Welcome. You’re here, so I know you care about making sure that our justice system lives up to its responsibility to keep us safe while treating us—all of us—fairly, equally. You also know—as we all do—that these are difficult and uncertain times in America. These are the times when we must redouble our efforts to maintain and even grow the recent momentum for changing our justice system—momentum that has been driven by the citizens and policymakers from across the political and ideological spectrum. Momentum that has already born changes that are affecting thousands across our country—from people receiving treatment instead of prison time in Texas, to immigrants who win court victories that allow them to remain with their families in New York and Los Angeles.
In our daily work, we see the need for change in a country disfigured by mass incarceration. Where relations between police and the people they serve has reached a perilous and dangerous point that can leave us more despairing than hopeful. We see it in the burdens and barriers imposed on the poor, people of color and immigrants. And, even with its expansive reach, we know that this system too often does not adequately serve people who are victims.
These challenges are enormous. Daunting. But, our experience shows us that change is possible, and we remain optimistic. As our mission declares, we exist to drive that change.
Optimism, and the belief that government—when in the hands of true leaders, informed by data and instilled with a spirit of innovation—can transform the administration of justice lies at the very root of Vera’s founding, as it has been for 56 years. We occupy a special, inside lane to help public sector leaders change the systems they run: visionary correctional leaders who seek to bring college education to students who are locked up; judges seeking ways to have people return to court without money as the determining factor; public defenders fighting for immigrants to get a fair shot in court; and police chiefs committed to demonstrating and owning a respectful relationship with the communities they serve.
Today’s threats to justice have energized an already broad and deep movement to reform our broken justice system. That energy is rightly focused on the state and local level, where justice is delivered. With massively increased attention to our issues and new tools, we’ve entered a new era—and in true Vera fashion, we’re finding innovative ways to drive impact. We unearth insights from big data—check out the Incarceration Trends Project for what that looks like. We use competitions—“races to the top,” to borrow a phrase—to engage the most motivated and ready partners. That’s what you see with our recent work to reduce solitary confinement, expand access to college in prison, and keep kids out of the justice system. And we’re also increasingly engaging in public debate to help shine a light on why reforming our justice system is an issue all Americans should be concerned about. There is no more important time to sound this message than now. We’re asking big questions and suggesting big answers. Should we reimagine the purpose of prison? Can we learn from our peers, from whom we’ve believed ourselves to be exceptional? In both cases, yes.
Right now, out of the many issues we work on, Vera is pursuing core priorities of closing incarceration’s front door through local jail reform, transforming the conditions of those spending time behind bars—both the incarcerated and those who work with them—and ensuring that our justice systems are effectively serving all Americans, especially as our country becomes majority-minority. This last priority is especially important. At a time when police and community relations are so frayed, and the role of immigrants in our society is fiercely debated, we are doubling down on our commitment to ensuring that our systems deliver on the promise of equal justice under law.