SAMHSA’s GAINS Center is wrapping up this year’s Data-Driven Equity & Inclusion Learning Collaborative, an initiative designed to help communities create and implement strategies to address racial disparities in their local criminal justice and behavioral health systems. The collaborative aimed to support jurisdictions in closing the gap between identifying disparities and working to reduce them. The GAINS Center hosted all Learning Collaborative activities for the selected communities and provided virtual meeting coordination, conference calls, and in-person access to GAINS Center staff and subject-matter experts free of charge. While this collaborative has only been active for a few months, some key takeaways have become clear:

Talking About Race

In devising and implementing justice reforms, stakeholders often prefer a “race-neutral” approach. Taking such an approach, however, has proven ineffective in reducing and preventing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. To help communities understand the distinct need for action around racial disparities and achieve consensus on what actions to take, it has been critical to help stakeholders develop a shared language and vision for racial equity.

Many communities have faced challenges in communication during efforts to dismantle racial and ethnic disparities. Stakeholders often lack the language and skills needed for a successful, actionable dialogue. This can make participants apprehensive, as conversations about race are inherently sensitive and, without a common understanding of terms and goals, may easily move in contentious directions, such as assigning blame for who or what caused the racial disparities in the first place. The potential for such uncomfortable, possibly counterproductive outcomes may cause stakeholders to avoid these topics altogether, refusing to discuss them or redirecting conversations about race equity to other related issues, such as income inequality. Trainings can be helpful in equipping stakeholders with the language needed to productively discuss race equity issues, creating a shared understanding of related terms—for instance, what is meant by “racial equity,” “disproportionality,” “disparities,” and “racial equity lens.” Further, trainings on mindsets, race consciousness, implicit biases that may be unconsciously affecting the work, and structural racism can also be important first steps for jurisdictions creating the foundation needed to work on race equity within the criminal justice system.

Exercises to clarify a local vision for race equity in the criminal justice system are also helpful. When stakeholders collectively create a local vision for what race equity could and should look like in their criminal justice system, they create a basis to inform all other strategies and desired outcomes around reducing and preventing system racial disparities. Criminal justice and community stakeholders do overwhelmingly want the best for their communities; once problems are recognized, a shared vision for an equitable system and the action required to get there can help groups avoid the “blame game” that often prevents real action.

Looking at the Data

Another common challenge is a lack of data that would enable examination of program results or outcomes by race and ethnicity. Many jurisdictions do not track or analyze race and ethnicity data. When it is collected, the methodology for gathering the data may not be consistent across the justice system agencies. For example, law enforcement may track this data by asking individuals for their race, while jail booking staff might use race- or ethnicity-identifying data already in an individual’s record. This can lead to different numbers across agencies, making it all the more difficult to measure disproportionalities or disparities within a system. In many communities, the data is being collected but not analyzed, contributing to significant gaps in the understanding of how the local justice system impacts different groups within the community. Finally, analyses of data by race and ethnicity can illuminate strategies that are or may be effective in reducing or helping to mitigate disparities.

Communication challenges often arise during examinations of local racial disproportionalities and disparities. As discussed, confronting data revealing racial inequities may cause defensiveness among leadership and create demands for perpetual data analyses as stakeholders attempt to determine the disparities’ root causes, distracting the group from implementing needed solutions. It is important that stakeholders are supported in finding ways to leverage findings into action, keeping efforts directed at identifying and implementing forward-looking measures to reduce racial disparities.

Engaging the Community

Stakeholders often struggle to effectively engage the community as they attempt to make improvements to the criminal justice system. Criminal justice system staff and agencies have long been accustomed to wielding considerable power and making significant decisions on behalf of community members without dialogue or consensus. A paradigm shift needs to take place in order to share power with the community and ensure that the people who will be affected by program, policy, or practice changes are actively included in their creation and implementation. Justice-involved individuals often know more about the details of their local criminal justice system than some of the leading community stakeholders, who are often siloed in their particular part of the system. It is important for stakeholders to understand this and learn about local inequities and the history of structural racism in their communities in order to effectively engage the public in community-wide events or implement large-scale efforts to reduce disparities.

Further Topics

There are many other important aspects of working with jurisdictions to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in their criminal justice and behavioral health systems. This article captures a few key takeaways from the GAINS Center’s year’s Data-Driven Equity & Inclusion Learning Collaborative. If you have additional questions regarding this topic, please reach out to us here at the GAINS Center with your inquiries.