Posted on May 17, 2017
by Amanda O’Meara
With more than 2.3 million Americans behind bars, there is no question that our country has a mass incarceration problem. Yet, it is so much more than that. We are living in a time where 1 in 10 African American men in their thirties is in prison or jail, 94% of people in federal prison have nonviolent convictions, and 2.7 million children under the age of 18 have a parent in prison or jail. Our society has made it incredibly difficult for those who have been incarcerated to receive a second chance.
With that in mind, NYU Washington, DC hosted its fifth annual Weissberg Forum for Discourse in the Public Square on April 25th, 2017. The Weissberg Forum frames and conducts dialogues around issues that provoke differing views and potentially controversy; this year’s issue was criminal justice reform.
The Forum began with a screening of the documentary RIKERS: An American Jail. There are about 8,000 detainees at Rikers Island on any given day, and almost 80% of them have yet to be convicted of a crime. Some detainees stay at Rikers for six years before their cases are heard, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Through powerful stories told directly by men and women formerly incarcerated at Rikers, the violence, oppression and injustice of the prison come into shocking light. After viewing RIKERS, it is no surprise the #CLOSErikers campaign led by JustLeadershipUSA is gaining steam and achieving successes.
Keynoting the Forum was JustLeadershipUSA founder and president Glenn Martin. Martin shared his experiences being incarcerated at Rikers and spoke about his organization’s efforts to reduce the US correctional population by half by 2030. (Watch the video.) The JustLeadershipUSA guiding principle that “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power” resonates with the Weissberg Foundation.
The Forum also included a panel of experts who addressed mass incarceration from a few different lenses:
- Rachel Barkow, Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy and Faculty Director at the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU School of Law (watch the video)
- Ernest Drucker, PhD, Research Scientist and Professor of Public Health at New York University (watch the video)
- Kirk Anthony James, Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Silver School of Social Work (watch the video)
- Michael Bosworth, Senior Fellow with the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU and former Deputy Assistant and Deputy Counsel to President Obama (watch the video)
Criminal Justice and the Weissberg Foundation’s Strategic Repositioning
As you may have seen in an earlier blog post, the foundation is currently undergoing a strategic planning period. In the past, much of the foundation’s funding in criminal justice has been around higher education in prison. College in prison is a valuable opportunity to tap into the vast amount of human capital sitting in our prisons, but there are so few opportunities after leaving prison. How can we change the narrative on those who have been incarcerated so we can lift them up to be leaders in our communities and help create change in our troubled criminal justice system?
Criminal Justice will remain a focus area for us, and over the next several months we will scan the field to examine where our resources might be most effective. Check our website for future updates on how our criminal justice funding will unfold.
During Mr. Martin’s address, he challenged the room to identify our privilege and wield it in the name of justice. The Weissberg Foundation is taking on that challenge. Will you do the same?
Amanda O’Meara is the Program Officer at the Weissberg Foundation, and she has been with the Foundation since 2009. She is the lead on our Criminal Justice funding area as well as the coordinator for many program and grantmaking facets of the foundation. Before joining the Foundation, Amanda spent some time living in Nairobi, Kenya while interning with the UN World Food Program.