KALAMAZOO, MI — A recent report released by the Michigan Center for Youth Justice showed that 64% of all youth arrests in Kalamazoo County made in 2019 involved Black youth.
The report, drawing on data provided by the Michigan State Police that showed that number, showed that by contrast, only 14% of all young people in the county in 2019 were black youth, according to the data. of the US census.
It was this kind of information that fueled a plan by some community leaders to work with area stakeholders to help create an “anti-racist justice system” in Kalamazoo. According to the study, this plan requires an acknowledgment of the trauma caused by racism and a commitment to undo the oppressive structures that continue to maintain and perpetuate it.
The study, funded by a grant obtained from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and led locally by former City and County Commissioner Stephanie Williams, has taken place over the past year.
The report involved exploring existing data and connecting with criminal justice system stakeholders, school district, and community members, as well as researching recent community initiatives. It describes the impacts of the juvenile justice system on young people of color and provides a framework for addressing racial disparities.
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Jason Smith, executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, said he hopes the research done in Kalamazoo and the resulting actions will serve as a model for other communities who want to take a thoughtful look at how their own system of juvenile justice is set up and how they can develop an anti-racism framework moving forward.
“The purpose of this report was really to explore the issues and drivers that drive youth of color into the criminal justice system at disproportionate rates in Kalamazoo,” Smith said. “There are still a lot of questions, holes and data gaps, but once stakeholders have this understanding and awareness of these disparities, they can then work intentionally on policy and within the community to reduce these disparities.”
The study results came as no surprise, Williams said, adding that getting the information and data over the past year was anything but easy. That’s an important part of the question, she said.
“We spent over seven, eight months trying to get data from the police department, the district attorney, the sheriff, the county,” Williams said. “There’s no real transparency, no place where you or I can access the data to see who’s entering the system, who’s successfully completing it, or seeing what area or demographic it is.
“But now that we have this information, the big question is what are we going to do?”
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For starters, Williams said, there needs to be a public portal where people can access data so community members, leaders and stakeholders can better understand the issues at hand and begin to address some of the inequities. present in the community.
“What I don’t want to see is more research, more research, more research,” she said. “This was done before we received this report. All the data does is affirm the lived experiences that many of us already have. But, without that, how do you create consistency, fairness, fairer justice – for everyone, especially people of color?
“What we want to do is create a data-driven plan that we know, with an anti-racism lens, can really help transform the community and support young people and their families. This is to ensure that young people do not enter a system designed to literally strip them of their humanity.
One thing the report calls for is more opportunities to divert young people from the juvenile justice system earlier in the process.
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Of all cases involving youth, regardless of race, 50% are diverted, according to data provided by Kalamazoo County Juvenile Court and cited in the study. But Smith said what they’ve heard from the prosecutor’s office and juvenile court staff is that many black youths who would be eligible to have their cases diverted are having their motions denied.
The reasons for this vary, from parents being unable to attend diversion conferences, to families not being able to afford compensation for what are often low-level offenses that pose a low risk of recurrence, he said. The result is that children who otherwise might have gone through a diversion program and who, in the end, had no case, now have one and are now part of the system.
A positive by-product of the pandemic, he said, is that juvenile courts have truly embraced remote conferencing technology and that a permanent change in policy such as allowing parents and minors to attending conferences virtually could help level the playing field.
“We need to find a way to expand our diversion and prevention programs,” Smith said. “Our goal is not to point the finger at anyone, nor to blame any institution or person. Our goal is to see how, with this information in hand, the community can make the changes they want. »
Using data provided by the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, the study found that the two Kalamazoo zip codes with the highest rate of youth arrests are 49001 (Edison neighborhood) and 49007 (Northside neighborhood). ).
Williams said it’s important to note that many of those in leadership roles in the community don’t live in any of these neighborhoods.
“These people who are directors of a lot of agencies, they don’t go through the things that other families go through in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “These are the people you have to engage with, who will tell you what hell they were in and what it took to get out of it. They are the ones who can really tell you how to close the gap.
“You have to go to their table, listen to them and empower them to do this work and not be afraid to do it. It’s about how we help children and families in Kalamazoo, period.
At the root of systemic issues in the community, Williams said, is trauma.
“When you talk about systemic issues, a lot of what young people face is trauma,” she said. “Trauma of living in poverty, trauma of social ills, trauma of hunger, of being homeless, of unemployed parents.
“So when you’re able to dislodge these kids and empower families with services and resources, you’ll start to see fewer young people clogging up the system. But words must be put into action. You can’t do the same things over and over again expecting different results.
Hopefully, initiatives like these, Smith said, will not only shed light on some of the inequalities faced by people of different races, but provide an opportunity to think differently about how public safety and its role in our communities.
“Yes, there is a concern about community safety,” he said. “People, especially young people, we spoke to said they wanted to make sure they were safe, whether it was from gun violence or interactions with police; but having these conversations, particularly grounded in anti-racism rather than historical racism or how the system is currently configured to perpetuate prejudice, makes us ask ourselves what targeted interventions can we make? »
One key, Smith said, is to keep everyone around the table and working together.
“I think Kalamazoo is not unique and the poor quality of juvenile justice data that is maintained,” he said. “There is a problem in this country. And we need to understand that data transparency is key to being able, as a community, to understand where resources are needed to help young people.
To view the full report resulting from the study, click here.
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Kalamazoo County District Attorney Supports Criminal Justice Transparency Efforts, But Recognizes Obstacles
Kalamazoo Public Safety Officers Target Black Drivers During Traffic Stops, Racial Profiling Study Finds
Racial Profiling Study: Policy and Operational Changes Continue at Kalamazoo Public Safety One Year Later