HKS Class Sends Students to Haiti, Sierra Leone

April 30, 2010
by Pedro Henrique Fernandes de Cristo MPP 2011, Ian Mills MPA 2010, and Natalie Black MPP'11, The Citizen

CCJ-201 ‘Criminal Justice in a Global Context’, running for its second year, remains one of the best-kept secrets at HKS. Focusing on criminal justice reform across the world, the class actually sends students all over the world to contribute to projects being undertaken by the HKS Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. Over this year’s spring break, students conducted fieldwork in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Haiti, Jamaica, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya.


Prior to the devastating January earthquake, which killed over 200,000 people and made more than 1 million homeless, Haiti was renowned for its inefficient justice system and severe prison overcrowding, with over 75% of inmates still awaiting trial (some for over 5 years). During Spring Break, Natalie Black visited Port-au-Prince with two classmates to help the United Nations with a rapid, preliminary assessment of how the justice system had been affected by the earthquake.

The devastation is difficult to comprehend: the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court are in ruins; many of the key figures in the court system are dead or missing; the police training school currently houses the Parliament because it, too, collapsed; and the main prison is overflowing even as the police try to recapture the nearly 5,000 prisoners that escaped. The team split its time between the police, prisons, and courts, meeting senior Haitian officials, U.N. teams and local NGOS (usually in tents) to evaluate the extent of the damage and what this means for justice processes and priorities.

None of the data collected spoke to the extent of the challenge Haiti now faces as much as the personal stories of the Haitians themselves. On a visit to the main prison, a young man who had been arrested for vagrancy admitted he knew he was unlikely to see a judge in the near future as there are still virtually no justice activities in the capital; in a police station in Cité Soleil, a woman told how she had just evaded a fourth kidnapping attempt; and in an internally-displaced person (IDP) camp, an amazing group of female U.N. police officers were working with female Haitian police officers to tackle the rise in rape.

The Post Disaster Needs Assessment compiled by the Haitian government estimates that $350 million will be required over the next three years to restore and modernize the justice system. It will be a long and difficult process, but also one with immense prospects to address long-term underlying issues.

Los Angeles

After the 1991 Rodney King Los Angeles police brutality case and the 1992 riots, even though valid efforts such as the Christopher Commission took place, rampant problems of accountability and oversight were still present at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) – issues which became evident with the Rafael Perez corruption scandal at Rampart District in 1999. This pattern of misconduct brought about the intervention of the federal government to maintain oversight of the LAPD. The mechanism adopted was a Consent Decree, which established a series of regulations towards policing activities with the aim of improving police service. It was agreed to in 2000 and started in 2001.

Following up on a previous LAPD HKS report spearheaded by Professor Christopher Stone, the goals for the HKS students involved were to find out if the reduction of violent crimes (more than 40%), property index crimes (33.5%), the improvement in terms of public perception (a drop of 20% in citizens perception of crime as a big problem for the city from 2002-2008) and the decrease in categorical use of force (8.1 to 6.2 for each 10,000 arrests from 2004-2008) had continued after the decree ended in mid-2009. The students were also tasked to find out if the changes that took place under the leadership of Chief William J. Bratton (2002-2009) had become institutionalized.

The students found that a high degree of alignment among all levels of the Police Department, the Office of the Inspector General (its civilian oversight body), and the communities were delivering effective changes in the policing production function based on the much greater integration and interaction with local communities, both for service and evaluation. The LAPD’s Broken Window theory approach has been nurtured into the idea of ‘constitutional policing,’ meaning reducing crime without committing crimes and continuously providing results while reframing police relations with the communities. This resulted in an LAPD where officers now provide an effective and satisfactory law enforcement role.

Sierra Leone

Dostoevsky once commented that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The largest, most secure prison in Sierra Leone, Pademba Road, has one part-time doctor, no computerized records and with approximately 1,100 inmates is four times overpopulated – and growing.

During spring break, two students from CCJ-201 explored Pademba Road as part of a data gathering exercise designed to complement an existing United Kingdom Department for International Development project in the field. The students were sent to learn and understand, empirically, what happens to people through the process of arrest, trial, and detention in the criminal justice system – with a view to providing feedback on how data might best be gathered going forward. Moving between prison and court, students sampled 100 cases and identified the usual problems – capacity constraints, insufficient funding, inadequate training, inefficiencies in process design. But there was also a degree of local impetus for change in a country reestablishing its democracy after a civil war, despite struggling with enormous poverty challenges.

Students on all of the trips gained an appreciation for on-the-ground capacity constraints and the importance for realistic framing of criminal justice interventions. There is a lot to learn from entering prisons, and students in the class highly recommend it to everyone.

desctruction in Haiti

The effects of the earthquake in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Natalie Black MPP 2011.

sierra leone

Sierra Leone. Photo courtesy of Ian Mills MPA 2010.

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