Penn Law recently announced that musician, activist and Penn alum John Legend will join the advisory board of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. Legend can use his new position to ensure the Center’s work helps to break the cycle of mass incarceration not perpetuate it. While the Center’s “unbiased” approach to criminal justice reform may seem laudable, Legend should ensure that reforms actually serve the people most harmed by our carceral state. To that end, here are three pitfalls for him to watch out for:
1. Make sure rich people don’t co-opt the movement to immunize themselves.
The Quattrone Center was initially funded by Frank Quattrone, an investment banker who in 2004 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for obstruction of justice and witness tampering. Despite considerable legal concerns, after extensive appeals Quattrone ended up serving no time in prison. He was apparently so upset by the notion that he could have gone to prison for white-collar crime that he was inspired to found the Center to ensure that such injustice could not happen again. One might wonder whether given this history whether the “fair administration of justice” will concern itself with the justice gap between the rich and poor.
Additionally, this March the Center accepted a $2.2 million contribution from the Charles Koch foundation. The Kochs’ national criminal justice reform initiative is called “Right on Crime,” and one of its key platforms is fighting overcriminalization. It defines overcriminalization, however, as the proliferation of federal statutes regulating business activities. Solutions to this alleged problem do nothing for the nearly 46 percent of prisoners locked away for drug offenses. It does, on the other hand, give immunity people like Charles Koch and Frank Quattrone for breaking laws designed to protect the public interest.
2. Make sure the “reforms” don’t grant legitimacy to a broken system.
Since the 60’s, criminal justice reforms focused on enhancing legitimacy have actually contributed to the rise of the carceral state. Presidents Johnson and Truman posited that more training and uniform sentencing guidelines would eliminate the discretion of racist cops, judges and prosecutors. In theory, if black communities viewed police as professional and fair, they would trust the system and respect the law. According to historian Naomi Murakawa, however, the professionalization of the police force disconnected officers from local communities, enhancing distrust.
The Quattrone Center is similarly focused on enhancing procedural mechanisms over changing substantive law. It states as two of its goals improving accuracy in forensic practices and enhancing accountability for prosecutors. Its upcoming symposium is on “Preventing Errors in Criminal Justice.” More accurate evidentiary gathering or accountability for crooked prosecutors may ensure that fewer innocent people are swept up into the system, but it does little for minor offenders, communities that are reliant on an extra-legal economy or young people caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. The effect of professionalizing the system and enhancing its accuracy has the effect of legitimizing it in the eyes of the white electorate, even as its outcomes continue to be more and more racially biased.
3. Make sure that “reform” is not the next evolution of state-sanctioned racial suppression.
Finally, and most importantly, mass incarceration is, as Michelle Alexander has explained, “the New Jim Crow.” Our bloated criminal justice system is the latest evolution in a long history of American systems of violent state-sanctioned racial control. This system of suppression is dangerously durable and malleable. It is the progeny of slavery and lynching. When the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, politicians found it expedient to criminalize its leaders. The political efficacy of “law and order” rhetoric led to the “war on drugs” and eventually Democrats “getting tough on crime,” all the while creating policy that exploded the prison population.
At the very least, this history needs to be confronted head on. Yet the Quattrone Center’s mission does not even mention the word “race.” More importantly, the Center’s “reforms” must not support or create the next evolution in state-sanctioned racial suppression. The Oscar-nominated film “13th” points out how many powerful business interests currently profit from the industrial prison complex. The film suggests that as the abuses of the system come to light these corporate players suddenly become reformers. But the reforms they advocate are designed to make them rich, not to loosen the grip of the criminal justice system on people of color. This is the Right on Crime movement, which some experts suggest seeks to “incarcerate people in their own communities.”
BLAIR BOWIE is a Third Year Law Student at Penn Law.