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Remarks of the Honorable Amy L. Solomon Assistant Attorney General at the Columbia University Justice Lab Square One Project, Washington, DC

Reimagining Justice at Justice: Supporting Communities as Co-Producers of Public Safety

As prepared for delivery

          Good afternoon. I am honored to be part of this conversation today. I want to thank the Columbia Justice Lab and the Square One Project for convening us – and even more importantly, for their leadership and their willingness to boldly re-imagine safety and justice in America.

          Square One was launched at a time that feels like a different era. It was 2018, a decade after the passage of the Second Chance Act, and almost 10 years into what felt like encouraging progress on the bipartisan reform front. Momentum was strong and it felt like more was possible.

          Square One emerged in this moment, with the goal of rethinking safety and justice in a big way. It pushed us to think beyond tinkering around the edges of reform, and instead challenged us to imagine what our response to crime could look like if we stepped back and began from “square one”? How would we reimagine justice, if we had the chance?

          Square One inspired us to conceive of a future that elevates the principles of fairness, equity, truth-telling, parsimony and human dignity as central to safety and justice. To consider what’s possible if our center of gravity were to shift from overreliance on the criminal legal system to the community – to the organizations, institutions, and people who have a deep and vested interest in creating opportunity and improving lives in their home neighborhoods.

          It goes without saying that a lot has changed since the Square One launch. There were the shape-shifting events of 2020 – COVID, of course, and the once-in-a-generation protests that followed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, igniting an unprecedented social movement toward a community-led, equity-driven approach to public safety.

          Commitments were made – from local government, philanthropy, and corporations – to push for greater racial justice and at a new scale. We heard more discussion about tapping into the power of community-based organizations and non-justice system actors to provide alternative responses, behavioral health treatment, violence interventions, trauma recovery and social services.

          The movement may have been grounded in values, but it’s rooted in evidence too. Researchers like Patrick Sharkey documented community-based organizations as a driving force behind the great crime decline of the 1990s and 2000s, finding a causal link: A stronger community safety infrastructure - in the form of nonprofits - correlated with reductions in violent crime.

          But in 2020 we also saw a counter-reaction. Rising violent crime and serious disruptions to social connection coalesced to create a backlash to reform. And – shockingly quickly – the momentum that had begun to gather started to wane.

          President Biden took office in the midst of all this, and many of us joined this Administration with hope and drive to reinvigorate and reclaim that momentum while at the same time addressing the realities of the rise in violence. The President called on Americans to “come together and protect our communities,” to “restore trust,” and urged us not to “abandon our streets or choose between safety and equal justice[1].”

          At OJP, we took this call to heart, and have been seeking new ways to advance the twin goals of keeping communities safe and promoting equity in our approach to safety and justice. We are taking into account the historic underinvestment in underserved and marginalized communities and we have been working to expand investments directly in these communities – in the organizations that reflect them, are designed to serve them, are located within them, and are closest to the problems we seek to solve.

          We cemented this commitment in a new policy blueprint - and a new mission statement: “To provide resources, leadership, and solutions to advance community safety, build community trust, and strengthen the community’s role as co-producer of safety and justice.”

          The focus on “community” is emphatically deliberate.

          Throughout its history, OJP has made substantial and strategic investments in our criminal and juvenile justice systems – helping to make each part of those systems more fair, more effective, and more efficient in achieving greater safety and justice.

          This approach remains central, as focusing on systems change is the only way to scale innovation and evidence-based practices. But we have not made the same investments in our community-based partners -- to support their involvement in creating solutions for greater safety and justice.

          By explicitly embracing the community's role as “co-producer of safety and justice,” we're expanding the scope of responsibility and possibility for the future of our communities. We're bringing communities disproportionately impacted by crime, violence, and victimization to the forefront of our strategy and broadening our concept of safety, from the mere absence of crime to the presence of thriving neighborhoods and greater opportunity for all.

          This means thinking about how we, at OJP, can better center CBOs and community residents, because they are essential to building protective factors, building trust, building stronger neighborhoods, and building the political will to engage in and sustain violence prevention efforts over the long term. We know that – by definition – community-centered organizations have deep roots in their neighborhoods and best understand their needs. We know they have close, personal and authentic ties to residents - they have the trust of the people they serve – something that is so often missing from public institutions and systems, especially in areas most impacted by crime. This perhaps makes community-based messengers the most effective partners in delivering high-impact interventions in their neighborhoods.

          Centering community also eases the outsized burden on police and other justice system professionals so that they can focus on their core duties and skills to reduce and solve serious crime. As Chief Ernie Cato – a Chicago police force veteran who is now with the Illinois Department of Corrections – recently said, “Police can’t solve the problem of violence alone – the community is the solution.”

          YOU know this. Many of you have shown what’s possible with a “shared safety” model, when the community takes its place at the center of the public safety landscape. This concept – your concept - is justice reimagined, and I’m here to tell you we are embracing it at the Office of Justice Programs.

          And so I’d like to spend a few minutes sharing how we are putting this mission into action at OJP – to strengthen the community’s role as co-producer of safety and justice – and challenging a much broader set of actors to do so too.

          First, we are designing programs and awarding funding that allow us to bring investments to a larger and deeper bench of community-based organizations and approaches. I’m proud to say that we have many examples to draw on here, and I’d like to walk through just a couple to show our work, starting with the Community Violence Intervention Initiative - or CVI.

          Two years ago we launched the federal CVI initiative. As many of you know, CVI centers community-driven solutions to interrupt patterns of violence, and CVI strategies are built on the credibility of messengers who can connect, in ways others can’t, with people who feel disconnected, disempowered, and far too often, traumatized. Drawing on the deep expertise of many of you, OJP’s funding strategy is shaped to be community-driven, community-centered, and equity-focused.

          We’ve invested over $200 million in CVI programs over the last two years, via the collective efforts of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office for Victims of Crime, and the leadership of Eddie Bocanegra. Seventy-six sites in 29 states and territories have received direct funding to build the infrastructure necessary to interrupt violence and deliver support and services to people at the highest risk of violence. Grantees include – to a great extent – community-based nonprofits and city-led collaboratives that both seed new efforts and expand the reach of established interventions.

          I’ve had the opportunity to travel the country with Eddie and have seen many CVI sites in action. I visited the Circle of Brotherhood in Miami, Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles, ROCA in Baltimore, UTEC in Lowell, and Metropolitan Peace Initiatives in Chicago, to name a few. Everywhere we go, I am moved by the commitment, the resolve, and the hope that CVI leaders and staff bring to this work.

          They tell us that they instinctively react “like firefighters” to emergency calls, even though they are repeatedly exposed to violence and trauma. And still, somehow, everywhere we go we hear about the optimism they feel and the faith they hold for an end to gun violence – and how they will continue to “plant seeds of hope” in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods. This is community in action, and I am so proud to support these inspiring efforts.

          We’re supporting many other community-centered efforts too. We’ve launched a new program called Reimagining Justice. It’s on a much smaller scale than CVI, but we’re explicitly supporting innovative community-driven approaches to address low-level safety issues and reduce unnecessary justice system involvement. And over the last two years, BJA has invested in community-led safety solutions in underserved neighborhoods in Newark, Portland (OR), Greenville, South Carolina and Austin, Texas.

          We’re also expanding the community’s role in the response to crisis situations where behavioral health issues are the underlying cause. Three years ago, BJA launched the Connect and Protect program that supports co-responder teams and other models that dispatch trained healthcare professionals on site with law enforcement in response to 911 and 988 calls.

          So far, we’ve invested more than $50 million in 100 communities in 37 states. These approaches are helping to de-escalate crises, avert unnecessary arrests, connect people to the services, shrink the footprint of the criminal justice system, and deliver better outcomes. This approach should be the norm, not the exception.

          We’re also scaling support for community-based services in the youth justice space, to expand access to victim services, to address hate crimes, and in other areas across OJP portfolios.

          [Many of these solicitations are open now – including a new TA opportunity focused specifically on CBOs – for details go to OJP.gov! We’ve also created an interactive map so you can quickly and easily see what resources are already in play in your home jurisdictions.]

          Another part of our plan to strengthen community infrastructure involves the use of micro-grants – a relatively new funding strategy for OJP. Here we are funding intermediaries to help us reach organizations that have the closest ties to impacted communities. We know that these smaller, neighborhood groups may be best positioned to deliver high impact interventions but may not have what they need to compete for or administer large federal grants. We’re trying to change that by tapping strategies to help them become stronger pillars of the public safety networks in their neighborhoods and cities.

          We are investing in intermediary organizations -- with recognized expertise and credibility and a network of CBOs -- to provide both pass-through funding and technical assistance in order to help the smaller CBOs build their capacity to grow and sustain their work over the long term.

          We’re taking this approach with a number of initiatives. For example, as part of the CVI efforts, we’re funding seven intermediaries that provide micro-grants and hands-on support to hyper local groups on the frontlines – in South Side Chicago, pockets of LA, Colorado, Louisiana, in Memphis, right here in Washington, and in many other jurisdictions.

          We are expanding this microgrant strategy to reentry grants, trauma recovery, victim services, hate crimes, and other areas too.

          We believe this approach can be especially impactful if we resource the right intermediaries. For example, the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership is an intermediary both for CVI and a Second Chance grant. They support programs with fewer than 10 full-time staff and assets of less than $500,000, and are prioritizing organizations led by staff with lived experience. One of their goals is to equip these small CBOs to apply for and manage grant funding in the future – and they’re having great success: the organizations they’re working with have seen 400-500% increases in their budget size in just five years.

          I also saw the impact of the microgrant strategy firsthand during a trip to LA. Fernando Rejon, who leads the Urban Peace Initiative, took us to Chapter T.W.O., a small CVI organization doing outsized work on a shoestring budget in South Central LA. They are led by a wise Director who’s lost family and loved ones to violence, and is determined to save others in his community. Chapter T.W.O. provides street outreach and interventions to reduce violence, address healing, and much more.

          Director Jerald “Pee” Cavitt told us a heart wrenching story of the death of a 4 year-old girl and how Chapter T.W.O. stepped in to support her family at a time when they felt lost, devastated, and overwhelmed with grief. Chapter T.W.O.’s care and support knew no bounds. They helped plan the funeral, covered the costs, served as pallbearers, and laid the little girl to rest, with dignity. This story that Director Cavitt shared illustrates how CBOs are often the beating heart of their neighborhoods. They step up and fill whatever gap they see, often on their own time and their own dime.

          Director Cavitt made a point in our meeting to thank Fernando not only for the funding they received through their microgrant, but also for UPI's support in training up their growing team of peace ambassadors. UPI's training curriculum served as a force multiplier, giving structure and evidence-informed guidance to the expanding nonprofit.

          Another element of our community-centered approach is a focus on equity – a focus that comes from the very highest levels of government. You may recall that on President Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order acknowledging our collective failure to invest in historically marginalized and underserved communities – and he directed federal agencies to identify and lower barriers to accessing federal resources. The Department of Justice developed a robust action plan and OJP has brought this equity agenda to life.

          Specifically, we are giving priority consideration for funding to projects designed to advance equity and promote greater opportunities and to applicants that can demonstrate that their capabilities and competencies are enhanced because they identify as a population-specific (or by/for) organization. We’ve tried to share this message far and wide and expand our pool of applicants.

          And I am pleased to say that over the last couple years, our applicant pool has expanded – last year we received over 900 applications from nonprofits that hadn’t applied for OJP funds (at least not in recent years). And for those applications in line with our equity priority considerations, the vast majority were funded.

          Another different but very important example I’d like to lift up: In communities where violence is prevalent, there is a tendency to forget that those who commit the harm are often the same people who experience harm themselves or suffered trauma as young children and throughout their lives. Two years ago, the Office for Victims of Crime began the process of revising the crime victim compensation guidelines to eliminate subjectivity, increase fairness, and enable more people to be eligible for reimbursement, especially those in communities most impacted by violence. Our hope is that in the coming months these guidelines will be in place, affirming the reality that justice-involved individuals are too often also victims of crime -- and that they are just as deserving of support and healing as anyone else.

          We’re also bringing our new mission to life within our own organization, bringing the perspective of community into the federal government in a more intentional way. Over the last three years, OJP has grown the ranks of talented professionals who bring lived experience to their work. We’ve not only brought back the Second Chance Fellowship – and are fortunate to have three incredibly talented colleagues serving in those roles – but we’ve taken this model into other areas, too.

          Last year, we brought aboard a fellow who has lived experience with substance use and the justice system. He’s helping to guide BJA’s efforts to reduce the stigma for people in recovery and promote more equitable access to treatment courts. OJJDP is bringing on youth fellows with lived experience in the justice system to help shape training and technical assistance for Second Chance Act grantees. They’re also engaging impacted young people as paid peer reviewers for grant applications, and as consultants to OJJDP, advising on ways to meaningfully and authentically partner with youth. The Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention also now includes several members who were impacted by the justice system when they were young.

          In addition – and for the first time – OJP’s Office of the Assistant Attorney General has on board a Senior Counsel for Racial Justice & Equity, Linda Seabrook, who has deep ties to community-based and culturally specific organizations throughout the country. And as many of you know, our Senior Advisor for Community Violence Intervention, Eddie Bocanegra, comes to us directly from the CVI field, bringing an incredible wealth of experience and expertise, serving as our own credible messenger to the communities we serve.

          We’re even centering community in our science portfolios. Under the direction of Dr. Nancy La Vigne, the National Institute of Justice is prioritizing inclusive and participatory research models, engaging with people who are closest to the issues under study to lead focus groups, conduct interviews, and engage in data analysis. This approach gives us important new perspectives as we expand our evidence base, it helps CBOs build their research capacity, and ensures that research findings will benefit the communities the evidence is intended to serve.

          So we’re trying to target research to the needs of the community. We’re elevating the voices of people within community. We’re expanding access to federal resources for community-based operations and community-driven approaches. And we’re providing more funding – and more avenues to that funding – for community programs with the knowledge and reach to do the most good.

          I want to be clear, though: I don’t think for a minute that federal funding alone is a long-term solution. OJP investments amount to about $5 billion a year. It’s a big number, yes. But by comparison, state and local governments spend over $250 billion each year on their justice systems -- more than $120 billion on policing, $80 billion on corrections, and about $50 billion on courts and the legal system.

          And so while we celebrate new funding streams for CVI, for example, at the scale of an unprecedented $100 million per year, this level of investment pales in comparison to funding for the justice system.

          Imagine what it would look like if community-based services were funded at parity with the justice system. Think about neighborhood hubs staffed with professionals trained to break cycles of violence and heal trauma– not just one or two programs serving an entire city, but embedded in all the neighborhoods where there is need. Or crisis response systems where behavioral health specialists were on hand to respond to every 911 or 988 call where there was an underlying mental health or substance use issue. Or one-stop shops that offer job training, placement, mentoring, and education – on demand and accessible to anyone returning from prison, jail or juvenile facilities. Or victim services available to all survivors, including those who have not been traditionally recognized as “victims” and have been denied support and assistance as a result.

          What would it feel like if law enforcement knew there were community partners available not only to help respond to crime and crisis, but to work with them to tackle the underlying issues in a way that prevents violence, deescalates conflict, addresses behavioral health issues, and disrupts the cycle of trauma and harm? Imagine the trust that could be built when community and justice system professionals have complementary roles and work together - at scale - toward a joint mission, a shared safety?

          What we’re trying to achieve here is a fundamental reimagining of public safety. How do we expand the pool of resources so that community investments begin to approach the scale provided for the justice system?

          What would it take to make this a reality?

          It would take all of us.

  • For federal funders: We can expand our pool of public safety partners and find ways to reduce barriers and increase opportunities for investment in community-led organizations and coalitions.
  • To my friends in philanthropy: You can leverage your flexibility in funding to support community infrastructure in ways that public dollars can’t.  And you can help us tell stories that show the profound systemic and human impact of these investments, to help change hearts and minds.
  • The research community can continue to build the evidence base and expand support for inclusive and participatory research practices, to help build research capacity in community and ensure that community partners benefit from participation in meaningful ways.
  • To our law enforcement professionals: It may seem counterintuitive, but you may be our greatest champions. Because in a shared safety frame, some of your burden is lifted and you are freed up to focus on the jobs you signed up for, are trained for, and are needed for. Shared safety also offers new avenues to build community trust, laying the groundwork for higher clearance rates, improved officer wellness, and ultimately safer neighborhoods.
  • CBOS, it’s on you, too – to continue your critical, and lifesaving work, and to be prepared to grow, scale, and evaluate your efforts so that states and cities can see that investing in you over the long term will save lives – and create thriving cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
  • State legislators, city leaders, county budget officials then have an opportunity to make upstream and longer-term investments that help us begin to address scale and sustainability in a way that supports a shared vision for safety and justice for us all.

So let’s embrace the Square One challenge to “look in new places for more effective responses,” to develop a “framework that relies more on… community strength and reduces the explosive interactions of violence, poverty, and racial inequality[2].” This was Square One’s original challenge to us all.

At OJP, we are using the levers we’ve got to strengthen – to invest in – to support -- the role of community as co-producer of safety and justice. Let us broaden our coalition and build out the community ecosystem so that it is a central and lasting part of our public safety infrastructure.

Thank you.


Date Published: May 29, 2024