On November 9, Human Impact Partners and the Vera Institute of Justice co-convened over 40 criminal justice advocates and public health practitioners from around the country at a groundbreaking, first of its kind convening. The event grew out of the idea that health and justice system leaders’ work in the pursuit of health equity, public safety, and social justice could be magnified by a powerful partnership across the fields of public health and criminal justice to advance these collective goals.
An advisory committee – with leaders from JustLeadershipUSA, The Sentencing Project, Ford Foundation, WISDOM, and Drug Policy Alliance – helped HIP and Vera envision what the gathering could accomplish, and ultimately proposed a bold and audacious goal: to develop an alternative vision for a justice system that works to improve population health and wellbeing at every step and to develop an agenda for collaborative work to achieve that vision.
The convening was envisioned as a space to build relationships between people working at the intersection of public health and criminal justice and had an ambitious agenda. We began with participants recounting the modern history of mass incarceration and its disproportionate effects on communities of color. Participants spent time describing how they using a public health approach to issues such as drug policy and drug use, sentencing, over-incarceration, victims’ services, and reentry. Over and over, the group kept coming back to the significance of the current political moment and recognized that the progress we’re witnessing today was due to the committed efforts of community organizers – many of whom were formerly incarcerated and some of whom were in the room – who kept a constant spotlight on the injustices of the criminal justice system over many decades.
The group then turned to a discussion of their vision for an alternative justice system, and principles that should ground that vision. It was a robust dialogue, with participants highlighting the need to make a broad statement about our societal obligation for health and safety and that both the criminal justice and public health systems need to be transformed to focus on creating the social, economic, and political conditions necessary for all to thrive. This includes making the criminal justice system the choice of last resort for addressing social problems, and instead, upholding and supporting communities to overcome those challenges. The group agreed on the need to explicitly name race and racism as a root cause of poor health and over incarceration, and that the vision should be framed as a call to action. At the end, the group came to agreement on points of unity for the vision and clarity about who the vision was for. It was quite an accomplishment!!
Finally, the last part of the day focused on identifying a set of joint goals to move the vision forward. It was another rich conversation with many ideas of how the group could collaborate. The group was able to come to consensus on a set of research, communications, policy, and community building goals to advance together. Working groups are kicking off their efforts in the New Year, and we anticipate convening again in 2016.
We continue to be inspired by the energy and commitment of convening participants. A deep thanks to them for working hard and giving each other the benefit of the doubt as they explored what it means to be in relationship with one another. A special thanks to Mari Ryono – our fearless facilitator – as well as Ford Foundation for hosting the event and Open Philanthropy for funding it.
This work is part of HIP’s Health Instead of Punishment Program, which grew out of our recently adopted Strategic Plan. Contact us if you’re interested in learning more!