Criminal Justice

As prepared for delivery on October 7, 2015 at the Safety and Justice Challenge Network gathering.

Thank you for coming from near and far for the second gathering of the Safety and Justice Challenge Network. It is terrific to see you and to learn about the progress you have made in planning for significant reform in your local jurisdictions.

Since launching in February, discussion of and momentum behind criminal justice reform has continued to grow in volume and diversity, and the Safety and Justice Challenge as well as your jurisdictions have been a distinctive part of that conversation.

Thanks to your participation in communications efforts and to the work of communications partners of the Challenge, the focus on the role of jails in over-incarceration and potential solutions to that problem has grown.

We are truly at a momentous time in history: unusual allies and partners, bipartisan support in state legislatures and in Congress for systems reform, and unprecedented attention in diverse quarters as further evidenced by the Pope’s recent visit to a prison in Philadelphia, from which we have representatives in the room.

The Pope’s visit reminds us about the toll our broken system takes on society’s most vulnerable, and how the unfair and unjust use of jails falls disproportionally on low income people and communities of color. As I said when we were last together in Washington, when the compact between citizens and the institutions charged with protecting them becomes fragile, the legitimacy of all public institutions is at risk.

We cannot squander this unprecedented time. We cannot miss the point of convergence, so that it takes another decade before the opportunity arises again, if indeed it does. The higher the profile of the cause for reform becomes, the greater the responsibility to act.

We know that the stakes are high. The attention to this issue increases scrutiny on those at the forefront of change and the potential for backlash in the case of a negative event, such as increased crime rates or an act of violence. Such instances can make reform more difficult, necessitating clear and consistent commitment to the cause and work and a willingness to take risks, to be transparent, and to be held accountable.

Since I last spoke to you in May, criminal justice reform has become one of very few Big Bets MacArthur is making.  In our recent annual report, my essay said that MacArthur’s next chapter will be characterized by big bets that strive toward transformative change in areas of profound concern. I said that this is not a search for quick fixes or easy wins, but an all-in, timely commitment—of talent, resources, time, and reputation—to real change that matters for many, many people.   

MacArthur’s mission is a world that is more just, verdant and peaceful. I said that, in pursuit of such a world, we will invest deeply, with hope and optimism, and a commitment to creative partnership, in a small number of critical issues of planetary and human survival and human dignity: global sustainability, global security, and the rule of law rationally and equitably applied.

This is what you are working on – the rule of law rationally and equitably applied. When we were last together, I said that no other issue is more central a stronger, fairer, more democratic America that is true to its best ideals. The justice system is so central to how society constitutes and regulates itself that it influences all other aspects of our common life. When the justice system fails, nothing else can succeed. There is a new book with a terrific title. Can’t Not Do. That really applies here. We can’t not do what you are doing. 

While your work is profoundly important, we do not underestimate the scale of this challenge. By now you are beginning to develop a clear picture of what reform looks like in your jurisdiction, and perhaps how really hard it will be.

Thank you for taking this on and for assuming the risk associated with being out front – taking the lead in creating change. When I see who is here, the top-level representatives from so many places, and hear the passion in your voices, I know that you can change what justice means where you live and be the places that others will watch and emulate as they tackle reform where they live.

Next year we will announce the ten jurisdictions for deep investment. These will be the core sites for the Safety and Justice Challenge. Of course, the Challenge is not only these 10. We intend to foster and support a network of leaders around the country implementing reforms and creating change. Every one of you has a place in this Network and in this incredible moment in our history. In a variety of ways, every one of you will remain valuable and supported members of the Challenge Network.

As I said in May, MacArthur is proud to have found partners who share ambitious hopes for the future. Remember, our plans are to do no less than change how American, not just a few sites, and not just a few signs of progress, but change how America thinks about and uses jails in a fair, respected system of justice.  

Criminal Justice, Justice