On November 4, 2015 I attended “Smart on Safety,” an invitational summit to examine how California can reform the criminal justice system and transform communities to prioritize prevention over punishment. As Adam Kruggel, Director of Organizing for PICO California, stated, “mass incarceration creates a legitimacy crisis for some of our most deeply held values – that everyone has a right to be a human being.” Harsh sentences, three strikes, mandatory minimums, racial profiling, gang injunctions, and transfer of juveniles to adult courts have demonized poor black and brown males as less deserving “others” – predators who are beyond redemption.
Anyone who works in marginalized communities knows the toll that these policies take on the health and life prospects of their teen patients. Although one would hope that the appalling scene in South Carolina is not the norm, it has been well documented that black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. Suspension is a gateway to dropout, economic instability, crime and incarceration. And we don’t need to look only at teens to see how “tough on crime” affects children’s health. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old who was playing with a toy gun in a park, is dead. The children of Eric Gardner and Walter Scott are fatherless. Approximately 2.7 million children have a parent in prison – a vastly disproportionate number of whom are poor and black. Millions more children experience post-traumatic stress disorder from extended exposure to violent encounters between citizens and law enforcement in their communities.