failure system of managing poverty through “containment strategies” that rely on race and demonizing the poor has got to stop. We are one community of citizens. Construction and maintenance of prison zip-codes through laissez-faire ghettoization and hyper-incarceration has failed us locally and nationally; it has got to stop.
PRIORITY AGENDA FOR JACKSONVILLE
- IMPLEMENT A COMMUNITY-BASED TASK FORCE ON URBAN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INCLUDING BUSINESS LEADERS (MUCH LIKE THE PENSION TASK FORCE).
- IMMEDIATELY REINVIGORATE AND EXPAND FUNDING FOR JACKSONVILLE JOURNEY WITH A PRIORITY ON COMMUNITY PROGRAMS.
- WITH COOPERATION OF THE SHERIFF INSTITUTE A FORMALIZED CIVILIAN POLICE/COMMUNITY OVERSIGHT PROCESS.
- IMMEDIATELY ADDRESS STATED CONCERNS ABOUT JUVENILE PROSECUTION
- IMMEDIATELY EXPAND FUNDING FOR MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES; FOR BOTH PTDF AND NON-PROFIT.
- REINVIGORATE DISCUSSION OF MIAMI’S CHILDREN’S TRUST AGENDA.
- EXPAND RESOURCES FOR COMMUNITY-BASED RACIAL DIALOGUE
- APPOINT A CITIZEN-LED OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE TO MONITOR BENCHMARKS (MUCH LIKE JACKSONVILLE JOURNEY OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE)
A PERSPECTIVE ON RACE AND CRIME FROM JACKSONVILLE: PRIORITIES MOVING FORWARD
First: Recognize Identity Thwarted and Denigrated.
Please stop trying to obscure the complexities of history, economics and race by reducing lives of impoverished citizens to soundbite policies that demonize the poor: for example, policies like “drug testing for all welfare recipients” needlessly shame poor citizens while falsely justifying a failed “drug war” mentality, even as no evidence whatsoever exists showing welfare recipients use drugs in any higher proportion than the general public. The criminological evidence is clear: most poor people work hard and are law-abiding. Addiction and illicit drug markets do predominate poor neighborhoods, but this is due to a lack of viable economies and social isolation. Only when citizens are treated with concern and dignity can we heal our community, encouraging all citizens to fully develop their talents. Stop the politics of HATE.
Second: Recognize Big-Government when You See It
Much recent criminological scholarship examines the shift toward high incarceration over the past 35 years, especially as it corresponds to a dismantling of the welfare state and rise of a “big government security state.” Jacksonville’s never ending starvation/crisis reaction budget cycle that characterizes Jacksonville’s crime problem has got to stop. It has become a perfect self-perpetuating failure system, both locally and nationally: expand the workload of agencies while cutting resources until crises emerge, then use crises to reluctantly patch, entrenching big government agencies even further while never addressing root problems. In always trying to get by on the cheap, Jacksonville is blighting the city even further while remaining captive to its own destructive process. We would emphasize this is as true for poor children as it is for Jacksonville’s police officers themselves, by simply pointing to the city’s pension crisis affecting police and fire fighters. Has the City even dealt fairly with its own police? In the matrix of crime control versus funding for other city “priorities,” police and poor children have very much in common. This reveals a lot about crime and social relations in Jacksonville: 1) we are not taking the crime problem seriously in Jacksonville because if we were policies would be more broad-based and inclusive; 2) valuable civic infrastructure is merely destroyed by draconian criminal punishments for crimes more deeply rooted in economics and family breakdown.
While Jacksonville prides itself on being a low tax city even as it loses population to surrounding counties with more robust civic infrastructure, it continues to over-rely on its criminal justice system as last resort civic infrastructure. A prosperity agenda for Jacksonville cannot be founded simply upon trying to police and prosecute Jacksonville’s way out of urban marginality.This model merely perpetuates inequality and expands the social isolation of the poor. A Comprehensive Strategy with citizen involvement and meaningful benchmarks must be put in place. But city leaders seem content to watch people vote with their feet, at least those who can. This is the opposite of a prosperity agenda. It is rendering Jacksonville a hollowed-out shell of a city featuring lots of debt, heavy incarceration amid questionable expenses like a massive new courthouse and citizen funded amenities for corporate sports franchises.
Third. Prioritize Love and Concern for Neighbor/Common Good
Finally, Dr. King “stood his ground” by pointing to what he called the “unarmed truth”—the merciful and loving example of Jesus Christ and His repeated statements of concern for the poor and excluded as the first standard for all conversations about justice. If you’re going to follow Jesus, you have to be concerned about the suffering of your neighbors. To be concerned about suffering means you have to be honest about history. Being honest about history requires we talk about present day structural violence and meeting citizens’ basic needs: we don’t have a dropout problem in our schools, we have a push-out problem; we don’t have a criminal justice problem, we have a criminal INJUSTICE problem; we don’t have an low tax austerity problem in Jacksonville, we have a generosity problem. By following the example of Jesus Christ and showing concern for our neighbors, we can heal the city and come together in respect and partnership in ways that SAVE taxpayer money and improve the prospects of the City as a whole. We are as concerned for the well-being of our police officers as we are for juveniles in lock-up. Police and citizens must be partners in achieving community well-being.