Abstract: Social Welfare As Justification for Carceral State Expansion: Evidence from Canvass Organizing on the Reform La Jails Ballot Initiative (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

275P Social Welfare As Justification for Carceral State Expansion: Evidence from Canvass Organizing on the Reform La Jails Ballot Initiative

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kristen Brock-Petroshius, MSW, PhD Student, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Background: The U.S. has the largest carceral system in the world.  Far from a new phenomenon, Du Bois argued that Black communities are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system but that these disparities cannot be understood as separate from the larger structural patterns of anti-Black racial attitudes (1899).  Numerous studies have confirmed that anti-Black racial attitudes are the strongest predictors of a variety of punitive carceral policy opinions (Bobo & Thompson 2010).  This persists at the level of County politics, which often determine the resources and conditions of jails - the site of the vast majority of annual penal institution admissions.

This study sought to understand: (1) Why do Los Angeles County residents support or oppose the Reform LA Jails ballot initiative, which seeks to halt a $3.5 billion jail expansion?  (2) How do their attitudes about social welfare programs, homelessness, and mental health inform their opinions?

Methods: This study used 30 in-depth qualitative interviews collected during canvassing for a ballot initiative, Reform LA Jails (Reform). Reform asks voters to halt the use of $3.5 billion to expand the jail system and instead work toward a decarceration strategy by investing those funds in the 28 majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods that have been most targeted by mass incarceration (Lytle Hernandez et al. 2017).  Participants for this study were randomly sampled from within purposively selected census tracts to maximize variation within predominantly White neighborhoods. Volunteer canvassers with a community organization, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), knocked on doors, inviting residents into a semi-structured deep canvass conversation about the policy.  Data included full video or audio recordings of conversations or field notes.  Data were transcribed, coded, and narratively analyzed.

Results: Preliminary results show that participants (66% women, 66% white, 45% foreign-born) had a wide range of policy opinions on this issue (50% in favor, 33% opposed, 17% ambivalent).  27% of respondents opposed Reform out of skepticism that community programs will be effective.  Another 22% opposed Reform because they believed more funds should be invested in jails to decrease jail overcrowding and provide more mental health services.  A common theme that arose in the narratives regardless of explicit policy opinion or recognition of structural racism was a desire to not have people perceived as homeless, mentally ill, and dangerous in their neighborhood.  While this often was explicitly discussed as a desire for social services to help “those people”, deeper questioning often elicited implicit desires to simply remove people from the area – with increased policing and incarceration as the implied solution.

Implications: This study found that suspicion of social welfare programs and responses to homelessness and mental health are used as justification for carceral expansion. These themes are not surprising given overt political calls against government intervention and 1990s race-baiting around welfare.  To build the political will to advance social justice, it is thus imperative that social welfare develop and implement strategies to change dominant racial and political attitudes related to social welfare programs, homelessness, mental health and incarceration.