Bringing Justice Home

Chances are high that community developers are working in areas and with populations that are being strongly affected by overpolicing and hyper-incarceration. In this issue we take a look at that intersection

Cover by artist Monica Trinidad.

Mass incarceration is a major influence in American society. But like so many other things, its effects are not evenly distributed. Overpolicing and hyper-incarceration are unevenly wielded across demographics, especially racially, and geographically. Chances are high that community developers are working in areas and with populations that are being strongly affected by overpolicing and hyper-incarceration. Mass incarceration destabilizes the population; puts additional stress on households, both financially and otherwise; and reduces communities’ political power by temporarily, or sometimes permanently, disenfranchising the formerly incarcerated. (Pick up the latest issue of Shelterforce for some insight on the voting rights of your constituents with records, and to read about all the other stories mentioned here.) People recently released from incarceration or subject to the restrictions of parole and probation are far more likely to end up homeless, and to face challenges in finding not only housing but also employment.

In the new issue, we also bring you a small sampling of areas where the worlds of criminal justice reform and community development intersect. Reducing recidivism is one of the many beneficial side effects of affordable housing, and the Homecoming program is exploring an unusual way to provide a stable transition for people who have finished their prison sentence, while Chicago tries policy approaches to reduce housing discrimination against those with records. MacArthur Fellow Lisa Daugaard talks about how working with the homeless led her to promote programs to divert people facing poverty- and addiction-related charges out of the traditional justice system. Can the wide-ranging support for this approach translate into increasing funding for supportive housing?

Beyond housing, a couple of community development programs are helping people coming out of prison get into the trades by having them building affordable housing before their sentences are even completed, while some CDFIs are actively lending to people with records so they can start their own businesses.

Criminal justice reform and taking care of people heading home from prison are essential parts of achieving equitable communities. Are you doing work at this intersection?

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. Justice has an interesting history. It traces back to the medieval era in the time of Charlemagne. Justice derives from the term joust. Carefully orchestrated physical combat used to be the way of determining the ‘just’ party in a dispute. Disputes used to be settled privately through combat. By the time of Charlemagne, private disputes were being settled publicly by a leaned, distinguished, neutral third party. Justice became a right of the disputants and an obligation of noble third parties to settle conflicts publicly and peaceably rather than by private combat.

    Separately the judiciary arose. Warlords in Europe used to battle it out for the right to be the monopoly tax authority over a certain territory. Victors would leave a portion of their army behind to collect the boodle – the ‘spoils of war’ each year, the origins of the familiar property tax. You may recall the so called ‘Domesday Book’ commissioned by William the Conqueror. It was in fact simply a tax assessors survey to determine who owned what and how much tax revenue could be extracted without risk of inciting rebellion. In time these specialized tax collection armies evolved into the judiciary we are familiar with today.

    As well and in time the dispute resolution function of the nobility arising in the spirit of peace was absorbed by the judiciary born of war. The right to publicly resolve disputes became an obligation to submit to the judiciary. It became the right of the judiciary to impose its justice on disputants.

    While political systems of government have evolved and changed over the centuries, the form and character of the judiciary has largely remained frozen in place: In place of clear language setting forth simple practical rules serving to prevent and peaceably resolve conflict, you have very complex rules written in obscure prose and in the foreign language of Latin. As well such ‘positivist’ law of the judiciary, far from acting to prevent and resolve conflict, to the contrary tends to ceaselessly incite it, and one need only think of the US judiciaries ‘War on Drugs’.
    It is this project of the judiciary more than any other which has incited armed dangerous conflict in the US cities on such a vast scale. The drug warfare project of the judiciary has convulsed poor minority communities in crisis in particular the crisis of mass incarceration you write about.

    One is of course anxious to see any program which can protect vulnerable minorities from the grave danger posed to it by the judiciary. And certainly giving such vulnerable individuals homes and jobs is a noble undertaking. One can only wish the greatest success. Yet the real solution lies not in reforming the judiciary but rather in exposing its historical origins in medieval warfare. The real problem is the one of allowing the dispute prevention and resolution component of the original form of justice to both re-emerge and to become free from the clutches of the judiciary.


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