Rethinking the Nation’s Prisons: Is America Ready for Reform?

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Illustration by Natasha Mayers via Flickr

About 20 of the country’s leading experts, practitioners and policymakers on corrections will sit down with formerly incarcerated individuals this month to explore new ideas for reform.

The 15th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, hosted on Feb. 20-21 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, will review intriguing innovations in prison design and internal practices, based on approaches underway in Europe, as well as proposals to end the current system of community supervision.

Speakers include Leann Bertsch, head of North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and a former president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators; and former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, now chair of the New Jersey Reentry Commission.

“With more than two million Americans confined behind bars, and twice that number on probation and parole, the inefficiencies and injustices of our corrections systems have been the subject of countless studies,” said Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report, and director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) at John Jay, which organized this month’s conference.

“We believed it was time to take a closer look at some of the bolder ideas for reform that have emerged around the country, and our conference speakers are a cross-section of some of the most important voices working for change.”

In a departure from previous H.F. Guggenheim conferences, a sizable number of participants will come from the formerly incarcerated community. They include Jhody Polk, founder of the Florida Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls; Stanley Richards, vice president of the Fortune Society; Tara Cobbins of the Katal Center in Albany, N.Y., Lawrence Bartley, editor of “News Inside” a publication of The Marshall Project distributed to prisons and jails across the country; and Jeremiah Bourgeois, a columnist for The Crime Report who was released last fall after 27 years of confinement in Washington State.

The Guggenheim conferences were established as a forum to bring journalists, scholars and criminal justice professionals together for candid discussions on emerging justice projects. Twenty-six journalists from around the country were selected as Reporting Fellows for this year’s event.

Other speakers include Scott Erfe, former warden of the Cheshire (CT) Correction institution, where the TRUE pilot project for young adult offenders based on a model pioneered in Germany has been launched; Vincent Schiraldi of Columbia University’s Justice Lab, a former New York City Department of Probation Commissioner, who has been a key figure in the growing movement to abolish the current community supervision system; Sen. Brian Benjamin, President Pro Tem of the New York Senate, and a sponsor of New York’s Bail Reform Act; and Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which is spearheading projects across the country aimed at “reimagining” American prisons.

The perspectives of corrections officers will be presented by Brian Dawe, national director of the COPTSD156 Coalition.

Top criminologists presenting at the symposium include Al Blumstein, of Carnegie Mellon University; Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis; and Thaddeus Johnson of Georgia State University.

Sponsors and supporters of the conference also include Arnold Ventures, the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law, and the R Street Institute.

The CMCJ is publisher of The Crime Report.

Registration is open to the public for a one-time fee of $25. Sign-up forms are available here.

The conference will also examine facial recognition technology and its impact on policing and civil liberties. Another session will be devoted to the “Fallible Detective,” exploring the root causes of mistakes in police investigations. For a full list of speakers, please click here.

The conference will also be livestreamed for a national audience. The address will be published shortly before the conference opens.

Another highlight of the symposium will be the annual presentation of the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting at a dinner February 20, 2020 on John Jay’s campus.

The dinner will also honor Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado as this year’s “Justice Media Trailblazer,” in recognition of his courageous career-long coverage of border, drug and immigration issues. The dinner program will be emcee’d by Errol Louis of NY1. 

Reservations can be made here.

The 2020 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellows, listed in alphabetical order along with their outlets, are:

Lawrence Bartley, The Marshall Project; Michelle Theriault Boots, Anchorage Daily News; Jon Collins, Minnesota Public Radio; Molly Crane-Newman, NY Daily News; Noelle Crombie, Oregonian; Rachel Dissell, Cleveland Plain Dealer; Melanie Eversley, TheGrio/Fortune; Beth Fertig, WNYC; Bethany Freudenthal, Las Cruces (NM) Sun News-USA TODAY Network.

Henry Gass, Christian Science Monitor; Daniel Gross, Greenville News/USA Today; Ashad Hajela, Raleigh News &Observer; Sandy Hodson, Augusta (GA) Chronicle; Chelsia Rose Marcius, NY Daily News; Marsha McLeod, The Globe & Mail (Toronto); Jason Pohl, Sacramento Bee; Lauren Poteat, National Newspaper Publishers Association; Levi Pulkkinen, Crosscut; Jordan Rubin, Bloomberg Law; Connor Sheets, Al.com/Birmingham News; Dan Sullivan, Tampa Bay Times; Ryan Tarinelli, Associated Press.

Four additional journalists were chosen as John Jay/Quattrone Investigative Reporting Fellow for 2020:

 Michael Barajas, Texas Observer; Justin Fenton, Baltimore Sun; Halley Freger, ABC News; and Thomas Peele, Bay Area News Group. 

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