The road not taken: Housing and criminal justice 50 years after the Kerner Commission report

Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the “Kerner Commission” report, the Economic Policy Institute, collaborating with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative, hosted a conference on “Race & Inequality In America,” not only to commemorate the report but to re-assess its findings and conclusions. The conference assembled prominent national experts in the fields of housing, employment and labor markets, criminal justice, health, and education to consider where the black-white divide has narrowed, where it has stayed the same, and where it has widened.

In The Road Not Taken we have now summarized the conclusions of these experts, adding some additional perspectives with the benefit of another year of hindsight. We focus particularly on how far we have come, or not come, in housing segregation and criminal justice disparities over the last 50 years. In particular, we examine the recommendations of the 1968 commission and note how few have ever been implemented.

The Road Not Taken notes that in some ways the last half century has seen progress—the desegregation of workplaces is perhaps the most conspicuous example, although here too, much remains to be done. In some areas, we’re about where we were—residential segregation has not diminished much, if at all. And in some areas, things have gotten much worse—the disparate incarceration of young black men, in particular.

We review the most important policies now needed to break us out of stagnation in the two most critical areas of criminal justice and housing. Reforms in both areas have been largely inadequate, partial or superficial. Unfortunately, many of the policies needed today are no different from those recommended by the Kerner Commission. Some are new. Our chief policy recommendations are these:

  • Create independent, separate, civilian-led agencies with the power to investigate and remediate accusations of police misconduct filed against local police departments, rather than allowing such complaints to be managed entirely by the departments themselves.
  • Expand de-escalation training and implement stricter standards or guidelines on the use of force by police in order to reduce the frequency of civilians killed or otherwise mistreated by police officers.
  • Roll back mandatory minimum sentencing laws that require incarceration for low-level offenses and that keep young men in prison far beyond the age where they are likely to re-offend.
  • Eliminate cash bail for low-level offenders who presently are jailed awaiting trial not because they are unlikely to appear in court but only because of their poverty and inability to afford to bail.
  • Improve police-community relations in low-income neighborhoods by re-instituting foot patrols and substituting summonses for arrests to control offenses against order and where offenses against property or persons are not involved.
  • Create mixed-income (and effectively, mixed-race) public housing, returning public housing to its early goals of providing high-quality affordable rental units for working and middle class families, not only for the poor, but for the poor as well.
  • Reform zoning rules that prevent the development of mixed-income (and, effectively, mixed-race) communities.
  • Reform subsidy policies for low-income, disproportionately black and Hispanic households, specifically the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Housing Choice Voucher program, to avoid reinforcing segregation, and increase the funding of these programs so that all eligible low-income households can benefit.
  • Mandate inclusionary zoning so that developers must set aside a share of units that are affordable to both low-income and middle-class families, as well as to the affluent.
  • Prevent the displacement of existing residents from gentrifying neighborhoods by implementing tenant protections such as rent control, limits on condominium conversions and inclusionary zoning for new construction.
  • Protect minority and moderate-income homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods by limiting property tax increases that would otherwise force families out of their homes as assessed values appreciate; to avoid starving local schools, recapture the lost property taxes when the homeowner sells.

Steps like these can, perhaps, halt the deterioration of our nation into two societies that are even more separate and unequal than the Kerner Commission ominously prophesied we were becoming, and may well have become. But it is not too late to do something about it.