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How Stepping Up Program Tries to Advance Racial Equity, Minimize Disparities

A national program aimed at jailing fewer people with mental illness can confront racism in the criminal justice system by understanding systemic biases and rooting them out of particular justice programs, panelists said at a webinar hosted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The panelists’ focus was on the Stepping Up program, a partnership between the CSG Justice Center, the National Association of Counties, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. Stepping Up seeks to reduce the over-incarceration of people with mental illnesses in the nation's jails with programs catered specifically to the needs of local counties.

Kate Reed, CSG Justice Center's project manager of behavioral health, said it's important to acknowledge and accept that racial disparities are real, and that “they exist across all intercepts, at every stage of the criminal legal system.” She said that decision-makers must realize the importance of having the authority to make decisions about a person’s experience in the justice system.

"There's a ton of research out there supporting the notion that race plays a pretty big role in discretionary decision-making, unfortunately,” Reed said. “And at many of those points BIPOC individuals are at a disadvantage, and increasingly so, as they get deeper into the system.”

Reed suggested ways to reduce discretionary authority, including implicit bias training, anti-racism training, and using a standardized decision-making protocol, to make sure that “decisions are based on objective criteria as opposed to the subject.”

Reed also said that leaders should use programs that aim to prevent incarceration, such as pre-arrest diversion and community responder programs. She cited as an example Philadelphia's pre-arrest diversion program aimed at reducing the number of jail bookings and rebookings.

Reed proposed reducing the length of stay in prison by including access to diversion or specialty court programs. Lastly, Reed said that connections to care such as housing or treatment should be prioritized to make sure reentry into the community is equitable.

Orleny Rojas, senior manager at the Center for Effective Public Policy (CPP), said she partnered with CSG to apply an equity lens to the Stepping Up Initiative. “We recognize inequities and disparities exist for people of color, particularly for black and indigenous communities, at the intersection of behavioral health and the criminal justice system,” Rojas said.

Rojas said communities of color experience historical oppression and inequities that lead to multigenerational trauma. She said oppression plays a role in determinants of health such as economic stability and access to education and healthcare.

Rojas mentioned a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which shows that despite efforts to reduce disparities, the Black population experiences more than 1.63 million excess deaths and more than “880,000,000 excess years of life lost compared to the white population over a 22-year period from 1999 to 2020.”

The study showed that traumas and interactions with medical health systems based on race had a significant impact on disparities.

Risë Haneberg, deputy division director of behavioral health at CSG's Justice Center, said the first step in decreasing disparities is to have committed leaders who will support and advocate for marginalized communities.

“Some communities have actually issued a new resolution or new declaration, that racism is a public health crisis,“ Haneberg said. She urges leaders to look at the composition of their team and see if their work accurately reflects disparities as well as making sure to incorporate diversity on their team. She said it’s important for each individual member to assess their own personal biases and assumptions.

Data is also crucial in increasing racial equity because it helps pinpoint areas of concern within communities of color. However, Haneberg said data is a weak point due to vague definitions when identifying a person’s ethnicity. “We don't do a good job on tracking race and ethnicity, and it's kind of all over the place if you will,” Haneberg said.

She advises counties to make sure their definitions and categories are clear and to make changes that reflect how they are tracking their data.

“One other important step is to make sure that the individual that's being booked is asked how they identify in terms of race and ethnicity, and that it's not based on the assumptions of the person,” Haneberg suggested.


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