The theme of this year's speaker series is Myths of Public Safety. Myths abound about what public safety is and how it is achieved. These myths have been the basis of efforts toward mass incarceration, aided in the destruction of lives and communities, and fed huge racial disparities—all the while, research shows, making the public less safe.
We will be joined by guests who have helped to debunk these myths. Through discussions about both lived experience and innovative research, we hope to guide policymakers, practitioners, advocates, researchers, and community members in envisioning new practices, procedures, and policies that will bring about safe and thriving communities for all.
This fall our focus was Pretrial.
Constitutional Rights vs. Institutional Capacity: What Happens If Defendants Collectively Refuse Pleas?
Andrew Manuel Crespo, Harvard Law School
Wednesday, November 30
We invited Andrew Manuel Crespo to speak with us as part of the Myths of Public Safety: Pretrial speaker series. Crespo is the Morris Wasserstein Public Interest Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Executive Faculty Director of the Institute to End Mass Incarceration.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial by a jury of one’s peers, where the state bears the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But more than 90% of state and federal convictions are the result of guilty pleas, not criminal trials. Plea bargaining, once an anomalous shortcut to the system, has become the system itself. Ten years ago, Susan Burton, a formerly incarcerated organizer, and scholar Michelle Alexander questioned how people refusing to participate in the state’s grind of guilty pleas might be able bring the whole criminal legal system crashing to a halt.
Prof. Crespo’s recent article, “No Justice, No Pleas: Subverting Mass Incarceration Through Defendant Collective Action,” takes that thought experiment as a jumping off point and builds upon it, teasing out some of the transformational possibilities and potential pitfalls that flow from the idea of a plea strike collectively organized by people accused of crimes. We discussed his scholarship and the work that the Institute to End Mass Incarceration is doing to explore and support collective action among people being prosecuted.
This event was recorded and the video will be posted here soon.
Do People Really Get Lawyers Upon Arrest? The Indigent Counsel Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight
Aditi Goel, Sixth Amendment Center (6AC)
Wednesday, November 16
For the fifth speaker in our Myths of Public Safety: Pretrial speaker series we invited Aditi Goel, Senior Program Manager at the Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) to discuss 6AC’s research on access to counsel in the period immediately after someone is arrested and before their first court appearance. Research increasingly shows that even one day in jail can lead to a string of derailing life events. While our constitutional design includes a right to counsel in criminal cases, when does someone actually get to see a lawyer after they’ve been arrested? And would earlier appointment of counsel make us all more safe? We discussed 6AC’s work in multiple jurisdictions on how frequently people waive their right to counsel after arrest and before their first court appearance through various systemic pressures. On-the-ground realities suggest the notion of a right to counsel, a fundamental precept of our constitutional system, may itself be an ephemeral myth in practice in a substantial plurality of cases—including in jurisdictions with a reputation for protecting the rights of indigent and marginalized people.
Does Reform Affect Community Safety? Fighting Disinformation around the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act
Sharone R. Mitchell, Jr., Cook County (IL) Public Defender
Will Tanzman, Executive Director of The People’s Lobby
Wednesday, October 26
For the fourth set of speakers in our Myths of Public Safety: Pretrial speaker series we have invited Sharone R. Mitchell, Jr., Cook County Public Defender and Will Tanzman, Executive Director of The People’s Lobby, a member of the Illinois Coalition to End Money Bond and the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. In January 2021, the Illinois Legislature passed the Pretrial Fairness Act, a slate of reforms set to take effect in January 2023 as part of the SAFE-T Act. Among other provisions, the Act abolishes money bond, limits eligibility for pretrial incarceration, ensures that risk assessment tools cannot be the sole basis for pretrial incarceration, increases the possibility of release in lieu of arrest and release prior to a first court appearance, and reduces penalties for violations of pretrial release conditions.
Even though these provisions have not yet taken effect, advocates are already facing a coordinated campaign arguing that the new law will undermine—or even has somehow already undermined—public safety. Falsehoods about what the law does as well as myths about its foreseeable effects are flying in online forums, on social media, in local news, and in major newspapers. Fighting this disinformation puts advocates on the defensive, as the narrative that jail produces safety maintains its intuitive appeal in the public square. We’ll ask our panelists: how do you build strong campaigns to protect evidence-based reforms from being rolled back before they’ve even had a chance to work? Are there ways to preempt the forces of retrenchment which are fighting to keep the status quo in place?
The Costs and Consequences of Bail and Pretrial Detention
Megan Stevenson, University of Virginia School of Law
Wednesday, September 28
For the second speaker in our Myths of Public Safety: Pretrial speaker series we invited Professor Megan Stevenson, an economist from the University of Virginia School of Law, to discuss her innovative research on the costs and consequences of bail and pretrial detention. Our current system is based on the idea that the safety benefits outweigh the harm that it inflicts. But does it keep us safe? Does bail increase the likelihood that people show up in court? The results may surprise you. We also discussed reforms to bail and pretrial detention that have been attempted around the country and try to learn from their successes and failures.
What If?—Pretrial Justice Institute's Campaign to Spark Local Pretrial Change
Meghan Guevara and Tenille Patterson, Pretrial Justice Institute
Wednesday, September 21
The Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) began over 40 years ago as the sole U.S. organization dedicated exclusively to pretrial system reform. Their latest publication — What If? 10 Questions for Sparking Local Pretrial Change — invites readers to imagine a pretrial system guided by equity and shared values, where people have many opportunities to remain safely in the community and few roads to incarceration. A system that prioritizes support over supervision — and demands liberty as the norm.
We were joined by the co-leaders of PJI, Meghan Guevara and Tenille Patterson, to learn more about the mission of Pretrial Justice Institute, the What If? campaign, and lessons from communities around the country who are working to bring about alternatives to our current bail and jail system.
POSTPONED: No New Jails? No Old Jails? Charting a Path Forward for Women Detained on Riker’s Island
Andrea James, National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
Sharon White-Harrigan, Women’s Community Justice Association
Vincent Schiraldi, Columbia Justice Lab
For the third set of speakers in our Myths of Public Safety: Pretrial speaker series we have invited a panel including Andrea James, Founder and Executive Director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls; Rev. Sharon White-Harrigan, Executive Director of the Women’s Community Justice Association; and Vincent Schiraldi, Adjunct Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work and Senior Fellow at the Columbia Justice Lab.
Women and gender expansive people sent to the Rose M. Singer Center (“Rosie’s”) at Riker’s Island are overwhelmingly detained pretrial or on technical violations of parole—presumed innocent and/or detained for challenges meeting their conditions of release. The number of women entering New York City jails has plummeted from a peak of 15,678 in 1998 to 1,207 last year. New York City now has the lowest incarceration rate for women of the five largest U.S. cities—considerably lower than those cities. Still, on any given day, roughly 300 women are detained at Rosie’s. As the public debates what should happen to these women, we seek to convene a conversation that gets to the root of the implicit assumptions around safety, resources, and the permanence of institutions implicated by ongoing debates.
At the root of this debate is a sticky question: why do we wait for people to be in jail in order to build infrastructure that provides them needed resources? This conversation aims to unpack that question and search for possibilities for alignment among people who identify as reformers and people who identify as abolitionists in public discourse. What is the most liberatory possible version of a plan for the women and gender-expansive people stuck at Rosie’s which includes decarceration and reducing jail admissions? Given the urgency of brutal, dismal conditions of confinement – and acknowledging that any time-horizon for abolition may be decades if not centuries – what are ethical ways to address conditions that real people must endure in the present and near-term? Is it possible to invest in a future without jails while repurposing a former prison building that might still be connected to a city correctional agency? How do these proposals interface with the politics and realities on the ground, including a NYC Mayoral administration opposed to change—whether reformist or abolitionist? And finally, how do we build the future where people receive the resources that produce safety—housing, nourishing food, healthcare, childcare, dignified employment and income, individualized, trauma-informed services—in the community without incarceration, detention, or surveillance?
Katy Naples-Mitchell, Program Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, is the moderator and co-organizer of the Myths of Public Safety speaker series.
Sandra Susan Smith, is the co-organizer of the The Myths of Public Safety speaker series. She is the Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice; Faculty Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management; Director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy; Professor of Sociology and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute.