James Bell (KNFP 14), Executive Director, The W. Haywood Burns Institute, San Francisco.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of the KFLA Newsletter.
James Bell is outraged by the lack of accountability in the United State’s juvenile justice system. He spent 20 years as a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco and found that every facility he visited was filled mostly with kids of color. Seeing first-hand how society has used the juvenile courts to create a caste system where there are throw-away people, James founded the W. Haywood Burns Institute in 2000. The institute is named for a co-founder of the National Conference of Black Lawyers who worked on many causes of people struggling for self-determination, and it addresses the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system.
Our approach is to convene traditional stakeholders, judges, prosecutors, district attorneys, police, and probation officers with nontraditional stakeholders, youth organizations, parent groups, clergy, and others and present data to show inefficiencies, says James. The Burns Institute is currently working intensively with 10 local jurisdictions across the country to gather data including where arrests are made, the time of day, the offense, the youth’s ethnicity, and other information that can point to trends or community needs.
Says James, Our justice system is one of the few unaccountable systems in the country. It doesn’t make decisions based on best practices. Decisions are often made that have no correlation to and are not in the best interest of the young people and families involved. As a result, there is a 70 percent recidivism rate. The decision makers can administer this misery and not take any responsibility for the outcome.
At the same time, he notes, it is a tremendously expensive practice. In California, the cost to lock up a juvenile for one year is $104,000. That’s more than any institution of higher education, including Yale or Harvard.
While James admits that changing the culture of the juvenile justice system is very difficult and takes time, he feels his organization is making progress. Just getting the collaborative around the table is a milestone, he says. We have gotten them to engage around issues and to think about this differently, which is immense. He also points out that bringing people together with an intentional concentration on racial disparities is revolutionary. Finally, he says, Engaging the communities in the data-gathering process and in defining success for their local jurisdiction is innovative. Most systems don’t share information; they’re very territorial, he adds.
James credits his Kellogg Fellowship with giving him the perspective needed to take on broad social issues. I saw people dealing with really hard problems and dedicating their life to them, but they had it in perspective, he says. It re-calibrated for me what the expectations were in dealing with social justice.