Students, experts discuss criminal justice reform


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Terrell Thomas of the American Civil Liberties Union speaks about the impact finances have on the bail process at Wednesday evening’s “Community Perspectives on Criminal Justice” event.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

From the Black Lives Matter movement to Campaign Zero, criminal justice reform has commonly been a hot-button political issue — a campaign centerpiece for city council representatives all the way up to former President Barack Obama.

But no politicians stood before the podium in Posvar Wednesday night. Instead, the Global Studies Center invited three criminal justice experts — Dr. Leah Jacobs from the School of Social Work, Terrell Thomas of the ACLU and Commander Jason Lando of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police — to inform students about the reasons behind inequalities in the criminal justice system and discuss potential solutions.

Students rotated between three discussion circles, each led by one of the experts. Jacobs, who researches criminal justice in the School of Social Work, opened the conversation by drawing a graph on the whiteboard. She illustrated a several-fold increase in the number of incarcerations between 1970 and the turn of the 20th century.

“To really get to the heart of this issue, you have to recognize the institutional nature of [this nation’s] policies,” Jacobs said.

She then chronologically marked state and federal policies that she said have led to the increase in incarceration rates, starting with the Civil Rights Act and going all the way to mandatory minimums under the Clinton administration.

“Nixon instituted the war on drugs in the 1970s because he thought the social fabric of the country was crumbling after the civil rights movement and was feeding into racial fears,” Jacobs said.

While Nixon and other tough-on-crime presidents had good intentions, she said, they didn’t realize that mass incarceration only perpetuates a cycle of poverty in crime-ridden neighborhoods and leads to more crime.

“We have to find a way to clamp down on these policies and invest more money into [crime-infested] communities through welfare programs,” Jacobs said.

But Kyle Guinness, a junior marketing major, challenged the assertion that the country needs more welfare programs. He said the federal government has poured money into welfare for decades and crime rates have skyrocketed while poverty rates remain stagnant.

“Where is the macro[economic] evidence to suggest that welfare actually works to reduce rates of crime?” he asked. “I just don’t see it.”

According to Pew Research, poverty rates have declined 7.2 percent since 1960, and incarceration rates have increased three-fold in the same time frame, according to the Hamilton Project — but Jacobs maintained that it’s not about the amount of money the government spends on “so-called welfare programs,” it’s about the kinds of programs they implement.

Thomas, a representative from the ACLU, agreed and said the nation needs to invest in rehabilitation programs for inmates to lower rates of recidivism, which stand at 46 percent in Pennsylvania as of 2016. This means two in five inmates who are released from prison will be incarcerated again within five years. He thinks the capitalistic, private prison system is partially responsible for mass incarceration in the United States.

“Capitalism isn’t all good or all bad, but … our prisons certainly shouldn’t be run by a capitalist system,” Thomas said. “It’s creating all sorts of problems.”

Thomas also believes law enforcement has a bias against young black men. He pointed to Guinness, a caucasian man, to highlight his point about sentencing disparities.

“Let’s say you and I both get caught with marijuana when we walk out of this building tonight,” Thomas said. “You’ll probably get a citation, but there’s a much higher chance that I, as a black man, will get thrown in jail.”

According to the ACLU, where Thomas does most of his activism, black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates.

Lando said statistics like these are deeply troubling. In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, which sparked a nationwide conversation about police brutality and police bias, an implicit bias training program was implemented — a program Lando helps to run.

“A lot of officers were initially turned off by the idea — as was I,” Lando said. “First of all, officers don’t like being told what to do … and you certainly don’t want to put yourself in the position of telling people they’re biased.”

Lando walked right up to the Pittsburgh chief of police and declined to teach the program.

“But it turns out, you don’t say no to the chief of police,” he laughed. “A few days later, I was on a plane to Chicago.”

Lando said, much to his surprise, the training turned out to be a highly educational experience for all officers involved.

“We had white officers stand in front of the room and say, ‘I have a bias against young black kids,’” he said. “And then — this raised some eyebrows — we had black officers get up there and say the exact same thing.”

No amount of training will erase bias in the police force entirely, he said, but at the very least it can make officers more self-aware when policing communities of color.

Lando also said the force has instituted community-bonding exercises between officers and kids in impoverished areas or neighborhoods that are known to be hostile to police. He and his colleagues partner with schools in the neighborhood to mend the tense relationship between kids and police.

“We show up in plain clothes and just do one-on-one [icebreaker] exercises with the kids,” Lando said. “A lot of the kids are initially wary of us when they find out we’re police officers, but then they actually get to know us and realize we’re actually friends of the community.”

But breaking that stigma can’t be accomplished only through community exercises like those, Lando insisted. The police force actually has to show it’s treating residents with respect in everyday patrols and that it’s not unfairly profiling one group of people because of their gender or skin color.

“I tell officers to treat the community like a bank account. Whenever an officer does a good deed, like buying a stranded citizen a gallon of gas, that’s a deposit. When an officer beats the s— out of a guy in handcuffs, that’s a withdrawal,” Lando said. “The problem is, no number of deposits can ever earn back the community’s trust after a withdrawal like that.”

In order to avoid situations that escalate into violence between a cop and a citizen, Lando said the police force has developed new strategies to identify and stop potentially dangerous criminals.

Instead of patrolling a broad stretch of land and pulling over anyone who seems suspicious, Lando and his peers screen for risk factors using a database and keep an eye on high-risk individuals through probation officers. This way, police minimize the number of encounters between officers and usually harmless citizens that could create needless conflict.

Thomas thinks any strategy to reform the police force certainly better serves the community, but said the system is rigged from the top-down.

“It’s the district attorney who decides who gets locked up,” Thomas said. “It’s your elected officials who decide policies on crime. Police bias and brutality is a problem but we need to vote out the people at the top who are the root of systemic injustice.”

Thomas gestured to the circle.

“It’s young people like you — high school and college students — who mobilize all of these movements to create change,” Thomas said. “You have to be the ones to vote in the right politicians … Ultimately, the agenda is set by the people, and that starts with all of you.”