Criminal Justice Conversations with David Onek: James Bell, W. Haywood Burns Institute

Jun 15, 2010

In Episode #15, James Bell, Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, discusses his work to reduce the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system, the involvement of community members in the reform process, the importance of data-driven decision-making, California's leadership role in reducing racial and ethnic disparities, and more.

Bell Interview Highlights

Bell on Involving the Community in the Reform Process

“Involving the community in a meaningful way is a core value that we have. We believe that you can’t address the overrepresentation of young people of color without engaging people from their communities. What we want to do is bring people from the impacted communities to the table to help folks problem solve. However, we understand why most people don’t do it. Because first you have to have community people, when they’re invited to the table, to be able to modulate their anger, modulate the fact that they have not been participating, they don’t get much money from the system, and to become a part of the team. That takes a tremendous amount of coaching, of bringing them up to speed on the alphabet soup that stakeholders have, and it is very time and labor intensive. But it is essential for these changes to occur.”

Bell on How a “Safe Space” is Created for Difficult Discussions About Race

“That’s exactly what is needed: a safe space. The first thing that we do, is we make sure that people understand that we are not about finger pointing and that we need a collaboration of people, who have authority and can make decisions about young people of color, to be at the table to cooperate. And, then, the next thing we do is we don’t lead with race; we actually get data and we try to see where it is that kids of color are impacted the most and ask them what policies and procedures do they believe contribute to this impact.”

Bell on Rationally Examining the Juvenile Justice System

“All we’re doing is an examination. We’re like an internist. You go to the doctor to say, ‘I think I got a scratchy throat, something’s wrong, I’m not feeling right,’ and the doctor goes through a series of questions and looks and asks you about things and measures things to say, ‘Well, this might be happening.’ That’s what our process is. But what might be happening is the overrepresentation of young people of color, which brings in race, which gets a lot of people irrational. And so what we try to do is be data-based and as rational as possible as we examine, for use of this metaphor, this patient.”


The Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast with David Onek features in-depth, thirty-minute interviews with a wide range of criminal justice leaders: law enforcement officials, policymakers, advocates, service providers, academics and others.

The Podcast gets behind the sound bites that far too often dominate the public dialogue about criminal justice, to have detailed, nuanced conversations about criminal justice policy.

Podcast host David Onek is a Senior Fellow at Berkeley Law School and a former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.

You can find more information on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast and listen to all past episodes on the Podcast web site.

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