Why Systems Matter: Are They Helping or Hurting Communities?

The following column by TASC President Pamela Rodriguez appears in TASC’s Fall/Winter 2012 News & Views:

As a social work student at the University of Chicago 32 years ago, I learned that the way our society operates, and the means through which we create or deny opportunities to people, depends largely on our systems.

“Systems” is one of those bureaucratic terms used in grad school.  And yet, we must understand them as essential to the creation of a fair and just society, where all people have opportunities for education, health, and equal justice under the law.

Without clear oversight and analysis of trends and consequences, systems may grow to the point of over-reach. Drug policies in the U.S. have fertilized the growth of the criminal justice system for the past 30 years.

From mandatory minimum sentences to funding that favors incarceration over rehabilitation, our society pours more and more people into courtrooms, jails, and prisons in this country than any other country in the world.

These costly trends not only tear apart families and communities, but they break states’ budgets as well.  According to data from the National Association of State Budget Officers and reported by the Pew Center, states increased their collective spending on corrections by 315% between 1987 and 2007. Adjusted to 2007 dollars, state corrections costs rose 127% while spending on higher education increased only 21 percent in the same period.

These incarceration trends do not need to continue. We can change our systems.

What was true three decades ago—my lessons from grad school—was the notion that government was the sole keeper of our systems.  Today, there is greater attention on public-private partnerships, whether the topic is education, health care, or criminal justice. Exactly whether and how these partnerships will improve our public systems—and improve outcomes for the people at the heart of these systems—remains to be seen and is a debate for another day.  But what we know right now is that we cannot allow the profit interests of the private sector, nor the self-perpetuating nature of large public systems, to dictate the parameters of justice in our country.

When private interests involve profit, or when partners within the system seek unlimited growth, the notions of justice will tilt.

Justice is not about growth. It is not about profit. It is about ensuring the fair and appropriate dispensation of sanctions to carry out public safety.

TASC is engaged in a number of projects and initiatives to inform and improve sound systems.  For instance, we staffed the Disproportionate Justice Impact Study (DJIS) Commission, which pointed out racial and ethnic inequities in the application of state drug laws. As a follow-up to DJIS Commission recommendations, we staffed the Racial and Ethnic Impact Research Task Force, which focused on improved data collection methods to inform fair justice processes.

In partnership with the National Judicial College, we are leading the Justice Leaders Systems Change Initiative, through which we train jurisdictions across the country on science-based responses to addiction-driven crime. Through a grant from The Chicago Community Trust, and under the leadership of Judge Paul P. Biebel, Jr., we are facilitating a structured planning process to improve health care access for people under justice supervision in Cook County.

As we work to change and improve systems, we are guided by our core values. The principles of fairness and justice have not changed in my 32 years in social service, and they continue to guide us at TASC.

We care about fairness. We care about opportunity. And to our core, we care about the people affected by systems, and whether those systems are hurting or helping people and communities. With your support and partnership, we will continue to strive for community health and public safety achieved by means other than the over-expansion of correctional systems.  These are the lessons we live by.

To read TASC’s Fall/Winter 2012 News & Views, please click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s