Hope and the Wish for Certainty: What Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer Can Teach Us About Urban Gun Violence

The gun violence that is severely concentrated in poor minority communities in American cities like Chicago has a paradoxical quality. It seems to draw our attention as it repels our reflection. And so, while stories of murder and bloodshed are a regular feature of our news, politics, and urban policy discussions, they rarely encourage us to look beyond the surface of what this kind of violence has done to the people who have experienced it, or to question how it has affected the American body politic.

This is what makes Alex Kotlowitz’s work so important. As he first demonstrated in his 1992 classic There Are No Children Here, Kotlowitz has a unique gift for revealing the humanity that is often forgotten about or ignored in communities that suffer from chronically high rates of racial segregation, poverty, and violent crime.

In his new book, An American Summer, Kotlowitz knits together a collection of true stories about people affected by gun violence in the summer of 2013 in Chicago. Unlike similar kinds of accounts, An American Summer does not try to provide readers with an explanatory theory or a solution. Indeed, it is critical of attempts to do so. But in refusing to participate in this kind of discourse, Kotlowitz’s work can help us examine our assumptions and ask ourselves how should we think and what should we do about the problem of urban gun violence.

About halfway through An American Summer, there’s a short moment that dramatizes one of its most important insights. The chapter in which it appears tells the story of Eddie Bocanegra, a man who has become one of Chicago’s key violence prevention leaders and advocates for peace after serving 14 years in prison for a homicide he committed in his late teens. Kotlowitz writes that after Eddie had served his sentence, an academic asked if he would be on a panel to explore the question whether hope is possible in prison. Eddie has a philosophical disposition and a gift for storytelling. He’d be precisely the kind of person you’d want to hear think about this question. But Eddie quickly realized that the academic wasn’t interested in learning what he thought. It was clear the academic believed he already knew the answer: “that prison sapped one of hope, of any sense of future” and “diminished your sense of self.” Inwardly “agitated,” Eddie “politely but firmly declined the offer.”

The problem, Kotlowitz speculates, wasn’t that Eddie completely disagreed with the academic. Rather, it was the academic’s certainty that angered him. The way the academic presumptuously dismissed the possibility of hope for incarcerated people assumed they could never be more than prisoners of their circumstances, as it also made Eddie incidental to the significance of his own experience. In his certainty, the academic cancelled out something essential about incarcerated people’s humanity. If you lack hope, “you have nothing,” Kotlowitz writes. “It’s about as close to death as one can get without actually dying.” 

It’s not surprising that the academic believed he understood the nature of hope in prison better than Eddie. It’s all too human to feel as if we should be able to understand and master the things that threaten or depress us. You can hear this wish for certainty in the way people often talk about controlling urban gun violence, like in Kotlowitz’s account of former Illinois’ U.S. Senator Mark Kirk’s 2013 proposal to arrest 18,000 members of one of Chicago’s gangs because he believed they were responsible for the city’s murders. Or when one of Chicago’s violence prevention organizations argued in 2016 that a dramatic spike in homicides was caused by decreases in its funding, and that consequently if the organization were fully funded, it could effectively cut the city’s murders in half.  Or when the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department declared in 2017 that if a proposed law passed to increase the length of prison sentences for a gun-related offense, it would create “a mental culture not to pick up a gun” and reduce gun violence by 50 percent in one year. 

Sometimes these proposals are implausible, the clear product of fanciful thinking or political desperation. Other times they are grounded in empirical observation. But regardless of how they may differ, the more certain people are in plans that aim to control urban gun violence, the more they tend to reduce violence into a kind of mechanistic problem. So conceived, violence will increase when essential inputs in a community are lacking—like a certain program, a policing strategy, economic development, a deterrent threat, or some combination of factors—but it will go down if they are maintained at an appropriate level.

This is a comforting view that we all probably believe or want to believe is true. It makes violence into an operational matter, which we can comprehend and manage. The problem with this conception is that it’s not entirely wrong, but that it never seems to fully satisfy the wish for certainty that usually inspires it. “This is how it often happens in Chicago,” Kotlowitz writes of individual incidents. “One act of violence follows another which follows another and so on. Sometimes there’s a causal relationship between them, and sometime they just happen, almost like an infection being passed along from friend to friend or family member to family member.”  The same kind of dynamic is present at a macro level. Trying to make sense of a 61 percent spike in homicides that occurred between 2015 and 2016, Kotlowitz describes how the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, the city’s foremost urban violence think tank, examined all of the inputs that experts believe could have caused the increase, but found they couldn’t explain it. Ultimately, the Crime Lab acknowledged, “What caused Chicago’s sudden surge in gun violence . . . remains a puzzle.”

When violence fails to conform to a wish for certainty, it will often produce skeptical resignation, a belief that nothing can be known about how to control gun violence. You can hear this sense of certainty in the voices of commentators who lament they can’t imagine or understand what causes people to engage in gun violence or how people live with it. Or in punditry like The Chicago Tribune’s editorial page which argued in a 2019 piece that “[t]here can’t be a rational explanation [for the city’s gun violence] because Chicago’s plague of urban warfare isn’t logical.”  Behind these expressions of skeptical resignation, there is an assumption that the kind of violence that Chicago’s most disadvantaged communities experience is beyond ordinary comprehension and control because there is something about it that is alien or inhuman.

The fact that some of the most common ways of conceptualizing and addressing urban gun violence can provoke responses that range from confident predictions to skeptical resignation highlights a significant problem in our thinking. The issue here is not with the people who live in communities with high rates of violence, but rather with what a wish for certainty requires of them to work. If we are certain we can master other people’s behavior, we cannot let them be more than the objects of our certainty. To be certain about other people means that we assume we understand their lives better than they do; that their actions are controlled by factors we deem determinative. At its extreme, a wish for certainty is like the academic’s cancellation of hope. It imagines people to be “about as close to death as one can get without actually dying.” This is why public discourse on community violence often devolves into proposals of coercive force, whether in the form of increases in incarceration, aggressive policing, or even military action. It’s because a wish for certainty has already turned the people who would be subjected to these actions into almost dead things.

It is important to keep in mind the deadening assumptions of certainty as you read Kotlowitz’s book, particularly when you consider how he describes his intentions. “Let me tell you what this book isn’t,” Kotlowitz writes at the beginning of An American Summer. “It’s not a policy map or a critique. It’s not about what works and doesn’t work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying . . . . What works? After twenty years of funerals and hospital visits, I don’t feel like I’m much closer to knowing.” This declaration might be misread as an assertion of skeptical resignation. But Kotlowitz grounds his book in a radically different position. Rejecting a wish for certainty—and the lies and untruths that its deadening assumptions engender—he begins with an acknowledgement of his own ignorance, an admission he repeats throughout the book. This admission points to a critical distinction. While believing that nothing can be known closes us off to learning, a knowledge of our ignorance opens us up to possibility and questioning what we can know. A knowledge of ignorance is where the search for wisdom about human beings must always begin.

When we let go of our stubborn wish for certainty, we can learn an important truth from the lives featured in An American Summer about how violence affects our humanity. While we are embodied creatures, our humanity is not reducible to our biological existence. This is why, for example, we believe that even after people die, they retain an aspect of their humanity that seems to demand respect. We can offend the memory of the dead by speaking ill of them, just as we can disrespect corpses if we fail to treat them appropriately. Our biological existence provides the necessary, but not the sufficient set of conditions that enable us to develop and maintain a sense of what our humanity means. Such sufficient conditions lie in the practices and conventions of our community and the concomitant ways in which people treat us as subjects. Thus, when other people treat us violently, they can not only harm our bodies or end our lives, but as the philosopher J.M. Bernstein has argued, they can also injure and even “devastate” our sense of self. This kind of moral injury comes about through the ways in which violence aims to turn people into things or objects, whether by making them into a sign of revenge, a means of obtaining something of value, or a raw expression of rage or a wish for dominance.  As we require others to co-produce our own humanity, violence can fracture the trust we need that others will treat us in ways that reflect the sense that we possess a special kind of dignity because as human beings we are not like mere things or objects, but ends in ourselves.

Acts of physical violence always have a moral aspect that attack a person’s sense of self. But moral violence does not require physical attack to work. Moral violence can be uncoupled from physical attack and used to power our relationships and the conventions and practices that shape how we know ourselves and others. Throughout An American Summer, Kotlowitz shows how such forms of abstracted moral violence pervade the lives and the communities about which he writes. These forms of moral violence draw their strength from the living legacy of white supremacy, which can negatively shape people’s health and life prospects based on their race and the neighborhood in which they grow up. They structure the reductive identities that governmental institutions impose on people, as Kotlowitz shows in the story of Marcelo, a 17-year old who faced an adult criminal charge that would have legally turned him into an adult and branded him for life as a felon. 
They drive conventional wisdom that informs how most people respond to accounts of community violence, which assure us that, as Kotlowitz writes, the victims “must have done something to deserve it; they must have been up to no good.” Such forms of moral violence can even take over strategies to reduce shootings if they treat the people they are trying to help as things—like objects of a wish for certainty—rather than human beings that possess a dignity that we all share. And when that happens, violence reduction efforts can reproduce the moral harm that is interwoven with the physical violence they aim to prevent.

So where does this leave us and the problem of urban gun violence? For Kotlowitz, there are no certain answers that will relieve us from the responsibility to wrestle with this question. While the suffering that Kotlowitz writes about is isolated in poor minority communities in Chicago, its moral harm radiates throughout the American body politic, for we can’t diminish the humanity of others without deadening our own. But if we can acknowledge this essential truth about ourselves, then maybe we can learn the significance of hope, our greatest strength. As we learn from the people in Kotlowitz’s work, hope is the power that enables us to live and love each other even in the face of relentless dehumanizing treatment and sudden violent death. And this is the guiding hope of Kotlowitz’s work: that when we read about the lives featured in his books, we will reflect on our shared humanity, and that through this kind of activity, we can find ways to be more than the worst things that have been done to us or that we have done to others. 

Mass Incarceration and the Horror of Unlove

As I wrote in my introductory post, I’m posting on RBC because I’m hoping to derive some general insights from 10 years of working in criminal justice reform and government. I am particularly interested in thinking about mass incarceration—not only because I’ve spent most of my policy career working on this issue, but I also think it epitomizes the ways in which government, politics, and reform can go wrong. In this earlier post, I used Tocqueville’s concept of legislative instability to think about criminal justice reform’s tendency to forget and repeat its past. In this post, I want to reflect on what I think is missing from popular accounts of mass incarceration, which can hinder and even undermine criminal justice reform efforts.

I’m pretty sure that at every public event I have ever attended on criminal justice reform someone asserts that mass incarceration is reducible to racism, classism, profiteering, or some combination of the three. 

On the one hand, it would be absurd to downplay how, as the National Academy of Science puts it, the country’s “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” high rate of incarceration has focused primarily on “blacks and Hispanics, especially the poorest.”  Or how, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an astonishing $182 billion every year flows through all levels of government in support of this system.

On the other hand, the more accounts of mass incarceration rely on an assumption that powerful groups of people created this system precisely because it enables them to oppress other people or to profit certain interests as a matter of policy, the less persuasive I find them. 

My problem is that working in criminal justice inside and outside government, I have never seen the kind of intentionality and power these accounts require. It’s not just that government generally struggles to implement policy initiatives, which makes it difficult to imagine how agencies throughout the country would be able to implement something as large as mass incarceration. It’s that I think there is also a different kind of intentionality and power at work, which popular accounts tend to obscure.

Let me try to explain what I mean through an early experience I had in Illinois government.  

At the beginning of 2015, a couple weeks after I was appointed to lead Illinois’ public safety research and grant-making agency, I went to the state capitol. The legislative session had just begun, and I wanted to meet with legislators in preparation for my agency’s upcoming appropriation hearing. As the new governor had just issued an executive order that aimed to reduce the prison population by 25% by 2025, I was also excited just to walk around the capitol. I had left my job as the head of Illinois’ only nonpartisan prison watchdog because I thought I’d be able to help drive substantial criminal justice reform. In this new position, I felt like I was about to accomplish all of the goals I had talked about as an advocate.

My legislative liaison took me around the House and Senate. Everyone seemed eager to say hello, as they were probably trying to figure out what kind of influence I was going to have in the new administration. A handful of legislators I knew joked that I came to government to empty the prisons and let all the criminals go free.  

As I was waiting outside an office for a meeting to begin, my colleague noticed a long-serving aide to one of the state’s most powerful legislators. While I had worked with many members from both parties, I had never dealt directly with this legislator or his key staff.  My colleague called the aide over and introduced us. 

“You must be the prison guy,” the aide said to me, as we shook hands.

“That’s me, I guess,” I said as I smiled, initially assuming he was joking as others had throughout the day.

The aide stared at me silently for a moment, looking mildly annoyed that he was talking to me, but also eager to convey something. 

“Let me tell you a story, prison guy,” he began. 

“I remember 15, 20 years ago, doing the budget when the Department of Corrections first went over a billion dollars. When the boss saw it, he looked up from his papers and asked, ‘How’d the DOC get to be a billion dollars?’

“I said, ‘Boss, what the fuck did you think was going to happen after all those years of increasing sentences?’”

The aide paused, as if to let me guess how the legislator replied.

“The boss went, ‘huh,’ and we then went back to the budget,” the aide concluded his story, shrugging his shoulders to imitate the legislator’s casual indifference.

The aide then looked at me with a dismissive smile and walked away. 

When I reflect on accounts that try to explain mass incarceration as an intentional strategy of oppression or profiteering, I think about this conversation. In its careless disregard not just for the size or cost of Illinois’ prison system, but for the idea of a policy-driven approach to government in general, the aide’s story exemplifies an essential aspect of the intentionality of mass incarceration. Based on my work in criminal justice reform and government, I don’t think people with political power created mass incarceration to oppress certain populations or increase prison spending, although it has had these effects. Rather I think mass incarceration has happened because people with political power have increased the use of prison at a structural level, primarily through concentrating discretion in law enforcement agencies and in prosecutors’ offices over who goes to prison and how long they are sentenced, but have never cared about the impact these laws and policies had on minorities, the poor, or budgets.  

This is important not because the intent of policymakers matters in itself, but because this essential carelessness guides how much of mass incarceration works. It generates some of its most punitive inclinations, like the tendency for elected officials to call for increases in longer mandatory prison sentences in response to crime, despite an overwhelming body of research that demonstrates mandatory minimums’ ineffectiveness. But more significantly the influence of this essential carelessness is perhaps most present in determining what’s absent: the infrastructure, coordination, oversight, and accountability—all of the capacities that intentional outcome-oriented systems need to ensure that they can achieve their goals and objectives, but which the loose constellation of agencies that constitute mass incarceration typically lack or possess in compromised forms because policymakers generally never bother to create, support, or use them.

As criminal justice reform tries to reduce our overreliance on prisons and jails, I think it’s difficult for it to comprehend this essential carelessness. Perhaps the magnitude of mass incarceration makes us want to find an intentionality behind it that in a way dignifies what it represents. It doesn’t seem right that a careless disregard for harm could be responsible for producing what the late legal scholar William Stuntz rightly calls the “harshest” justice system in “the history of democratic government.”  And so we construct a powerful and comprehensive intent from mass incarceration’s most profound effects, like the racism and classism in its severe concentration in minority and mostly poor communities or the profiteering that takes advantage of the billions of dollars that support our use of prisons. In so doing, we tend to assume that the institutions that participate in mass incarceration are more sophisticated than they are in reality. This assumption leads us to advocate for policy changes that rely on capacities that criminal justice agencies don’t necessarily have, like the infrastructure to deliver evidence-informed programming or the ability to re-invest hypothetical savings from prison reduction into rehabilitative services. Such reforms are not only unlikely to succeed. Worse, they can strengthen the grip mass incarceration has on our criminal justice system by requiring new and deeper investments in our use of prisons to support flawed implementation efforts.

More fundamentally, by not recognizing the lack of care at mass incarceration’s core, we fail to wrestle with an important aspect of how political power can shape law, policy, and governmental institutions in ways that harm people and communities. It’s not just America’s disdain for minorities and the poor, or our love of profit that we need to reckon with in mass incarceration, but also what the poet John Berryman calls “the horror of unlove.”  This is an inclination that attends the exercise of political power. What’s horrifying about it is that it leads power to carelessly disregard how its actions could harm people—not because it necessarily wants to hurt them, but because it sees them as utterly incidental to what it wants.

I don’t think the horror of unlove’s influence is well understood, though it’s endemic in law, policymaking, and government. We can see it even in current criminal justice reform efforts. For example, as I have regrettably done in my own career, advocates for criminal justice reform will often turn groups of unloved people into a means to get what they want—whether through promoting a change in the law by excluding so-called “violent offenders” from any of its potential benefits, or in garnering popular support for the idea of reform by emphasizing the need to help “non-violent” over “violent” people.  Proposals based on such distinctions like the popular non-violent/violent dichotomy are almost certain to fail, as they are rarely based on a deep analysis of the justice-involved population. But this shouldn’t surprise us. The mentality that encourages us to use unloved people is born not from a careful concern for evidence, nor a regard for potential unintended consequences, but from the seductive expediencies of political power. The lessons of mass incarceration—perhaps the greatest example of the horror of unlove in modern American history—should cause us to be wary of such strategies, if not to reject them outright.

Reading Anything Good?

I’m working through a couple books that just came out, which I plan to post about in the next few weeks.

  • Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. This book is Kotlowitz’s spiritual sequel to There Are No Children Here, his classic account of two friends growing up in one of Chicago’s housing projects in the 1980s. The book is a collection of vignettes and overarching stories about people affected by gun violence and crime in some of Chicago’s poorest minority communities in the summer of 2013. As shootings in Chicago spiked in 2015-16, it seemed like everyone in the media and politics wanted to talk about what was wrong with the city and what it needed to do, but few were really trying to understand the people and the communities that were affected by the violence. Kotlowitz is not interested in engaging in the usual and tired discourse that surrounds gun violence in Chicago. His only interest—and his great gift as a writer—is to help his readers honestly engage the humanity of the people and communities he writes about. This is what I love about Kotlowitz’s writings, and I think Chicago (my home) and the country really needs his book right now.

Let me know in the comments or on my twitter feed if you’re reading anything good.

What Can Groundhog Day and Tocqueville Teach Us About Criminal Justice Reform’s Tendency to Forget the Past?

I think one of the most important, but neglected features of criminal justice reform is that it’s often so absorbed in addressing the immediate aspects of certain issues that it forgets to reflect on how these issues are entangled in deep and complex histories. As I’ll explore in future posts, I think this tendency to forget the past causes and exacerbates all kinds of problems, including creating the conditions for history to repeat itself and making it difficult to learn from what has come before us.

Let me begin to flesh out what I mean through an early experience I had working in Illinois government. At the beginning of 2015, I resigned from my position as the head of Illinois’ only non-partisan prison watchdog, the John Howard Association, to join the newly-elected governor’s administration. While I loved my work at John Howard, I felt I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. During his campaign, the governor had talked about how Illinois’ prison system was broken, and he seemed eager to find ways to reduce the state’s prison population, which had spiked under the previous administration, growing to more than 49,000 people in a system designed for about 32,000.

In one of his first official acts, the governor created a Commission to make recommendations to reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25% by the year 2025. As the head of the state’s public safety research and grant-making agency, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, I was part of a small group of commissioners who coordinated the Commission’s work. To prepare for our first meeting, I researched how past Illinois governors talked about prisons in the era mass incarceration, so roughly from the mid-1970s to the present. I assumed that in creating a Commission that was focused explicitly on addressing the state’s prison crowding crisis, my governor would have been radically different from his predecessors, who had all helped build Illinois’ system of mass incarceration. What I found was that all but one of the past five governors had created similar commissions, and most of them focused on prison crowding. Moreover, these commissions not only made the same kinds of recommendations, but they were also composed of the same kinds of people and office holders, including my predecessors at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and the John Howard Association.

Reading old newspaper articles and state records, I felt like Illinois’ criminal justice policy making was caught in a version of the movie Groundhog Day. Just as Bill Murray’s character was trapped in same Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, so Illinois seemed trapped in a policy loop, supporting laws and policies that increased its prison population and then creating commissions to address prison crowding. However, unlike Bill Murray’s character who breaks out of his predicament by ultimately learning how to be a better person, I couldn’t find any evidence that Illinois had learned anything from more than three decades of repeating versions of the same experience.

Assuming for now that Illinois’ general experience is not unique, how should we think about what we might call criminal justice reform’s Groundhog Day problem? Not surprisingly, the great observer of American government, Alexis de Tocqueville, appears to be one of the first people to have noticed and analyzed a constitutive feature of this phenomenon. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that America has a severe version of the “legislative instability” that is intrinsic to all democratic regimes. Through constantly bringing new people into government, democracies create ruling bodies that are naturally interested in doing new things that will please the majority who elected them and keep them in power. According to Tocqueville, the problem with American democracy is that it “hands over sovereign power” to this frenetic body not only to make law, but also to determine “the action of public administration.” This state of affairs, Tocqueville contends, is different from the free European countries of his time, which had developed administrative bureaucracies—what some today would disparagingly call a deep state—that were relatively independent from the majority’s influence and thus able to focus on issues regardless of their popularity. In contrast, American government’s legislative and administrative reliance on pleasing the majority puts its laws and governmental activities in a constant state of flux. Among other things, Tocqueville argues that this feature of American democracy helps explain how the country brings “more zeal and activity . . . to certain improvements” than its European counterparts, but at the same time struggles to focus its attention on such matters with any real duration or depth. Tocqueville writes of American government: “The majority being the sole power that is important to please, the works that it undertakes are eagerly agreed to; but from the moment that its attention goes elsewhere, all efforts cease[.]”

Significantly, Tocqueville concludes his analysis of legislative instability with a reflection on the early history of American prisons. He knew the subject well, as his research for Democracy in America famously came from an 1831 visit he made on behalf of the French government to study America’s penitentiaries. The still depressingly insightful passage deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

“Several years ago, some religious men undertook to improve the state of the prisons. The public was moved by their voices, and the rehabilitation of criminals became a popular work.

“New prisons were then built. For the first time, the idea of reforming the guilty penetrated the dungeon at the same time as the idea of punishment. But the happy revolution with which the public had associated itself so eagerly, and which the simultaneous efforts of citizens rendered irresistible, could not work in a moment.

“Alongside the new penitentiaries, whose development was hastened by the wish of the majority, the old prisons still remained and continued to confine a great number of the guilty. The latter seemed to become more unhealthful and more corrupting as the new ones turned more to reform and became more healthful. This double effect is easily understood: the majority, preoccupied with the idea of founding the new establishment, had forgotten the one that already existed. Everyone then having turned his eyes from the object that no longer held the regard of the master, oversight had ceased. One first saw the salutary bonds of discipline slacken, and then, soon after, break. And alongside the prison, lasting monument to the mildness and the enlightenment of our time, was a dungeon that recalled the barbarism of the Middle Ages.” (See Vol 1. Chapt 7 of Democracy in America. Translated by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pgs 235-39)

In many ways, I think we’re continuing to repeat the same dynamic in criminal justice reform that Tocqueville identified almost two centuries ago. Our efforts still seem skim above the alluring and distracting surface of things, as we tend to forget to reflect on the deeper histories of the systems of punishment we have created and the people we have subjected to them. And if Tocqueville is right, if at least part of this dynamic grows out of the structure of American democracy, I don’t know how most of our current efforts to reform the criminal justice system are capable of addressing it.

At the first Commission meeting, I thought I could help us escape from Illinois’ Groundhog Day problem by framing my presentation around the commissions that came before us. I told my colleagues that even though we were repeating some of the same work of past governor-created commissions, I was confident that our Commission was going to be different because, unlike our predecessors, we were going to begin our work explicitly focused on this forgotten history, and that we’d use this awareness to single-mindedly pursue recommendations that would achieve our reduction goal.

About two years later, the Commission published its final report. Our work helped inspire some legislative and policy reforms, and since 2015, Illinois’ prison population has decreased by about 20%—though that was mainly caused by an unrelated decline in drug arrests in Chicago.

While I think the Commission’s final report remains relevant, I’m certain state policy makers have mostly forgotten about it.

At the beginning of 2019, Illinois inaugurated a new governor. Throughout his campaign, he talked about the need to reform Illinois’ broken criminal justice system. In one of his first official acts, he ordered the creation of a new office. One of its primary goals is to address prison crowding.


Greetings, Reality-Based Community readers. My name is John Maki, and I’m an Illinois-based criminal justice policy wonk. I asked Mark if I could blog at RBC, so I could reflect on my recent experiences in criminal justice policy and government. I just finished up a four-year term as the Executive Director of the State of Illinois’ public safety research and grant-making agency, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. During that time, I played a key part in developing state and local criminal justice policy, including helping to coordinate a state commission dedicated to reducing Illinois’ prison population by 25% by 2025. In my job, I also oversaw state and federal public safety grant making. This included an unprecedented expansion of victim services funding under the federal Victims of Crime Act formula grant, which saw Illinois’ award increase from about $17 million in 2014 to about $77 million in 2015 and to about $127 million this year. Before I came to state government, I worked in criminal justice reform. This was primarily through my role as the Executive Director of the John Howard Association, an Illinois’ based non-profit that monitors prisons and jails and advocates for reforms that improve conditions of confinement and reduces the reliance on incarceration.

In recent years, I’d argue it’s been the best of times and the worst of times to work in criminal justice reform and government. On the one hand, it’s remarkable to think about how popular criminal justice reform has become—or even to reflect on the mere fact that the once lonely and often maligned field of criminal justice reform can be described as popular. This has been a welcome development, as it’s helped bring about some positive changes, stopped even more bad ideas from becoming law, and highlighted the harm overly punitive criminal justice policies have caused people and communities.

On the other hand, as support for criminal justice reform has increased, I think there has also been a clear and growing sense among a broad and diverse group of people that the criminal justice system and government in general are broken, and that the overall trust that people need to have in these institutions for them to work effectively is fractured. In many ways, this cynicism is the just result of the history of government and politics and their vicious intersection in the criminal justice system. But the sources of this cynicism are also complex, particularly in our current political environment which seems constituted by regular assaults on the integrity of government. While the distrust people feel toward the criminal justice system and government in general is thus understandable and legitimate, I think it’s also deeply troubling. And I’m worried that if it continues to grow, it could undermine the goals and achievements of criminal justice reform, as it participates in the general erosion of trust that is essential to our governmental institutions and democracy.

In my work, I’ve always believed that criminal justice reform was important not simply because it was dedicated to improving our overall response to crime, but also because it provided a powerful way to think about and reform government itself. This belief stemmed from a deeper set of assumptions. I believed that the biggest problems with our criminal justice system stemmed from more essential problems that often plague government—including the tendency for government to operate without clear purpose and vision, oversight, and democratic accountability. As an advocate, I’ve tried to design and promote policies that address these issues, and as a government employee, I’ve tried to implement and operationalize these kinds of policies in the agency I led. After 10 years of this work, my colleagues and I have accomplished most of the goals that I hoped I’d achieve, but I left my job with a strong feeling that there are fundamental questions and problems that my efforts and the way I have conceptualized my work couldn’t touch.

It’s difficult to reflect on something while you’re doing it. In my experience, this is particularly true about working in government, which seems more suited to implementing or testing an idea or theory than it is for questioning the significance of what you’re doing. So, over the last two years, I’ve kept a journal where I’ve jotted down thoughts, questions, and problems that grew out of my work in criminal justice, victim services, and government. My goal was to think through these ideas after I left my job. I’m now hoping I can find some clarity in fleshing them out on RBC. And while my work has been rooted in Illinois’ government and politics, I hope together we can glean from it some general insights that you’ll find interesting too.