Read more about the projects we are working on below.
The Center for Justice and Human Dignity focuses on safely reducing unnecessary prison sentences, creating conditions for wellness on the inside, and strengthening early release mechanisms and policies that support decarceration.
Rewriting the Sentence II Summit
To explore and highlight the crucial steps required to center dignity in the justice system from front to back, CJHD will unite a variety of stakeholders at its October 2023 summit, Rewriting the Sentence II.
CJHD has the unique capacity to unite a variety of stakeholders at this summit by building off of its predecessor’s deep relationships with system actors who have been immersed in this work for decades. We now have the opportunity to engage this group of experts and practitioners in an effective and innovative setting for peer learning to discuss various alternative approaches that reduce contact with the criminal legal system, define the cultural paradigm shifts taking place in the field, and explore the application of evidence-based programming for restorative and rehabilitative outcomes.
At this summit, CJHD will encourage recognition of successful existing models and best practices, while also identifying the critical harms of the existing punitive system and the barriers to reform. In particular, a fundamental element of this convening will be recognizing the crucial need for trauma-informed practices across all aspects of the criminal legal system. The current practices systematically traumatize individuals and strip their humanity in countless ways. This harm must be reduced, and a replacement must be built that preserves and promotes dignity, reduces recidivism, prioritizes community investment and bolsters health in all communities, and more. CJHD aims to encourage cross-pollination of innovative practices among federal, state, county, and individual stakeholders in order to create tangible momentum toward reducing incarceration and increasing alternative, non-carceral dispositions of a wide array of criminal cases.
Defining a successful summit
The ultimate goal of this gathering is to spark change in the hearts and minds of system actors and reduce or remove the systematic impulse or default toward punishment and confinement. We hope to expand the capacity of individual system stakeholders–judges, prosecutors, defenders, probation officers, and case managers–to maintain a moral and evidence-based commitment to their work.
Rewriting the Sentence II will feature a stellar lineup of speakers, sessions, interactive roundtables, and discussions, and will be well-attended by a diverse representation of judicial, prosecutorial, pretrial, probation, and other legal officials from a variety of states as well as at the federal level. This gathering will act as a space for meaningful interchange between leaders and practitioners already steeped in the alternatives-to-imprisonment landscape with those curious to engage further on ATI implementation. We hope to see individuals departing from this summit as ambassadors for these alternatives in their respective districts and communities.
This summit will serve as a dedicated forum where judges, prosecutors, and other decision-makers can come together to achieve concrete and meaningful change by fostering the adoption of alternative sentencing programs and a reimagined approach to criminal justice.
The Summit will include virtual interactive sessions with incarcerated persons, and provide expert insights on issues such as procedural justice, trauma-informed care, and behavioral science.
The Summit will feature a stellar lineup of speakers, including United States Sentencing Commission Chairman Judge Carlton Reeves and Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters. Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, Founder and Director of the Institute for Trauma-Informed Systems Change at McLean/Harvard, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), will deliver the Summit’s keynote address on how to transform the criminal legal system into a more trauma-responsive environment.
Judicial Institute at the Center for Justice and Human Dignity
The Center for Justice and Human Dignity established a judicial institute devoted to foregrounding human dignity in the administration of justice. Guided by a Steering Committee of current and former judges, the Judicial Institute will focus on facilitating a deeper understanding of the myriad harms of imprisonment and the life-long effects on those who are incarcerated, as well as their families. Its programming will increase participants’ knowledge of and interest in alternatives to incarceration and innovative sentencing practices.
There is no overstating the opportunity judges have to address the harms of mass incarceration in the American prison system. In determining sentencing for the convicted, judges have the difficult task of interpreting the law, considering community safety, and evaluating the convicted person’s instigating life circumstances. Moreover, judges are faced with the challenge of understanding which past issue(s) must be mitigated for the convicted person to be successful, the perspective of victims, how prison conditions might undermine rehabilitation, and which responses most meaningfully support the individual, and in effect, the community’s needs.
A number of judges in the U.S. and abroad are evaluating alternatives to long-term prison sentences that will greatly reduce mass incarceration. “In general, placing people in custodial sanctions appears to contribute to, rather than reduce, reoffending,” concludes research recently published by the University of Chicago, If we hope to improve this dynamic, judges must have the space to think more holistically and the support to reset the default use of prison.
Mindful of judicial independence and ethical considerations, the Judicial Institute provides a supportive network and a platform for judges to consider the diminishing benefit of lengthy prison sentences and to explore effective alternatives.
Improving Prison Conditions
Alongside correctional leaders and staff, advocates, health experts, and currently and formerly incarcerated people, the Center for Justice and Human Dignity explores and addresses the crisis in prison conditions and identifies immediately actionable interventions.
Improved conditions of confinement not only make prisons more humane for incarcerated people but for staff as well. This, in turn, enables more effective rehabilitation, ultimately resulting in a reduction in recidivism, greater protection of the public, and less strain on public resources. The more support and respect we grant individuals in prison, the greater likelihood we are to see them return to their communities with hope and determination to succeed post-release.
We envision a system in which our prisons promote a rehabilitative experience affording incarcerated people the dignity every human being deserves. When a person is denied basic self-determination and is forced to endure mental and physical abuse, they are likely to emerge more disposed to harm than before. The perpetual stress in the current dehumanizing prison environment negatively impacts the health of both staff and residents. By contrast, by fostering an environment that promotes the self-worth of both staff and residents, we empower them to reach greater potential on a personal level and contribute to their families and greater communities.
Former federal Judge, longtime Director of the Federal Judicial Center, and current CJHD Board Member Jeremy Fogel, in his keynote address at Aleph’s Rewriting the Sentence Summit at Columbia Law School in 2019, described how “a truly transformative approach to criminal justice requires not only an abstract respect for every person, but also a genuine openness, to meeting each person, where he or she is, and experiencing our common humanity.” We believe these sentiments lie at the heart of the shift in thinking that we are proposing: a deeper respect for human dignity within the prison system, as well as a recognition that, just as in “free” society, a culture of positive reinforcement is more effective than one of punishment and negativity.
Unfortunately, as Chairman Dick Durbin pointed out at a 2022 Senate Committee on the Judiciary oversight hearing of the BOP, “Many of the people languishing in federal prison have paid their debt and do not need to be there. They should be developing vocational skills, receiving mental health counseling and educational services, and reentering society as productive members of our communities.” The senator added, “Our federal prison system, in many critical respects, failed to fulfill its fundamental purpose to provide safe, humane conditions of confinement and ensure the positive return of incarcerated individuals to the community.”
 U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, September 29, 2022, available at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/09/29/2022/oversight-of-the-federal-bureau-of-prisons.
Strengthening Early Release Policies
Clemency and compassionate release opportunities for incarcerated people have existed for a long time in both the state and federal prison systems. However, these processes are difficult for people and their families to navigate. They are notoriously arduous, labor-intensive, and severely underutilized by decision-makers. Often, there are strict or vague eligibility criteria, categorical exclusions, contradictory guidance, and lengthy “black box” review processes.
At the same time, there are incarcerated individuals who are elderly, facing serious or terminal medical conditions without proper healthcare, or serving sentences for offenses that current legislation has downgraded or decriminalized. These are individuals who no longer pose a risk to public safety, but current sentencing review and release practice is not sufficient to return these individuals back to their families and communities. More streamlined discussion around categorical review of groups of people ready for release is needed to address the injustice of sentences that no longer serve any rehabilitative or deterrent purposes.
Alongside subject-matter experts, we develop, refine, and scale effective and innovative approaches to navigating these release processes. We will advance promising practices through technical assistance with local decision-makers, including governor’s offices and parole boards, committed to identifying individuals who should be released through efficient and equitable mechanisms. The Center for Justice and Human Dignity also facilitates open conversations that highlight effective practices and bring together community-based practitioners and policymakers. Through symposia featuring leaders in the field, landscape analyses of clemency practices across the country, and other resources compiling innovative sentencing review and release work, our team seeks to promote dialogue that will lead to changes in practice and policy.