CBU professors seek to promote dialogue about criminal justice
Riverside, Calif. (June 10, 2021) – In May 2020, the death of George Floyd caused a nationwide response and created a new focus on laws and policing, especially related to the impacts on disadvantaged communities. This was followed up with a protracted and contentious presidential election cycle.
Dr. Mark Kling, program coordinator of the bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom, program director of the Master of Public Administration, both for Online and Professional Studies at California Baptist University, saw the widening divide of public opinion by the end of 2020. People across the country seemed to be retreating into their own corners, and productive dialogue on how to address real safety concerns in the country were replaced by social media wars, the two faculty members said.
That led them to begin writing a series of articles on criminal justice reform for the PA Times, an online journal for the American Society for Public Administration. They were not advocating for one solution or another, they said. Rather, the goal of the articles was to enable voices from all sides to find a common starting place for productive discussions. (The articles were “Defund the Police or Invest in Human Capital: A Framework for Community Safety;” “Police Response to Homelessness: A Partnership for Comprehensive Compassion;” “Prosecutorial Discretion vs Directive: Impacts on Policy & Policing”; “Police, Sentencing and Prisons: Maximizing Impacts of Criminal Justice Reform;” and “Demilitarize the Police: A Framework for Safe Communities.”)
Kling has more than 35 years of experience in law enforcement including being chief of police for several cities. He has experience in leading gang, narcotics and SWAT teams; and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. Sundstrom worked for more than 20 years in local and tribal governments as a policy analyst and grant writer. As a Fulbright Scholar, she taught public administration courses under the Office of the President in Ukraine and worked on anti-corruption initiatives throughout Ukraine with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Why write the articles on the criminal justice system?
Kling: Over the past year, society has been questioning the role of criminal justice in general. Questions arise regarding the fairness of laws, the enforcement of laws and the interpretation/sentencing of the laws. The issues seem vast and daunting, which is why we felt called to use our experience to develop paths forward to productive dialogue. Our Christian-centered philosophies help to bring tenets of kindness, patience and respect to the discourse.
What are some solutions?
Kling: Over the past year, the dialogue has been framed, focusing on what people do not want. For example, movements like “Defund the Police” focus on what not to fund. We are working with research partners in other countries, such as Sweden, to develop expanded services within police departments that allow officers to focus on law enforcement, while allowing social services, behavioral health and code enforcement to safely provide in-depth, expanded services to the community. The police cannot be all things to all people. Each member of the team needs to provide services that are coordinated through the police department. This comprehensive, compassionate approach removes agency silos and helps provide long-lasting results to the community in a safe manner.
We are striving to take the discourse one step further to reimagine laws and policies that: ensure equity for all citizens, enhance law enforcement practices to keep communities safe for everyone and examine the role of law enforcement to best serve the needs of society.
How can groups keep the dialogue going?
Kling: We are asking people, on all sides of the issue, what they want from their criminal justice system in the 21st century. Although groups may not agree on everything, there are places of agreement to begin the dialogue, such as the need to provide comprehensive, compassionate services to those who are homeless or mentally ill, while maintaining safety and security for the community.
How are you hoping to move dialogue in a productive direction with your articles?
Sundstrom: Each article is intended to provide a framework for government agencies, elected officials and citizens to use as a guide for productive discussions. The articles offer proven, innovative program ideas to improve the criminal justice system, such as augmenting police departments with behavioral health and homeless outreach staff, as well as laying the foundations for discussions surrounding the appropriate balance between the legislative branch, administrative branch and judicial/prosecutorial discretion.
What challenge do you give to your students in this area?
Sundstrom: We teach our students to approach these issues from a Christ-centered perspective and to remain politically neutral and show honor and respect to views on all sides of the issue. We teach the students to root themselves in Christian values and to encourage their communities and churches to pray for unity and civility in the conversations.
Anything else you would like to add?
Sundstrom: We believe we have been blessed with a unique combination of experience and education that allows us, as a team, to build a strong foundation for opening productive dialogue in our country. Like the story of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, we have chosen to use our gifts to help move the dialogue in a productive direction.