Series: From the President

From Intern to President: Nick Turner on the Future of the Criminal Justice Reform Movement

Kimberly Cross Former Innovation Team Intern
Sep 29, 2022

In 1995, Nicholas Turner joined the Vera Institute of Justice as an intern. In 2013, Nick, who is Black and Filipino, became the first person of color appointed president and director of the organization. In his time at Vera, he has seen it grow and evolve in its approach to combating issues within the criminal legal and immigration systems. He’s also witnessed it grow and evolve in its commitment to inclusion.

I sat down with Nick and we spoke—former intern to recent intern—about his journey from intern to president, and his perspective on the future of the criminal legal space and the role of youth within it.

What drew you to the criminal legal space?

I grew up in Washington, DC, and in between college and law school, I was a counselor at Sasha Bruce Youthwork. I spent time with kids who had dropped out of school, who were caught up in the court system. And what I was seeing with these kids was that they were starting to get sucked into the criminal legal system. So many of them were court-involved. And it was a very personal thing for me, to see this happening to young people in my hometown.

It struck me, having taken some African American history classes in college, that the next front of our civil rights battle was the criminal legal system and mass incarceration—although we didn't call it that then. There were a million people locked up at that time, and the system was really growing. I was thinking about all those kids I just adored, who were being siphoned out of their communities and into a “justice” system that wasn't going to do them any good. So that’s what drew me into the space.

How did you first hear about Vera?

The first time I heard of Vera was through my big sister’s best friend, who was several years ahead of me at law school. She said, “Nicky, you are going to want to spend one of your summers working at Vera Institute of Justice. It’s a place that is committed to making concrete change. It’s a ‘think-and-do tank,’ and you are going to love it.” And it turned out she was right.

What drew you back to Vera after your internship?

I went to law school because I wanted to understand how you change government systems. How do you change structures? What does that require?

At Sasha Bruce Youthwork, I had seen too many kids who had the will to do something great in their lives. They were smart, ambitious, clever—but the systems that determine their lives were holding them back. I loved what I did during my internship at Vera, so when my old boss said, “Hey, we have a job available,” I was like, “Okay, I'm there.”

How would you describe how the organization was then when you interned, versus now?

Vera has always had an entrepreneurial, innovative DNA. It started with the Manhattan Bail Project. There wasn’t a blueprint then on how to reduce the number of people who are being held in detention. That had to be created. Herb Sturz, the founder of Vera, created the notion that people should be released on recognizance, and that their family and community ties would be a good indicator of whether they would return to court. That is something that holds through to Vera today. We task ourselves with trying to come up with creative and ambitious solutions to big problems.

Another thing that remains true about Vera is its credibility. It’s an organization that—people in government, in community, even if you disagree with the organization and its perspective—there’s a respect for it and for what we say.

How has Vera changed over the years?

Back in the day, we believed that if you could take ideas and put them into the hands of the people who are responsible—government—you could do good. Now, we have expanded on that. It’s still important to have relationships with people in government who have their hand on the tiller and can make a difference, but it is also necessary to make sure that we have equally robust relationships with community representatives. If we have a seat at the table, what can we do to bring others and their ideas to the table with us?

Now, we are a national organization, and we focus much more on how we move and change policy. If you really want to change the systems we have, you have to get at the policy levers. To do that, you must engage democracy. Policy doesn't move unless people vote for it—or vote for the people who are promising certain things.

And lastly, the organization is more diverse than it was at its founding. It’s been a commitment to make sure that we better reflect the people who are affected by the systems that we’re seeking to transform.

How has being at Vera shaped you as a person?

The first Vera I encountered worked tightly with government partners and didn’t have a ton of accountability to others in the advocacy ecosystem and tended to be elitist. I think, in a way, the things I talked about—the necessity of democratic accountability; the commitment to race, equity, and inclusion—are all indicators of ways in which I have grown.

Around 2010, it was clear to me that there was a movement building. And over the past 10 to 15 years, I've become more optimistic and ambitious. I have become more hopeful that we weren’t just chiseling around the edges, but that we could make big strides toward ending mass incarceration and overcriminalization.

What does it mean to you to be president now?

It felt and still feels very weighty. There’s an old Southern story about a turtle on top of a fence post, and when I joined as President, I felt like the turtle. I didn't know how I got here. Turtles don’t climb posts, so clearly, I had to rely on the help of others. It took me a while to believe I belonged here, and I was more than a little terrified at times that I was going to mess it up. It’s a really storied place.

When the board interviewed me and asked what my strategy for the organization was, I said, “I do see the world changing in lots of profound ways. I don’t totally know what that means, but if that’s the environment in which we’re playing, then it means that we probably need to be playing a different game than we were before.” I was ambitious for change, but not altogether certain about how to make it happen. As a person of color, I also wondered whether I would be perceived more harshly for trying to change the organization.

But apart from raising my sons, this is probably the most important thing I’ll do in my life—figuring out how to take this remarkable organization, with an incredible team of people, and transform it into something that I truly believe will have a profound impact on people for decades and generations.

At Vera, we've undertaken something challenging in an already exhausting and relentless environment. We are changing almost everything about the way in which we work. This change feels relentless, but incredibly exhilarating, because of the potential of what we might be able to do for the benefit of others.

What is your hope for the future of the criminal legal reform space?

I just hope for power that we have never seen before. We have watched and felt helpless as this country went from 100,000 people locked up in the early 1970s to 2.5 million locked up in 2009. It just felt like that was the tide, and we could do nothing to stop it. But we are starting to build more power in this space. The criminal legal reform space is still relatively nascent. But there are many more organizations doing this work and doing it well. My hope is that political debate and knowledge and power in this country will continue to shift, and we eventually will have the ability to undo what has been done in the past. I hope we continue in the trajectory that we have been in for the past five to seven years and continue to build momentum for reform.

What advice would you give to young people who are passionate about this work?

You earned this. You got here with a set of skills and talents. Everyone makes mistakes and feels inadequate. So, know that everyone is out there faking it till they make it—but then make it. Use that as fuel to work your ass off, to make the change that society demands of us and that we are so privileged to do. Your labor has the potential to change the lives of people who don’t know you and who you don’t know. Recognize your power and use that as the fight and fuel to hold yourself accountable.

It is a privilege to be able to pursue something in your life that has meaning. Not a lot of people have that. To be able to do work where you wake up every morning and feel like you are making a difference. It’s just an incredible thing.

Kimberly Cross was a summer intern with Vera's Innovation team. She is currently a sophomore at Princeton University studying politics with a focus on race and identity.