Nine and a half years ago, I began working at Dixie State University and I was tasked with creating a baccalaureate degree in criminal justice. I felt overwhelmed. This was my first job and I hadn’t finished my Ph.D. yet.
I remember sitting in my office surveying the landscape of criminal justice programs across the region, realizing many programs were educating students to fill roles in an antiquated criminal justice system in need of substantial reform. I didn’t know what to do.
My background was in sociology and criminology and, given my novice status in higher ed, I had no choice but to lean on my own educational foundations. Ultimately, a degree in criminal justice was approved, but our degree provided students with the option to earn an emphasis in criminology, which is the social and behavioral examination of criminal behavior. We were the first program in the state to offer students this option.
I believed our students would have the skills to analyze the system they would enter as professionals and the ability to make informed decisions about how to evolve it into a more effective, holistic system. What I didn’t anticipate was the diverse ways our students would seek to do that.
Consensus is not often found in pursuits of knowledge. Complexity, misunderstanding, ego and prejudice, among many other things, lead to intellectual disagreement and discord. And yet, you can walk into almost any criminology course in the country and ask the students if the current criminal justice system reflects the best use of resources and their answer would be uniform. They would tell you no.
They would suggest we invest more in rehabilitation. They would tell you we should invest in programs to alleviate the strain of poverty and the burden of mental illness. They would tell you we should improve educational institutions and retrain people for a dynamic workforce. Their suggestions would embody the current movement to defund the police.
I realize the notion to defund the police seems drastic to some. Maybe the term should have been workshopped a bit more, but the idea is sound.
The suggestion is not to dismantle or abolish the police, but to make the system built to address crime more responsive to the causes of crime. Police would continue to have a role, but an expanded one would exist for social workers and therapists and victims advocates. Employment specialists and teachers and guidance counselors would become part of a connected, communal system of justice.
In short, the system would begin to represent the career interests of the students filling my classroom over the last decade.
Once our degree was approved, I noticed a shift in our students. Part of this change was due to the new availability of a baccalaureate degree. But it was more than that, too. The interests of our students began to diversify.
Many of our students wanted to enter law enforcement, but a growing portion of them didn’t. They all shared the heart and determination of public servants, yet their approaches to fill that desire expanded. My classrooms started to exemplify what we now call defunding the police.
Our program has proudly produced law enforcement officers, victims advocates, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, lawyers, special ed teachers, doctoral students, mental health professionals and guardians ad litem, to name a few.
It’s time to let the system represent the interests and abilities of those training to work in it. If you want to understand the future of the criminal justice system with a defunded police force, all you have to do is come visit my students.
Lish Harris, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice at Dixie State University. He currently serves as the chair for the Department of Applied Sociology and Criminal Justice. He teaches courses on inner-city crime, drug policy and other issues of race and justice.