When it comes to criminal justice reform, one of the smartest and most effective partnerships is that of prosecutors and formerly incarcerated individuals. That’s why The Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay (IIP), the Manhattan DA’s Office, The Department of Corrections, and The Columbia Center for Justice created “Inside Criminal Justice”—a course that includes Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys and residents of Queensboro Correctional Facility. The participants all work collaboratively, participating in discussions on incarceration, analysis of the criminal justice system, research on the history of race and punishment in America, and ultimately the participants create group projects defining specific areas of policy that could be improved. Once they finish the course, the students receive a completion certificate and the opportunity to receive college credits from The Columbia University Center for Justice. On December 20, 2018, the most recent “Inside Criminal Justice” participants gathered to present their projects and receive a well-deserved certificate of completion.
“We can learn so much from the people impacted by the system that we’re hoping to improve.” —Karol V. Mason, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Learning From Those Impacted
President Karol V. Mason opened the event by stating how important it is for community leaders, prosecutors, and policy makers to hear directly from people affected by the criminal justice system. “One of the things that I learned from my prior job—and I learn every day here at this job—is that we can learn so much from the people impacted by the system that we’re hoping to improve,” said Mason. “When we hear their voices, and listen to what they believe we need to be doing, it has to be taken to heart. Hopefully, we’ll be able to implement their ideas.” Mason went on to applaud the members of IIP for their dedication to helping prosecutors and the communities they serve prioritize public safety and equity, noting that the IIP served more than 100 jurisdictions across the country. “Everyone knows that I’m an eternal optimist, I see hope and opportunity in everything,” said Mason. “I especially see hope in the work the IIP is doing, and what the “Inside Criminal Justice” participants are going to be telling us about tonight.”
“On the first day of class we explored the quote often attributed to Dostoyevsky, that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. If that’s true, the classes that you all created together is truly a model for an ideal society.” —Lucy Lang, Executive Director, IIP
Creating A Better Society
The power of the program was evident not only in the presentations made by the current participants, but also by the attendance of last year’s participants. “I’m really gratified to look out and see so many students from last year’s class here to support this new group of students,” said Lucy Lang, Executive Director, IIP. She went on to address this year’s students, thanking them for sharing their personal stories and listening to each other’s ideas. “On the first day of class we explored the quote often attributed to Dostoyevsky, that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. If that’s true, the classes that you all created together is truly a model for an ideal society.”
“The most important, single thing we can do to reduce recidivism is to give someone the opportunity to get a college education in prison.” — Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney
Reflecting On The Responsibility
Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, underscored the importance of reentry to prosecutors, and highlighted the value of education in prison programs. He started by asking a very direct question: Why should a District Attorney’s Office be focused on or care about reentry? “One of the reasons why we care about reentry is that it’s one of the first principals of our penal code. When you go to the United States penal code, and you look at section 1.05, it will tell you that succeeding in transitioning folks from prisons back into the communities is a principle goal of our system,” said Vance. He emphasized that because prosecutors ask judges to send someone to prison, they have a heightened responsibility to ensure that those individuals successfully transition back home. “If we don’t provide that help, unfortunately the data is very clear. People will be reoffending and be back in prison at very high percentages.” Vance went on to state that his office is investing half a million dollars in providing college and prison programing throughout New York State. “The most important, single thing we can do to reduce recidivism is to give someone the opportunity to get a college education in prison. It’s really that simple.”
Hearing Their Voices
The participants in the “Inside Criminal Justice” program went on to present policy presentations on: A Reentry Navigators Pilot Program; Creating a Prison to School/Work Pipeline; Earned Time; and Increasing Engagement to Build Trust in the Criminal Justice System. We spoke with some of the participants to learn more about their personal experience with the “Inside Criminal Justice” seminar, and to find out more about their hopes for criminal justice reform.
I was always passionate about criminal justice, that’s why I went to school for it, but during that time I actually got incarcerated. Once I found out about this program, and how the District Attorney’s Office was involved, I figured I had to participate. In the class I brought the practical side of the problems we discussed. I was incarcerated, so I know the behind-the-scenes aspects. I know about the educational services offered. Truthfully, I’d like to see more rehabilitation come out of this program. I don’t think corrections focuses on the rehabilitation part of incarceration nearly enough—which is a shame because most of these people are coming back into society. We have to prepare them to be productive.
I’m the Reentry Program Supervisor for the District Attorney’s office of Manhattan. The program gives a space for two groups to come together that normally do not come together, in a safe environment.
I liked what the program was aiming for, it was all about reform. I’ve learned a lot about the community in general, how everything plays an effect on a person’s life and lifestyle. I’ve learned a lot by enrolling in the class. It was very informative. I hope to see change, transition, and everybody coming together. There are stigmas with everything—like with the prosecutors and African-Americans—and I would like for everybody to see that everybody is equal. People are people.
More scenes from the event: