The images are all too familiar: children being wrenched from their parents’ arms—and reunited after months of forced separation; individuals who suffer from mental illness or drug dependence languishing in jail—and not receiving the care or treatment they need; and lives forever altered due to the consequences of a low-level and unnecessary arrest. This is a reality impacting thousands of individuals, families, and communities across our nation—the majority of whom are poor and people of color. At Vera, we recognize these injustices as some of the most important civil rights challenges of our time, and we are working actively to ensure that our justice system is one that delivers access, safety, and fairness to the diverse communities that make up America.

This includes our work to keep families together, healthy, and safe by building a national movement to provide publicly funded universal representation to immigrants facing deportation; and our work to repair the harms of over-policing—by helping police agencies across the country hold themselves accountable for repairing racial breaches and building community trust and confidence.

Fighting for SAFE cities in the Trump era

In an era of unprecedented and aggressive immigration enforcement, millions of people across the United States are at risk of long-term detention and deportation—many facing potentially permanent separation from their families and communities. Confronting these threats to justice and due process head-on, Vera mobilized in early 2017 to launch the SAFE (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) Network, a network of cities and counties across the nation that have committed to funding legal representation for immigrants detained and facing deportation. In the project’s first year, we built a network of 12 cities and counties in eight states—spanning both the geographic and political spectrum. These jurisdictions are dedicated to keeping immigrant families together and defending the principles of liberty, due process, and fairness. In 2019, at least five more jurisdictions are joining the SAFE Network.

Because immigration court is a civil procedure, individuals facing deportation are not entitled to a lawyer if they cannot afford one, and many must navigate our byzantine immigration system alone. Studies show that immigrants who are represented are more than ten times more likely to establish a right to remain in the United States than those who are unrepresented. Vera has worked for years to ensure that immigrants who cannot afford a lawyer receive the due process they deserve, and our legal access and education programs operate nationwide.

Percentage of people with a SAFE lawyer in deportation proceedings that resulted in successful outcomes: 38. Percentage of people without a lawyer in deportation proceedings that resulted in successful outcomes: 3

In 2017, as the threats to justice, human dignity, and the rule of law for our immigrant communities grew, Vera took action. We had already co-founded the nation’s first public defender system for immigrants detained and facing deportation, in 2014, in New York City. Using this model, we built a network of partnerships with other local jurisdictions—the SAFE Network—that have each committed public taxpayer dollars to legal representation for immigrants in their communities who are facing deportation.

For each participating jurisdiction, Vera provides comprehensive support, including technical assistance, legal training, and communications strategy. Much like a public defense model in criminal cases, the universal representation model for immigrants advanced by the SAFE Network means that everyone at risk of deportation should have access to due process and a fair day in court, even if they cannot afford an attorney.

Like other Vera initiatives, the project includes politically and geographically diverse jurisdictions selected through a competitive “race to the top” request for proposals to attract the most committed, ambitious reform partners. Current SAFE jurisdictions include: Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Baltimore, MD; Chicago, IL; Columbus, OH; Dane County, WI; Denver, CO; Long Beach, CA; Oakland/Alameda County, CA; Prince George’s County, MD; Sacramento, CA; San Antonio, TX; and Santa Ana, CA. Due to high demand, in 2019 we opened additional slots, and we are evaluating proposals from other jurisdictions eager to join the program.

By the end of its first year of operation, 38 percent of SAFE cases completed in immigration court resulted in successful outcomes permitting clients to remain in the United States. By comparison, approximately 3 percent of unrepresented cases nationwide are successful. Half of the successful SAFE outcomes were for people pursuing asylum, fleeing persecution or seeking protection under the Convention Against Torture. As further data emerges from studies of SAFE representation, Vera is making the broad, national case for universal, government-funded legal representation for all immigrants facing deportation.

In the words of Mayor Michael B. Hancock of Denver, a SAFE Network partner, “We all believe we’re on the right side of this issue. Twenty to 30 years from now, we’ll all look back and say we were on the right side of history as well.”

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The ripple effects of representation: Juan and Paula’s story

Often, the hope and positive outcomes that come with representation can have stabilizing effects on clients’ financial situations, physical and mental health, and the physical and mental health of their family members. Juan and Paula’s story illustrates this point.

Juan’s detention took his family by surprise, leading to what his wife Paula described as “a complete 360” overnight. Juan and Paula described a tight-knit, stable family that didn’t have financial worries and was “always together” doing activities. Paula explained they were “dumbfounded” when one night, soon after speaking to his wife on his phone, Juan was pursued and apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers while driving home from work. He had recently decided he wanted to expand his job possibilities and applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) after consulting with a private attorney who told him an arrest from his youth would not be an issue. Instead, it triggered a warrant for his apprehension by ICE.

After Juan was suddenly taken into detention, things became very stressful for the family. Just seven years old, one of the children was concerned the family would not be able to afford food, so he started offering to do extra chores around the house and saved up the money he earned to give back to his mother. The stress of losing the family’s income also affected Paula, who described how she started “blanking out, losing focus, getting rashes.”

Juan’s ties to the community helped the family turn things around. His longtime employer helped connect them to a SAFE Network lawyer. After hearing about Juan’s detention, a frequent patron of his workplace set up a fundraiser to help pay the bond Juan had been granted and support the family in rebuilding financially. Juan’s case is still pending. However, he and his family now have hope that they will not lose everything as a result of Juan’s attempt to legalize his status. His SAFE Network lawyer, Juan says, “is like a big dad. It’s like having your dad next to you,” reassuring him as the family attempts to restore its stability.

A pivotal moment for policing

Compiling decades of policing data from our nation’s 18,000 police departments into an easily accessible and searchable database, our Arrest Trends interactive data tool is shining a light on police overuse of enforcement and how that drives up our nation’s jail and prison populations.

One every three seconds: that’s what Vera’s groundbreaking Arrest Trends tool found in analyzing the volume of police arrests nationwide. To understand the role of police enforcement in driving our nation’s jail and prison populations, Vera produced this interactive data visualization compiling decades of policing data—including arrest, clearance, and victimization rates for nearly all of our nation’s 18,000 police departments—into an easily accessible and searchable database. This necessary work not only sheds greater light on policing practices and the need to reduce unecessary arrest, but it also brings greater transparency and clarity to criminal justice practices.

Across the United States, an arrest occurs every three seconds, but more than 80 percent of arrests are for non-serious, low-level offenses, Vera research has found.

Among our findings: More than 10 million arrests are made each year in the United States. Although that number is down by more than 25 percent since 2006, the fact remains that an arrest is made every three seconds in America—and fewer than five percent of those arrests are for serious violent crimes. Collectively, the data presented by Arrest Trends challenges the notion that America’s reliance on enforcement is a necessary component to achieving oft-stated public safety goals.

Notably, the last two decades of policing have been significantly shaped by CompStat, a data-driven tool that police departments use to respond to crime patterns. While CompStat has been credited with lowering crime rates, its lack of community-focused measures has contributed to overreliance on punitive enforcement, especially for minor transgressions—such as the NYPD’s now-discredited “stop-and-frisk” practice, which focused overwhelmingly on people of color.

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To address this problem, in 2016 Vera and the National Police Foundation created CompStat360, a national model for law enforcement agencies that sets up a different framework for success by measuring and evaluating the impact of community policing practices in the same way that current CompStat systems focus on locating and driving down crime.

We are now working directly with law enforcement and community representatives in five pilot jurisdictions in Arizona, New Jersey, and Texas, testing a CompStat360 prototype that measures citizen satisfaction, use of force, problem-solving, and other aspects of policing that are of great concern to the public, especially communities of color, which overwhelmingly don’t trust police.

Following this two-year pilot process, Vera and the National Police Foundation will encourage adoption of its model in police departments currently using the CompStat program (including 59 percent of the nation’s largest police agencies), as well as in the many jurisdictions that have committed to the goal of being more accountable to the communities they serve.