Taking a Collaborative Approach to Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Justice System


Taking a Collaborative Approach to Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Justice System

Taking a Collaborative Approach to Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Justice System

Tshaka Barrows, deputy director of the Burns Institute, discusses his organization's collaborative and community-centered approach to addressing and eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. Barrows spoke with Robert V. Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, after participating in a panel on Race and Procedural Justice at Justice Innovations in Times of Change on Sept. 30, 2016.

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TSHAKA BARROWS: We call it a system, but it really isn't a system. It's much more of a grouping of semi-autonomous agencies that have very little accountability to each other.

ROB WOLF: Hi I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation and today I'm in North Haven, Connecticut at the Justice Innovation in Times of Change conference. Sitting down with me is TShaka Barrows who is Deputy Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, which works to address racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. The institute is based in Oakland, California. You've come a long way to attend the conference and participate and to sit and talk with me, thank you very much.

BARROWS: I'm glad to be here.

WOLF: Let's talk about the work of the Burns Institute and in particular, how you work with jurisdictions to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. You have a specific approach you take to looking at this issue and trying to address it. Maybe you could summarize for me what that approach is.

BARROWS: At the Burns Institute, our approach is to build a collaborative of the different agencies that make up the justice system and I always tell people, I just told the group, we call it a system, but it really isn't a system. It's much more of a grouping of semi-autonomous agencies that have very little accountability to each other. The whole notion of trying to address disparities has to be done with that context in mind because much of one agencies decision bump into the next, bump into the next and the impact is felt by the individuals who are going through it and we see it in the disparity numbers. To really create a strategy to address it you have to have all those key players from each of those agencies as a part of your collaboration. We also fundamentally don't think that just having those kind of traditional stakeholders is enough. Our process requires that we engage meaningful participation from community stakeholders who've had experience with the justice system, who live in the neighborhoods that our data shows are the target neighborhoods, where more people are coming from, so that they can both bring that experience from having traveled through the system, though the various agencies, being passed from one to the other, but also what it's like living in the community that is targeted for higher involvement for various reasons, policies, policing policies, could be that there's a lack of resources, any number of conditional factors.

This whole notion of creating more fair notion of procedural justice can't be done without accounting for that fact that certain neighborhoods are much more highly representative in the system, our process we really aim for participation with community stakeholders, which is very different. People are a little bit afraid of that. The idea that you're sitting in a meeting sharing data with people who are upset with the agency, who did not feel that they were treated fairly, who are angry about the realities that folks in their community face, is a threatening notion for most traditional stakeholders who already a conversation of race in this country, typically is a bit unnerving for people, it's not like that's a regular practice that we have.

WOLF: And you literally bring everyone together in the same room? That's the process, it's like, "Let's all sit down together." What does that look like, how many people are actually sitting around a table or in a auditorium?

BARROWS: That's a great question. We build a collaborative and it's a process to even build it. We don't try to just come in with a cookie cutter kind of prescription. We want to understand from the local players. Justice happens locally, there's culture. Who do they think are the key people they need to be there and how many? So sometimes we may get huge representation from one agency, where it's like, "You guys are kind of dominating the meeting." and we may need to adjust that so there's a need to attend to the actual formation. Typically it's, I'd say, between 10 to 20 stakeholders depending on the size of the jurisdiction. We work in very small rural places, they may not have a huge collaboration. I've worked in jurisdictions that have had up to 30 people who meet every month, but that becomes to be a challenge in and of itself because if everybody just introduced themselves that would take time. For us to have meaningful dialogue about certain issues in a meeting of that size, it can be a challenge and so we really want to look for a sweet spot that allows for equal representation across the agencies and doesn't leave behind any one particular group.

WOLF: What happens then there, what's the process? You said every month, so it's an ongoing ... Are you trying to build a permanent infrastructure for dialogue or is it a time limited, let's meet for an x number of times to work on this?

BARROWS: That's another great question. Our process would be monthly, we hope as we're setting the jurisdiction up to maintain the process without us. We do a whole orientation to really try to help everybody to fully participate. We don't people just sitting there and they're like, "I don't know what this is, I don't know what's going on,” acronyms are flying over their head. We spend time doing coach ups for the community stakeholders and we also orient the system folks to what the meeting would be like when they have community members there who might be more frustrated or going to ask lots of questions. Rarely, our systems stakeholder, is very good at telling the story of their institution and how they've got to this point. We have also started working with them, they're telling a story, you've got to own this. You didn't do all this, you don't have to apologize for the history but you need to own the fact that there were some practices that were not the best that we were doing and we've been working on trying to address, because that engenders a level of respect for the process and opens up the community to thinking that, "Okay, you really are serious about doing something different."

WOLF: And when everyone sits down, have they already accepted the premise that there are racial and ethnic disparities -


WOLF: Or do you also need to establish that as the facts on the ground?

BARROWS: We will likely re-visit, lot of times people will say, "Oh yeah, no we've all ... We understand we have a problem." And then it's like, "Let's talk about it." And then we start asking. "What do you think is contributing to the problem?" It's one thing to say, "Yeah our jail or our juvenile hall is full of people of color." It's another thing to say, "And we think we have a responsibility for that, we think we're contributing to that." When we ask the question, "What do you think drives this?" Everything but them usually is the response that we get which let's us know you probably don't realize what this is going to feel like and you're going to feel like, "Well why are you guys asking us about what our decisions are?" It's because you have control over that, you don't have control over external factors like Hollywood violence and movies, culture of violence in music, or just the fact that there is this history of segregation in the country. You can't just undo that in your collaborative, you don't quite have the power to say, "You know what, let's just change the zoning and all the ways that the neighborhoods are set up and let's go ahead and make it so that job discrimination doesn't happen anymore."

It's like those things aren't really in the purview of that particular collaborative but their decision making practices are. You can control who you violate for probation, do you send out bench warrants before actually reaching out to people in their native language? Do you know if your court letters are landing on folks who couldn't understand it in the first place and so now you're putting a warrant out for someone who never fully engaged in the information in the beginning. So we then analyze each decision point by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and offense. It's a way to understand that each decision point, what are we doing, what is the impact of our decisions, where are people going, what's happening?

WOLF: How do you know what the impact on all those factors you just said at each decision point, meaning at arrest, or a decision to charge, or a decision to carry a case forward, or a decision to sentencing or to plea. All those things are decision points right? Do you just ask people, "What do you do?" Or you're looking at actual hard data and numbers?

BARROWS: We first go to hard data and numbers if they have it, often times they don't. That is a huge problem. We're also not researchers, this isn't a research project. We're not trying to prove that our data that we've got is super accurate. Basically we use what you have to try to figure out a way forward. Understanding your data might not be perfect. One issue we see all the time is the issue of ethnicity around Latinos. Very few jurisdictions have a really great practice for capturing Latinos within their justice system. Typically they get captured as White, so it skews the White population up and it skews their Latino population down and it throws all the comparisons that we want to make off. There's a set of conditions that contribute to it because it's an ethnic group, people speak Spanish, maybe they don't. There's a lot of factors, they can be very light skin Latinos. One of the things we ask is, "Who decides? Is it your staff? Do you ask the person directly? What's the process for the collection of the data?"

Typically once we start to analyze it and show it back to them in meetings, we'll start to get some pushback, "Where did you get these numbers, what is this? This is wrong." It's like, "These are your numbers, we got them from you. They may not be as accurate as they could be but this is what we have right now so let's get started." We don't want to be in the process of never ending cleaning of data, reviewing the data, and then getting into this adaeration of the questions and throwing this, "What else do we need to think about, what else?", versus "I think we know enough." There's a tribe on our ... We have a reservation in our county and 30% of the young people in our justice system or 30% of the adults are coming from that reservation, I think we can start there. Maybe we want a tribal affiliation and we need to go a bit deeper and those things are helpful but that's where we like to begin. Once we orient folks to the process, we'll do a history, talk about how this country started, how the justice systems are started, give everybody equal understanding of the playing field, and then what we like to do is start actually looking at data, looking at what they have.

Like I said, we're not a bunch of researchers. We take people's dirty data and use it, we're not just going to say, " We can't go forward until this is pristine." It's like, "Well no, this is what you have right now." There's tiers, so the first tier is if you think it's not clean enough, what do you need to do to adjust it and we can try to help with some of that but really that needs to be owned by the jurisdiction. How do you analyze it? Is this a new practice? If it's new, they might become defensive when all of a sudden you're sitting in a meeting with your peers, other agency heads, looking at data that really shines a light on your staff's practice in terms of making decisions and feel like, "Well wait a minute, why is everyone looking at us?" There's a first group to get baited scrutiny, usually it's a little bit raw, because this is a whole new practice. They may not even look at this data regularly internally and so there's not a defense in place to explain away what's happening, there's this kind of nervousness. That's a process in and of itself.

All of this takes time, none of this is fast. Our main goal is to get to the point where we can have the group establish a target population for racial and ethnic disparities that they want to move safely out of their system. We keep looking at the decision points, not going to pick the most politically challenging, we're not going to look at armed robbery, if you will. A lot of times people are not ready to say, "Yeah, let's move those folks out of the system safely." We're looking at bench warrants, violations of probations, offenses that aren't about overall safety at all but much more about administration of services, but totally contribute to disparities in real ways, so you can imagine.

WOLF: So then you get consensus and you say, "We're going to target -"

BARROWS: We're going to work on these target populations.

WOLF: People who've violated probation or young people or something that -"

BARROWS: We try to show it as a number per month. What I don't want to do is say, "Yeah, each year you have 500 violations of probation and 50% of those are Black male and from these two neighborhoods." Over the course of the whole year, how do you understand what your work is? What I like to say is, "Okay, and of that per year how many is that per month? What are we actually talking about on a monthly basis? Can we dig deeper to understand how these live?"

Now we're looking at each month and maybe 25, 30 people were violated. Let's understand the nature of that, what are the probation officer's perspectives on this, what programs were they in? You want to then, we call it peeling back the onion, you get down to this target. Now you want a focus group, you want to bring line staff, you want to talk to people directly who have been in that experience and you're looking for not just a policy change but you're trying to understand what kind of innovation or intervention can we come up with to move this.

WOLF: It sounds though like it's on a very ... I don't want to say small scale, but you have to target this group and that group in terms of making a difference. It's not like, "Here's a solution." And it ripples throughout the whole system and disparities.

BARROWS: No, you have to monitor and track it. It's everything you said and you have to monitor and track - Literally we've come in and people said, "Yeah we have disparities. 81% of our inmates are African American." And it's like, "Okay, well what else do you know about it?" "Nothing."

What could you do? You're just going to say, "Oh, let's just release 81% of the inmates and reduce the disparity." Nobody's going to do that. They get their hands tied. We have all this big picture data, annual shots, none of it helps people to know what to do to move forward. We've developed a strategy and approach that really breaks it down into workable pieces and we even have a slide that we go through that really shows people if it's a state law and that's the reason why this person is locked up, you can't change that. But if it's a policy that you just detain people for this because you feel strongly, well you can stop that tomorrow. That's just an internal office policy, that's not a state law. Understanding how these things play out is really crucial but it takes time, it takes that investigative work. You have to include the people who do the work on the day to day, the line staff not just the supervisors and managers, these are people that are trying to make it work.

WOLF: I want to ask one more question but I think it's probably a complicated one that has a long answer. How do deal with the issue of implicit bias? Everything that you've described to me is something you could see on paper and go, "Oh, look at this number, look at this policy, you put these together and that equals a disproportionate or disparity." What about these things that are more intangible yet that we know impact at these decision points. Why someone, they decide to charge someone with ... Give someone a higher charge and someone not a higher charge. If there is bias involved and it's happening in the back of their heads and they don't even know it, how do you address that?

BARROWS: Well because we can do case level analysis we can could show two similar situations and say, "Let's talk about ... How did you make this decision here? Why did you make this decision?" And not try to label someone and say, "We've caught you." We'd rather show them what they're doing and see if they themselves can see these patterns. We also bring in community people in the meeting you are going to naturally see those patterns because that's their experience. They'll ask the question very directly to say, "I don't think that that makes sense." You need that person who's not going to play so much by the rules to say, "Why do we do that? That doesn't seem to make sense." or "Why is that in this neighborhood?"

I'll give you an example. In one city we worked in, in a particular area of town, any Latino kid with a marker was considered in a gang and was writing gang messages on the walls and creating potential shootings. It was a narrative that turned into an automatic hold for any Latino kid with a Sharpie. Somewhere there's bias loaded into that but if you just came in the door and said, "You guys are racists and you're picking on Latino males," you're going to run into a lot of opposition. It's another thing to start peeling it back to say, okay, well this is some of what we're hearing from your own staff, public defenders, certain judges see these kids with markers and they think gang membership. Everybody kind of follows suit but when we've actually looked at it, that's not the case. And try to come at it in a way where people are going to be able to listen and hear.

WOLF: Absolutely fascinating, sounds like you're doing amazing work.

BARROWS: Trying to, trying to.

WOLF: They're very difficult and complicated issues.


WOLF: I've been speaking with Tshaka Barrows who's the Deputy Director at the Burns Institute in Oakland, California which is working to address and diminish and eradicate racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

BARROWS: Thank you.

WOLF: I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation here at the Quinnipiac University School of Law for our Justice Conference and thank you very much for listening.

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