Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
In the past few years, California’s crime statistics have been widely used to paint a picture of a dangerous state on the decline. Numerous local and national articles point to discrepancies in how those statistics are reported and interpreted, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from adopting an ineffectual “tough on crime” stance and providing police departments with more funding.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing a $356 million General Fund to “bolster local law enforcement efforts to crack down on organized retail theft and other crimes.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin neighborhood late last year to clean up what she referred to as the area’s “nasty streets.” Part of Breed’s plan is to deploy more police officers, secure more police funding, and waive certain laws to tackle crime and drug use.
As the fall gubernatorial election and the 2023 San Francisco mayoral election inch closer, liberal Democrats like Newsom and Breed, who have previously supported progressive criminal legal reform, are now requesting more money be pumped into police departments.
Unfortunately, vulnerable communities of color have the most to lose when politicians decide to take a “tough on crime” policy stance. Data shows that “tough on crime” policies and increased police funding do little to curb crime while greatly harming communities of color.
According to a report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “San Franciscans spend more and get less from their police department than most major California cities.” The report also highlights that “the SFPD arrests Black people at the highest rate of any major California city.”
Throwing dollars at the police force was not the answer decades ago and it isn’t now. If the past is any indication, increasing policing will only increase police abuse of communities of color.
It’s understandable that officials who have previously called for progressive criminal legal reform are feeling political pressure, but when they succumb to those pressures, often backed by misinterpreted and misrepresented data, vulnerable communities are the ones that suffer most.
For example, not every department reports its statistics the same way, and some don’t even gather data, or if they do, they may not make it publicly available.
According to CalMatters, how the data is interpreted can also be misleading. What may seem like a spike in crime over a short period of time may not be as alarming if compared with long-range crime data.
Regardless of real or perceived spikes in crime, the focus shouldn’t be on securing more funding for police departments; rather, it should be on addressing underlying issues that may lead to crime in the first place.
Tackle the Recidivism Rate
Addressing crime requires a multifaceted approach, and one way to address this issue is by tackling the recidivism rate. The United States has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world, in part thanks to a criminal legal system that has become a revolving door in and out of prison. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report on the recidivism rates in 24 states, 82% of formerly incarcerated individuals were arrested within 10 years of being released.
One way to close the revolving door of mass incarceration is to provide currently incarcerated individuals with the resources to keep in touch with family and friends. Numerous studies have shown that staying in touch with loved ones helps reduce the chances of an individual returning to jail or prison. My organization, Safe Return Project, has a campaign called “On The Books” to send money to incarcerated peoples’ trust accounts that can be used to purchase phone time with loved ones.
But this issue cannot and should not simply be shouldered by nonprofit organizations. There needs to be systematic change.
Correctional facilities currently award contracts to whichever prison and jail telephone company promises the highest commission payments or the most lucrative kickbacks. Then, the companies offload the costs to the families and friends of those incarcerated or the incarcerated individuals themselves.
Last year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation worked with one service provider to lower the exorbitant cost of prison and jail calls. Congress has also introduced the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2021 to regulate how much companies can charge for incarcerated phone services, but almost a year later, there hasn’t been any progress on the bill.
The state and the federal government must fully regulate the prison and jail phone industry so incarcerated individuals can maintain crucial ties with their support systems so they have the resources they need to succeed when they’re no longer incarcerated.
Solve the Housing Crisis
The pandemic has further exacerbated the inequalities that have always existed in California, and low-income communities have become even more vulnerable to housing instability.
In 2010, the federal government recorded 123,480 people experiencing homelessness in California, and that number increased to 161,548 in 2020.
Over the years, officials have proposed and allocated more funding to address the housing crisis, but they have been slow to keep up with the increasing demand brought on by a widening income gap.
Instead of providing more funding to police departments, officials should quickly and in a transparent manner address the housing shortage facing many Californians by providing vulnerable communities with equitable and affordable housing. Local organizations are working on the ground to address this dire issue.
For example, HomeFirst offers various models to address housing inequality. The organization provides immediate shelter to those experiencing homelessness, rental assistance, and “low-barrier affordable housing, health care, and supportive services to help individuals with a disability in achieving housing stability.”
HomeFirst’s direct and multi-pronged approach is a great blueprint for California cities to address every aspect of housing inequality.
Address Poverty and Underemployment
California should not be a state where the rich continue to grow their wealth while vulnerable communities, who are struggling to make ends meet, are crushed by the anxiety of not having an adequate job or a home. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, “Families at the top of the income distribution in California have 12.3 times the income of families at the bottom.” Black and Brown families are disproportionately affected by the wealth and income inequality that exists in the state. Latinos and African Americans are most likely to worry about job loss and paying bills on time. Formerly incarcerated people, facing even greater systemic obstacles to employment, are particularly vulnerable.
Officials can and should divert resources from law enforcement to employment stability, job training, and employment support for formerly incarcerated individuals.
State legislatures and elected officials around the country have almost always responded to crime with more police funding in spite of little to no positive results. They need to address the disparities facing vulnerable communities instead of pouring millions of dollars into police departments as a response to decades-long inequalities that have finally bubbled up to the surface.
It’s time to step back and invest in vulnerable communities instead.
Tamisha Torres-Walker is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Safe Return Project, whose mission is to end mass targeted criminalization, incarceration, and disenfranchisement of BIPOC and poor communities. Tamisha has ten years of community organizing experience in cities impacted by trauma, mass criminalization, and economic inequality. In 2017 she was awarded the San Francisco Robert C. Kirkwood Leadership Award. 2018 she was awarded the Community Excellence Award by The Black Elected Officials of the East Bay for her amazing track record of demonstrated excellence in her field and the highest standards of unity, ethical conduct, integrity, and civic and social responsibility. In 2019 she received Contra Costa's Humanitarian of the year award, and she was a 2020 Rosenburg Foundations Leading Edge Fund fellow and a 2021 Soros Justice fellow. She has been appointed to the following Contra Costa County boards: Racial Justice Oversight Body, Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, and the Contra Costa LEAD Antioch diversion initiative advisory committee. Tamisha is a member of Black Women Organizing for Political Action. She can be reached at www.safereturnproject.org or [email protected]