For years, social scientists, community activists and advocacy organizations have cited poor educational opportunities, high unemployment and a lack of affordable and safe housing as the roots of America’s crime problem. “Balancing the Scales of Justice,” a joint research project begun last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the W. Haywood Burns Institute sought to highlight how these factors disproportionately impact people of color through interviews and mining official data from Alameda, Fresno and Los Angeles Counties
There was one catch: large amounts of data, such as dropout rates and forced evictions, are not kept by California county or state agencies with racial or gender breakdowns – or at least that information is not available to the public.
Diana Tate Vermeire, the director of ACLU-NorCal’s Racial Justice Project, said the intent of the report was to illustrate how the criminal justice system has become a “catchall” institution for the socially marginalized following the thirty-year rollback of the United States’ social safety net (to wit: the shift from welfare to “workfare,” the federal government’s continuing divestment from public housing).
“We wanted to show that even if we eliminated systemic bias in the criminal justice system itself, these external factors at play would still reproduce the same conditions” that lead to crime and incarceration, Vermeire said.
Although the project researchers were able to cobble together enough information from official data and interviews with 179 adults and minors to sketch an approximate portrait of how social context influences an individual’s contact with the justice system, the lack of information about state social services was a hindrance.
Vermeire said that the missing data might mean that legislators and policy makers are making critical decisions without the proper data to inform their choices.
“Maybe the policy makers have the data, but it wasn’t being revealed to us,” she said. “The worst-case scenario is, they don’t have it at all.”
Though ACLU-NorCal and the W. Haywood Burns Institute see the report as an marker for further academic research on the topic, the report did yield some interesting findings from its small sample size:
- Young people in Los Angeles face the greatest educational challenges out of the three counties surveyed, as well as the highest police presence in local schools.
- Alameda County residents reported the highest incidence of unemployment, as well as the lowest earning capacity of the individuals surveyed. Concurrently, more Alameda residents (35 percent) said they had turned to crime because of poverty than those in Los Angeles or Fresno.
The full report is available below.