When a report released earlier this summer from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems found that Black students in Allegheny County are suspended seven times as much as White students, it didn’t come as a surprise to those at the Heinz Endowments, which funded the study.
“We weren’t happy, but we weren’t surprised, either. It was confirmation of what we expected and that members of the community have been telling us for some time,” Carmen Anderson, the endowments’ director of equity and social justice, told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, Nov. 29.
School suspensions, in the eyes of the Heinz Endowments, largely contribute to the disproportionate number of African American youth that end up in the criminal justice system.
That factor, among others, is why the Heinz Endowments is making a nearly $10 million commitment over the next three years to invest in programs that could ultimately reduce the number of Pittsburgh-based African Americans in the criminal justice system and reducing the “school-to-prison” pipeline.
“Disproportionate numbers, disparate treatment for Black people in the (criminal justice) system is still a primary issue, and we know it has a devastating effect on the community,” Anderson said. “Certainly the African American community, but I don’t think you can separate the impact from the broader community.”
The numbers speak volumes—Just 12.5 percent of Allegheny County’s 1.2 million people are Black. But 49 percent of Allegheny County’s jail population is Black, according to a 2016 report by Pitt’s Institute of Politics’ Criminal Justice Task Force.
Anderson outlined three areas of focus for what Heinz is calling “The Restoration Project—A Justice System Reform Strategy:” reducing the use of both the Allegheny County Jail and Shuman Juvenile Detention Center; improving the health and safety conditions for those who are confined to the jail; and expanding opportunities for those who are released from jail and back into the community.
An issue of concern for the endowments is those who are unable to pay the fines and court costs associated with a crime. That’s a major reason why many African Americans with lower incomes end up in jail—and a major reason the endowments has already approved a $150,000 grant to the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Pennsylvania. “We know that one of the issues that affect people dramatically is the inability to pay fines,” Anderson told the Courier. “We’re looking at addressing that part—not the seriousness of the crime but the inability to pay the fine associated with it.”
A $500,000 grant was approved to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation to continue behavioral health services for youth in the criminal justice system; $100,000 was awarded to the Jail Collaborative Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation for programs that can keep those out of jail for good after being released; and $75,000 was approved to Duquesne University to serve as representation for youth in the justice system.
That’s only the beginning of the grants, Anderson stressed. Heinz Endowments is also looking to award grants to African American-led organizations in Pittsburgh that work with or have direct access to families who’ve been affected by the criminal justice system.
“Engaging the African American community, African American-led organizations will be an important part of the process,” Anderson said.
Heinz Endowments, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the U.S., has no problem putting their money where their mouth is. On a blog posted to the Heinz Endowments’ website, written by Anderson, she clearly states that “the Heinz Endowments is committed to improving the lives of people who are impacted by the judicial system. We have created a major initiative to promote criminal justice system reform in both the Allegheny County adult and juvenile justice systems, and increase community engagement and support.”
Anderson also stated in the blog post that “if African Americans and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rate as the White population, the prison and jail population in the country would decline by nearly 40 percent. While the paramount responsibility of the criminal justice system is to preserve public safety and protect individual rights, the system is deeply flawed and often our children pay the greatest price.”
Anderson told the Courier exclusively that the residents of Pittsburgh and the surrounding region shouldn’t sweep the issues surrounding minorities and the criminal justice system under the rug.
“Yes, this (Pittsburgh) is the most livable city, but not for everyone,” Anderson told the Courier. “I believe we have both an opportunity and an obligation” to strengthen all disenfranchised communities and give all families “a desire to have a healthy and productive community.”
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