Politics & Policy

The Coalition for Public Safety

Promising possibilities from unlikely allies.

It has been said that a crisis can create unlikely allies. Well, the nation’s criminal-justice system has reached a crisis point. We have a prison population of over 2 million — including many serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses — accounting for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. In response, the Koch brothers, champions of conservative principles, and the American Civil Liberties Union, a stalwart liberal organization, have joined with others across the political spectrum to launch a collaborative new organization, the Coalition for Public Safety, to promote reform of the criminal-justice system.

The unexpected collaboration has elicited expressions of hope but also skepticism from commentators, including those quoted in a recent Slate article, who have voiced doubts about the likelihood of its success.

One purported weakness of the coalition is the difference in motivation and priorities of the players, which, the skeptics believe, could make it impossible for the Left and the Right to actually join forces to pass legislation. In fact, the key to the Coalition’s prospects for success will be to go above the arena of debate about intentions and motivations and to focus solidly on solutions.

An example from the annals of my work with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) provides evidence that a broad-based collaborative effort to address the problems of those who are most in need is possible and that it can result in the passage of legislation that accomplishes its goals.

In the early 1980s, seven low-income leaders of residents of public housing in cities around the country made national headlines when they successfully drove the drug dealers from their properties and confronted the incompetent management of the local housing authorities. With the cooperation of those housing authorities, they took on the role of managers themselves and established and enforced codes of conduct that brought about dramatic improvements in the quality of life for themselves and their fellow residents.

The St. Louis tenant-management initiative was profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes, featuring an interview with Bertha Gilkey, the dynamic and fearless leader of public-housing residents at the Cochran Gardens housing project. Sitting in the development’s courtyard, where children played freely and unafraid, Bertha told Morley Safer: “We are a neighborhood, not a project. We didn’t just fix it up, we changed the people — we changed the thinking of the people.”

Upon hearing about this effort, then-congressman Jack Kemp sought out these leaders and played a key role in forming a bipartisan coalition that brought about seven amendments to the 1987 Housing and Community Development Act, empowering the residents to manage their own properties. D.C. mayor Marion Barry played a pivotal role in this process. The legislation’s cosponsors in the House were Republican representative Kemp from Buffalo and Democratic representative Walter Fauntroy from Washington, D.C. In the Senate, William Armstrong (R., Colo.) and Alan Dixon (D., Ill.) were the cosponsors. The legislation passed 93 to 0 in the Senate and had only one dissenting vote in the House. It was signed into law by President Reagan — flanked by the resident–management leaders.

That collaborative accomplishment was celebrated in a White House meeting by none other than President Reagan and Mayor Barry — the epitome of unlikely bedfellows.

So today’s Coalition for Public Safety has an impressive predecessor that shows that it is possible for concerned citizens across the political spectrum to craft and pass legislation to address their goals. Taking a page from the playbook of the collaboration that moved resident management forward, the new coalition should focus on identifying existing models of strategies that work. A good start would be to look among CNE’s network of grassroots organizations that have developed effective and replicable programs to deter and reduce youth violence and provide an alternative to juvenile detention, as well as initiatives that have provided opportunities for those reentering society after prison terms to become agents of change in their communities and successful entrepreneurs.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of The Woodson Center, which works to empower local leaders in troubled neighborhoods to increase public safety, spur upward mobility, and inspire racial unity in America. His new book is Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers.


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