In America’s Race to Innovate, Let’s Not Leave the Criminal Justice System Behind

In America’s Race to Innovate, Let’s Not Leave the Criminal Justice System Behind

May 16, 2023

By Ana Zamora, Founder & CEO of The Just Trust

Back in March, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans to transform San Quentin State Prison into a Norwegian-style detention center. There was a short media flurry, with a lot of excitement but also significant criticism from both the left and the right. Some progressives were upset because it's still technically a prison. Conservatives were wary because it's a liberal governor who “wants to let everyone out.” And then the energy died down, leaving us (once again) in the exhausting limbo of not going far enough and going too far.

In this country, we’re obsessed with innovating and improving everything under the sun, except when it comes to big, daunting systems. Instead, we largely sit complacent (save for the frontline advocates), letting the political climate dictate just how creative we can be. Sometimes we forget that systems don’t just transform themselves overnight, replaced the next day with something perfect. The criminal justice system is no exception. We need to spend a lot more energy imagining, experimenting, and learning – relentlessly, for a long time – until we land on a justice system that actually lives up to its name. 

The news about San Quentin actually IS so exciting. Not because this one model is a panacea that must be replicated everywhere, but because if we pay attention, it can be a beacon for a new era of innovation and experimentation that the criminal justice system desperately needs. 

For decades, justice reform advocates have been pounding the pavement, doing the unglamorous but critical work of changing bad laws, implementing better ones, and chipping away at the parts of the justice system that have been harming families and communities for decades. As they keep doing this everywhere – in red, blue, and purple states – we also need more roadmaps to the future. More examples, more models, and more stories about what our justice system could be. 

Transforming prisons – which sit at the imagination center of our relationship to the criminal justice system in America – is a very tangible piece of the puzzle, although not a new idea. We’ve seen a handful of projects across the country, like a facility in North Carolina that was turned into a sustainable farm, and a prison in Pennsylvania that is implementing a similar Norwegian-style model. Similarly, the idea of centering rehabilitation is far from earth shattering  – we know that access to training, education, and transitional resources are essential for people coming home (which around 95% of all those incarcerated eventually do). These programs reduce recidivism and make everyone safer. What feels different with San Quentin, however, is both the moment we’re in (people are demanding new solutions from our leaders), and its prominence as a highly visible institution (everyone is watching, even as the chatter subsides). What happens there – if done well and with deep intention – could help supercharge this new era of people rethinking the status quo and rolling up their sleeves to try new things. 

Full disclosure, the United States is not Norway, and California is not Oklahoma, or Florida, or Arizona. We can’t just do the same thing everywhere, but we can let it inspire us. In the case of Norway, there are two simple things to take away: that people in prison are in fact people; and that the ultimate goal of incarceration should be to make better neighbors. Revolutionary! If we center this when designing a prison space, proposing new legislation, or looking at technology solutions, we might just have a chance at stepping down from the podium as the world’s top incarcerator. We might be able muster the energy, resources, and political will needed to solve for safety – the thing everyone really wants. And we might just change our culture and relationship to the justice system as we know it. 

The good news is, there are examples already popping up that show us how to center people in designing justice – we need to cultivate them and lift them up as beacons as well. Take the work to develop different approaches to community safety, as just one example. Cure Violence Global has been pioneering highly effective (if not heroic) violence interruption work. They are saving lives. The Community Based Public Safety Collective supports dozens of nonprofit, community-led, grassroots organizations that are minimizing and preventing acute violence. CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon and Atlanta PAD both deploy mobile crisis response teams to help reduce arrests and incarceration and get people real help. This work is creative, community-rooted, proven, AND is inspiring others across the country to build similar programs. Many of these models also work hand-in-hand with police, which is a critical part of durable transformation. 

In the world of technology and data tools, Recidiviz partners with state departments of corrections to improve their use of data. Since getting started, their work to organize and analyze messy data has helped over 70,000 people in several states get downgraded or completely removed from the system – people who had already served sentences but were still being held because they literally fell through the cracks. Imagine if they did this everywhere.

As we watch what happens at San Quentin and other prisons, let’s also think about the full ecosystem of places to test new approaches in the justice system. And let’s get out of our political trenches and build toward different outcomes – accountability, yes, but also healing, rehabilitation, safety and stability, and community restoration. Because all we are solving for right now is punishment. 

America is a leader in a lot of things, so why can’t we lead the world in safe, thriving communities? Why can't we have some of the lowest incarceration and recidivism rates in the world? We’ll certainly never get there if we don’t try.