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By Sheila E. Isong and Nicholas Kitchel
April 28, 2016

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In late 2015, Generation Progress convened Millennial Criminal Justice Roundtables in four American cities: Columbia, SC; Baltimore, MD; Phoenix, AZ; and Dallas, TX. This is one of four columns Generation Progress will issue on the Millennial Criminal Justice Roundtable series. These columns will culminate with the release of a full-length report that discusses the common themes that emerged from these roundtable conversations, and the solutions that Millennials are calling for to address our broken criminal justice system.

Millennials are coming of age in a time of great uncertainty. Widespread attention regarding cases of police brutality, including the murders of Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, and more, have thrust criminal justice reform to the forefront of national consciousness. Young people face significant challenges and grapple with issues such as: mass incarceration, sentencing reform, recidivism and re-entry, police brutality, and community policing. It is clear that young people are fighting for a future where the criminal justice system works equitably for people from all walks of life. For these reasons, Generation Progress embarked on a Millennial Criminal Justice Roundtable tour of four American cities, with a goal of identifying a Millennial agenda for criminal justice reform.

Between September and December of 2015, Generation Progress traveled to Columbia, SC; Baltimore, MD; Phoenix, AZ; and Dallas, TX. Each city was selected based on its unique demographics and diversity of perspective on criminal justice issues. An organizing committee of local leaders within the criminal justice reform movement compiled the invitation list for each roundtable. Attendees included local, state, and national activists, organizers, policy experts, law enforcement agents, elected officials, academics, entrepreneurs, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

On November 4, 2015, Generation Progress hosted its second Millennial criminal justice roundtable in Baltimore, MD.  

Baltimore UPDATED Column Pie Charts (1)

The three-member organizing committee included representatives from the Jobs Opportunity Task Force, Baltimore Corps, and the University of Baltimore School of Law. Over 40 people attended the roundtable, the majority of whom were black and with a particularly high number of black youth.

The death of Freddie Gray, a young black man in police custody, cemented Baltimore’s place at the center of the conversation around criminal justice reform. Youth-led protests in Baltimore caught the attention of the entire country as people took note of the anger, passion, and conviction of those fighting for a better future. The national spotlight on a city that had seen its fair share of police misconduct—Baltimore paid $5.7 million to alleged victims of police brutality between 2011 and 2014—sparked a broader conversation on race, law enforcement reform, and community-based solutions.

Electric and nuanced, the roundtable brought together youth leaders, young community members, and representatives from local youth-led organizations to voice their experiences and opinions.  A few elected officials and individuals seeking office for the first time attended the event.  This provided Millennials with an opportunity to propose reforms directly to elected officials and those seeking office. Generation Progress also invited representatives from the Baltimore Police Department, who declined, citing to the close proximity of the highly publicized Freddie Gray trial and the ensuing public scrutiny of their department.

All of the participants made it clear that they had good ideas to help move Baltimore forward.  Topics specifically mentioned during the conversations included police encounters, reporting incidents of police misconduct and abuse, the presence of police officers in schools, police culture and hiring, the expungement of criminal records, and preventative measures to criminal justice related issues.

Although attendees discussed a wide range of topics, two policy recommendations were particularly striking:

1. States, cities, and municipalities should allocate more funds to education, especially low-income school districts that house high populations of disenfranchised communities.

Baltimore roundtable attendees expressed a strong interest in addressing root causes to criminalization and incarceration. Repeatedly, they called for more funding to education, citing the correlation between education, crime, and incarceration. A 2003 study found that “male inmates were about twice as likely as their counterparts in the general population to not have completed high school or its equivalent.”  Devoting more funding to low-income school districts will help provide young people with the skills and academic development required to be successful and ultimately avoid incarceration.

Educational disparities often begin early on in children’s academic careers. In Baltimore, Millennials explained that early childhood education is a critical piece of the school-to-prison pipeline. Black children are twice as likely to be expelled from pre-K than white children.  Zero-tolerance policies, mental health factors, implicit biases of teachers, and lack of access to resources all contribute to disparities in early childhood expulsions. Addressing these educational disparities requires a nuanced understanding of the issues at hand, and allocation of additional funding and resources.

2. Police departments should diversify police forces by hiring individuals with diverse backgrounds and hiring from within the jurisdictions officers will be paroling.

Young Baltimoreans made it clear that for police officers to better understand their uniquely intersectional lived experiences, they would need to better understand them, underscoring the importance of diversity of police officers.  They noted that only 21 percent of Baltimore police officers are Baltimore residents.  They felt that individuals who were from Baltimore (or spent significant time there) would be better equipped to interact with them in positive and fair ways.

Experts have pointed out that Baltimore, a majority black city, also had a black mayor, black police chief (at the time), and black state’s attorney at the time of Freddie Gray’s death.  These factors, however, didn’t satisfy the predominately black roundtable attendees.  They reiterated that understanding the culture of Baltimore was crucial to better police/citizen interactions, noting that 68 percent of Baltimore police officers live in Maryland but outside of Baltimore, and an additional 10 percent live outside the state altogether.

Diversifying police departments is not just about race, or sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, or socioeconomic status. Diversifying police departments is about carefully recruiting and retaining individuals from varying backgrounds that can better reflect and connect with everyday people.  Recruiting more diverse candidates will assist in this matter, but being even more intentional about where officers are from (and where they live) would take policing to the next level.  

Since the Baltimore criminal justice roundtable took place, the Maryland General Assembly passed a set of criminal justice reforms which provide some drug offenders with treatment rather than incarceration, and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. While these reforms are a step in the right direction, Maryland policy makers would do well to heed the advice of young people as they continue to work toward a more equitable criminal justice system.

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