The San Francisco-based W. Haywood Burns Institute works to reduce racial and ethnic disparity in the justice system in California and nationwide.
In California, a high percentage of African American youths is incarcerated, compared to the number of youths of other races who are in jail, explained Executive Director James Bell.
In fact, African American youths in California are five to six times more likely to be behind bars than other youths, depending on where in the state they live, Bell noted.
The W. Haywood Burns Institute, at 180 Howard St., recognizes this disparity is a significant problem, not only in California, but throughout the country. It therefore works nationwide in an effort to reduce the number of African American youth who wind up in jail.
The institute believes that incarcerating African American youths who commit a crime is not necessarily the best solution for them, their families or their communities. Instead, it suggests an alternative — to have these youths do some kind of community service or get involved with a community organization.
“The goal of the institute is to promote the well-being of youth of color, for children and their community, by creating a community center that is equitable,” Bell explained. “We live in the aspirational sense of what the justice system should be, but we also understand what it is now.”
The W. Haywood Burns Institute brings together schools, mental health professionals, health departments, district attorneys, law enforcement, juvenile courts, probation officers and public defenders in counties across the United States to examine the high percentage of black youths who are incarcerated in each particular county.
The institute first looks at data from the entities in each county and then works to find a solution for incarcerated black youth other than jail. It typically takes about 2 ½ years to put in a fix and make sure it is working, Bell explained.
Currently, the institute works in 30 counties across the United States, according to Bell. It has worked in 90 counties since it started.
According to Bell, these jurisdictions cannot do this themselves without assistance. “They [all of the different entities] need someone who is that guiding hand to walk them through that process,” he explained.
The W. Haywood Burns Institute has four components. It is on-site, helping all of the entities in the different counties and shepherding them through the process. Additionally, it has a team working on policy and outreach, a communications department and a community justice program.
The Community Justice Network for Youth — CJNY — is a program that provides its member organizations with training and facilities exchanges, explained to director Malachi Larrabee-Garza.
It also provides members with a history of the juvenile justice system. It teaches members the strategies and tools the institute uses and how to understand and access data, Larrabee-Garza further explained.
Larrabee-Garza added that CJNY has grown from 15 member organizations to more than 200 member organizations in 23 states.
Before coming to the W. Haywood Burns Institute, Larrabee-Garza spent five years at the School of Unity and Liberation — S.O.U.L., a CJNY member organization — as the Advanced Political Education Director. “As a member of CJNY, I was always moved by the approach CJNY took,” she explained.
Larrabee-Garza brings more than 15 years of community organizing and experience to the W. Haywood Burns Institute. “I have been humbled to be part of something that is so effective,” she stated. “People always say I’m so lucky to have a job and be doing what I love.”
Roselyn Berry — program manager for CJNY — who has been involved with the institute for about a year, checks in with member organizations, learns more about them and how she can help them. She does in-person visits with member organizations. “It gives us more of an opportunity to develop relationships,” she said.
Additionally, Berry plays a support role in the task forces the organizations have already established. She travels and works with a number of players in the justice system, including police, probation officers and judges. “It’s pretty demanding but it’s also incredibly rewarding,” she related.
Berry further noted, “The Burns Institute does incredible work, regardless of whether I work here or not. I talk about my work wherever I go.”
Prior to becoming program manager for CJNY, Berry ran Reflect & Strengthen, a peer support group for young people in Boston and another CJNY member organization. Now she is on the other side of the equation and gets to do the work that the institute did for her.
“My organization got a lot out of being involved with CJNY,” Berry said, noting that when she was with Reflect & Strengthen, she received a lot of training that helped her develop as a leader and organizer.
The W. Haywood Burns Institute has a budget of approximately $3 million, according to Bell. It receives the majority of its money from the counties it visits. Additionally, it receives money from local and national foundations, such as the Sierra Health Foundation, the California Endowment Foundation, the McArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The institute has a staff of 17.
The reward of running the W. Haywood Burns Institute is working specifically on the topic of reducing the amount of African American youth who are behind bars, Bell added. “What I love about it is we get to work specifically on this topic,” he said. “That is all we do.”
Meanwhile, the challenge is that it takes courage for all of the entities the institute works with to implement new approaches, and it can be hard for them to get over their fear and move forward.
Prior to launching the W. Haywood Burns Institute, Bell spent 25 years as a civil rights attorney. He worked on behalf of young people and happened to notice more and more people of color were getting incarcerated. He became interested in what other countries did in the area of incarceration. In 2002, he had a delegation come from Romania.
Someone from that group said, “Now that we’ve seen the black court, where is the white court?” This, Bell said, was an “aha moment,” an eye-opener for him, and prompted him to launch the institute.
What does the future hold for the institute? The institute will continue to work at its current sites, look at how the justice system operates, and work toward its goal of reducing the amount of African American youths who are incarcerated, according to Bell. “There’s only 17 of us, but I believe we are making a difference in that regard,” he noted.
The institute is named for the late W. Haywood Burns, who was tragically killed in an automobile accident while attending the International Association of Democratic Lawyers conference in Cape Town, South Africa, according to the organization’s website.
Burns believed that activism, humility and dedication were key to achieving human rights and justice. He graduated with honors from Harvard College and received a law degree from Yale University. In 1968, he served as general counsel to Martin Luther King’s Poor People campaign. He was one of the founders of the National Conference of Black Lawyers.
Burns was the founding dean of the City College Urban Studies Legal Program, serving from 1977 to 1987. He went on to serve as dean of the law school at the City University of New York. He was a visiting scholar at Yale Law School and returned to New York to establish a Harlem-based law firm.
Today, the W. Haywood Burns Institute works on Burns’ behalf, to honor his memory and his legacy and to help reduce the number of youths of color who are behind bars. This helps not only the youths themselves, but their families and the communities in which they live.
More information about the W. Haywood Burns Institute can be found at www.burnsinstitute.org/, and additional information about CJNY can be found at www.cjny.org/.