• The Community Justice Task Force: Assessing Progress and Looking forward: A Report prepared for the University of Maryland School of Law Community Justice Initiative

      Shdaimah, Corey S. (2008-07-15)
      Executive Summary The University of Maryland's School of Law's Community Justice Initiative (CJI) sought community members' perceptions of the impact of its work. This was explored in three focus groups held on February 26, April 10 and April 14 2008 with members of the Community Justice Task Force (CJTF), a broad group of community stakeholders. Specifically, focus group participants were asked to reflect on their: 1. Understanding of community justice and what this looks like "on the ground" 2. Assessment of the work of the CJI thus far. 3. Expectations for the CJI in the future Focus groups were conducted and analyzed by Corey S. Shdaimah, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work. Main Findings All of the findings reported here are drawn from the focus groups and thus represent the varied perceptions, understandings and goals of participants. 1. Focus group participants believed that current approaches to poverty, community strife, and struggles of Baltimore families and communities are ineffective. They expressed opinions that: a. Healthy communities are communities that do not stifle differences or conflict but rather engage in dialogue. b. Baltimore communities face many different challenges. The wealth of experience and expertise that is shared via the CJTF1 benefits everyone and increases the impact and reach of any one member or group. 2. Most participants believed that the University of Maryland School of Law is uniquely positioned to lead the CJTF. It has the resources, the stature, the connections, and the perception of academic neutrality to serve in this role. 3. Law students reported that they learned a great deal from work with the CJTF. They identified the most significant contributions to their education as follows: a. It helped them evaluate their career goals. b. They gained a better understanding of Baltimore. c. They gained a better understanding of working with clients and communities. 4. Law students also reported frustration with a lack of clarity in several aspects of their work with the CJTF: a. They indicated that there was a mismatch between expectations derived from the course description and their work. b. They were unsure of their roles. c. They had difficulty balancing CJTF work with other Community Development Clinic2 requirements. 5. Focus group participants felt that broader community participation is necessary to the success of CJTF initiatives, particularly the participation of those who live and work in the areas where CJTF initiatives will be implemented. Participants highlighted the following: a. Such participation must engage community members as full partners and leaders in the CJTF. They should determine the agenda and what they would like to see in their communities. b. Coordination, capacity building at the community level, and additional resources can ensure the continuation of CJTF work and implementation of CJTF initiatives. 6. All focus groups emphasized the urgent need for action while continuing to reflect upon and assess CJTF initiatives. Recommendations The focus groups yielded a number of concrete recommendations for addressing the concerns regarding the CJTF and its goals outlined above. I. It is necessary to explore and encourage community justice-informed approaches. a. People should not have to enter into the criminal justice system in order to access services or as a first intervention. b. It is important to identify and address problems and needs as early as possible c. CJTF efforts should be geographically based. 2. The CJTF should continue to serve as a model of healthy and open dialogue for members and for others. CJTF initiatives should: a. Foster participation and engagement. b. Strive for inclusion and fairness. c. Foster "hospitality zones" where different groups within and among communities can listen to each other and work together. 3. The CJTF should continue to work with professionals from a wide variety of agencies with a variety of skill sets. a. It should consider engaging a variety of professionals or students in CJTF leadership or coordinating roles, possibly with funding b. Social workers or community organizers will most likely provide the desired skills and expertise 4. The Community Development Clinic should continue to place law students in the CJTF. a. Modifications can be made to course descriptions to enhance the likelihood of a good match between students and CJTF work. b. Additional theoretical and conceptual groundwork in class meetings would frame the rich discussion around roles and responsibilities of (community) lawyers. 5. The CJTF must prioritize engagement of a broader group of community stakeholders. a. This requires building community capacity to allow participation and to sustain the work of the CJTF. b. Logistical arrangements, such as meeting times/places, should cater more to people who are not "paid to be at the table." c. The CJTF should create institutional memory to ensure continuity even if individuals are unable to sustain long-term participation 6. In addition to funding, the CJTF should seek in-kind services. a. These might include identifying locations to meet and goods and services that businesses would be willing to share. b. The CJTF should also consider how existing public resources can (and should) be reallocated. 7. Limited resources should not prevent the work of the CJTF to move forward. The CJTF should move to a more active phase with the knowledge and resources currently available to ensure continued interest in, and engagement with, CJTF stakeholders.