Q&A: How These Oregon Leaders Are Empowering Black Women in the Criminal Justice System

By Shani Saxon Apr 10, 2019

It’s not breaking news to say that racial disparities plague the American criminal justice system. It’s a systemic issue that affects people of color in every state. However, one local community hopes to create a shift in that narrative. After doing an analysis of local data, officials in Multnomah County, Oregon, noticed that Black women were being ordered to jail more often than their White male peers due to a dearth of alternative interventions and options. They decided to tackle the gap by creating programming tailored to Black women in the criminal justice system. 

Colorlines spoke to Abbey Stamp, Multnomah’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council executive director, and O’Nesha Cochran, Bridges to Change program manager for the Diane Wade House (DWH), about the positive impact of their work.

Racial disparity across gender and race lines in the criminal justice system is certainly not unique to Multnomah County. The difference is the community’s decision to tailor its reform efforts to Black women. Talk to us about the programs that have recently launched there and why they are so crucial.

Stamp: Multnomah County recently launched Diane Wade House, an Afrocentric transitional housing program for justice-involved women. A few years ago, we identified the need to have transitional, stabilization housing available for women who were involved in our criminal justice system. At the same time, we were digesting the sobering results of the MacArthur Foundation Racial and Ethnic Disparities report, confirming African Americans are overrepresented at every stage of the justice system.

During planning for our MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant application, we made the bold decision to be intentional with our hopes to better support African-American women. While the DWH is available for all justice-involved women, we knew it would be important to offer a culturally specific program. This is important for two main reasons: One, people of color are forced to engage in dominant culture programming, and two, the criminal system has disproportionately harmed communities of color by over policing, the war on drugs and the impacts of institutionalized racism. DWH fills a critical gap—a service and support specifically designed to help African-American women seek stability and recovery to exit the justice system.

How will these programs reduce the jail population?

Cochran: I am a survivor of being imprisoned. I served 15 years behind bars. I also conducted a focus group for the DWH program with African-American women who were formerly or currently on parole or probation. Housing programs were not popular for making us feel welcome, safe, and could not or would not meet us where we were at. Going to treatment centers and resource programs to get help while I was in my active addiction was tough, too. I remember sitting in my counselors’ offices and parole and probation offices and I could sense their fear. I knew I made them nervous and that they couldn’t really relate to me.

I think the DWH will be a perfect connecting program to more permanent solutions. We are not treatment—but we give women a safe house to be themselves. They feel safe and they see the beauty of their culture everywhere they look. We know that addiction is prevalent and most of these women have never received appropriate or ongoing mental health care, if it all. When women return back to the community after incarceration, they have a lot to do. They get a reprieve to think about what they need to obtain self-sufficiency.

Tell us about the collaboration between the community and local criminal justice and public health systems. In what ways is the community actively involved in shaping Multnomah County’s criminal justice reform efforts? 

Stamp: From the start, we included a county employee from the Office of Consumer Engagement within the health department. This employee is a woman of color with lived justice experience. With her guidance, we developed a listening session with African-American women with justice involvement. At the listening session, the only White people in the room were two Local Public Safety Coordinating Council staff. We took direction from the facilitator and sat in the back of the room to listen and take notes. Moving forward, we will develop a Community Advisory Board, continuing to ensure client and community participation and voice from operations to policy. At least one member of the Board will be a client of DWH.

Cochran: These policy changes are crucial to revamping and reshaping the local criminal justice system. They also come with support through the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge. The only way to change these systems is to bring forward the voices of those who live within these systems and to believe them when they tell you what is not working.