John Jay Hosts Its Third Annual Smart on Crime Conference

John Jay Hosts Its Third Annual Smart on Crime Conference

John Jay Hosts Its Third Annual Smart on Crime Conference

At the third annual Smart on Crime Innovations Conference, held on September 24 and 25, advocates, criminal justice experts, elected officials, and researchers, all came together to share their expertise about the criminal justice system. Cohosted by the Center for American Progress, John Jay College, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, the conference’s focus was to highlight the data-driven innovations happening across the country, examine the areas that need improvement, and work together, to create solutions for a fairer more equitable system. To begin the event, Ed Chung, Vice President for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress, came to the stage and introduced his friend, mentor, and colleague, Karol V. Mason, President of John Jay College. “If you don’t know Karol Mason, it’s your loss. She is unmistakable, a real supporter of criminal justice reform, and someone you want by your side, advocating for change.”

Ed Chung and Karol V. Mason
Ed Chung and Karol V. Mason

“We’re on a mission to fundamentally alter the way we view people who make mistakes. And, we’re on a mission to rethink our criminal justice system by valuing human dignity.” —Karol V. Mason

As Mason made her way to the podium, she thanked Chung for his kind words before highlighting why it was important for everyone to come together for criminal justice reform. “We’re on a mission to explore how America can do things differently. We’re on a mission to fundamentally alter the way we view people who make mistakes. And, we’re on a mission to rethink our criminal justice system by valuing human dignity,” she said. “The only way we’re going to bring about change to our criminal justice system is if we talk about difficult issues and share vital information with each other. We need to hear from everyone, and we need to truly listen to each other, to make progress.”

Karol V. Mason as she discusses the importance of uniting for criminal justice reform
Karol V. Mason as she discusses the importance of uniting for criminal justice reform

Looking at Detroit
Beginning the conversation on how to reform the criminal justice system, Amanda Alexander, Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Justice Center, first spoke about what she hopes people take away from her presentation. “I hope that when I’m done speaking, you’ll feel a greater sense of possibility. I hope you’ll feel how high the stakes are in this fight against mass incarceration—because it’s really a fight for the future of our communities and for our capacity to care for each other as human beings. And, I hope you’ll feel your mind firing—because it’s time for all of us to be brave enough to use our full imaginations,” she said, adding that her renewed hope for the criminal justice system came when she moved back to Detroit, Michigan six years ago.

“I hope you’ll feel how high the stakes are in this fight against mass incarceration—because it’s really a fight for the future of our communities and for our capacity to care for each other as human beings.” —Amanda Alexander

She said that when she moved back to Detroit, the city was the largest municipality to ever declare bankruptcy. A lot of people didn’t know if Detroit was 50 years ahead or 50 years behind the rest of the country. “I quickly realized that we were 50 years ahead,” she said. “You see, the people of Detroit have shown me what it means to be a solutionary—to create visionary solutions in the face of devastation. When a grocery store leaves, people in Detroit teach each other how to plant. And when politicians and developers want to build a new jail, Detroiters say, ‘Stop, let’s build places where we can heal instead.’”

Amanda Alexander speaking about her work in Detroit
Amanda Alexander speaking about her work in Detroit

Using this solutionary mentality as motivation for her organization, Detroit Justice Center, Alexander has developed strategies to create more just communities. “At the Detroit Justice Center, we use a three-pronged strategy called ‘Defense, Offense, and Dreaming,’” she said. Defense is when the Center’s lawyers remove any legal barriers that shut people out of the economy. “Clients come to us with $70,000 in child support debt they amassed while in prison or thousands of dollars in fines and fees because they’ve been driving on a suspended license. They come to us squeezed to the brink by a system that’s so adept at destroying poor people’s lives. We resolve those legal barriers, and our clients get jobs, stay with their families, and remain out of prison,” said Alexander. Offense, she explained, is when the Center’s attorneys provide legal support for transformative economic solutions, like community land trusts, worker cooperatives, and enterprises led by returning citizens. And when it comes to the last prong, Dreaming, the Center has a Just Cities Lab that allows for them to support their clients and create supportive housing for people healing from gun violence.

Linking Poverty and Incarceration
Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology and Social Justice and Co-Director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University, presented his research on the intersection between racial inequality, poverty, and incarceration in Boston, Massachusetts. “In a study called the ‘Boston Reentry Study,’ I talked to people who were coming out of prisons in Massachusetts and returning to neighborhoods in the Boston area,” he said. “We interviewed people who were exposed to a lot of violence, whether they committed acts of violence or witnessed it as a child. We talked to people who were in poor health, suffering from diabetes, asthma, mood disorders, and mental health issues. And we interviewed some people who had deep material hardship immediately after incarceration, where the average income in Boston was $6,500—half of the federal poverty line for individuals living alone.” What they found was that those who suffered the deepest material hardship, were those who left prison in poor health. These individuals were most likely to be on hard drugs, unemployed, living in a shelter, or homeless on the streets.

Bruce Western presenting his research on incarceration and poverty
Bruce Western presenting his research on incarceration and poverty

“How should we respond to issues of mass incarceration? We have to focus on the harm violence causes. We have to focus on what people need.” —Bruce Western

To remedy these issues, Western suggests we focus on how we can reimagine what justice could be without immediately resorting to mass incarceration. “How should we respond to issues of mass incarceration? We have to focus on the harm violence causes. We have to focus on what people need,” said Western. “People need things like mental health counseling, healthcare, housing, and income support. Those who have very serious histories of victimization and other trauma need to attend to these harms directly, and mass incarceration is not the way to do that.”

Reforming Plea Bargaining
For Jago Russell, Chief Executive of Fair Trails, the main issue the United States is facing in regards to mass incarceration stems from the Country’s plea bargaining system. “No other country in the world imprisons more than the United States, and no other country in the world burdens so many people with the long-term collateral consequences of conviction,” said Russell. “When I speak about plea bargaining reform, people often tell me that the justice system would collapse if we got rid of plea bargaining. But from an outside perspective, what that shows is that mass criminalization wouldn’t be possible without plea bargaining. If we address how the U.S. does plea bargaining, you could have transformative effects across the whole justice system.” Part of transforming the plea bargaining system, Russell believes, is to provide people with access to counsel and more transparency.

Jago Russell
Jago Russell 

“If we address how the U.S. does plea bargaining, you could have transformative effects across the whole justice system.” — Jago Russell

 “It’s shocking to hear the amount of people who are pleading guilty to criminal offenses when they don’t have access to a lawyer—97 percent of criminal convictions in the federal system come from plea bargaining. How can you possibly understand the consequences of a conviction if you have not spoken to a lawyer?” he said, adding that because of the lack of transparency in the system, black and Latinx individuals were much more likely to be given punitive plea offers when compared to white individuals who committed similar crimes. But, Russell still has hope that the U.S. plea bargaining system can be reformed to decrease the country’s mass incarceration problem. He recommends that access to counsel be offered at police stations to help with the preparation of bail hearings, and to start the discussion about diverting cases that shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system.

Telling his story
At age 16, Halim Flowers, Co-Founder of Unchained Media Collective, was arrested in the District of Columbia for aiding and abetting, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. While serving his sentence, he created his own company SATO Communications and published 11 books. Reading an excerpt from his poem “When They See Us” inspired by the Netflix series of the same name, Flowers highlighted the need for society to look past race and class. “The problem is much bigger than just class and race. It’s not a political war but a spiritual battle between love and hate,” he recited. “If it’s going to take a village, then our villages are going to need love, so when they see us, they don’t see us as killers and thugs. So when they see us, they see us and don’t judge us. So when they see us, they see with both eyes full of love. It’s not about conservative and liberals reaching across the aisle, it’s about reaching into our hearts to extend a loving smile.”

Halim Flowers
Halim Flowers

“If it’s going to take a village, then our villages are going to need love, so when they see us, they don’t see us as killers and thugs. So when they see us, they see us and don’t judge us. So when they see us, they see with both eyes full of love.” —Halim Flowers

When the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016 was passed, which said that individuals could petition for their case to be reviewed if they were sentenced as a juvenile and had served at least 20 years without parole, Flowers had hope that he would finally have the chance to be released. What he soon learned was that the act didn’t include retroactive cases and it would only apply to juveniles imprisoned going forward. But, that didn’t stop Flowers. “I knew that if this act was expanded to include people who were previously imprisoned as juveniles, I could petition my case. So, I emailed my local legislatures and told them my story. I emailed the mayor, the deputy mayor, and through all my reaching out, I was able to get in contact with someone who could help me and change the amendment. And on March 21, 2019, after serving 22 years, I was released from prison.”

Receiving a round of applause, Flowers finished his talk, making sure that everyone in the audience understood his purpose for attending the conference. “I stand here today to express the urgency of the thousands of juveniles who still remain incarcerated after serving decades in prisons. Some of them are in there because they were faced with lawyers and legislatures that didn’t believe in them, who didn’t offer them the proper services they needed, and viewed them as criminals,” he said. “These individuals have genuinely changed, and have learned from the actions they committed when they were just children. I urge all of you to hear my story and take steps toward helping not only those in prison, but the youth today who may be facing the same fate.”

See videos from the Smart on Crime Innovations Conference:

Smart on Crime playlist