Social equity—a key pillar of public administration alongside economy, efficiency, and effectiveness—addresses fairness, justice, and equity within a variety of public contexts. Although the United States has made significant progress in expanding access to opportunities to more of the nation’s citizens and residents, we continue to struggle with ensuring the equitable design and implementation of public policies and programs that reduce or eliminate disparities, discrimination, and marginalization. Fellows, RaJade M. Berry-James, David Birdsell, and Blue Woolridge, discuss past, current, and potential efforts to combat these challenges.
There should be a call to action to address the public health crisis in juvenile justice. To date, with more than 120,000 dead, it is painfully clear that the coronavirus disproportionately affects people living in nursing homes, prisons, and other institutional settings. As we continue to examine the death rate among those in congregate care, system-involved youth in the juvenile justice system are also a vulnerable population. Many youth await trial and placement in overcrowded detention centers and jails without meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation or treatment. Advocates across the country are calling for immediate action to protect youth in custody and likewise, administrators struggle to balance the social and emotional needs of youth assigned to their care. During the coronavirus lockdown, juvenile facilities have denied family visitation for confined youth and in some states, educational and rehabilitative programs are canceled in an abundance of caution. While calls to speed the adjudication of youth through the juvenile justice system have largely gone unanswered, releasing youth confined in state-run or private institutions is highly unlikely, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. To guide best practices and breakthrough protocols, using a social equity framework is essential. During a time when equity and justice dominate policy discussions, program considerations, and implementation plans, the fair and just treatment of America’s youth is critical.
The critical first step is always to apply an equity lens to every phase of the policy process from design through implementation and assessment. There are sophisticated examples such as the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance’s Equity Indicators Project, but whatever metrics are used will be meaningless without steady commitment from leadership to adduce and address inequitable outcomes. Program success can vary along many dimensions that have equity impacts, including obvious factors such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, net worth, and income, but also along less obvious dimensions such as geography, involvement with the criminal justice system, disability, and health status. Persistent differences in outcome along any of these measures should be carefully assessed with remedial interventions designed to close and ideally eliminate the gaps. That in turn cannot happen without systematic data collection and ongoing assessment feeding a continuous process of programmatic improvement.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention describes disproportionate minority contact (DMC) as the overrepresentation of racial/ethnic minority groups at any point of contact or decision point in the juvenile justice system. The juvenile justice system is distinctly different from the criminal justice system. For system-involved youth, juvenile justice focuses on rehabilitation and not on punishment. Within the system, youth are processed and detained at decision points – juvenile arrest, referral to juvenile court, diversion, secure detention, a petition of charges filed, adjudication, probation supervision, secure confinement, and transfer to adult court. In the juvenile justice system, differential treatment and differential offending are just some of the factors that contribute to – inappropriate decision-making, geography, mobility, and indirect effects are also contributing factors in disproportionate outcomes, where race matters.
For decades, racial and ethnic minorities have faced disproportionate minority contact (DMC) at nine decision points in the juvenile justice system. The cumulative impact of DMC amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for system-involved youth. For some, the juvenile justice system serves as a predictable pipeline for criminal justice, with public policies allowing juvenile courts to transfer youth to adult court. For the youth of color, convening a national group to study the issue, increasing organizational capacity to address the issue, and identifying program activities to reduce the issue of disproportionate minority contact is of paramount concern. Building awareness of juvenile justice reform and the disparate treatment of youth of color must be addressed quickly, given the reality of juvenile confinement during COVID-19.
African American youth are more likely to be committed to dangerous facilities that often lack rehabilitation services, educational services, and mental health treatment. Since the Academy has identified fostering social equity as one of the 12 Grand Challenges, now is the time to help make DMC reduction a long-term priority in public administration.
The National Academy of Public Administration and its Fellows have been a major force in promoting the awareness and dangers of Social Inequities in our Society. Although many had researched, taught, and presented on this topic, certainly since the New Public Administration movement of the late ‘60s, the Social Equity cause was strengthened by two major actions of the Academy in the early years of the 21st Century:
The Academy’s strategic plan called for Increase recognition of the Academy as a leader in social equity governance. “The Academy will become a leader in defining social equity benchmarks, barriers and best practices,” and that “The Academy will pursue social equity issues in its studies and programs. It will develop a series of papers and tools that outline operational and implementation approaches to do so.”
These actions by the Academy stimulated similar actions such as the establishment of the Committee on Social Equity and Public Affairs Education in the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, and the Section on Democracy and Social Justice within the American Society for Public Administration. The edited volume, Justice for All: Responsibilities and Action to Promote Social Equity in Public Administration edited by Standing Panel members Drs. Norman Johnson and James Svara provided a collection of chapters demonstrating the application of the concept of Social Equity in many public policy fields. The Standing Panel has cosponsored since 2001, the Social Equity Leadership Conference (I have attended each since the 4th in 2005) with a local host. The SELC has stimulated and provided a venue for both practitioners and academics to present their insights on vital issues in Social Equity. An important characteristic of the SELC is that it is held in different locations around the US. This makes it possible to both highlight some of the important contributions of the Academy to different regional audiences, and to surface the different Social Equity issues and resulting strategies that are important in vastly different localities.
We must use the Foster Social Equity Grand Challenge, and the dimension of Social Equity of each of the other Grand Challenges, to highlight the importance of this vital pillar of Public Administration, at every forum, to every audience the Academy addresses. The Academy adopted social equity as the fourth pillar of public administration, along with economy, efficiency and effectiveness, yet in light of the severe consequences of inequities, as documented by the books of Wilkinson and Pickett, and as demonstrated by the current COVID-19 pandemic, Social Equity might be the most important pillar of them all. As Frederickson reminded us even when we strive for policy/program effectiveness, we must ask, “effective for whom?”
All levels of government—in fact, all facets of our society—must ensure that everyone has a standard of living adequate for the health, wellbeing, and self-sufficiency of themselves and their family.
High-quality training and technical assistance should be provided. Federal, state, and local efforts to ensure that system-involved youth receive equal and fair treatment relies on a DMC reduction strategy to assess, identify, intervene, evaluate and monitor the degree to which youth of color are overrepresented at any decision point in the juvenile justice system. For decades, many juvenile courts have worked collaboratively with professionals representing public schools, faith-based organizations, community leaders, police organizations, and juvenile court staff to reduce disproportionate minority contact. Consistent with national trends on the overrepresentation of youth of color, identifying best practices and breakthrough protocols to create an equitable system of the juvenile justice system is key. Previous incentives to address DMC mandated that states receiving the federal Formula Grant Program measure disparity using the relative rate index (RRI). Training and technical assistance for juvenile courts also help to assess system readiness, develop DMC interventions at the system-level, and allay concerns over racial/ethnic disparities. Community involvement
To reduce racial and ethnic disparities, cultural and linguistic competence training for all juvenile court professionals (including judges) is a promising approach when used with the relative rate index to identify disparities at decision points of contact in the juvenile justice system.OJJDP acknowledges the importance of courts to develop culturally competent programs and services, provide training for juvenile justice professionals, and break down language barriers in the juvenile justice system.Using the relative rate index to design strategies that reduce disparities and more importantly, to develop culturally-specific alternatives to detention and confinement helps administrators adopt promising solutions to address longstanding inequities in the court.
Awareness and incentives go hand-in-glove. We need to make inequities visible by collecting data and displaying it in a way that invites regular attention, such as developing equity dashboards at the program level and making sure that they are prominent features on the computer screens of everyone responsible for administering the program. Promotions can and should depend to some extent on the ability to recognize and remedy inequities in positions that provide a meaningful opportunity to intervene.
Covid-19 has done more to elevate the visibility of social inequity than any other development of this century. The tragic results create perhaps the best opportunity in a lifetime to champion a broad and aggressive effort to repair the disparities so abundantly clear to everyone who enters a grocery store, takes a delivery, or rides in a Uber, let alone those who have come into direct contact with the deadly toll of this pandemic. Those unwilling to make change are now required explicitly to defend inequity itself or at best claim that it is beyond their capacity to solve. Living in a city that literally shouts its gratitude for those on the pandemic’s frontlines nightly at 7:00, I may have a skewed view of what is politically possible, but polling shows an America profoundly aware of and concerned about inequity in ways that may make direct attention to its ravages more possible than at any time since the 1960s.
It is critical to establish evidence-based policies, programs, and practices. In the juvenile justice system, there are two steps used to reduce DMC. First, using court data, the relative rate index calculates minority overrepresentation at each of the nine decision points in the juvenile justice system. Second, the DMC Reduction Cycle provides a process for identifying, assessing, intervening, evaluating, and monitoring ongoing DMC reduction activities. OJJDP encourages the use of effective or promising evidence-based youth programs and practices for implementation consideration (OJJDP Model Programs Guide). While programs may vary, diversion programs are designed to redirect youth from the formal adjudication process to avoid recidivism, stigma, and further processing into the juvenile system.
We should encourage brave spaces to foster social equity. For more than 50 years, civil rights leaders have held peaceful demonstrations to protest discrimination and to take a stand against injustice. Across America, many have suffered social and economic injustices at the will of business and government. Concerns for equal treatment, economic equity, decent housing, employment opportunities, and civil rights chronicle public discourse and amplify current demands for reform and progress. In the decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voters Rights Act of 1965, advocates continue to fight for democracy and demand bipartisan support for social change. To what end?
Today, we have awakened in a new America. More citizens understand what intolerance and injustice look like. Now public administrators and policymakers must examine how decision-making exacerbates systemic inequality. Likewise, public administrators must be willing to create brave spaces that mitigate these challenges and design solutions to address persistent societal problems. As public leaders, it is our professional obligation to examine disparate outcomes produced as a result of our policies, our programs, and our practices. Once public administrators and policymakers accept their role in fostering social equity, collaboratively we can narrow the dynamics of difference that exists between racial and ethnic groups.
We should make it a national priority to address disproportion minority contact (DMC). Federal, state, and local efforts to ensure that every youth will receive fair and just treatment in the juvenile justice system requires public administrators and policymakers to make reducing disproportionate minority contact a national priority. To ignore DMC at each decision point is to ignore the fact that race still matters in the juvenile justice system. To address the persistent racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice, a reduction in DMC must be mandated.
We need equity audits. Here lately, “Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk” underscores a sense of urgency for advancing social equity. In the Black community, I am instinctively aware of the disparities and risks associated with maintaining the status quo. As we franticly come to understand the risk profiles of vulnerable populations, now is the time to establish due care and make decisions that align with challenges in public administration. As we work together to advance social equity in the four key areas of Grand Challenges in Public Administration: (1) protecting and advancing democracy, (2) strengthening social and economic development; (3) ensuring environmental sustainability; and (4) addressing technological changes, we must affirm that social equity matters. With collective wisdom and determined action, the Academy can advance principles of fairness and justice as well as monitor diversity and inclusion, across all levels of government. With a sense of urgency, we must back up what we value with action.
At the Academy, “Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk” also means that we must evaluate where we stand against the standard of fairness and justice. Benchmarking our performance against democratic values requires an equity audit. Using historical information and assessing our collective impact will not guarantee equal outcomes, but routine equity audits will help the Academy monitor progress and change. A systematic review of governance, operations, and collective impact across grand challenges in public administration is important. We have work to do.
COVID-19 has had a catastrophic impact on communities of color. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. Also, many black and Latino front line workers with pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma are vulnerable to severe infection and death. Coupled with racism, high demand for service work, and a lack of resources, Blacks and Latinos who work on the front line face additional risks. Additionally, CDC points out “Racial and ethnic minority groups are over-represented in jails, prisons, and detention centers, which have specified risks due to congregate living, shared food service, and more.” These living conditions coupled with demanding work circumstances and underlying health conditions make Blacks and Latinos at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Many states have not completely reported death rates by race and ethnicity, but by all account race still matters. From what we know, Blacks and Latinos face an unfair burden of both severe illness and death from COVID-19. Fostering social equity requires us to talk about why COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black and Latino communities and then by decisive leadership and government action, create permanent solutions to eliminate health disparities.
Near the end of April, the Conference of Minority Public Administrators sponsored a webinar on COVID-19 and the Minority Communities. The presenter, Daniel Dawes of Morehouse University, said that the current pandemic was not a “great equalizer” as some have described it, but rather a ‘Great Revealer” since it has brought to our attention the massive inequities that exist between members of the sub-populations in our country and between countries in the world. COVID-19 has also “revealed” how these inequities are manifested in all of the policy areas covered in the Grand Challenges. The Academy and our allies within the Public Affairs community must not let this insight dissipate when (hopefully soon) the scourge of the Coronavirus has passed. Every one of the Grand Challenges are inflicted with inequities—and it is must be one of the goals of the Grand Challenges to expose them, to identify the severe consequences of their existence and to create and disseminate strategies for reducing the severity of these inequities.
RaJade M. Berry-James. Associate Professor of Public Administration, School of Public and International Affairs, North Carolina State University; Evaluator, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina State University; Executive Trainer, Accreditation Institute, NASPAA; Resident Fellow, Genetic Engineering & Society, North Carolina State University; Faculty Liaison, Institutional Equity & Diversity, North Carolina State University; Director of Graduate Programs, Public Administration, North Carolina State University; Evaluator, Disproportionate Minority Contact, Summit County Juvenile Court, Ohio; Evaluator, Institute for Health and Social Policy, The University of Akron; Associate Professor, Public Administration and Urban Studies, The University of Akron; Assistant Professor, Public Administration and Urban Studies, The University of Akron; MPA Program Coordinator/Assistant Professor, Government and Sociology, Georgia College & State University; Special Assistant to the President, Office of the President, Kean University; Assistant to the Dean, School of Liberal Arts, Kean University; Associate Director, Institutional Research, Kean University; Assistant Director, Institutional Research, Kean University; Research Assistant, Educational Opportunity Fund Program, New Jersey Department of Higher Education.
David Birdsell. Dean, Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York; Board Chair, Governance Matters; Board Member, New York Council of Nonprofits; Past President, NASPAA. Former positions with Baruch College: Special Assistant to the President for Institutional Effectiveness; Professor of Public Affairs; Interim Dean, School of Public Affairs; Executive Director of Academic Programs; Associate Professor of Public Affairs; Associate Professor of Speech; Assistant Professor of Speech; Lecturer in Speech & Director of Forensics. Former consultant, Communication, New York City Fire Department; Consultant, Institutional Research and Communication Technology, New York Public Library; Consultant, Communication Strategy, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest; Consultant, Capitol Hill Communication, Congressional Management Foundation; Consultant, Improving Nonprofit Consulting, Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management Foundation; Consultant, Patron and Staff Education for Online Research, Brooklyn Public Library; Consultant, Political Debating, U.S. Information Agency; Lecturer in Speech & Director of Forensics, University of Virginia.
Blue Wooldridge. Professor, The L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University. Former Member, Steering Committee, University Partnership Project in Health Services Management, Virginia Commonwealth University and Palacky University; Fulbright Visiting Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Dar el Salaam, Tanzania; Professor, Institute of Public Service, University of Connecticut; Director, Graduate Program in Urban Affairs, Center for Graduate Studies in Northern Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.