WORK

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.

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. “While there is certainly a subset of high-risk offenders for whom incapacitation is warranted,” concludes research recently published by the University of Chicago, “in general, placing people in custodial sanctions appears to contribute to, rather than reduce, reoffending.”  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, and health experts, and currently and formerly incarcerated people, the Center for Justice and Human Dignity will explore and address the crisis in prisons and identify immediately actionable interventions.

We are concerned about adequate heating and cooling, improving the ease of family visits, strengthening mental health supports and reducing the use of solitary confinement. We know that addressing these issues is only the beginning of what is possible.

Our hope is that in centering human dignity, imprisoned people and those who work in our prisons will have the necessary supports for physical and mental health, enrichment, and community connectivity.

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. 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.