Reforming Police Is Only the Beginning

Amanda Alexander founded the Detroit Justice Center, which operates a bail fund and envisions a new type of criminal justice system.

Weeks of protests against system racism and police brutality have many people feeling like substantial reforms to law enforcement practices is within reach.

Amanda Alexander is the founder and executive director of the Detroit Justice Center. She tells WDET’s Russ McNamara that police are only one part of the equation.

“The fact is that police often do far more harm than good.” — Amanda Alexander, Detroit Justice Center

“It’s not just that poor people are swept up in the criminal legal system, but it’s actually that the system makes people poor,” Alexander says. 

Alexander points to cash bail as one of example of the ways the criminal justice system criminalizes the poor. The center operates a bail fund in metro Detroit. 

“We have had a man who was in because his family couldn’t afford the thousand dollars to bail him out,” Alexander says. “He was in for a week and couldn’t report to work” to support his family. 

Soon, the man’s partner had to quit her job to care for four children, depriving the family of both their sources of income. 

“And so we just see again and again, the ways that people are driven into poverty, because our court system our cities are built on, extracting money from poor people, poor drivers, who are facing fines that mount and mount and mount.”

Click on the player above to hear the Detroit Justice Center’s Amanda Alexander on how criminal justice penalizes the poor.


On minor violations turning into big problems

A big part of the problem is that the consequences that people face… things like a warrant for failing to appear in court, and then having their license suspended, only means that then they can’t drive safely to work — which is where they would earn money to pay down the fines. We learned in the past year that half of the criminal cases in Michigan are traffic related. So when you think about these deeper questions of how we are investing in public safety, and things like police forces, it’s like we are spending an enormous amount of money to track & profile poor folks, pull them over, and get them caught up into a system that only produces more poverty. 

On the myth that more police equals safer cities

We see people who have been taking to the streets with enormous rage, because of the deaths of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Tony McDade, and so many other people. I mean, the list is just incredibly long in terms of Black people who have been killed by police. And so what has been happening in the past few weeks is that you hear people who are trying to get at the core of the problem — not the solutions that have been offered for the past several years of people protesting has always been, these false reforms. So things like ‘oh, police are fine, and we just need more implicit bias training, or use of force training, or we need body cameras, or we need more diverse police forces’. And instead, what’s happening in the past few weeks is that People are saying ‘no’. For too long, we have equated public safety with police. And the fact is that police often do far more harm than good. 

So where are the safest cities?

People look around and they realize that the safest communities are not those with the most police, or metal detectors or surveillance technology — quite the opposite. They’re the ones with the most resources. They’re the ones with excellent schools, and excellent amenities and inter-generational wealth. And so that is the conversation that people are having. And that’s incredibly heartening that people are really trying to get at the root of issues and say, ‘Okay, what, how could we invest, the wealth that we have, as cities and states as a country in order to create the conditions for Black people to thrive and for everybody to thrive?’

On asking to imagine their futures

We asked teens in the city, how could we invest in this case, the half billion dollars that has been spent on the new Wayne County jail? How could we spend that in a way that would make you feel safe and valued and empowered? And not one of these young people said that we need more police or more jails. 

So yes, some of it was investing in existing systems that have suffered from divestment over the last several decades. You know, they said things like, fix the water pipes in our school because we don’t have clean water. They said invest in transit and a bus system that would get me from one side of the city to the other. They said pay our teachers to create accessible, beautiful, affordable housing for people creates true mental health supports. One girl said we need mental health spas, where people could go and truly get support to work. Through the trauma that comes with harm or violence, but also just the trauma of growing up in the neighborhood that you’re growing up in. And so they had ideas for investing in the things that had been divested from. While the city had instead decided to continue ramping up investments in things like jails and police that have not delivered safety.

On what real change looks like

So essentially what we’re talking about is making things like police and jails and prison obsolete, building out the, systems of safety and support. That means that we do not have to rely upon things like police. It means that people meet in community or on their block and say, ‘Okay, if we’re not going to call 911 and get the police to respond to a situation, how do we have to be skilled as individuals and things like the escalation and mediation?’ What are the things that we as a community want to see in the city invest in and with me: Things like participatory budgeting, so that people are paying very close attention to what the city is spending money on. And if they are not investing in things like schools or health care or whatever else the community has prioritized, then those public officials are held accountable.

On the Wayne County Jail

For many years, people have been saying the Wayne County Jail is a dead end investment. This will only bring more harm and un-safety to our community. And people have put forward a range of things that we could build instead of the cost of that jail could renovate and modernize every school in Detroit. We could house every homeless person in the city. And so it’s going it’s not going to take any one thing. It’s going to take a range of solution. You know, starting you know, now building on the work that’s already happening and recognizing that this is going to take decades to do but there are certainly places that we can start now, like getting police out of schools and following the lead of young people who are giving us a plan now interrupt the school to prison pipeline.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.