First American Justice Summit Addresses Prison Reform

New-York-Observer.jpeg

Veronica Brown '17 Assistant News Editor 

On Nov. 10, the first American Justice Summit took place at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Tina Brown Live Media, the same group behind Women in the World, organized the summit. According to “Vice News,” who livestreamed the event, the summit was called because of the “growing consensus that America’s criminal justice system is in urgent need of reform.”

Although some Smith students may not consider prison reform the most relevant issue to their daily lives, it has gained increase attention at the five colleges. At Hampshire Halloween this year, headliner Mykki Blanco began her set chanting “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow” above a banner reading “Black Lives Matter.”

Jeremy Travis, the President of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the recent report “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, was the first speaker following the introduction at the American Justice Summit. Travis implored the United States “to be more imaginative in dealing with low-level offenses” in order to keep people out of prison, a demand that would be revisited many times throughout the afternoon.

Besides speakers such as Travis, the event featured several different panels including “What is Prison For?, “Surviving the Timeand “Breaking the Cycle.” Smith alum and prison reform activist Piper Kerman ’92 served as a panelist on “Surviving the Time.”

Glenn Martin, activist and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, spoke on the first panel, “What is Prison For?” Martin, who spent six years in prison, criticized the branding of those in prison as perpetrators who are the enemies of victims, and encouraged a more complex view.

As the panel turned to the subject of diversion programs, Martin quipped that the United States has the “longest running and most successful diversion program of anywhere in the world – it’s called white skin.”

Although many of the speakers and panelists considered prison reform a social or moral issue, the event also brought in conservative Grover Norquist, who advocates prison reform for economic reasons. Norquist explained incarceration costs $50,000 per person in California.

This high cost to the state paired with the overcrowding of California prisons led to the passage of Prop 47 in California’s recent midterm elections. Prop 47 reduces jail time for “nonserious and nonviolent drug and property crimes.” Drug possession without the intent to distribute and other crimes will now be considered a misdemeanor instead of a felony in the state of California.

The American Justice Summit also welcomed Bill Bratton, Police Commissioner of New York City. New York City has long grappled with a “tough on crime” stance with policies such as the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Last week, the city made a change to policy so possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana will no longer be considered an arrestable offense.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the non-profit organization the Equal Justice Initiative, gave one of the final speeches at the summit. Providing a concrete goal to the afternoon’s more abstract ideas, Stevenson encouraged viewers to “demand we reduce the prison population by 50% in the next six years.” This goal may seem lofty, but Stevenson explained that advocates should not give up hope, as “nothing is a bigger problem than hopelessness.”