Sunday, May 21, 2017

Locking Up Our Own

I read James Forman Jr.'s new book, Locking Up Our Own, quickly.  It is the kind of book that I like.  Indeed, it is the kind of book that I have tried on several occasions to write.

Locking Up Our Own is mercifully short -- less than 250 pages.  No padding here.  It is well-written.  The authorial voice is modest and unassuming.  Despite the urgency of Forman's message, which is essentially to make the case for a more humane approach to criminal justice policy, his tone is even-handed.  It never feels like he is over-egging the batter.  Despite this, I read the last dozen or so pages with tears in my eyes, moved by the story of Forman's attempt to help one of his clients when he served as a public defender.

While he brings to life a handful of interesting cases from his practice, Forman's primary purpose is to tell the story of the last 40 years of criminal justice history in the United States.  He rigorously -- and, in my opinion, correctly -- focuses on local politics and policymaking.  Forman uses Washington, D.C. as the launching pad for his narrative.  D.C. is my hometown and I can attest that Forman captures the mood and dynamics of the city well.

In particular, Forman nails the impact of the crack epidemic, both on the streets and in the corridors of power, in the 1980s and 1990s.  Washington was a violent city in those years and, as Forman documents, the calls for more law enforcement and tougher penalties came from almost all quarters -- including the black community.

Forman treats the central players in this history with nuance and understanding.  As he details, their actions directly contributed to the growth of incarceration in the United States.  But Forman gives them their due.  He acknowledges that they were responding to an unprecedented calamity -- the public safety crisis in D.C. was real and demanded immediate action.

Forman doesn't offer up pantomime villains or grand unifying theories.  In the end, he concludes that mass incarceration is "the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors.  If that is correct, mass incarceration will likely have to be undone in the same way."  That sounds right to me.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Inside/Outside Strategy

Philanthropy New York hosted a briefing on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform (aka the Lippman Commission) earlier today.  It was a fascinating event.  I have been spending a fair amount of my time on this issue of late.  Even so, I felt like I learned things from the session, which featured former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Glenn Martin of #CloseRikers, Ken Zimmerman of Open Society Foundations, Sarah Williams of Propel Capital, and Justin Lapatine of Global Strategy Group.

Ken Zimmerman made a persuasive argument (to me at least) that even funders without a declared interest in criminal justice should care about the topic.  He said that every social policy issue (poverty, immigration, housing, education, etc.) inevitably involves people who are engaged in the criminal justice system.

Sarah Williams made the case that to achieve significant cultural change, you need both an inside and an outside strategy.  Judge Lippman and Glenn Martin embodied the two sides of this coin.  Martin talked about the various techniques that #CloseRikers has employed to raise public and political consciousness about the idea of closing Rikers Island.  And Judge Lippman talked about how he marshaled various institutional players (including the Center for Court Innovation) to support the work of the Commission.

Speaking of Rikers, I wanted to share a few links:

An Urgent Checklist for Closing Rikers -- Daily News op-ed.

Goodbye Rikers -- Off Kilter podcast

Radicalized on Rikers -- Slant podcast from City & State

The End of Rikers? -- New Thinking podcast featuring Courtney Bryan

As even the most optimistic advocates will admit, there is still a lot of work to be done to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality.  Certainly the Philanthropy New York session highlighted that there is a need for deeper, long-term investments on a number of fronts -- advocacy, direct service, research, and others. But I left feeling encouraged that there is an interest in criminal justice among the foundation community that simply didn't exist when I started working in this field twenty plus years ago.