Local and state politicians can overcome the tough-on-crime rhetoric coming from Washington if they take advantage of the still-viable left-right consensus on justice system reforms, as well as the groundswell of public support for those reforms, says Jeremy Travis, the departing president of the John Jay College of Justice in New York.
Travis, one of the country’s most forceful advocates for reducing prison populations, acknowledged that fear-mongering has ratcheted up in the aftermath of the election, buttressed by the early efforts of President Donald Trump’s administration to reverse some of his predecessor’s moves to reduce prison overcrowding and promote policing reform.
But, he said, “I think the American people are smarter than that.”
Travis, who has served as head of the National Institute of Justice and as a senior official in New York City’s government, steps down next month after 13 years at the helm of the country’s preeminent academic institution for criminal justice.
He said those who worry that justice reform will go backwards under Washington’s current leadership are losing sight of the momentum for change already underway in states and cities across the nation.
“A number of states continue to be every bit as serious as they were before the election about reducing levels of incarceration,” he said, noting that a handful have already seen incarceration numbers drop by 20 percent in the last decade.
And despite spikes of violent crime in some cities, such as Chicago, many others are experiencing a continued decline.
“New York is on track for another record year (of crime reduction),” Travis said.
Fears that bipartisan support for reform is weakening are also misplaced, added Travis.
“After the election, a number of us received calls from colleagues on the conservative side of the spectrum who said we’re still on, we’re still committed to reform,” he said, calling the sustained level of support from both sides “unprecedented.”
“The left-right consensus still holds,” he maintained.
Travis’ tenure as the fourth president of John Jay was marked by the college’s emergence as a major influence on policy changes both federally and locally.
Under his leadership, John Jay faculty led a major study on the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk strategy that influenced a court ruling curtailing the practice, and began a pioneering effort to reduce gang violence in cities across the country under the National Network for Safe Communities.
Travis also chaired a landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences on mass incarceration.
More recently, Travis, 69, was give the “Disruptor/Innovation” award by the city’s Tribeca Film Festival—an honor that he said recognized the college’s emerging role as an advocate for innovative, evidence-based justice reform.
Travis said the success of John Jay, one of the senior colleges of the financially strained City University of New York (CUNY), with over 14,000 students, proved why publicly financed higher education was important to the future of New York and America.
“When we talk about issues like income inequality, upward mobility, the integration of immigrants, the City University of New York is at the center,” he said. “My hope is that these successes will point the way towards a different financing model for public higher education.
“The future of our city depends on the success of CUNY.”
Travis will resume his research and activism on criminal justice issues, with appointments at the CUNY Graduate Center and Harvard, but he said the college will be in good hands under his designated successor, Karol Mason, whom he termed a “friend.”
Mason, former head of the Office of Justice Programs at DOJ, is going to bring to John Jay a new level of excellence, relevance and engagement,” Travis said.
The complete televised interview with President Travis by Crime Report editor Stephen Handelman can be seen here. The Crime Report is published by the college’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice. Readers’ comments are welcome.