Justice Reform Means ‘Thinking Outside Silos,’ Says New John Jay President

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Karol Mason

John Jay President Karol Mason. Photo courtesy Criminal Justice Matters

Reform of the U.S. justice system requires “thinking outside the silos” that have separated courts, police and prisons from other institutions that can provide alternative pathways to help justice-involved people become productive, law-abiding citizens, says the new president of John Jay College.

Karol Mason, who left her post as a senior official in the Department of Justice (DOJ) to become head of the country’s preeminent educational institution for criminal justice in August, said educational training, family counseling, substance abuse treatment, job counseling, and other social services are critical tools for a “holistic” approach to criminal justice reform.

John Jay College

John Jay students and President Karol Mason. Photo courtesy John Jay College.

“Many of the people in our criminal justice system (now) were victims first,” she said in a Criminal Justice Matters  program aired on CUNY-TV, a public broadcasting channel for the metropolitan New York region, this week.

She noted that there was already a substantial body of research and evaluation showing the long-term value of programs focused at both the “front end” of the justice system and at helping those currently imprisoned to develop the skills for successful reintegration into society.

“Criminal justice is not something that operates in a silo,” she told program host Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report. “The need for reform reflects back on other failures in other parts of the system.”

She gave as an example the current opiate crisis and the growing realization that criminalizing addicts is the wrong approach to a problem that has complicated roots.

“We shouldn’t be putting people in jail for addiction,” she said, adding that players in the criminal justice system in many jurisdictions around the country are already beginning to work with social service organizations in diversionary programs that focus on drug treatment, mental health, jobs, education and housing.

Karol Mason

Karol Mason, former head of the Office of Justice Programs, with (l-r) Valerie Jarrett, former White House Special Advisor, former President Barack Obama, and former Attorney-General Eric Holder. Photo courtesy Karol Mason.

“People are (already) thinking outside their silos,” said Mason, who was Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Office of Justice Programs during the administration of President Barack Obama.

“They are recognizing that the justice system is the last resort, the last response to other failures.”

Mason said that the “Smart on Crime-Innovations” conference held last month at John Jay, which brought together academics, practitioners and advocates from across the ideological spectrum,  demonstrated that the movement for change was strengthening around the country—especially at state and local levels.

“There’s power when you have people come together from different walks of life and different perspectives who all agree we need criminal justice reform,” she said.

Mason said John Jay College, which opened in the 1960s as a branch of the publicly funded City University of New York to offer a liberal arts education to police officers and now boasts a student body of nearly 15,000, would continue to serve as a national resource for research and innovation under her leadership.

Citing programs such as the pioneering Prison-to-College  Pipeline,  which brings students and college faculty into prisons to prepare inmates about to be released for higher education, she said John Jay would remain in the forefront of exploring alternatives to traditional approaches to crime and punishment—focusing especially on helping keep individuals from becoming involved with the justice system in the first place.

“We’re a safe space for people to have tough conversations about justice issues.”

The entire “Criminal Justice Matters” program can be viewed here.  Readers’ comments are welcome.

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