Person holding signs that reads “Care Not Cages” during Decarcerate KC’s sit-in on the Kansas City Public Budget Hearing Meeting on February 25, 2023. (@DecarcerateKC on Instagram)
Earlier this year, the city formed an Alternatives to Incarceration Commission with the aim of researching and recommending alternatives to imprisonment for city charges. However, discussions have primarily centered around validating the jail rather than exploring viable alternatives. Prominent voices advocating for incarceration include the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) which, ironically, is an institution that derives its purpose from the arrest and detention of individuals.
Right now, Kansas City is planning to add hundreds of new jail beds to lock people up for city code violations. Notably, Black residents make up over 70% of those held on city charges, despite representing only 26% of Kansas City’s population. This racial disparity reflects the national trend where Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people.
We know that Black people and people experiencing extreme poverty are the most likely to be put in jail, and building a new facility would only serve to increase this disparity. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 50% of people who frequently receive jail time have an annual income below $10,000. Additionally, 60% of this population experience substance abuse disorders, and over 25% have serious or moderate mental health concerns.
The financial and personal cost of jail time makes it more likely that someone will be re-incarcerated later on. Two-thirds of people held in jail at any time have not been convicted of a crime, but remain detained. Add to this the fact that research shows that jails do not actually make communities safer, and you begin to wonder why we’d prioritize millions of dollars for a new one.
In their letter of support for the new jail, the Kansas City Municipal Court states “for those with mental illness and/or substance intoxication, [jail] provides a period of time for stabilization before court appearance.” However, plenty of research indicates that mental health programs in jail have the opposite effect of stabilizing someone in a mental health crisis, most often throwing them into a cycle of incarceration in which they never get adequate support.
The city’s reliance on probation, parole, and specialty courts is more likely to spiral someone into a cycle of poverty, criminalization, and incarceration than it is to support them with the resources they need. The city is very proud of their diversion courts, but specialty courts use coercive and punitive methods to scare people into treatment. Kansas City’s focus on “alternatives” has primarily been on pre-charge and pretrial diversion, but we argue for more attention on pre-police and pre-arrest diversions.
According to the Beyond Courts project’s publication Problem Creating Courts, specialty courts and prosecutor-led diversion programs are inadequate because “They do not meaningfully address the deep social problems (such as poverty, racism, houselessness, drug prohibition, an unsafe or unregulated drug supply, and so on) that make individuals vulnerable to criminalization.”
To us, these courts are not only unhelpful but illogical: if the goal is to limit the harm caused in our communities, we must invest in our communities on the front end. This means access to housing for all. This means good, stable jobs. This means free healthcare and consent-based mental health support. This means decriminalization of drug use and safe-use sites.
For example, Decarcerate KC is in the early stages of launching our Community Safety Hubs project, which involves neighborhood-level organizing to explore and practice safety without relying on systems of policing and incarceration.
Rather than dumping additional funds into jails and an expansive court system, we advocate for an investment in community, where funding and resources intended for jail construction are redirected into community initiatives addressing core needs.
If Kansas City continues looking to the courts, jails, and policing as the source of change, our communities will never thrive. We will be locked up, we will spin out in poverty, we will get lost in a system designed to criminalize and oppress us.
The police and jails have always been the ultimate go-to option but we are done with reform. The opportunity for creating public safety programs that are specifically tailored and administered by the people is here. We advocate for public safety programs that prioritize the people and especially those most impacted by incarceration. We believe the people deserve better than to be frightened into submission by state authorities.
Our current system not only increases the likelihood of someone going back to jail, but also inadequately addresses mental health concerns and fails to meet the social needs of those involved. Additionally, it shows limited effectiveness in reducing community violence.
Unless we change course, Kansas City will justify locking people up at higher and higher rates. We must invest in communities while limiting contact with the police and court system. This is why we are calling for the city to reimagine safety and implement programs that remove the police’s role in responding to issues involving mental health and substance abuse concerns, as well as any issue involving a person experiencing extreme poverty.
Historically, local policies have driven mass incarceration. Kansas City has the opportunity to reverse this trend by implementing policies that adequately fund and support initiatives that eliminate the perceived necessity for jails. Only when we push beyond the status quo can we achieve building a community safety plan that is committed to the safety, security, and freedom for all of Kansas City. We have nothing to gain from maintaining the status quo.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”