Justice Reformers Urged to Look Beyond Legal System for Real Change

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Photo by Eric Silva via Flickr

Effective change in the criminal justice system requires focusing on “North Stars” that can point the way towards a more fundamental transformation of communities and institutions, a conference at John Jay College was told Tuesday.

Andrea Cipriano

Vanita Gupta. Photo by Andrea Cipriano

“Reforms and transformation need to happen at every point in the system, but also way beyond the system,” Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said at the Smart on Crime Innovations Conference.

“We need to stop thinking about the problems as simply being contained to the criminal legal system.” she began.

Gupta was speaking at a panel moderated by Carroll Bogert, President of The Marshall Project.

Tuesday was the first day of the third annual Smart on Crime Innovations Conference, which aims to bring together people from different disciplines—all with a common goal of “changing the criminal justice system to be fairer, more just, comprehensive, and effective.”

Daryl Atkinson

Daryl Atkinson. Photo by Andrea Cipriano

However, “transformation can’t happen at one time, it happens incrementally,” Daryl Atkinson, a co-director of Forward Justice, said. “Incrementalism can work in service of transformation as long as you have a North Star.”

“You’re right about needing a North Star,” commented Keir Bradford-Grey, the chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

“With that, we also need to start looking at whether this is a criminal issue, or a social issue.”

For many of the panelists, those ‘North Stars’ are reimagining criminal justice agencies to be more fair, and empowering communities to facilitate change.

Reimagining Criminal Justice Agencies

Nicholas Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice believes that the U.S. should consider emulating Germany’s legal system because of its emphasis on inmate rehabilitation programs like mental health counselling and substance abuse treatment.

Recently returned from a trip to Germany, Turner described a typical inmate’s experience.

When an inmate steps into a facility he or she is greeted by a correction officer who is also a trained therapist and can help with the difficult transition from the free life of a civilian to extended confinement behind bars.

“They’re trained to look at you as a human being,” Turner said.

Facilities show this by allowing low-risk prisoners to leave during the day to go to school and take a job within the community, only to return to prison at night.

Nick Turner

Nick Turner. Photo by Andrea Cipriano

“My hope is that you take people on a journey like this [example from Germany], and it gets them to think differently about what could be transformative for our country,” Turner said.

Another panelist, Daryl Atkinson of Forward Justice, was also on the recent trip to Germany.

He recounted, “A woman was coming out of her cell and she had a mixing bowl that you could smell she had some flour and some cinnamon, and she pulled out her keys, locked the door, and left to go bake some cookies.”

Atkinson, a former inmate, said, “It was a mind-blowing experience because I wasn’t treated that way in my incarcerated setting.”

Being treated with respect and trust while incarcerated would give imprisoned individuals a sense of self-worth, and reduce the likelihood of reoffending, he said.

Turner concluded by saying, “Human dignity needs to be at the core of the [prison] system.”

Supporting Communities

Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights shifted the conversation away from institutions.

“We’ve really single-mindedly invested only in the legal system, so we have to push for a very different paradigm,” she said.

She continued, “We have to shrink the criminal legal system’s imprint in our communities and we have to push and demand that local and state government invest at the front end in other interventions.”

Atkinson agreed that investing in other forms of interventions is key, and began by talking about how that’s linked to community health and wellness indicators.

“These are things like affordable housing, food accessibility, green space, and a low crime index,” he said. “Less advantaged communities don’t have all of those things,” and that’s why communities need to focus on impacting the sociological factors that lead to crime as well, not just preventing crime itself.

Keir Bradford-Grey

Keir Bradford-Grey. Photo by Andrea Cipriano

Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia Chief Defender, said she is working to put the power back into the community’s hands through her city’s seven Participatory Defense Hubs.

These hubs hold workshops led by the Defender Association to “…give participants a deeper understanding of the justice process, [teach] what is expected from them at each stage, [give] suggestions to help them prepare for meetings with their attorney, court dates, and other steps of the process.”

This process, Bradford-Grey argued, has kept the public defenders accountable, because when engaged citizens know what to expect through the legal process, they’re more likely to get the outcome they want and not be cheated by the system.

She also described the creation of “Bail Navigators.”

These are people from the community who have previously been negatively impacted by the bail system, and they’ve identified its pitfalls in order to empower citizens not to make similar mistakes, Bradford-Grey explained.

Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights closed the panel by saying both ideas of transformation are valuable.

“We shouldn’t be pitted as one versus the other,” she said.

“What’s remarkable though, is that five years ago, you wouldn’t have national candidates running for office openly talking about reducing the footprint of the criminal legal system.”

It seems as though no matter what the motivation for change is—whether it’s political, humanitarian, or both— the “North Star” for criminal legal reform is all about guiding people to justice.

Andrea Cipriano is a staff reporter for The Crime Report. The Smart on Crime conference continues Wednesday.

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