Vera dares to ask “What if”

Nicholas Turner President & Director
Dec 05, 2013

I’m thrilled to be writing my first Current Thinking blog post as Vera’s president and to reflect on some of Vera’s work this year and how closely it aligns with some unprecedented opportunities in criminal justice.

When I returned to Vera this summer after almost seven years away, I came back to the organization where I had grown as a professional—the place I had grown to love. It is where I spent close to a decade shaping projects that provide treatment for teens caught up in the juvenile justice system, help people returning from prison succeed in the community, and reduce the flow of people into prisons and improve the conditions for those in them.

What drew me back is not only the opportunity to tackle some of the most difficult problems of justice, but to do so in a way that is fiercely and unapologetically practical.

For decades, Vera has worked with its partners as leaders in proposing and implementing ideas that build a fairer society. But the very week I returned to Vera, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a groundbreaking speech which made it clear that now is a particularly vital moment for our vision to bear fruit.

His speech—at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in August in San Francisco—was nothing short of a moral call to arms that observed a truth about mass incarceration which speaks to Vera’s core mission: “A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”

He’s right. Unjust and ineffective mass incarceration—together with its collateral consequences—is truly one of the tragedies of our age. Our nation’s prison population grew to 1.4 million in 2012, a 700 percent increase over four decades—without bringing commensurate returns in public safety. This increase takes a disparate toll on communities of color. It is stupefying that an African American baby boy, born in 2001, has a one-in-three chance of spending time in prison in his lifetime. A Latino baby boy, a one-in-six chance.

I believe this is something we can change—but we need to act on the energy of this moment. For starters, I’ll highlight three ways Vera is asking “what if” we could curtail the damage of mass incarceration:

  • What if fewer kids entered the juvenile justice system—and those who did received effective services and treatment? Kids involved in the juvenile justice system too often end up as adults involved in the justice system. At Vera, we’re working on this problem by helping New York State design and implement strategies that keep more kids at home and in their communities—and make sure that those who are removed from their homes have a better chance of succeeding, and getting out of the criminal justice system for good. This is a model for the nation.
  • What if homelessness did not push ex-offenders back into prison? Recidivism—when ex-offenders return to prison shortly after leaving it—is a major driver of mass incarceration that all too often is linked to homelessness. Keeping people out of prison requires helping those leaving prison have somewhere to go. In New York City and New Orleans, Vera is working to bring ex-offenders who are not a risk to public safety back home to their families in public housing—helping to break a cycle of homelessness and recidivism.
  • What if people could get an education in prison—so that they were better prepared to get a job when they get out? People in prison with higher education levels are less likely to be re-arrested or re-incarcerated when they leave, yet the education level of most prisoners is sorely lacking. Vera’s Pathways from Prison to Post-secondary Education initiative in Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey aims to model a different way, by providing prisoners with the post-secondary education and supportive services both before and after release that research shows they need to succeed when they come home.

Over the next month, we’re trying to raise awareness around this moment and these projects—as well as raise the funds we need to continue and expand this work. I very much want to hear what you think about this direction. Have ideas? Questions? Leave a comment below, and in the coming weeks I’ll respond as well as provide more detail about the programs mentioned above.

Thank you, and it’s an honor to be working with you.