Reducing US prison populations requires a strategy that engages all the players in the justice system, from courts to community residents to the media, a panel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice was told.
Changing state and federal guidelines on sentencing and bail won’t be enough to reduce America’s prison population, according to two of the nation’s foremost advocates for justice reform.
“It’s going to involve litigation, it’s going to involve organizing, it’s going to involve academia, (and) it’s going to involve elevating and honoring the voices and efforts of those who are most impacted by the system,” says Robin Steinberg, a co-founder of the Bronx Freedom Fund, which has been a prominent player in the movement for bail reform in New York City.
“There is no one strategy that works,” Steinberg, who is now CEO of The Bail Project , a national effort to reduce racial inequities in bail, told a panel last week at the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.
“So it’s going to involve the media, it’s going to involve certain communications strategies….whatever leads us to change the narrative.”
Steinberg’s comments were echoed by Judith A. Greene, a former Soros Senior Justice Fellow and contributor to the new book, Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health, who described how a combination of “organizing, litigation, public education, and ballot measures” was responsible for a 31 percent decline in New Jersey’s prison population between 1999 and 2014—one of the highest decarceration rates in the country.
New Jersey’s effort began with “litigation against a parole board that wasn’t doing its job,” received a boost from a report by the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) group advocating the elimination of mandatory-minimum drug sentences, and was reinforced by changes in plea guidelines established by the state attorney general’s office, Greene said.
“Then finally about three or four years ago, about the same time New York dropped the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state legislature essentially took the last legal legs out from under the drug school zone laws,” she added.
“So it was a combination….they didn’t have ballot measures, but they had organizing, they had civic engagement. And they had an elite body in the state’s highest court pushing to effect major drug reform.”
Speaking about bail reform, Robin Steinberg commented that the Bronx Freedom Fund, founded in 2005, was borne out of frustration “at watching bail get set on clients, and watching our clients get hauled into jail cells and the inevitable plea of guilty…and at some point my co-founder said we should just start a bail fund to bail people out.”
It took the Bronx Freedom Fund two years to find Jason and Joe Flom, the primary investors in their project. The fund finally took off in 2007 and began to bail people out.
“The lawyers in the Bronx Defenders would refer clients that they thought would be eligible for the bail to the Bronx Freedom Fund,” she said. “The [fund] would then do an interview and began to pay bail.”
What the Bronx Freedom Fund learned after being in operation for eleven years “exploded our beliefs” about bail, Steinberg said.
Counter-intuitively, the results of the Bronx Freedom Fund showed that people do come back to court even when their cash isn’t at stake.
“Once we started using donated dollars to pay people’s bail and we began to learn that 96 percent of our clients came back to court even though it wasn’t their money, and they had nothing at stake in terms of the money,” she continued. “[That] kind of exploded our ideas about money being an incentive to bring people back to court.”
Freedom Fund staff discovered that “97 percent of clients held on misdemeanors in The Bronx were pleading guilty, and when we paid people’s bail with philanthropic dollars, what wound up happening was almost half the cases got dismissed,” said Steinberg.
“The majority of the other half of the cases wound up in non-criminal dispositions—which have far fewer collateral consequences.”
The strategy of paying for defendants’ bail utilized by the Bronx Freedom Fund is known as a revolving-bail system.
The panel, titled “Decarcerating America,” was moderated by Nicole Fortier, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice Program.
In another, earlier, example of a multi-pronged decarceration approach, Greene described how New York City evolved from a gang enforcement strategy, which had led to the over-incarceration of youth in poor, minority neighborhoods during the 1950s, to programs involving street workers who could help young people find alternatives to gang involvement.
After reform-minded Mayor John Lindsay was elected in 1966, “the city…. listened to sociologists who said this was a youth problem more than a crime problem, pointing out that most kids who are in gangs are not marauding and shooting people,” she said.
New York began applying a “social intervention” strategy that involved a range of innovative approaches, including hiring former gang leaders as mediators.
As a result, said Greene, New York was able to avoid the kind of gang violence that plagued Chicago and Los Angeles.
Officials in many cities across America still haven’t picked up on the lesson, she said.
“It breaks my heart to see the gang enforcement strategy travel east,” said Greene.
Files for this story were provided by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.