Equity in Criminal Justice and Strengthening Community Trust through Dialogue to Action

June 1, 2020
The Safety and Justice Challenge supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been working with leaders across the country to tackle one of the greatest drivers of over-incarceration in America – the misuse and overuse of jails.  Since January 2018, Everyday Democracy has been providing community engagement technical assistance to the Safety and Justice Challenge network and has helped specific jurisdictions adopt and implement racial equity-driven community engagement practices. 
Everyday Democracy has focused its efforts in five geographical areas: Cook County, IL; Charleston, SC; Palm Beach County FL; Pima County AZ; and Spokane WA. 
Map of SJC Sites
 A Nationwide “VIRTUAL” Networking Conference Brings Social Justice Advocates Together for Next Steps in Meaningful and Sustainable Change in Justice System Inequities.  From May 19 – May 21, social justice advocates from coast to coast gathered “virtually” for a three-day deep dive education and networking convening designed to bring people together to share challenges, talk about the roles in the system in the COVID-19 environment, build collective capacity and inspire and motivate those who are tirelessly doing what is needed for equitable changes in jail reform and the criminal justice system.
The days were filled with a wide range of plenary sessions, workshops, networking opportunities and the collection of a plethora of resources that can be accessed on an ongoing basis.  Everyday Democracy moderated an exchange session that provided an overview of the progress made in two communities, Cook County, IL and Charleston, SC using its dialogue to change approach and the resulting action forums that are driving change in those jurisdictions. Everyday Democracy Co-moderators Carolyne Abdullah, Senior Director, and Gwendolyn Whiting, Director of Training and Leadership Development facilitated the exchange where each site could share their dialogue to change and community engagement experiences and outcomes.
From the greater Chicago community in Cook County, community engagement coordinator, Kim Davis-Ambrose spoke of their challenges and successes. She explained how the dialogues allowed those voices of the community who have not been heard  on this critical issue to be heard in an “up close and personal” way and how issues of trust between the community and system actors  improved over the course of the 5-week dialogue project.  She shared that the dialogues were not a fix, but the transparency they offered resulted in authentic partnerships between those in government, the community and with system-impacted individuals with lived experience. Going forward, those who participated in the dialogues aim to continue to work on issues of systemic racism, white privilege and unjust bias, and they will work toward creating more opportunities for the community to stay involved and to address the mental health issues, concerns and challenges faced by those most impacted.
Kristy Pierce Danford who led the efforts in Charleston County, SC stressed the importance that their objective was to go beyond speaking engagements and that the Dialogue to Change process allowed for that.  They aimed to raise awareness of the inequities in their criminal justice systems by using a step-by-step implementation approach.  They held big events which led into facilitator training and roundtable dialogues – then community surveys to community actions forums.  The continuum of activities and feedback received from representatives throughout their community informed their 3-year strategic plan.
Many of the other sessions at the virtual networking conference were eye opening and informative.  Some of the many topics included: The Role of People with Lived Experience in Efforts to Reduce Jail Populations; System Responses to COVID-19; Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities; A Toolkit on the Use of Person First Language When Discussing Directly Impacted People; Access to Counsel at First Appearance; Reducing Court Continuances and Performance Data.
As the Convening sessions were nearing completion, Gwendolyn Whiting noted that inequities, particularly for black and brown people was the thread throughout.   Racial equity is at the core of the reform needed, and she challenges everyone to work toward eliminating the structural racism that stands in the way of a truly equitable and fair system for all, and especially those who are most impacted.
Keith Smalls participated in the Everyday Democracy workshop and is participating in the Charleston Dialogue to Change efforts.  Keith said that is all about building community trust.  After having served 19 years in the Dept. of Corrections, he stated that the punishment outweighed the rehabilitation.  But he is grateful for the opportunity to mend broken fences in this dialogue process. “Being part of the conversation, enabled me to apologize to the community and build a bridge back.  It also created the opportunity for me to come back as a concerned citizen.”
It is rewarding for all when there are opportunities for people, institutions, and government to work together for the common good.  Outcomes in both Cook County and Charleston, as well as in other jurisdictions active in the Safety & Justice Challenge are showing that when we authentically engage with each other through productive dialogues and work together, we can see changes in policy and system reforms are starting to make a difference.  The technical support for these jurisdictions were by Gwen Wright in Cook County and Gwen along with Alex Cartagena in Charleston, both who are network consultants for Everyday Democracy.
While there is much more to do, the needle is moving in the right direction. In the closing plenary session of this nationwide Convening, participants were encouraged to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  All are encouraged to reimagine, reconstruct, recalibrate, and re-envision a criminal justice system the whole community can benefit from.

Here is te presentation shared at the May 20 workshop:


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Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.