“A Skeptical Eye and a Generous Heart”: Perspectives on Daniel J. Freed from the Vera Institute of Justice
|By Daniel F. Wilhelm
Vice President & Chief Program Officer, Vera Institute of Justice
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|In addition to Yale Law School, the other organization that many associate with Daniel J. Freed is the New York City–based Vera Institute of Justice. Dan’s formal affiliation with Vera, as a trustee of the Institute, began in 1970 and has continued uninterrupted for nearly four decades. His interest in and support for Vera, however, goes back further and precedes even the creation of the Institute itself.
Vera and Dan have, in fact, been so long intertwined that Dan’s approach and Vera’s approach to policy change are very hard to distinguish from each other at this point. This similarity is not surprising given that Dan is one of the intellectual fathers of a field that Vera has devoted considerable energy to over the years—namely, the establishment of sentencing systems in their fairest and most sensible formulations. The commonality is doubly unsurprising given Dan’s signal role in encouraging and shepherding Vera’s efforts to partner with government in often unique and new ways to improve the systems people rely on for safety and justice.
This approach that Dan helped pioneer is recognizable by a number of key characteristics. It is a method, first of all, that believes in the importance of information and knowledge as the basis for creating positive change. Information can be gained in different ways. Some methods—empirical research or scholarly study, say—may appear to be highly refined. Others may seem more prosaic, such as talking to people who work in justice systems or, simply, trying something new that has not been done before.
It is part of Dan’s special gift to understand that all these modes can be valuable, even necessary, at the right time and place. But, regardless of the method of collection, information does not necessarily become knowledge without subjecting it to sober and skeptical analytical examination. Dan’s unstinting critiques of Vera’s projects for nearly forty years serve as a reminder that there is much to be learned from success and failure alike but rarely can it be learned without the benefit of the close analysis that converts mere data into useful knowledge. Moreover, there is real value in recalling the efforts and trials of the past—as lessons and examples and to maintain the narrative thread over time that supplies meaning, context, and continuity.
|It is an approach that takes seriously the notion that there is genuine generosity in people, including the many people in governments who want to do the right thing. They often want to make systems better and increase the quantity and quality of justice available to all. But sometimes these people need better tools and knowledge to achieve such aims. What sets Dan apart is not only this deeply uncynical view of human nature but also his appreciation for the fact that reform, both in its creation and in its sustenance, is not the province of a self-selected group of elites. Instead, reform works best and has a chance at longevity when participation in it is syndicated among many who have a stake in its success.
It is likewise worth noting that some will join such efforts for reasons of principle while others will enlist for purposes of practicality. Self-interest need not disqualify; all with an interest in bettering our justice lot are welcome. Dan may not be a cynic, but it would probably not be unfair to describe the approach he helped create as one that is committed steadfastly to realism. Thus it is a method that eschews polemics but acknowledges the central role that politics plays, not only in how government operates but also in how people operate whenever they are gathered together.
It is in sum a method anchored in a belief that systems of justice may sometimes break down, but that their inherent utility and legitimacy can be restored through intellectual rigor and the generous belief that things can be made better, as Dan’s example suggests, if only we employ both our heads and our hearts.
As the following reminiscences, in their own words, from the four people who have served as Vera’s director attest, Dan’s unique role in the organization’s history is secure. He was present at its creation and has been deeply engaged in placing his own mark on its work ever since.