Council on Criminal Justice Aims to Provide ‘Center of Gravity’ for Reform

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A research and advocacy organization whose founder bills it as a new “center of gravity and crossroads” for criminal justice policy was set to launch Tuesday with a roster of prominent members from multiple disciplines across the ideological spectrum.

The Council on Criminal Justice will use its invitation-only membership to form ad hoc task forces that study and recommend model policies rooted in a data-driven, nonpartisan approach, with the goal of fixing a system that “is not producing enough safety or justice,” says Adam Gelb, the Council’s founder.

Gelb, who left Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project last August to begin recruiting members and donors, said the Council’s dual mission as a think tank and policy advocacy organization will give it a unique voice in the world of criminal justice. 

“There’s not any institution or organization right now that is a dedicated criminal justice organization” unaffiliated with any ideology and undiluted by partisan policy agendas, Gelb told The Crime Report.

“The idea is for leadership of the field to be able to recognize opportunities where they exist, and be flexible and nimble enough to jump in and do work when we think an opening exists to get something done.”

The specifics of what gets done depends on the issues agenda set by the members and then hashed out in working groups, Gelb said.

The Council’s governing board of directors and advisory board of trustees will reflect the areas–many of them interconnected—that are now at the heart of current debates over justice reform: corrections officials and law enforcement managers, prosecutors and defense lawyers, violence interventionists and victim advocates, sentencing and reentry reformers, governors and the formerly incarcerated, and a host of others with current or former posts at all levels of government.

The Council’s initial members include board of directors chair Laurie Robinson, who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs in the Clinton and Obama administrations; Koch Industries’ Mark Holden; REFORM Alliance’s Van Jones; Campaign Zero’s DeRay McKesson; Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who played a lead role in passage of the federal First Step Act; former Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia police chief Charles Ramsey, who co-chaired the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; former drug czar and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowske; and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Georgia State University’s Bill Sabol, former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, serves as research director. The Council’s policy director is John Tilley, Kentucky’s top criminal justice official.

Gelb said a membership committee headed by Jo-Ann Wallace, president and CEO of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, will nominate about 100 general members for approval this summer, with more to come after that. (There are about 50 current founding members, mostly the directors and trustees.) 

The startup’s staff numbers only three so far: the Atlanta-based Gelb, plus two working remotely from Washington, D.C., and California.

In the run-up to a briefing call today at 1 p.m. Eastern to announce the launch, the council already has begun its work.

A “federal priorities task force” headed by former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal held its inaugural meeting July 15 at the Washington offices of King & Spalding, where Council trustee Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general, is a partner.

The Council’s first public event is a July 31 panel discussion in Washington on Thomas Abt’s new book about violence prevention.

Initial funding comes from patrons including Arnold Ventures, the Ford Foundation, the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation, HBO, the Joyce Foundations, New York Community Trust, and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation. Gelb has set a five-year goal of raising $25 million.

Gelb, a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer who worked on the 1994 federal crime bill and served as a criminal justice official in Maryland and Georgia, spent 12 years at Pew, where he led an expansion of Pew’s work in probation and parole research and policy. He also played a key role in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a federally funded program that has helped more than half the states analyze the likely effects of reducing incarceration and plow the savings into prevention and other alternatives by forging bipartisan legislative solutions.

Despite longstanding criticisms from the left that JRI tacks too much toward marginal reforms that exclude the originally intended beneficiaries in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, and failed efforts by the Trump Justice Department to kill or redesign the program, JRI has spurred much of the reform legislation enacted in the states.

An Urban Institute report last year credited the program with $557 million in reinvestments in reform-minded state programs through 2017.

In the run-up to this month’s launch, Gelb said he canvassed a broad cross-section of the field to make sure his notion of such a Council was “the right idea at the right time.”

The federal policy task force serves as an example of a pragmatic mindset that will guide the Council’s work.

It will ask, he said, “What can the federal government do that would be most helpful, and that is actionable and realistic in the near to medium term?”

Thanks to the rare show of bipartisanship surrounding criminal justice reform, Gelb said, it’s reasonable to dream big. With the reforms achieved so far, he added, “We’re just scratching the surface of what needs to be done and what is politically possible.”

Mark Obbie is a contributing editor of The Crime Report.

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