Beloit College Explores U.S. Criminal Justice and Human Rights

Posted on April 27, 2018

At the end of March, a team of Weissberg Foundation trustees and staff traveled to Beloit College in Wisconsin for Weissberg Week, which is part of the Weissberg Program in Human Rights (WPHR). Established in 1999, the WPHR is the foundation’s longest running grant program.

There are now several different components of the WPHR at the student, faculty, and community level (learn more here). The program originated with the idea to bring a prominent practitioner and thought leader in human rights to Beloit to engage the college community on a timely topic. This annual, weeklong residency has become known as Weissberg Week.

This year’s Weissberg Chair was Steven Hawkins, and the topic of his residency was criminal justice, especially relevant to the foundation as we have spent the last several months researching and conducting a field scan to develop a new strategy for our criminal justice program area. He spent much of his career both representing individuals facing the death penalty and advocating to abolish capital punishment completely. He successfully led a campaign to abolish the death penalty for juvenile crimes. Most recently, Mr. Hawkins served as the president of the Coalition for Public Safety.

We were able to shadow Mr. Hawkins as he spoke with students and faculty in classes and advising practicums on topics like Navigating Careers as a Member of a Minority and Career Paths in Law and Social Justice. We also joined Mr. Hawkins at the 15th annual Duffy Colloquium where we heard from alumni about their experiences at Beloit, in the Duffy program, and what they are doing now to exemplify the driving question of the Duffy program: “what makes a good society?”

Mr. Hawkins’ powerful public address and the community conversations around criminal justice were high points for us on this trip.

“Judging America: Exceptionalism, Criminal Justice, and Human Rights”

In his public address, Mr. Hawkins explored the history of our criminal justice system and the pathways that led to our current state of mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects people of color. His speech highlighted many statistics that continue to be jarring no matter how many times you hear them:

  • The US is home to 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prison population.
  • In 1988, the total number of people in prison was lower than the number of people incarcerated just for drug offenses today – overall, a 500% increase in 40 years.
  • The amount of public money we spend on our prison system surpassed the amount we spend on education a decade ago.
  • Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.

Mr. Hawkins stated that we are in a moment of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, but chipping away piece by piece at these efforts is not enough. We need a mass movement for change, and that will only come by giving those closest to incarceration the agency to be the drivers of the reform movement. He offered some concrete suggestions for how we might reimagine our criminal justice system:

  • Creating a more centralized police force similar to European police forces.
  • Eliminating mandatory minimums and using international standards for sentencing.
  • Re-imagining prisons as interventions to include rehabilitation.
  • Creating a national push to release aging inmates and decrease geriatric care costs.

Criminal Justice Reform in Wisconsin

Mr. Hawkins also participated in a panel discussion with Wisconsin State Representative Evan Goyke and Marquette University Law Professor and author Michael O’Hear about criminal justice reform in Wisconsin. We learned that while Wisconsin has had some recent success, such as closing juvenile detention facilities, there is still a lot of work to be done in the state. Wisconsin’s prison population is one of the country’s most racially disparate, with African Americans making up only 7% of the state’s population, yet 41% of its prison population.

This public event was followed by a smaller conversation with key community members about criminal justice issues in Rock County (where Beloit is in Wisconsin). The community conversation was particularly powerful, as the room was full of individuals with various connections to the criminal justice system sharing their experiences and ideas on what can be done to improve Rock County and the state of Wisconsin as a whole. Issues discussed included the location and access to the court house, juvenile justice, and racial disparities in the system. There were several connections made and ideas lifted up from just a short 90-minute lunch, which reminded us of the importance of bringing people together who have various experiences to connect and collaborate for change in their community.

As the Weissberg Foundation deepens our commitment to criminal justice reform, engaging in discussions like those that took place as part of Steven Hawkins’ residency at Beloit will continue to inform our understanding, broaden our perspective, and strengthen our work.

Follow us on Twitter so you don’t miss when we announce our new criminal justice grant program later this spring!


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.

ShareShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone