Breaking the Pipeline

In the male-dominated criminal justice field, Anika Bowie stands out. She represents the Minneapolis NAACP as co-chair of the criminal justice reform committee and is a navigator in the Juvenile Justice Re-entry education program for the Saint Paul public school system. Not only is her approach to justice different, but her lens as an African-American woman is unique. 

Her cross-sectional work has included leading a Warrant Forgiveness Day in Hennepin County, in collaboration with the ACLU, funded by a United Way grant initiative that enabled hundreds of people to resolve warrants. On May 12 this year, another Warrant Forgiveness Day will be held in Ramsey County. She explains, “Removing the financial burden of court fees and the risk of getting arrested for an active warrant can reduce tensions and build a bridge between the courts, law enforcement, and community.”

Bowie leads a coalition of 75 organizations to Restore the Vote for Minnesotans who have finished their prison sentence and are on probation or parole. She is motivated to fight against voter suppression, and restore a sense of belonging and personal agency to former inmates. In Minnesota, there are more than 50,000 citizens on probation who don’t have the right to vote. She won back her father’s right to vote by writing a formal letter to his federal judge after he served an eight-year sentence. At a Second Chance Day at the State Capitol, she challenged officials to change how they address the voter suppressed as “those people.” 

As a Juvenile Justice Navigator for St. Paul Public Schools, Bowie advocates for students who are trying to transition back into the public schools. “My responsibility as a navigator,” she says, “is to disrupt the inside of Saint Paul’s school-to-prison pipeline, and to engage students in endless opportunities to be positive leaders and contributing members to society.” 

Most of her students are young African-American boys, Bowie says. Simply being hired as the first female navigator generated “a huge discussion” with her employers. She convinced the hiring team that a female mentor — and the ability to develop healthy relationships with a woman — was in the best interests of the students. “As a woman, I believe in the theory of nurture over nature,” Bowie says. “Systems don’t restore people, positive relationships do.” 

As someone who has had loved ones imprisoned, Bowie’s empathy runs deep. “I have seen the trauma and burden it places on the inmates and their families. I have experienced the devastating impact of mass incarceration in communities of color,” she says. “My father was a husband, entrepreneur, homeowner, loyal customer to small businesses, contributing church member, community educator, and sole provider to an extended family. When a judge sentences a person, they also sentence a community.” 

What is Restorative Justice?

by Anika Bowie

Restorative justice is a movement and practice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. This practice places the  emotional and relational aspects of a conflict at the center of resolution. In the school system, for example, there is a big difference between mediating students in conflict compared  to simply expelling them from school.

An American Psychological Association task force report indicated that there is not data to support the assumption that African-American students exhibit higher rates of disruption or violence that would warrant higher rates of discipline. “Rather, African-American students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons.” For white youth, a label of “violent” increases the odds of out-of-home placement slightly, from 12 to 18 percent. For African-American youth, however, the label nearly triples the odds of placement from 14 to 48 percent.

The task force also found it a false assumption that only swift, strict, and uniform zero-tolerance punishments would deter students from breaking the rules. “Rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption, school suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended.”

According to Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, our criminal justice system asks three questions: What law was broken? Who broke it? What punishment is warranted? While restorative justice asks an entirely different set of questions: Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all affected? How do all affected parties together address needs and repair harm?”

If school staff began to see youth’s response to trauma as ‘protective and not defective’ then society’s response to public school safety would truly be in the best interest of the students. I take the village approach and connect my students with a network of trusted adults who recognize the effects of trauma, especially historical trauma.

When trying to overhaul a system as big as the criminal justice field, it’s about speaking truth to power. As a realist, I understands that restorative justice is an uphill battle. The  very people I protect and serve are branded as a ‘threat’ to public safety. It’s very difficult to navigate in any institution that sees people of color as a public threat.

There are no easy answers, but I am brave enough to ask difficult questions and propel people toward restorative justice.