Can Americans be smart about justice?


Americans are facing a $228 billion challenge.

That's one estimate of how much it cost to operate the U.S., criminal justice system in 2007—the last year for which such figures are available—including law enforcement, corrections, and judicial and legal services at federal, local and state levels.

That was before the financial meltdown of course, but as a ballpark figure it represents a good starting point.

The challenge: are we getting our money's worth?

As the “tough on crime” policies of the past decades have been called into question—and criminal justice budgets continue to suffer from the impact of the economic slowdown, reformers and legislators from both parties are searching for ways to address that question.

They are pursuing cost-effective, innovative ideas and approaches that reflect changes in the way we think about crime and punishment—while preserving public safety.

These new approaches are often grouped under the heading of “Smart Justice.”

Do they work?

Can the “smart justice” approach point the way towards systemic reform of a system that proportionally puts more people in prison than any other country in the world—and that often traps our poorest citizens, including our young people and a disproportionate number of African Americans and Hispanics, in a cycle of courts, probation and imprisonment—while destroying communities and families?

On Monday, more than 30 of America's leading criminologists, policymakers and law enforcement authorities will join journalists for a hard-hitting examination of “smart justice” at the 8th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The two-day symposium is sponsored by John Jay's Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), which also publishes The Crime Report.

“The prospects of bipartisan agreement for genuine policy changes in our troubled criminal justice system now look extremely positive—and we hope our symposium can make a real contribution to the debate,” said Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report, and director of the CMCJ.

Loretta Lynch, US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York; and Mary Lou Leary, acting assistant Attorney General, will deliver opening remarks.

Other speakers include: Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy; Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts; Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel; Michael Jacobson, Director of the Vera Institute; and criminologist Al Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University.

For a complete agenda, please click HERE.

The conference will kick off with a discussion of the post-election political climate and the prospects for bi-partisan agreement on setting a new “smart justice” agenda during the second term of the Barack Obama Administration.

The panel will feature two prominent state legislators who have led the bipartisan reform movement: Jerry Madden (R), former chair of the Texas Assembly Corrections Committee; and Darrin Williams (D), former chair of the Arkansas House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and now speaker pro tem. Bobby Vassar, chief counsel for the minority of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, will provide the federal perspective.

Other panels will examine new approaches to incarceration and re-entry, strategies for assisting at-risk communities and kids, including the role of the faith community; and the potential role of the private sector in supporting criminal justice reform through initiatives like Social Impact Bonds.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary from the Department of Justice, will also participate in a special panel on restorative justice and victims' rights, along with Mai Fernandez of the National Center for Victims of Crime; and Therese Bartholomew, whose recent documentary about her journey to meet her brother's murderer has moved audiences across the country.

Rounding out the conference will be a special session looking at public defense and pre-trial issues during the 50th Anniversary year of Gideon v Wainwright.

Speakers include Norman Reimer, Executive Director of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; and Robin Steinberg, Executive Director, The Bronx Defenders.

This year, 17 journalists were selected to receive special reporting fellowships to attend the conference.

In connection with the conference, the CMCJ will also release the 2012 Annual Survey of Criminal Justice Media coverage prepared by Criminal Justice Journalists, and two special case studies on the impact of the 24-hour news cycle and online news on crime coverage; and on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's exploration of police under-reporting of crime stats.

The survey and case studies will be posted online at The Crime Report following the symposium.

On Monday night, following the end of the first day of discussions, the winners of the annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting will be presented with their awards.

The dinner will also mark the inauguration of a new annual prize for “Justice Trailblazer” to recognize the career achievements of a journalist or media worker in broadening public understanding of our country's criminal justice system.

This year's award goes to David Simon, creator of The Wire.

To purchase tickets for the dinner, please click HERE.

The symposium is funded through a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, with additional support from the Ford Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

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