Implicit Biases and Opportunity Gaps May Slow Path to Justice Reform, But Progress Comes Slowly

Empty prison cell
Empty prison cell

My father first went to jail when I was three years old.

He was charged with attempted murder and robbery. During his time in prison, I was fortunate that both sides of my family took me to visit him. Our relationship continued to blossom, regardless of the fact that he was in a cage. My father is very special to me, and despite his being behind bars, I was always daddy's little girl.

He was released from prison when I was 12 years old and went back when I was 13, following a probation violation. During the brief time that he was out, he faced serious challenges in finding a job - a job he needed to support his family. Sadly, he resorted to again selling drugs, not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had no choice. The doors of opportunity were as closed to him, a former inmate, as the gates of a prison.

Even as a young girl, I questioned The System. I wondered why he wasn't able to come home to a job that empowered him, that would allow him to support his family, and be a contributor in our community. A job that he could be proud of: one that offered dignity as well as a livable wage.

Growing up under these circumstances provided me with firsthand insight into how the criminal justice system sets up first-time--indeed, one-time--offenders to be repeat offenders. According to the ACLU, repeat offenders often think that they won't get caught. There are 34 million serious crimes committed each year, but only 3 million result in arrest. To someone who feels like they are out of options, those stats can be alluring.

The cost associated of housing inmates is greater than that of a college education. Still, instead of rehabilitation, those convicted are released back into the general public, with little or no additional education or new skills--the tools they will need to be successful in society. Like my father, there are many others who've been a part of the criminal justice system and are unable to escape it, not for lack of trying, but for lack of opportunity.

Why? It doesn't have to be this way.

This is why I advocate for policies like Ban-the-Box, a national effort encouraging employers to remove questions about criminal history from initial job applications. Many cities, states and private employers are adapting this measure to help drive economic development and reduce recidivism. But progress, as always, comes slowly.

As an elected school board official, I recognize how rules and laws affect our community. It's my responsibility to speak up and remain innovative. My goal, along with other like minds, is to get to the root cause of how The System is set up, and work to reform it.

Data drives our conversation, and when we see disparities we have to take a step back and ask, "Where does this all begin?" The home environment? The school system? Peer pressure?

Student discipline data illustrates an implicit bias. I want to ensure that the district I represent isn't adding to the school-to-prison pipeline. Student suspensions are a leading indicator that those subjected may drop out of school, and when this happens, there's little hope for them to succeed. However, the implicit biases in the system are plaguing our schools, and minority students are being disproportionately suspended. This must be addressed. These students are likely to drop out or enter the criminal justice system, and be cursed by that system for life.

It is essential that we recognize that fact, and that we utilize our role to positively impact our society as a whole. Structural changes must occur, and we must let data lead the conversation. This is why school districts across America are ending zero tolerance policies, adding restorative justice, and implementing comprehensive equity practices. These reforms include the recruiting process, hiring qualified teachers that reflect the demographics of their students, and cultural sensitivity training for teachers and administrators. School districts like mine are working diligently and strategically to produce scholars that will help create a sustainable future.

But, again, this progress comes slowly.

It's time to step it up. For those like my father and those who could become him, we have an obligation to forgive, but also to prepare. Opportunity is there for us to make a difference, and it is there right now. We only need to seize it to change our country for the better.

Channel Powe is an elected board member for the Balsz School District, President of the Arizona School Board Association Black Caucus, Founder of Communities Engaged, and a member of Generation Progress' #Fight4AFuture network.