Kerner Report 50 Years Later: Political Support for Justice Reform Still a Challenge

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Fifty years ago this week, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission, headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner) issued its report. The panel was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots. The panel concluded that the U.S. was headed toward “two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal.”

This week, The Milton Eisenhower Foundation published “Healing Our Divided Society,” a look at how the U.S. has changed in the half-century since the report. The volume has three chapters on criminal justice. Delbert Elliott of the University of Colorado-Boulder asks if the nation has enough evidence-based programs and practices to mount a comprehensive violence- and crime-prevention initiative.

He says the current set of programs that meet a high enough scientific standard to take to scale is small and their impact would be modest.

“The political will to abandon ineffective and harmful programs and embed evidence-based programs, practices, and policies in our educational, health, and justice systems must be found,” Elliott says. “This was the critical obstacle identified in the original Kerner Commission report. It remains the critical obstacle.”

Former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, now at George Mason University, cited several reasons for optimism about policing. Few law enforcement leaders believe they can arrest their way out of the opioid crisis.

“Instead, there is a commitment to working in tandem with public health professionals to address these problems, using treatment and data tools,” she says. Because criminal justice is largely a state and local enterprise, reform will continue with or without leadership from the bully pulpit in Washington, she says.

Elliott Currie of the University of California Irvine says the Kerner report’s “basic message remains strikingly on target. Serious violent crime continues to be a fundamental, inescapable fact of life in most racial ghettoes in America.”

He notes the “racialized character of violent death.”

A recent survey in Chicago found that “a stunning 86 percent of blacks, versus 50 percent of whites, said that it was ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that a young person in their neighborhood would be a victim of violent crime.” He concludes that “the ‘startling’ differences in personal security the [Kerner] commission highlighted are still very much with us.”

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