‘There’s a Conversation Happening About the Inequities of the Criminal Justice System’ – CounterSpin interview with Michele Jawando on criminal justice reform

Janine Jackson interviewed Michele Jawando about criminal justice reform for the October 16 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Michele Jawando

Janine Jackson: Purportedly independent investigators deem reasonable the actions of Cleveland police who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice within seconds of arrival on the scene. The Fairfax, Virginia sheriff’s office released video of officers in hazmat suits, tasering shackled, hooded Natasha McKenna to death to demonstrate the deputies’ professionalism and restraint.

Many in media, too, seem more invested in teasing out how such outrages actually, when you look into it, pass legal muster than in asking what needs to be changed so that they don’t.

If Black Lives Matter is to be more than a shibboleth politicians need only say out loud in debates, it will mean pushing criminal justice reform higher up on media’s agenda. Here to discuss how that can happen is Michele Jawando; she’s vice president for legal progress at the Center for American Progress. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Michele Jawando.

Michele Jawando: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: Some will always call each example of police misconduct that goes unsanctioned an aberration, even as they pile up. But it seems like a critical mass of people have come to see that some of these structural elements of the criminal justice system are themselves a problem, and particularly for people of color. That makes an opportunity to press for real improvements, some big and bold; some maybe more achievable and closer to hand. Some may be as simple as collecting data on police-involved killings.

Bernie Sanders at CNN Democratic debate

MJ: That’s exactly right. There’s a conversation happening about the inequities and the basic functioning of the criminal justice system, whether we’re talking about police practices, use of force, aggressive policing, arrest and prosecution policies. Whether we’re thinking about things like the severity of criminal sentences and the disparate impact many of these policies have on communities of color. And so now that we are at the center of the debate, it is time to really look at what are those policies that we can put into place to address some of these challenges.

JJ: I think there’s a lot of anger and outrage and folks who say “the whole system is corrupt,” and at the same time we want to translate that into some things that can be done today. And some things that can be done next week, and then some things that maybe will take five or ten years, but there are things that could be changed right now.

MJ: One of the things we talk about is “implicit bias training” and the need for almost ongoing training for all federal law enforcement officers, and state and local police involved in federal task forces. And we made that nexus, because how else do you connect federal law enforcement training with state and locals? One of the reasons we think that this training must be ongoing, similar to how attorneys have to do continuing legal education: We start to acknowledge that there is a difference in the way that we see each other, and view each other, and sometimes there are subconscious acts on that without that knowledge.

Tamir Rice. Cleveland

So for instance, in the case of Tamir Rice, he is a 12-year-old boy, but we know social scientists tell us that African-American boys in particular are seen as usually five years older. So when the police arrived at the scene and shot Tamir Rice, we know he called into the office, “20-year-old man down.” Now, what was it about that interaction that immediately saw this 12-year-old boy, not as a boy, but as a 20-year-old man? That is what implicit bias training looks at, and that is one of many solutions we put forth.

JJ: It’s interesting, because the bias training tries to interrupt that guilt loop — to take away the idea that only racists would racially profile. So I think that’s actually a key component, because it takes the conversation out of the pro/con, and it says, look, there are best practices here, let’s enact them. Another one of those, which I alluded to earlier, is just getting the information about police-involved killings. One of the things that the media did show up, as we began talking about this after Ferguson, was you couldn’t even get the information because the information is not there.

MJ: Exactly. I mean, you even have the director of the FBI say that it is unfortunate that we have better data from the Washington Post and the Guardian on police-involved shootings than we do at the federal government level. So that’s something we can change overnight, and I know the president’s task force looking at 21st century policing, this was one of the recommendations we put forth, that it seems they would like to make some movement on. It’s important that we recognize this, because that gives us a baseline so that we can understand where the problems are, and then we can develop smart laws and policies to address what many people feel,  anecdotally, is this kind of inappropriate and illegal use of force.

JJ: I think it’s interesting that California law enforcement, who will now have to record race/ ethnicity data on stops and what happens after that, are sort of complaining—well, some of them, anyway—“This will cause us to racially profile. We didn’t do it in the past, but now if we have to actually report race and ethnicity of the people we arrest, that will lead us to think about it in a way we weren’t thinking about it before.” There’s always a kind of push back on the collection of information, but it seems to me that from reporters’ perspective, and policy advocates’ perspective, more information ought to be non-controversial, in a way. We ought to all be able to be behind more sunlight.

MJ: This is a very difficult thing to grapple with, because we have to continually think about the way that race and class and socioeconomic status are wrapped up into our notions of policing and law enforcement, safety and community. But yet, if we do not confront what are very real disparities in how people of color are treated in the system, and if we don’t pay attention to what the real facts underlying that behavior, then there’s no way we can move forward to rebuild trust.

The reality is—this is one of the things that I encourage to my friends in law enforcement—the reality is that you cannot be an effective person in law enforcement without the support and the respect and the trust of the local communities in which you serve. That relationship is sacrosanct, and it is so important, and yet you have to challenge yourself to figure out how you repair what we know now are fissures all over the country in that relationship. And this is one of the ways to do that.

JJ: Let me ask you, finally, and briefly, what role would you like to see criminal justice questions play in electoral politics right now? Is it enough a part of the conversation, do you think?

MJ: You know, I often say if we’re a country that holds ourselves out as the shining city on the hill, then we have to look at the damage that we have done to communities, particularly to African-American and Latino, poor communities in this country, because of disparate treatment and policing, this history of mass incarceration in these communities, and we have to ask ourselves, are we really ready to make the moral changes that are necessary in order to repair these communities?

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Michele Jawando with the Center for American Progress. Find them online at AmericanProgress.org. Michele Jawando, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MJ: Thanks so much for having me.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.