Glenn Martin, instrumental in campaign to close Rikers Island, and former US attorney Preet Bharara headline Center on the Administration of Criminal Law conference

The ninth annual conference of NYU Law’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL), “Disrupting the Cycle: Reforming Reentry,” explored how prosecutors and other law enforcement officials can help former inmates navigate the often-tortuous transition to post-incarceration life.

At the beginning of the April 7 conference, Rachel Barkow, Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy and CACL’s faculty director, discussed the center’s multiyear project on reentry and the role prosecutors can play. By early 2018, she said, CACL will issue a report summarizing its findings.

Glenn Martin

Barkow also introduced keynote speaker Glenn Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to halving the US correctional population by 2030. Martin was fresh off of what he considered an astounding victory: Exactly one week earlier, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced the decision to close Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, which has long been plagued by allegations of the abuse of inmates. Martin’s organization had launched its #CLOSErikers campaign just one year ago this month. “It is nothing short of miraculous what he has accomplished,” said Barkow.

Martin was intimately familiar with New York’s notorious jail complex: He first had been incarcerated there as a teenager, charged with shoplifting and unable to pay $1,500 in bail. “I had been punished by numerous government systems for years before I arrived at Rikers as a 16-year-old and then again at age 23. In my personal reentry experience and my subsequent work to end mass incarceration in America, I’ve come to view our criminal justice system as a giant conveyor belt that culminates in a human grist mill.”

Binary thinking, he said, played a large role, with neat categories for victims and for offenders coupled with a failure to acknowledge that many people were both. He argued that this approach extended to reentry programs, “where the measurement of success for ex-offenders is reduced to recidivism, with little attention paid to trauma, healing, and repairing the harm.”

As a young crime victim in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he never understood himself as such. “When you grow up in a predominantly black neighborhood and you see your family and friends unfairly targeted by police and prosecutors, you don’t see [law enforcement] as people who are on your side. You get used to handling problems on your own, sometimes violently.”

His perspective didn’t shift at Rikers, where, on his second day, he was stabbed four times with a makeshift knife. “The indifference of the corrections officers who looked on and laughed just solidified my belief that authority figures, people who operated within systems, thought my life had no value, and they could never be counted on for either protection or justice. And when you’re taught that you have no value and there’s no recourse to injustice, you come to believe that other people lack value, too.”

Martin’s thinking changed when he had the opportunity to earn a college degree at another correctional facility. He recalled how, in liberal arts courses, “I was forced to see other people as people…. People like me.” The college program cost $6,000 a year, but, he suggested, had saved taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars not spent on incarceration. “Reentry has to be about both programs and people, services and compassion, healing and repairing harm,” said Martin. “The recidivism rate will go down when we build people up.”

Preet Bharara

Later in the day, Professor of Practice and Distinguished Scholar in Residence Anne Milgram ’96, former attorney general of New Jersey, introduced featured speaker Distinguished Scholar in Residence Preet Bharara, former US attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Bharara stressed the role of prosecutors in improving reentry. “Over time, people who are spending careers in prosecution—in particular, those leaders at the top like the attorney general of a state or US attorney or chiefs of divisions—need to be thinking more broadly about how we do a better job in the criminal justice system, particularly with respect to reentry.”

The practical benefits of such efforts, he said, created bipartisan appeal. “A focus on reentry reduces recidivism, it increases public safety, it boosts local economies, it is efficient, and it is smart to think wisely and thoughtfully about how you accomplish better reentry.”

There was also a moral imperative, Bharara added. “In a just and fair society, the healthy should care about the sick, the rich should care about the poor, the mighty should care about the weak, and also the prosecutor should care about the prisoner.” He expressed pride in having pursued prosecutions against correction officers at Rikers who violated inmates’ rights.

Apart from sweeping changes such as shuttering entire jail complexes, smaller initiatives can also make a difference, said Bharara. He mentioned Rikers Rovers, a program that brought shelter dogs to Rikers so teenage inmates could learn life lessons through caring for animals. “There was a lot of eye-rolling about this program… It turns out that it’s one of the most effective programs that they’ve ever done in Rikers Island, which may not have gotten off the ground if people had been stuck in their old ways of thinking about what programming should be.”

Posted April 19, 2017