Guggenheim Symposium Examines Violence in America and Reform in the Criminal Justice System

Guggenheim Symposium Examines Violence in America and Reform in the Criminal Justice System

Guggenheim Symposium Examines Violence in America and Reform in the Criminal Justice System

Each year, researchers, scholars, policymakers, and journalists come together at John Jay College to discuss current criminal justice issues, offer up suggestions on policy change, and deepen the public’s understanding of the criminal justice system. This year was no different. The 14th Annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, held on February 21 and 22, focused on the theme of “Violence in America: Myth & Reality,” and discussion topics included: gun violence, the growing opioid crisis, and court reform.

“Our mission is both to create and disseminate knowledge about this enduring and operative topic with the aim of increasing understanding and informing efforts to make the world a better and less violent place.”– Dan Wilhelm, President of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

During his welcome remarks Provost Yi Li spoke about the significance of the event’s setting and the Symposium’s role in helping produce change. “You’re surrounded by some of the brightest minds and researchers in every field of justice, in an educational environment that trains our young people for careers in justice and the humanities—and most importantly to be a fierce advocate for justice,” said Provost Li. “Over the years this conference has produced an enduring network which John Jay is proud to be a part of. It guarantees that these issues help drive public debate and policy change.”

Dan Wilelm, President of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
Dan Wilelm, President of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Dan Wilhelm, President of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, discussed the foundation’s goal. "The focus of the foundation, simply put, is to explore the nature, consequences, and responses to violence in its many forms and manifestations, including human aggression, crime, and war. Our mission is both to create and disseminate knowledge about this enduring and operative topic with the aim of increasing understanding and informing efforts to make the world a better and less violent place.”

Stephen Handelman addresses attendees and those watching the symposium via livestream.
Stephen Handelman addresses attendees and those watching the symposium via livestream.

Stephen Handelman, Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay, (CMCJ), gave attendees and those viewers watching the event via livestream a brief overview of the symposium’s intention. “What we do here is a mixture of the theoretical and the pragmatic. We’re at the point where scholarship meets public debate,” said Handelman. “The core mission of our Center, and these special conferences, is to create one place where everybody from different fields gets together with the leading journalists in the country to talk about emerging topics on criminal justice.”

San Francisco DA, George Gascón delivering his keynote address.
San Francisco DA, George Gascón delivering his keynote address.

“We have known for a long time that when people get incarcerated, there is generally no rehabilitation involved, and there is generally a point of no return. Our jails and our prisons are really universities of crime, by design. It’s not an accident.” – George Gascón, San Francisco DA

Delivering the keynote speech on the first day was one of the leading advocates of policing and court reform, San Francisco DA, George Gascón, who called for change to the criminal justice system. “We have known for a long time that when people get incarcerated, there is generally no rehabilitation involved, and there is generally a point of no return.” He added, “Our jails and our prisons are really universities of crime, by design. It’s not an accident.” He then presented the audience with a challenge. “I’d like to challenge you to push back, to question what we’re doing as a nation and question our criminal justice system, because it doesn’t have to be this way. There are other countries that are very successful with populations that are similar to us.” 

From left to right, Larry Obhof, Ohio Senate President, Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries, Holly Harris, Executive Director of the Justice Action Network and Bill Keller, Editor of The Marshall Project take part in special panel that analyzed the impact of the Midterm Elections on criminal justice reform.
From left to right, Larry Obhof, Ohio Senate President, Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries, Holly Harris, Executive Director of the Justice Action Network and Bill Keller, Editor of The Marshall Project.

“We’ve never, ever, in the history of the federal system had a comprehensive bill that made things less punitive, and more redemptive and restorative. It’s a big deal.” – Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries

The first day also included a special panel, moderated by Bill Keller, Editor of the The Marshall Project. The panel analyzed the impact of the Midterm Elections on criminal justice reform. Panelists included Holly Harris, Executive Director of the Justice Action Network; Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries; and Larry Obhof, the Ohio Senate President. The panel discussed the importance of bipartisanship in the effort to bring the First Step Act to fruition. The Act was signed into law December 2018 and is considered to be one of the most significant criminal justice reform bills in years. “We’ve never, ever, in the history of the federal system had a comprehensive bill that made things less punitive, and more redemptive and restorative. It’s a big deal. And, it’s an even bigger deal given our fractured politics and hyper partisanship,” said Holden.

“What I want to address is the Trump Administration’s reliance on and perpetuation of myths and lies that support their nationalist agenda, which in my mind, is undermining public safety in this country.”– Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General of New Jersey

Obhof sees the bipartisan effort on the federal level as a signal to those on the state level. “I think that seeing Washington actually come together in a bipartisan way to make changes like this should spur some states to do the same thing,” said Obhof. Adding, “It’s not about being tough on crime, it’s not about being weak on crime, it’s about being smart and following policies that make more sense.”

The Attorney General of New Jersey, the Honorable Gurbir S. Grewal.
The Attorney General of New Jersey, the Honorable Gurbir S. Grewal. 

The second day of the symposium included a special keynote address from the Honorable Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General of New Jersey. “What I want to address is the Trump Administration’s reliance on and perpetuation of myths and lies that support their nationalist agenda, which in my mind, is undermining public safety in this country,” said Grewal. He cited the Administration’s distortion of facts as a way of creating a false narrative, meant to create fear. “As I’m sure you’ve already discussed during the course of this symposium,” said Grewal, “the federal government’s own data, their own numbers, show that violent crime in the country has fallen sharply over the last 25 years.” He added, “The Administration offers a completely different narrative. They warn of American carnage. They say that America is unsafe. They say that the only way to keep us safe is by building a wall, and they say that the only thing protecting, quote, real Americans, is a tough, harsh brand of justice. One that is heavy on intimidation, but light on compassion.” He then encouraged the journalists in the room to keep up their investigative work with vigor, “You all are doing meaningful, important work. It is change provoking work, that I think is needed more today than ever before,” said Grewal.

Capping off the symposium was the award presentations of the 2019 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Awards, presented during the 2019 Justice Trailblazers Awards Dinner.