Advancing Justice 2015: The First Evening

Last night the Charles Koch Institute began its three-day summit, Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety. Nearly 500 attendees from more than 300 non-profit organizations have gathered in New Orleans for this event, which promises to be full of debate, discussion, and plans of action regarding criminal justice and policing reform.

Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, highlighted the need to turn discussion into action as he began the evening’s opening remarks: “You’re people of action, and make no mistake about it, we didn’t just come here to talk.”

For the Foundation and Institute, sponsoring and hosting Advancing Justice is an opportunity to bring together the scholars, decision makers, and non-profit leaders who work in their communities, states, and across the country to remove barriers that stand in the way of people leading fulfilling lives.

Vikrant Reddy, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, stressed one of the largest goals for Advancing Justice, which is for advocates for criminal justice and policing reform to meet one another, learn about the different work that they are doing and the ways in which their organizations approach criminal justice reform, and make plans for future collaborations. He introduced three leaders from non-profit organizations and academia whose experiences speak to why a diversity of views, voices, and ideas is necessary for reform.

Howard Wall, director of the Hammond Institute and the Center for Economics and the Environment at Lindenwood University, challenged scholars to immediately apply their research in order to foster conversations in their respective communities and states. For Wall, Lindenwood’s experience with outreach in Ferguson, Missouri, has influenced his sense of urgency: “It doesn’t take a crisis in Ferguson to get things going. You shouldn’t wait for that.”

One such example of how Lindenwood scholars applied their research to Ferguson’s policing problems was in identifying the erosion of trust between citizens and police officers and offering an actionable solution. Scholars encouraged listening circles during which middle school and high school students could engage in dialogue with police officers.

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, shifted from Wall’s view of scholars helping communities to discuss how communities themselves can drive reform. Whereas scholars can provide research to address the issues that different communities face, community leaders are sometimes best positioned to advocate for change because of their local knowledge. “We knew about Ferguson before there was a Ferguson. These problems have been around for a long time and our community knew it,” said Taylor.

In addition, Taylor discussed the trade-off between incarceration and crime reduction. Whereas human dignity is the largest consideration for reform, Taylor emphasized that public safety is of equal concern. “You can’t have a conversation about reducing mass incarceration without having a discussion about reducing crime,” he said

The importance of dialogue was also highlighted by Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Rollins traced the history of collaboration in the criminal justice and policing reform movement, which has brought together advocates with a variety of viewpoints and philosophies.

For Rollins, changing the world, let alone changing the United States, is more readily accomplished by starting at the individual level, focusing first on helping communities and keeping families together. She concluded by urging the audience to work with one another to “change state by state, country by country, to put something back together that has been broken.”

Throughout, all of the speakers emphasized the importance of human dignity. Brian Hooks concluded his remarks by stressing why criminal justice and policing reform demands attention: “This is an issue that separates families, divides communities, and ultimately strikes at the heart of how society treats people, especially in their darkest hours.”

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