SANDRA SUSAN SMITH is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, and faculty director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ). In 2021, the PCJ, led by Smith, formed the Roundtable, a multiparticipant working group made up of stakeholders ranging from judges to the formerly incarcerated, with the goal of influencing future policies, practices, and procedures to eradicate the sources of racial inequity and racial disparity in Massachusetts’s courts.


Q: The Roundtable allows for honest conversations around what happens to real people in the criminal legal system. Are these tough discussions, and do your participants stay connected?

All Roundtable members bring their unique experiences and understanding to our discussions. We do not always agree. Indeed, perhaps the only view we all share is that the criminal legal system does harm and needs to be changed. On all other questions—the extent and nature of the harm, root causes, and how to effectively eliminate the sources of harm—we have small to large areas of disagreement. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, bonds among members are growing and ties are deepening. Still, two points are worth making. First, members come to the Roundtable with a history of fighting for racial justice in the criminal legal system from whatever positions they hold. Second, in committing to this project, Roundtable members also necessarily commit to being open to the views that others share, to being willing to question or reexamine their own assumptions in light of what they are learning, and, to some extent at least, to being willing to compromise.

“I see these conversations shifting perspectives. My hope is we influence the agencies and institutions across the state.”

Sandra Susan Smith

Q: How important is having the formerly incarcerated as members?

Earlier in my career, I was invited to participate in several such convenings, but rarely were people with lived experience also invited to participate as active members on equal footing with other members—typically policymakers, practitioners, academics, and researchers. At most, justice-involved individuals would be invited to make a guest appearance: Organizers would put together a panel discussion in which two or three people with lived experience would describe the injustices they confronted; then they were thanked for their courage in sharing with the group, wished a brighter future, and guided out of the meeting space so that serious discussions among the principals could continue. They were passive participants and expected to be so. Those were missed opportunities. How could we address intractable problems within the criminal legal system without centering the voices of those most negatively impacted by it? The Roundtable had to be different.


Q: Have any of the findings from the Roundtable working groups surprised you?

I have learned so much because of my participation in the Roundtable. This work has caused me to delve into bodies of research with which I’d not been familiar, to hear perspectives that I’d not heard before, to contemplate possibilities that had been foreign to me. For instance, I had not considered before that the planning associated with re-entry should begin the day one’s jail or prison sentence begins, not toward the end of one’s stint. That produces much better outcomes. I have learned how and why people of color are lost at each stage of the jury-selection process; how problematic this is for constituting diverse juries that, research shows, yield fairer jury outcomes; and the efforts that can be made to resolve these issues. I now better understand why decriminalization policies often increase racial disparities as well as how such policies need to be constructed so as to benefit Black and Latinx people as much as they do white people. I’ve understood some ideas in theory, but it has been in the context of the Roundtable that I have seen good evidence.

Banner image by Martha Stewart

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