“Decarcerating” America

A Law School institute facilitates change “from the ground up.”

Headshots from left to right of Brittany White, Andrew Manuel Crespo, and Premal Dharia
From left: Brittany White, Andrew Manuel Crespo, and Premal DhariaFrom left: photograph by courtesy of Brittany White; photograph by Tony Luong; photograph by Prescott Loveland

As she assumes her new role as organizing fellow for Harvard Law School’s new Institute to End Mass Incarceration (IEMI), community organizer Brittany White finds herself thinking of Bianca. She met her in 2009, when both women were serving prison sentences with the Alabama Department of Corrections. Bianca had been denied parole for 10 years, during which time her entire life outside of prison changed: her grandmother died, her child grew up, and she herself became a grandmother. “When your connections and reality in the free world are gone,” White wonders, “what is the hope you rely on?” While White was released in 2014 and became a community organizer with criminal-justice reform groups, Bianca is still in prison. This fall, White brings her expertise to Harvard’s group of lawyers, researchers, formerly incarcerated people, and law students at the IEMI—all working, White says, so that “people like Bianca can come home.”

The institute proposes a new role for lawyers in the push to “decarcerate” America. “Lawyers think that power comes from law and permits, that the way liberal lawyers can make a difference is by going in and bringing power to clients. That’s not the way we think about it,” says faculty director and Wasserstein public interest professor of law Andrew Manuel Crespo. “We take our inspiration and our cues from movement work,” such as the civil-rights movement or labor organizing, because such things “have had the biggest impact on changing deep structural injustices in America.” The Institute, Crespo says, proposes that “power comes from the ground up,” and lawyers, in particular public defenders, should use their legal expertise to “help communities activate their power.” They want to teach the next generation of lawyers to be active partners with community organizers like White in the fight to end mass incarceration.

The IEMI is the brainchild of co-directors Crespo, a former public defender whose academic research focuses on the institutional design of the penal system, and Premal Dharia, a lecturer on law who spent nearly 15 years as a public defender in Guantanamo Bay, Washington, D.C., and the Office of the Federal Public Defender. Dharia and Crespo worked together as D.C. public defenders early in their careers, where they witnessed the toll of mass incarceration on families and communities. Crespo’s first client, for instance, was an eight-year-old boy detained on Christmas Eve (see Harvard Portrait, July-August 2015, page 25). America has about five percent of the world’s total population, but around 20 percent of its imprisoned people (about 2 million people). The statistics are shocking, but Dharia and Crespo saw the reality close up. Dharia continued in public defense and Crespo entered academia, but about two years ago, they joined forces again to plan the IEMI. Dharia says they designed the organization around three goals—advocacy/organizing, research, and innovation—all with the aim to “eradicate incarceration, root and branch.”

The centerpiece of the institute’s advocacy arm, its combined law clinic and seminar, aims to teach future lawyers how to do exactly that. The seminar began in September with a four-day intensive introduction to community organizing taught by Hauser senior lecturer in leadership, organizing, and civil society Marshall Ganz, an organizer celebrated for his integral role in the farm workers movement led by Cesar Chavez. The course uses the insights of speakers like Ganz and White to introduce students to the fundamentals of community organizing and how it relates to law, but as Crespo told the Harvard Law Bulletin, students and affiliates at the IEMI are not “merely studying mass incarceration. We’re on a mission to end it.”

In the corresponding law clinic, J.D. candidates apply their new organizing knowledge to projects alongside White and other organizers on the advisory board, such as national organizer for The Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM), David Ayala, who was released from federal prison in 2006. The clinic’s main projects relate to three aspects of the carceral system that Dharia and Crespo believe are ripe for reform: the coercive plea-bargain system; exclusionary jury selection processes (such as those barring people with previous criminal convictions from serving); and the “black hole” between the moment of arrest and the first court appearance when incarcerated people are often pressured to plead guilty.

Perhaps most radically, the institute wants to put into practice something that has “floated for years” in theory, Crespo says: using collective bargaining strategies to protest the plea-deal system. Roughly 95 percent of people who are imprisoned pled guilty in the face of massive maximum sentences threatened by the prosecution. The system depends on guilty pleas to function. However, as formerly incarcerated organizer Susan Burton theorized in conversation with civil-rights lawyer Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness), if everyone accused of a crime demanded their constitutional right to a fair trial, the criminal-justice system would seize up, forcing a re-examination. “One of the big goals of the institute is really giving that idea the intense strategic thought and attention that I really think it deserves,” Crespo says. Its diverse set of practitioners, law students, and researchers will think through and plan how collective action against plea bargains could “fit into a strategic campaign to radically decarcerate” jurisdictions.

Beyond its organizing practices, the institute conducts research relating to mass incarceration, and supports a study of the aging U.S. prison population led by its research fellow, New York City jail system physician Rachel Bedard. To encourage innovation in the field, the IEMI publishes the magazine, Inquest, intended to be a “decarceral brainstorm” among people touched by the system in diverse ways, Crespo says. The articles range from an essay by a judge grappling with her guilt over sending so many people to prison, to Renaldo Hudson’s first-hand account of his 37 years (13 of them on death row) spent in the Danville Correctional Center in Illinois before he was granted clemency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In all its organizing, research, and innovation work, IEMI brings together a diverse group of people “with different touchpoints” to mass incarceration in order to “break down the silos that define the penal system,” Crespo says. White adds that putting the “justice-impacted brilliance” of previously incarcerated people and community organizers “in thought partnership with the academic excellence of people like Marshall Ganz or Premal [Dharia] or Andrew [Crespo],” will “begin to narrow the bridge between these two worlds.”

White believes the institute will produce real change, because the mission is personal, in one way or another, for all its team members. For her, it comes back to her friend Bianca, still in prison: “I’m doing this work so that when I tell her that she still has hope and a future to look forward to, it’s not just my fluffy words, but it can one day be a reality.”

Read more articles by: Nancy Walecki

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