Prosecutors may sometimes forget that a person they are bringing charges against is more than his or her rap sheet. It’s equally easy for incarcerated people to think of prosecutors as case processors who do not truly care about the people for whom they recommend prison sentences.
At a time when trust between law enforcement officials and the people they serve is at an all-time low, as recent nationwide protests make clear, a groundbreaking course taught inside prison, and created by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, aims to help reconcile those notions and create meaningful connections to work towards a more humane justice system.
Since its launch in October 2018, more than 120 persons have participated in Inside Criminal Justice, a joint initiative between the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the IIP.
The most recent cohort of 43 participants graduated this spring.
The program, which takes place inside two New York correctional facilities, brings assistant district attorneys (ADAs) into state prisons to study and learn about the criminal justice system alongside incarcerated students.
By the time they graduate, they are expected to come up with innovative policy proposals, informed by a collaborative emphasis on public safety and animated by what IIP Policy Advisor Jonathan Terry describes as a “tension of distrust.”
“The course is founded on the tension of distrust between bringing prosecutors and incarcerated students together,” says Terry.
“Teaching ADAs is a matter of getting them to step back from their training as lawyers or members of a big bureaucracy and getting them to think about the personal stories … it’s about humanizing the entire system for them.”
That’s one reason the program always begins with a bit of discomfort and awkwardness. But simply sitting and talking together helps people make personal, human connections. At the first meeting, participants talk about family, favorite television shows, and other neutral subjects—which helps to slowly build a foundation for deeper exploration into the role each person plays in the criminal justice system.
Terry notes that ADAs in particular need to understand the implications of their decisions.
Because prison entails more than just depriving someone of their liberty, participating in the class allows prosecutors to better understand what happens after a prosecutor’s involvement in the case has ended, he argues.
By listening to the experiences of people involved within the system, prosecutors can better analyze how justice is best served.
Indeed, the program empowers everyone who participates.
Take for example the work of one recent graduate, Dafna Yoran, an Assistant District Attorney at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Inspired by what she learned about the practice of restorative justice, she applied it to a 2019 murder prosecution.
Matthew Lee, who was charged with the crime, agreed to participate in an in-person restorative justice circle with the victim’s family and a mediator. In exchange, he would be charged with manslaughter instead of felony murder.
The meeting between Lee and the victim’s family provided an opportunity for each side to connect on a human level and began to understand each other. This innovative response would not have happened without Yoran’s exposure to different prosecutorial approaches during her time as a student of Inside Criminal Justice.
The program also has a profound impact on its incarcerated students, in part because the class creates hope.
Students can opt to receive college credits and have access to educational resources. Considering that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison, compared to non-participants, that’s a key benefit.
The experience also offers incarcerated students a chance to share their opinions on the criminal justice system, something that they are almost never asked.
“For a lot of people, this becomes their first chance to actually talk about what they think should be done in their communities, and within the ranks of criminal justice to improve the system,” Terry says.
“I think it’s really important that we empower people to feel like they have voices and to give them actual voices.”
During their time together as a class, the students author joint policy proposals, some of which have resulted in real change.
In the most recent class, students presented a proposal to create a modern computer center in one of the facilities, so that incarcerated individuals could learn practical technical skills for use upon reentry.
The students were able to secure funding from the prison to turn their proposal into a reality.
Today, that computer center hosts an array of classes teaching incarcerated individuals to code, use email, and otherwise prepare for their release.
Inside Criminal Justice presents an unprecedented opportunity for prosecutors to learn more about the implications of their decisions, for incarcerated people to learn about the criminal justice system, and to bring humanity and proximity into the system writ large.
The IIP’s newly published tools to replicate Inside Criminal Justice should make it easy for prosecutors’ offices to adopt this innovation, which can be a cornerstone to fulfilling their obligation to help in thoughtful reform of the justice system.
Sam Chiang is a summer intern with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution