“Imagine if we had a criminal justice system that measured success by how much it improved individuals’ lives, by how much it uplifted and transformed communities. Imagine a criminal justice system that kept us whole.”
That’s attorney Heather Hamel, speaking in Phoenix on February 9 about the new organization she founded, Justice That Works. The grassroots nonprofit is dedicated to reimagining Arizona’s punitive justice system and empowering communities to become safer and healthier.
“Whatever issue you have with the criminal justice system,” she says, “Arizona is ground zero.”
The state has one of the largest and fastest-growing prison populations in the U.S. It incarcerates more black individuals per capita than any other state. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is notorious for racial profiling and human rights abuses. The Phoenix Police Department is one of the most violent forces in the nation.
Justice That Works – whose team also includes immigration lawyer and radio show host Ayensa Millan and Center for Neighborhood Leadership policy director Viridiana Hernandez – wants to change all that.
In 2016, JTW plans to open a community court in Phoenix. In the cities that have them, community courts have successfully lowered crime rates while keeping people free and saving millions of dollars on crimefighting and incarceration.
Instead of throwing people in jail, these neighborhood courts tailor restorative justice to the individual’s needs and “try to uplift their situation,” Hamel says. The judge might sentence a person to drug counseling, support groups, job training or community service. One judge in a New Jersey community court requires people to write an essay answering the question: “Where do I see myself in five years?”
“There’s something very important that happens in a moment when we collectively start to say we can change the world.”
Justice That Works is also launching the Redefining Safety Initiative, which will be conducted in partnership with the Center for Neighborhood Leadership (CNL).
First, they’ll hold approximately 50 community meetings throughout Maryvale and South Phoenix. They’ll have conversations about how these communities can make their neighborhoods safer without relying on a punitive policing system that separates families and prevents people from working to improve their lives. JTW will ask the communities to come up with solutions and to vote on them. The most popular ideas will be presented to Phoenix City Council in April when it opens the budget process to the public.
During her presentation, Hamel showed a map of Maryvale and South Phoenix depicting so-called “Million Dollar Blocks.” Each of these squares is an area that’s spending between $0.5 million and $2 million-plus on incarceration, according to data collected by the Spatial Information Design Lab.
The above image reveals that Maryvale is spending $30 million every year to lock people up, burdening these communities with an unmeasurable financial and emotional toll. Clearly, Estrella and South Phoenix are spending many more millions.
“Think how that money could be used to improve our schools, to improve our roads and streetlights, to build parks and community centers, to increase access to healthcare and mental health care,” Hamel says.
That’s what Justice That Works is trying to achieve – to transform justice into something positive, supportive and successful. “[It’s] not… only about changing police policies and practices,” Hamel says. “It’s about changing the entire system. It’s about changing our laws, it’s about changing our courts, it’s about changing probation and prison. Ultimately it’s about changing hearts and minds and culture.”
“It’s an idea born of the community and an idea for the community,” says CNL co-founder Ken Chapman. “There’s something very important that happens in a moment when we collectively start to say we can change the world, we can change our criminal justice system… There’s an audacity in that that unleashes our fullest potential. And most importantly, that audacity is contagious.”