Guest Commentary

KC’s next mayor should start with local justice reform to fight crime

Quinton Lucas, candidate for Kansas City mayor
Quinton Lucas, candidate for Kansas City mayor

At election time, familiar tropes reappear. Candidates rush to declare “community policing” as the cure for decades of high crime without defining what community policing means. Most support a “public health approach” to crime as a solution without considering that our city, state and country vastly underfund public health each year.

Our community jumps from crisis to crisis at the Jackson County jail, avoiding consideration of whether part of the problem is the number of people Kansas City sends to the jail each week. Overlooked for decades in our crime conversation is the need for local criminal justice reform. For the working poor, an unpaid parking or speeding ticket may set off a chain of events that leads from warrants to fear, jail to job losses, and a lack of opportunities to earn a living through legitimate work.

In a city where nearly 75 percent of voters approved a ballot measure that functionally decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, scores of our neighbors still carry a conviction for petty marijuana possession as a scarlet letter to be disclosed in job interviews or as enhancements for future offenses. In some parts of our community, a youthful indiscretion is just that, while in poorer, black and brown parts of the city, mistakes carry jail time with serious offenders, lasting stigma and limited options for those looking to better their lives.

Creating economic and racial justice in our city is essential to providing alternatives to crime, building a workforce for our city’s future, allowing more fathers to be with their children and freeing up policing resources to address dangerous career offenders. If elected, I will use the existing pardon power of the mayor to extinguish all stand-alone convictions for minor municipal marijuana violations.

I will work to decriminalize poverty by eliminating incarceration for offenses relating more to a person’s inability to pay — such as warrants for parking tickets — than underlying antisocial conduct. And for our undocumented brothers and sisters, or anyone with impediments to obtaining state-issued identification, I will establish a municipal ID card so that all residents, no matter their circumstances, can have the identification essential nowadays to rent a home, get a library card or obtain a job to support themselves and their families

Pulling one’s self up the ladder of opportunity is hard when society lets circumstances, low income, discrimination or past nonviolent petty offenses pull you down for decades. It’s time in Kansas City for us to recognize all we can do to help people be productive. And that begins with reforming every element of the current system that leads them to a cycle of incarceration.

Justice reform at the local level is a start. There’s certainly much more we must do to stem crime by investing in a better quality of life through developing affordable housing, enhancing education and workforce opportunities, and adequately funding behavioral health care.

But more than yet another commission or task force with ideas that rest on a book shelf, it’s time we take immediate action to help our neighbors through commonsense, local criminal justice reform. Allowing people a chance at open opportunity, and making it less likely that they will be held back by circumstances, helps us address this city’s most important crime-related challenge.

Quinton Lucas teaches at the University of Kansas School of Law in Lawrence. He represents the 3rd District at large on the City Council. This is one in a series of columns by candidates for Kansas City mayor.