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Our Historic Opportunity to Improve Public Safety

Federal pandemic relief funds offer state and local governments the chance to invest in public health programming and infrastructure to make communities safer, particularly those that have been the most harmed.

The global pandemic has worsened existing public health crises on many fronts. The sharp increase in homicides in communities across the country, coinciding with high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths, has yielded the most attention. Yet rising substance abuse and overdoses, unaddressed trauma and other negative health outcomes — often within the same communities — have demonstrated the clear interconnectedness of public health and public safety.

Fortunately, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan gives state and local governments an unprecedented opportunity to invest in public health-based solutions that address these entrenched challenges. The federal stimulus funding presents the chance to improve the delivery of both health and safety to local communities and residents across the nation.

The American Rescue Plan’s $350 billion in state and local fiscal recovery funds provides significant discretion for local and state governments, opening the door for officials across the country to make sorely needed investments in health and safety programming and infrastructure, including community-based violence prevention, re-entry programs, trauma recovery services, addiction treatment and mental-health care. Just as important, the discretion enables state and local government leaders to collaborate with communities in crisis to determine proven, culturally responsive solutions together. This can address the frayed trust that often undermines solving problems, ensuring programs and practices that better meet the needs of those whom existing services haven't historically reached.

This opportunity could not be more timely. The destabilizing impacts of COVID-19 have disproportionately impacted low-income, Latino, Black and rural Americans. Before the pandemic, these communities already experienced high rates of unemployment and a lack of supportive health and safety services, and were harmed by an overreliance on the criminal justice system to resolve health and safety issues. They also experienced higher rates of violence before the pandemic, and the instability of the past year and a half has only exacerbated the very conditions that undermine the safety of communities.

To meet the needs of this moment, government leaders need to use data and research to form new community partnerships. I saw the promise of this kind of work firsthand as a public safety official overseeing the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA), the state administrative agency for Illinois’ Department of Justice grant programs. In two years, the state’s Victims of Crime Act fund increased more than fourfold, from approximately $17 million to more than $77 million. This unprecedented infusion resourced ICJIA to partner with crime victim services agencies and community stakeholders across Illinois to conduct the state’s first-ever victim needs assessment.

This not only strengthened existing services, but also funded new programs to address unmet needs, including piloting two trauma recovery centers, an evidence-based model designed to help the most underserved victims, including survivors of gun violence. Today, ICJIA supports five trauma recovery centers and a host of new violence prevention and trauma recovery programs for communities that have historically been the most harmed by crime and violence but least helped by government-funded services.

American public opinion on public safety priorities has shifted, with an increasing recognition that community-level investments in public health are essential to keeping people safe. Overwhelming majorities of American voters support making the investments in these new solutions that are now possible with federal funding.

Public safety stakeholders cannot take this moment for granted. Even with widespread voter support and the federal government’s explicit acknowledgment that community investment is an essential part of the way forward, it will require local and state leaders to partner with advocates, providers and community leaders to ensure that the implementation of the American Rescue Plan fulfills its promise. Unless we meet this moment to implement a more effective approach to safety that communities in crisis have long needed to be safe, this immense opportunity will have been missed.

John Maki is the director of innovations at the Alliance for Safety and Justice. He was the executive director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority from 2015 to 2019.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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