Michael Schmid ‘21
The third annual Shaping Justice conference took place February 8 and 9 at the Law School, featuring a variety of panel discussions, workshops, and a keynote address by Larry Krasner, District Attorney for the City of Philadelphia. The event was sponsored by the Public Interest Law Association, the Program in Law and Public Service, and the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center. Panel topics included gun violence, alternatives to incarceration, the affordable housing crisis, and the opioid epidemic.
The opioid epidemic was a focal point of Krasner’s opening remarks. Addressing the tsunami of prescription and illicit opioids that has flooded Philadelphia just as it has regions around the country, Krasner argued that the choices law enforcement officials face in combatting that issue are indicative of the overarching issue facing the criminal justice system today. Krasner shuns what he calls “antiquated notions of right and wrong” with its focus on retribution, harsh penalties, and hyper-criminalization, in favor of a “harm reduction” approach focusing on public health and prevention. When localities fail to treat the opioid epidemic as a public health issue, Krasner argues, it leads people to hide their disease, which results in people “dying from stigma.” Krasner sees the harm-reduction model as the solution to the opioid crisis, as well as a variety of other criminal justice issues, pointing to the success Vancouver, British Columbia has had with their supervised injection sites in drastically reducing the incidences of overdoses and opioid-related fatalities.
Unabashed in his outsider approach to prosecution, Krasner also appreciates the role of pragmatism in effecting change. Reflecting that sometimes people have to put themselves in situations that might make them uncomfortable in order to achieve the policy goals they desire, Krasner stated, “Virtue is nice. Victory is even better.” Krasner pulled no punches in criticizing some elected officials who he believes have neglected the issue of criminal justice reform over the years. “The civil rights issue of our day is criminal justice reform,” he remarked. “Our resources have been hijacked by politicians who have built prisons to get votes.” He believes that voters’ dissatisfaction with past approaches partially fueled his victory and the election of other “progressive prosecutors” across the country. When change is not occurring on the national or state level, Krasner argues that through “progressive federalism” municipalities can be a source of sensible solutions to criminal justice and public health concerns.
Known for his fiery and iconoclastic rhetoric, Krasner has courted criticism by some for his approach to his role as district attorney. However, a little over a year after taking office, Krasner listed a few of what he sees as some of his biggest accomplishments. In part because of his decision to decline to recommend cash bail for twenty-five offenses his office has labeled as innocuous and non-dangerous, Krasner pointed to the significant decrease in incarcerated individuals in Philadelphia: down from 6,500 to 4,700. Crime has remained flat, while violent crime has decreased during Krasner’s tenure, despite opponents’ charges that his policies would have the opposite effect. When reflecting on how some of his detractors might respond to the downward trend in crime in the city, Krasner quipped, “They’re opposed to crime, but they’re very much opposed to me.”
In the Alternatives to Incarceration panel, Angel Harris, Assistant Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, emphasized the importance of “directly impacted individuals” having a voice in addressing criminal justice issues. The intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system was topic addressed in-depth during the panel session. Judge Robert H. Downer ’76 of Charlottesville’s general district court noted the successes of the “therapeutic docket” in Charlottesville, a targeted and individualized program which seeks to divert those with mental health issues from incarceration and into treatment programs. “We harm people a great deal when we incarcerate people with mental health issues,” the judge remarked. He also commented that integrating and welcoming formerly incarcerated individuals back into society and giving people a chance at a fresh start is critical to keeping people out of the criminal justice system and reducing recidivism rates. “How we treat those who are released [from prison] is important,” said Judge Downer. This was echoed by Herb Dickerson, outreach coordinator and shift supervisor at The Haven, who said that the criminal justice system should do a better job of dealing with the underlying issues that lead people into crime in the first place. Dickerson hopes that those involved in the criminal justice system “deal with the individual and not the stigma.”
The next morning, students, faculty, and community members packed WB 101 for the Confronting Racism panel, sponsored by the Minority Rights Coalition and the Black Law Students Association. Meredith Horton ’07, Associate Legal Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, spoke about her work challenging felon disenfranchisement laws through impact litigation. For example, in Mississippi, felons are banned from voting for life. The only ways for a released felon to have their voting rights restored are through (1) a gubernatorial pardon, (2) an executive order, or (3) a state legislator personally sponsoring the person who has completed his felony sentence and submitting legislation to restore his voting rights. This bill must pass with a two-thirds vote and be signed by the governor. Unsurprisingly, said Horton, very few people are successful with this laborious process. Michael Herring ’90, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Richmond, noted that while most criminal defendants he sees in the courtroom are people of color, the judges, prosecutors, police officers, and defense attorneys are disproportionately white. This imbalance can lead to prosecutors having a skewed perspective on the criminally accused they see in court on their worst day and in their worst form.
Following the last panel session, attendees could choose from a trio of concurrent workshops, titled: Trauma-Informed Care, Strategies for Nonprofit Litigation, and Tools for Legislative Advocacy. The conference concluded with an award ceremony honoring Chinh Q. Le ’00 and Julia Pierce ’98 with the Shaping Justice Awards for Extraordinary Achievement and Michelle Harrison ’12 with the Shaping Justice Rising Star award.
During his keynote address, Krasner said he appreciated the real change to the criminal justice system that is happening in Philadelphia and across the country, but noted how much more work he feels is still left. He urged others to get involved, calling on those in attendance to “be part of history.” As Dean Goluboff noted in her introduction of Krasner, “It is not automatic that change happens. The arc of justice does not bend without people who bend it.”