How justice is being served and its impact both nationally and in Montclair was the topic of an important conversation started and led by students of Montclair’s Civics and Government Institute (CGI) Wednesday, December 14, at “Community Speaks: Criminal Justice Reform,” a panel discussion and community event held in the high school’s George Inness Atrium Annex that also recognized CGI’s 20th anniversary.
Students organized and ran the entire event. Molly Povich, secretary outreach, offered opening and closing statements, while Alex Tsemberis , CGI secretary of press, and Maya Jenkins, CGI president, acted as co-moderators, posing questions to the panel exploring the meaning of justice and how meaningful reform can take place.
Panelists included Nick Turner, the president of the Vera Institute of Justice, and Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, who both appeared in the Ava DuVernay documentary “13th.” Portia Allen-Kyle, the Pratt Criminal Justice Transparency Fellow at the ACLU-New Jersey and Deputy Chief Wilhelm B. Young of the Montclair Police Department, were also on the panel; Young was joined by some of his colleagues.
Is Justice Just?
“Justice at its core is to respect the dignity of everyone and recognize people for what they are, and where they have come from. People should not be reduced to the offense they may be accused of or have committed. We need to think of these people as brothers, fathers, mothers,” said Turner. “When we start to see people as other, that’s when the justice system goes awry.”
Mauer spoke to how justice is dependent on the structure society sets up. “It’s a question of race just how much justice people get. Poor people who can’t pay bail or can’t hire the same quality of attorney experience different outcomes than others. Justice isn’t always even handed.”
Allen-Kyle questioned that when it comes to considering what is just, is the perception of fairness more important than outcome itself. “Do we focus on being mistreated fairly or should we instead be focusing more on not being mistreated at all?”
Lt. Tyrone Williams of the Montclair Police Depart., who encouraged student participation in a new youth advisory council for the Montclair Police, spoke to balancing justice with fairness, equality and respect. Williams recalled an instance years ago, when he shopped at Pathmark with his son, and a man came up to shake his hand. When his son asked who the man was, Williams replied that he was someone he had arrested last week. “It was nothing personal, he violated the law, I enforced the law, but I treated him with dignity. That’s why he shook my hand.” Justice doesn’t have to be harsh.”
Mauer spoke about what inspired his reform work. “When we incarcerate people as society, we choose to put human beings in a cage. It doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to run a decent prison, but it’s a serious decision, and we need to consider why are we doing this. Is it for public safety, or political reasons? We don’t need 2 million people behind bars to enforce public safety.”
Williams reiterated the importance of placing value on community policing. “Some guys think community policing isn’t police work, but I see it as even more important,” said Williams, adding that Montclair Police are moving away from the “old guard” mindset that police work is about hunting suspects or giving out tickets and moving toward building relationships that result in less crime.
Allen-Kyle added that it’s easy to point to major cities as places where stop and frisk is prevalent. “But when you look at Montclair, which is supposed to be progressive, 60 percent of marijuana arrests are black [individuals], even though Montclair’s population is 60 percent white. We need to look at practices and see if there is a problem when blacks are being arrested five times as whites for the same offense.”
Another concern voiced was the lack of rehabilitation opportunities in prison. “Recidivism is high and rehabilitation is not core to the current system,” said Turner.
“Rehabilitation needs to occur as the focus from day one if we are serious about decreasing prison population,” said Allen-Kyle, who also said there are too many restrictions on those who were convicted of non-violent crimes, resulting in people not being able to serve in their communities.
Young was most encouraged by the prospect of bail reform. “So many people are in jail are in there for minor offenses, but they sit in jail because of their financial situation.”
One of the comments from the audience came from Councilor Robert Russo, who expressed his pride in Montclair’s progressive police force and a wish that arrests for small amounts of marijuana would end if marijuana was legalized.