For too long, state and local governments have improperly equated public safety with law enforcement.

By Abena Subira Mackall

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Abena Subira Mackall is an assistant professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin and the Director of Pedagogy & Instruction for the Texas Prison Education Initiative. This op-ed was co-produced with Texas Perspectives

In the wake of weeks of sustained protests across the country against police brutality, the concept of defunding the police is gaining traction. The recently proposed BREATHE Act, for example, released by Movement for Black Lives, lays out a model for public safety that includes divestment of federal resources from law enforcement and incarceration. But reimagining law enforcement means more than defunding police departments, it means increasing funding to social workers who can fill in the gaps for marginalized communities. 

After spending much of the past decade studying how people navigate arrests, court appearances, and imprisonment, I take the position that for too long our state and local governments have improperly equated public safety with law enforcement a fact that is reflected in our state budget and city budgets around the state. 

In Texas, like most of the country, we’ve attempted to create communities where people feel free from harm by increasing the presence of police throughout society. We’ve invested in building larger police departments, used public funds to equip police officers with military grade technology, and annually spend more than $3 billion of public funds supervising and incarcerating our fellow Texans. 

Taken at face value, there is a logic to these punitive policies: deterrence. In theory, living in a heavily policed neighborhood or knowing there are harsh penalties for breaking the law should discourage and disincentivize crime. 

But in actuality, that is not how crime works, nor is it why most Texans end up being arrested. In fact, the vast majority of police encounters are the result of poverty or breakdowns in the education, mental health, and behavioral health systems. 

Residents in poor neighborhoods are more likely to be met with deadly force or pulled over by the police. A statewide analysis of Texas schools found that the year after a student was suspended, they were nearly three times more likely to be arrested. Over one-third of incarcerated Americans have a diagnosed mental health issue, and more than half have, or are suspected to have, some form of drug or alcohol dependency

These are not problems that are solved by arrests; these are social problems that are made worse by arrests. One of the clearest indications that our punitive approach does not deter crime is that almost half of all Texans released from prisons will be arrested again within three years

Informed by her experiences as a former middle school special education teacher and instructor in prisons, Abena Subira Mackall’s research aims to provide insights that will enable public institutions to more effectively support individuals in contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. [Photos by Kelly West]

Public safety is the product of proactive social services. These services are often best delivered when social workers and community members work in concert. In Texas and across the country, there are social work professionals prepared to de-escalate conflict between teachers and students or respond to a person experiencing a mental health crisis. But they simply do not have sufficient funding or the infrastructure to do their jobs. 

Between 2010 and 2013, the federal government reduced its contributions to public safety portions of state and local governments, for which Texans suffered. These cuts meant that young people with serious mental illnesses no longer received beneficial individualized counselling while in youth detention facilities. One program that housed and supported formerly incarcerated people as they returned home no longer offered employment or transportation services

A real, coordinated public safety approach means designating recurring state and local funds for social work. Allowing law enforcement to serve as the primary, and often only, public safety strategy, has not produced communities where trust is high, and in many cases has resulted in the exact opposite. 

When adequate and sustained funding for social work initiatives becomes a hallmark of state and local budgets, we will be able to make the social investments in families, schools, and communities that produce public safety.