Improve Public Safety and Justice

Resilient cities advance public safety and strengthen communities by simultaneously reducing crime and incarceration rates, while supporting victims of crime, building social cohesion, and providing second chances.

To meet the diverse needs of its residents, a city must ensure a comprehensive and inclusive approach to law enforcement and justice that promotes fair policing and prosecution practices, strengthens the relationship between law enforcement and community members, reduces reliance on incarceration, and provides legitimate opportunities for justice-involved individuals to pursue education and attain employment and housing. In sum, resilient cities promote long-term health, safety, and stability by working in partnership with their community members to reduce crime and increase fairness.

New York, New York

Where We Are Today

The United States is home to less than five percent of the world’s population 
but nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, with almost 2.2 million people in jail and prison and another 4.5 million people under community corrections supervision. More than 90 percent of those incarcerated are in local jails or state prisons. The country’s incarceration rate remains among the highest in the world, despite violent crime rates that have steadily fallen over the past two decades and are near historic lows.

Studies suggest that over-incarceration provides diminishing public safety benefits while destabilizing and negatively impacting the well-being of neighborhoods that have high incarceration rates. In addition, exposure to violence and high-exposure to the criminal justice system can contribute to long-lasting individual and community trauma that may impair a city’s ability to respond to new crises.

The costs associated with a flawed criminal justice system are staggering and rising. In 2015, the average cost to keep someone incarcerated in state prison was more than $33,000 per year, with some states spending more than $50,000 per year, per person. California alone spent more than $8.5 billion on prisons in 2015. In addition to the direct costs, taxpayers are also burdened by reduced taxes from unemployment and under-employment associated with incarceration, and billions in economic losses to the victims of crime.

A city’s ability to promote sustained safety and stability is an integral part of its resilience strategy. While a fairer and more effective justice system is clearly needed, it will require changes to a highly complex set of interconnected processes and agencies regulated by federal, state, and local governments. To fully realize safe and healthy housing and a healthy and growing economy — two previously identified goals — cities must work with community members to effectively reduce crime without over-relying on incarceration.

There is a broad array of challenges related to the criminal justice system facing both the Federal Government and cities including:

  • The lack of trust between communities of color and the justice system, particularly police and other law enforcement officers
  • The ongoing and disproportionate impact of gun violence experienced by certain communities
  • Corrections systems that are marred by abusive conditions, high recidivism rates, racial disparities, and rising costs
  • People cycling in and out of the justice system, including those with mental health and substance use issues, whose underlying issues often remain unaddressed
  • Collateral consequences that can — legally and illegally — prevent a person from future educational attainment, employment and housing

Federal Roles

The United States Congress appropriates funding for federal grants, research, and technical assistance that support the administration of state and local criminal justice systems. Congress also has the authority to pass laws that impact federal criminal codes and sentencing, which can influence and/or inform state and local efforts. Congress is also responsible for passing federal gun laws and regulations.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) supports the administration of justice at the local level by providing approximately $4 billion annually in grants, training, and technical assistance to local and state governments, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations. In addition, the criminal justice field receives support from the United States Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor.

DOJ is the federal agency that supports criminal justice-related legislative activity, prosecutes federal crimes, and runs the Federal Bureau of Prisons). In addition, DOJ pursues civil rights investigations into local and state law enforcement and corrections agencies that are alleged to have violated people’s civil rights.

The federal judiciary adjudicates federal trials, and probation supervision for those convicted of federal charges.

The following strategies focus on enhancing effective federal engagement in criminal justice:

Strategy: Support Local Law Enforcement

Strategy: Support a Public Health Approach to Reduce Violence

Strategy: Invest in evidence-based reforms that reduce crime and incarceration

Strategy: Prioritize the Successful Community-Reentry of Formerly-Incarcerated People

Strategy: Support Survivors of Violent Crime

Potential Allies

Safety and stability are critical components of a healthy community. And, healthy cities are best positioned to exercise resiliency in the face of adversity. In resilient cities, children grow-up free from threats of family and community violence, and residents who witness or survive violent crime receive the services and support they need. The criminal justice continuum — from police through post-incarceration supervision — is viewed as a legitimate and positive force in the communities it serves, preventing and responding to criminal activity while treating all community members with respect and understanding. Incarceration is used sparingly, and community-based responses to crime and mental and behavioral health issues 
(including drug use) are presumptive.

Resilient cities advance public safety by partnering with their community members rather than incarcerating them. Cities will find numerous allies across the political spectrum working to meaningfully reform the criminal justice system and advance public safety, including:

  • The Council of State Governments Justice Center
  • Right on Crime
  • Pew Charitable Trusts
  • Center for American Progress
  • Brennan Center
  • Prison Fellowship
  • Vera Institute of Justice
  • Center for Court Innovation
  • National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform
  • California Partnership for Safe Communities
  • Common Justice
  • Texas Criminal Justice Coalition
  • National Network for Safe Communities
  • Californians for Safety and Justice