Investing in just practices will improve public safety
Stemming the flow of illegal weapons, investing in community anti-violence programs and reforming the approach to illegal gun possession would make us safer.
It’s probably the most complicated public safety question we’re currently facing: Reducing the devastating toll of gun violence and limiting the proliferation of illegal guns, without undermining the already-fraught relationship between police and communities of color or further contributing to mass incarceration.
But we must keep trying.
In August 2019, The Joyce Foundation convened an extraordinary and unconventional group to do exactly that. The foundation brought together law enforcement, criminal justice reform advocates, prosecutors, academics, clergy and funders nationally to draw upon professional and on-the-ground experiences, along with a growing body of research, to determine how best to tackle our desire for safer communities and a fairer justice system.
The group produced three solutions we believe can solidly advance the dialogue nationwide.
First, we must stop the illegal supply of guns.
Communities ravaged by gun violence are flooded with guns. This is no accident, as weak federal and state gun laws make it difficult to stop the flow of firearms.
The criminal justice system has invested resources in arresting and prosecuting those caught with illegal firearms. These efforts might make us feel good, but alone do not significantly reduce supply. It’s like trying to drain Lake Michigan with a coffee cup. The flow must be turned off.
Last week’s passage of modest federal reforms could potentially have an impact on gun violence. Illinois’ recent ban on ghost guns also was a step in the right direction, signaling hope that states could enact some measures while the federal debate rages on. But stemming the flow of illegal guns to the underground market through better policies that attack supply — like licensing for handgun purchasers and enhanced regulation of gun sellers — would be vastly more effective.
As well, special litigation protections for the gun industry allow the supply to go unchallenged. And the prohibition on public access to data on crime gun traces ties one hand behind our back when searching for better solutions.
Second, we must significantly expand community-based interventions.
Interventions organized by local nonprofits and religious organizations have a dual advantage: They address hyper-local community needs without over-policing and mass incarceration. And research has shown that credible community messengers and peer networks are important when it comes to interrupting violence, treating trauma and strengthening anti-violence norms.
But even with expanded funding, support for these solutions pales in comparison to the support provided to traditional approaches, such as law enforcement and corrections. Violence prevention workers are exposed to similar hazards and dangers as law enforcement, social workers, and other first responders — but these skilled, trained, and accredited professionals are compensated at a fraction of their first-responder counterparts.
To correct this, we must increase public investment in these strategies with more funding and training.
Finally, our leaders must refocus law enforcement’s response to illegal gun possession.
Honestly, we’ve been losing this fight because policing strategies related to gun possession have been misguided and ineffective. The focus on arrest and felony charges has led to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color without significantly reducing the supply or demand for firearms.
Indiscriminate enforcement undermines the trust and legitimacy of police in communities most in need of better safety. A more effective strategy would be to focus enforcement on the small number of people and places most directly connected to violence.
Debates often settle around increased punishment for nonviolent gun possession offenses, an approach that fails daily. Limiting sentencing to the most extreme cases that pose the highest risk to public safety and instead, using diversion programs as an alternative to incarceration would give us the best opportunity to affect violence stemming from illegal gun possession.
Do these recommendations include every policy we believe is necessary?
No. But they affirm a powerful message for policymakers: That finding consensus across a broad cross-section of leading public safety stakeholders is not only possible but central to the future debate over public safety — and that investment in just practices makes us all safer.
Jerry Clayton is the sheriff of Washtenaw County, Michigan. Sharone R. Mitchell Jr. is the Cook County Public Defender.
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