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Rethinking Criminal Justice for Women of Color

By Emma Maliborski
How Project SAFE embeds intersectionality-based approaches in the criminal justice system to reverse mass incarceration.

In 2019, it will be 30 years since the word “intersectionality” was first coined. Though now the term feels common in conversations surrounding cultural power and equity, implementing it into social policy has proven to be a challenge.

Scholar and activist Kimberle Crenshaw, the first to use the term, argues that the experiences of Black women cannot be understood simply as the addition of the experiences unique to women and unique to African-Americans. Black women face a set of challenges and realities that occur because their identities interact with one another. And often, the unique needs of these women fall through the cracks of social institutions.

Afua Addo, coordinator of gender and justice initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation in New York, cited Crenshaw’s thinking when explaining why she helped found Project SAFE. “The experiences of people who are Black who happen to be women, and women who happen to be Black, often times is separated out,” Addo said on the Center’s “New Thinking” podcast.

Project SAFE, which stands for Service and Fundamental Enhancements, trains those who work with Black women in the criminal justice system who have survived sexual or domestic violence. The project is housed under the New York-based Center for Court Innovation, which develops various innovative programs to target issues in the justice system.

The incarceration of women in America has reached record levels. According to legal scholar and activist Bryan Stevenson, the number of women who are in jail or prison increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, a figure that was one and a half times greater than the rate of increase for men.

According to the Center of Court Innovation, Black women make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but 38 percent of the incarcerated population. Over three quarters of women who have been incarcerated have experienced sexual or domestic violence. Forty percent of all Black women have experienced this type of abuse. The intersections of the identities Project SAFE focuses on are not minor. But why does the criminal justice system lack resources for these women?


Project SAFE’s Model

“People who work in the courts and other institutions often don’t have the specific training to work effectively with this population,” said Brittany Davis, a coordinator for Project SAFE. “The things women often get arrested for—such as shoplifting, prostitution or low-level drug offenses—are often survival strategies they use to deal with their unaddressed trauma. Unfortunately, criminal justice system actors often do not understand that.”


Project SAFE bridges this gap of understanding by providing training and assistance for grantees of the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), a branch of the Justice Department. Addo’s goal for the program is to impact policy. “Policies that don’t take into consideration the intersection of the experiences of these women and their families,” she said, can aggravate pre-existing traumas and put women’s families under unnecessary stress.

The Project SAFE team’s specific work is guided by their current OVW grants. Their current grant allows them to plan roundtables across the country that bring survivor leaders and various agencies together to discuss research and new ways to develop resources that take intersectionality into account.

Other daily work includes creating publications, podcasts, webinars and a listserv so those who work with Black women in the justice system can share resources and ask questions that arise in their work. “We are disseminating knowledge and getting people engaged in this topic,” said Davis.

And while new research makes up much of what they publish, the Project SAFE team members have all directly worked with this population before as attorneys, social workers and in other roles. “The work we do is based on the experience of how we’ve worked with the population before,” she said.

In Davis’ case, her previous experience was working at the New York City-based Legal Aid Society while earning her master’s degree in social work. The organization provides defensive services like attorneys and social workers to female, transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in the court system. Many of Davis’s clients were women of color.

“At Legal Aid, you’re directly working one-on-one with the client—working to humanize them and tell their story and highlight the trauma they’ve experienced in court,” said Davis. “Project SAFE is aimed at helping communities, agencies and courts better serve this population of Black women who are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault on a training and programmatic level.”

Instead of having direct contact with justice-involved Black women, Project SAFE’s team is involved with organizations that work with them, like courts and social work groups. They often refer to individuals as “justice-involved” rather than “incarcerated” in their reports.

While Project SAFE does not provide direct services, they are mindful that no methodology can fully address a problem so deeply entrenched in existing systems. Their project partners are leading experts in their own ways and are passionate about the population Project SAFE serves.


One partner is Dr. Rev. Cheryl Dudley, the Regional Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York. “In the Black community, faith and spirituality are really important facets of life, so we wanted to bring in that faith-based lens, and we know that a lot of faith-based organizations work with these populations,” said Davis of Dr. Dudley’s involvement. She is planning to convene her own meeting of New York City faith leaders to discuss this issue.

Other project partners include Black Women’s Blueprint in New York City and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute in California. Project SAFE’s scope is intentionally national, and Addo has visited places like Milwaukee and Los Angeles to speak and provide training under OVW grants. According to an email from Davis, Project SAFE led 11 trainings, both in-person and through webinars, from January 2017 to June 2018. Approximately 1,042 students, service providers and court staff throughout the country have now gone through Project SAFE’s intersectionality-based training.

The broad geographical scope of the project brings its own set of challenges. “Undoing racism and implicit bias can be hard depending on where you are in the country,” said Davis. The team has traveled nationwide under their current grant and wants to continually respond to the specific needs of organizations that ask for their assistance, just as they want to respond to the specific needs of the population they serve.

Building Influence within the Court System

Much of Project SAFE’s work is with courts, and there can be a disconnect between their own goals and the justice system’s goals. “In the court’s eyes they need to be neutral, but unfortunately that means the specific needs of Black women are often not centered in the justice system,” said Davis. “Sometimes it’s hard to message [our work] in a way that will actually move the needle, that will make them want to pay attention to this idea and this kind of methodology.”

Project SAFE’s team argues that justice doesn’t necessarily mean treating all cases equally. It means taking into account individuals’ histories, understanding how the court system can aggravate traumas, and creating policies and practices that best serve each person.

“I think the myth is that individuals who are behind bars are behind bars because they deserve to be there—without context of their trauma, without context of their histories, and without context of the hyper-criminalization of certain communities,” said Addo. “There are individuals behind bars that have been profiled, that have fought for their lives and may have lost the battle, essentially being separated from their families and their communities.”

Addo’s team focuses on influencing institutional patterns from the inside. “Project SAFE will provide an opportunity for us to collect information and find out what programming is available,” she said. They start by analyzing existing training programs and how those who provide direct service perceive the experiences of justice-involved Black women and their experiences with trauma.

According to Project SAFE’s research, a stark minority of courts and organizations receive training specific to Black women who are survivors of abuse and assault. With the organization’s work, however, that number is climbing, and intersectionality-based approaches to criminal justice are making their way into the court system.


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