Criminal justice reform. It is both polarizing (think #blacklivesmatter vs. #bluelivesmatter vs. #alllivesmatter) and unifying: in recent years both Democrats and Republicans have worked together on the issue. This semester our students have tackled this issue in several memorable ways, gaining insight from (among others) an Attorney General, a Congressman, and a judge.
We began our discussions in September with several “spectrum activity” questions. In a spectrum conversation, students arrange themselves physically on a spectrum according to how much they agree or disagree with a given statement. Our questions included “How much do you trust the government?” “Is it better for a guilty person to go free or an innocent person to be convicted?” and “Do African Americans commit more violent crime because of systemic oppression?” The conversations that followed helped students refine questions for the speakers to come.
Our first visit was to the DC Attorney General’s office, where the students met with Karl Racine, DC’s Attorney General, and his Chief of Staff, Elizabeth Wilkens. Racine, DC’s highest-ranking law enforcement official (who lists juvenile justice reform as one of his key issues), and Wilkens (whose career includes a stint clerking for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan) took a variety of personal and policy questions in a conference room overlooking the U.S. Capitol.
Two weeks later, we welcomed U.S. Representative Hakeem Jefferies (D-NY) to our Academic building. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is one of the lead sponsors of the “First Step Act,” which passed the House with bipartisan support earlier this year. The Senate is now debating the bill, which has President Trump’s support. The Congressman overviewed the bill and its key provisions, and answered an hour’s worth of tough questions from well-informed students (one of them asked why he had allied himself with a President he deeply dislikes). Jeffries later featured his visit on his Instagram feed.
During Family/Homecoming Weekend, the students sat in on a feisty, crowd-pleasing panel discussion between Golden Mug winner Clark Neily (Vice President for Criminal Justice Reform at the libertarian Cato Institute) and Hayne Yoon, left-leaning Director of Government Affairs at the Vera Institute of Justice. More about that session is available here.
And then, this week, we witnessed the criminal justice system firsthand during a visit to DC’s “Drug Court.” The guests of Judge Gregory Jackson (who met with the students for an hour afterward) the students watched nonviolent but drug-addicted criminals receive court-ordered sanctions and relief. At times frustrating and at times poignant, the experience helped students put real faces on a complex policy dilemma.
The gallery below includes photos from our recent conversation with Aaron David Miller at the Wilson Center. Miller advised six different Secretaries of State on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and is a frequent SEGL speaker. Our work with him concludes our Israeli-Palestinian case study.