On Monday, the 16-member Ferguson Commission created by Governor Jay Nixon (D-MO) released its report about how race and economic inequality exacerbate problems within St. Louis’ criminal justice system — and how to go about fixing it. Citing previous findings from the Department of Justice reports about racist policing, the use of excessive force, and the broken court system in Ferguson and St. Louis County, the Ferguson Commission outlined 189 specific policy solutions for lawmakers to consider in the near future.
But the commission’s report goes far beyond the policing and court issues that first inspired the investigation, painting a much broader vision to improve not only the criminal justice system but schools, public health, and poverty.
Counting police reform among its signature priorities, the commission details crucial steps to ensure “justice for all” in Missouri. It calls on police departments to direct their officers to use minimal force when protecting public and officer safety. It also suggests that the Attorney General take on use of force cases as a special prosecutor, and that a database of excessive force cases be created for public consumption.
With regard to the region’s high incarceration rate, the commission calls on courts to prohibit incarceration for minor offenses and make nonviolent offenses civil, as opposed to criminal, violations. It recommends the establishment of justice centers, where people who cannot pay off their violations can participate in community service projects instead. Moreover, the commission concludes that judges and prosecutors should not be involved in court proceedings when there is a conflict of interest.
While the report outlines policies in direct response to DOJ findings, it also delves deeper into the systemic disparities in education, public health, and economic opportunities that create problems for black and brown communities and increase the likelihood of interacting with law enforcement.
A key tenet of the policy outline, for example, is investment in a holistic childhood development model that includes comprehensive education reform. All schools, it says, should have in-house health centers that provides mental and reproductive health resources, as well as trauma services. State and local officials should also be at the forefront of ending childhood hunger, by connecting kids in need of free and reduced meals with food providers during school breaks and making Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment easier for families.
For adults, economic opportunity is imperative. The commission points to the need for a higher minimum wage, and recommends the creation of financial empowerment centers that offer “community development banking, multi-generational financial education, and convenient financial services with reasonable interest rates.” Collaboration between educational institutions and potential employers can also improve job-readiness and access, in addition to specialized job training programs.
Although the new policy guide addresses Missouri, specifically, it follows a similar set of national policy proposals released by Black Lives Matter (BLM) in August, shortly after Hillary Clinton implored BLM activists to develop a concrete policy proposals.
“There has to be some positive vision and plan that you can move people toward,” she replied, after she was confronted by BLM representatives about police brutality and mass incarceration. Explaining that former civil rights movements had action plans, she told them that making specific policy asks is the way to make change. “The people behind that consciousness-raising and advocacy, they had a plan ready to go.”
Weeks later, proponents of law enforcement reform and racial justice launched Campaign Zero, a comprehensive guide for federal, state, and local officials to follow.
While less focused on economic and health factors that contribute to discriminatory — and deadly — policing that the Ferguson Commission put forward, the campaign narrows in on national law enforcement issues that the Ferguson team overlooked, such as broken-windows policing and police union contracts that make accountability near-impossible to achieve. For instance, Campaign Zero offers specific changes to policing tactics, such as stopping people who look like they are acting nervous or people who match a generic description of a suspect, which disproportionately entrap people of color in the criminal justice system. It also calls on the removal of officer contract provisions that prevent civilians from questioning officers and leaves the power to discipline officers to police chiefs.
In addition to the Ferguson Commission report and Campaign Zero, presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley released their own criminal justice solutions in the last two months, including the enactment of ban-the-box laws, scrapping for-profit prisons, and the establishment of a national use of force standard.