The People’s Response Act: Can We Reimagine Public Safety?

By Rachel Timmons

According to Gallup, the same percentage of Americans have “very little” (39%) or “some” (38%) confidence in the criminal justice system in 2021 as in 1993. While public confidence has fluctuated throughout the intervening years, it is clear that most Americans do not expect the criminal justice system to live up to its mission of preventing crime and ensuring a fair and impartial administration of justice. 

A growing number of people are demanding accountability and change. Yet, staunch police supporters simultaneously decry those efforts and fear change will leave police and communities vulnerable to violent crime. 

The People’s Response Act (H.R. 4194), proposed by Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), suggests concrete ways to address both sets of concerns. The bill would create a new Division of Community Safety within the federal Department of Health and Human Services to assemble best practices and study the outcomes of policing. If passed, Congress would task this division with finding the most effective ways of preventing crime while minimizing contact between people and the criminal justice system. The bill would also support local governments that use data-driven qualified approaches over traditional arrest and incarceration models to increase public safety. 

If we want to build safer communities and trust in our criminal justice system, Cori Bush and the bill’s 23 co-sponsors have offered a way forward. 

The 2021 crime index in the United States is 47.7 per 100,000 residents, near the middle of developed countries. However, the U.S. incarceration rate is the highest in the world, with 639 prisoners per 100,000 residents. In contrast, Japan’s crime index is 21.67, with an incarceration rate of 39 per 100,000 residents. Japan achieves half the U.S. rate of violent crime and, with only 38% of America’s population, incarcerates just 6% as many people as the U.S. 

Punitive measures cost taxpayers millions of dollars per year. For example, in the 2020 budget of St. Louis — Cori Bush’s home district — police and incarceration cost $250 million. That is 49% of the city’s annual budget. In the same year, the homicide rate in St. Louis was the highest since 1970. 

In addition to its fiscal burden, incarceration causes harm to individuals even outside their loss of freedom. Inmates have reported inhumane conditions that increase the risk of disease. Isolating people away from their loved ones worsens mental health and feelings of hopelessness. After release, it is often difficult to secure housing and employment, and many former inmates lose their right to vote.

Out of the estimated 2,086,600 incarcerated Americans in 2019, over 540,000 (26%) were being detained before trial, and the justice system incarcerated an estimated 451,000 people (22%) for nonviolent drug offenses. In a comprehensive study, the Treatment Advocacy Center found that the criminal justice system does not attempt to adequately treat mental illness to prevent someone from repeating criminal behavior. 

Approximately 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies exist in the U.S. Currently, the Department of Justice aggregates data on some crime statistics but does not publish data measuring effective crime prevention strategies. In addition, it does not promote or enforce standardized training on crime prevention. However, the DOJ does offer the Collaborative Reform Initiative training program to local law enforcement, which law enforcement groups developed. This program does not include training to divert individuals away from the carceral system, and police agencies self-report the program’s outcomes according to their satisfaction with the training. 

Alternatively, the People’s Response Act would establish a Division on Community Safety within the Department of Health and Human Services. Responsibilities of the division include:

  • Overseeing all activities — including grants, research, and implementation — that promote qualified approaches to public safety. Qualified approaches are defined as disconnected from carceral institutions.
  • Selecting individuals who have been directly affected by the criminal justice system for the Community Advisory Board, whose mission is ensuring equity.
  • Enforcing grant requirements for state, local, and community-led organizations to conduct safety needs assessments that invite input from all those affected and identify structural factors and current resource gaps.
  • Establishing an interagency task force to audit the funding of carceral systems, qualified approaches, and all other data regarding outcomes.
  • Coordinating activities within other divisions of Health and Human Services that relate to public safety.
  • Informing the public of all research and grant results.

The sponsors of this bill want to center care, healing, and the prevention of over-incarceration and policing, which have a long history but unimpressive results. The purpose of the Health and Human Services Department is to provide essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves. Preventing violent crime and reducing the number of people negatively affected by the criminal justice system falls under their jurisdiction. As cities like St. Louis implement new programs to address these issues, we would all benefit from an agency that can collect data, analyze effectiveness, and issue guidance for municipalities nationwide.

There has not been vocalized opposition to this bill, but the argument against police reform has generally centered on the fear that crime will rise. The proposed legislation contains mandates to measure how qualified approaches compare to traditional carceral models, so data could refute or confirm that claim. Some conservative groups have expressed support for moving criminal justice systems away from arrest and incarceration to reduce crime and conserve government resources. 

The People’s Response Act is encouraging more discourse among voters about what types of police reform are possible. Ben & Jerry’s has even introduced a new flavor of ice cream, “Change is Brewing,” in support of the measure. People and businesses are making it known that they believe the current system is unjust and unsustainable. As the conversation moves forward, it is important to focus on specific and substantive ideas to avoid the pitfalls of the catchphrases that divide us.

Supporting the police has become a defining identity issue for many Americans. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Blue Lives Matter and the “thin blue line” flag have become rallying cries to unite police supporters. These groups call attention to police officers who have been wounded or killed in the line of duty. Supporters argue that police officers who willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect their community from crime should receive ample resources and unwavering support.

Since the issue has become entrenched in an “us vs. them” mentality, studies show that people changing their minds is unlikely. Many psychological reasons explain why we become emotionally attached to our truths and do not want to let them go. When we feel our identity is attacked, we tend to hold on tighter. If people discuss alternatives to carceral models with a more data-driven approach, both supporters and critics of police can separate their identities from the issues at hand and have more productive conversations.

The People’s Response Act is currently in the first round of House Committee considerations after its introduction on June 28, 2021, with the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce. Financial Services, Judiciary, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees considering the bill.

Now is the time to let your representative know how you feel about this issue. 

The People’s Response Act acknowledges that police play an important part in upholding the rule of law. Public safety, however, is a complex service. Clearly delineating agencies by function allows them to specialize and, therefore, perform public safety functions more efficiently. One department focuses on preventing crime, while the other aims to hold people accountable after breaking the law. Healthy support of both will do the most toward making our communities safer places to live for everyone. 

Featured Image by Matt Popovich on Unsplash.

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