Welcome to The Public Square


By Bruce Western

cost of injusticeThe U.S. criminal justice system is now at the center of several overlapping conversations about race, the police, and mass incarceration. Public agencies tasked with responding to crime have become targets of social activism and demands for accountability.

This is a challenging debate for policy researchers. Usually, in the face of bad public policy, we try to offer research-based improvements. The U.S. government spends $80 billion each year on incarceration, but research shows the crime-reducing effect of incarceration is at best unclear. So we suggest policies that might reduce incarceration: sentencing reform, diversion programs, and so on.

But improving policy in the future does nothing to redress the bad policies of the past and years of imprisonment racked up at taxpayer expense. And it does nothing to help the poor communities of color from which most of the penal population is drawn.

There’s a question of justice that can’t be addressed by policy improvements alone. And often justice is not demanded individually but demanded by whole groups, by people in poor neighborhoods, by young men of color, and yes, even by young men involved in crime.

In this blog, we’ll talk a lot about research, and we’ll try to connect research to public conversations.  The justice question will be central here, a problem perhaps more urgent than policy improvement. 


By April Austin

RoadToReentryEach week, more than 10,000 people are released from state and federal prisons in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Most of them will be released to families and communities that are poorly equipped to handle the urgent need for housing, employment, health care, and treatment for addictions. Faced with hiring and housing practices that discriminate against formerly incarcerated people, as well as other barriers, about two-thirds of those released will likely be re-arrested within three years, according to studies.

To help previously incarcerated men and women rebuild their lives and continue on the path to becoming productive community members, the District of Columbia has mandated an agency, The Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (MORCA), which coordinates services for about 5,000 returning citizens each year. Since 2011, MORCA has helped more than 800 people find jobs.[1]

MORCA works with other government agencies (courts, health and human services) and with local organizations (shelters, halfway houses, and community- and faith-based organizations) to provide information, support, and services to returning citizens. For example, the staff of MORCA visits prisoners before they are released, arranging a place for them to stay on their first day outside prison walls. Studies show that the first weeks and months of release are critical in determining long-term reintegration back into the community.

MORCA began as a campaign to inform people about their voting rights. “A lot of returning men and women in D.C. didn’t know you don’t have to petition anyone, you just register if you haven’t, or if you have, they’ll hand your voting right back to you,” says MORCA’s director, Charles Thornton, who has been an advocate for formerly incarcerated people for the past 25 years, since his own return home from prison.

When visitors from mayor’s offices in cities like Boston and Philadelphia (which now has RISE—the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services) come to learn about MORCA, Thornton shares the key reasons for the agency’s success: It’s a government agency not a program; it’s located in the same building as other social service agencies, and the leadership is drawn from, and informed by, the formerly incarcerated community.

This last point is crucial to Thornton, who says that the voices of the previously incarcerated are not being heard. “If you really want to talk about what reintegration looks like, look at the thousands of men and women who have gone through the process who went on to live outstanding lives. They know what it takes, what to do, how to measure success—all you got to do is follow them,” he says.

He’s also concerned that the money beginning to flow toward criminal justice reform is not reaching the community-based organizations actually doing the work. “A lot of resources are going right back to the correctional system,” he says. “The same people who have been making money from incarceration are interested in reentry, now that there’s a wave of people asking, ‘How are we going to integrate people back into the community?’”

Still, he is hopeful about the bipartisan movement toward reforming the criminal justice system. “As we keep moving the ball up the field, I see the opportunity to coordinate—because at the end of the day we’re trying to get to a common solution for how we get people back into their communities living safe, productive lives.”

[1] Of the clients who stayed in touch with MORCA about their employment, and which MORCA was able to verify



By April Austin

SchoolToPrisonACLUSchool suspension, a practice that disproportionately affects students of color, is not only harming those students through lost opportunities and unrealized income over their lifetimes, but is also costing taxpayers in lost revenue and higher health care and criminal justice costs. That’s the finding of a new study from UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies.

The study by Russell W. Rumberger and Daniel J. Losen, "The High Cost of Harsh Discipline and Its Disparate Impact", found that suspensions in the 10th grade alone produced more than 67,000 dropouts in the United States and generated social costs to the nation of more than $35 billion. And, as the authors point out, this figure is conservative, because the study did not capture the effects of suspensions in earlier grades. (Experts say the costs could run upwards of $100 billion.) By contrast, cutting the suspension rate in half would save taxpayers $5.5 billion, according to the study.

Having this data is critical for teachers, school districts, policymakers, and the public, says Losen. The practice of suspensions—often the result of zero-tolerance polices for everything from dress code and cell phone violations to defiant or disruptive behavior—has been increasing since the 1970s. “We know that suspensions don’t make schools safer or improve classroom learning,” he says, “and we’re harming the most vulnerable kids with this punishment by sending them home unsupervised.”

Previous studies have shown that black and Hispanic students are suspended at much higher rates than other racial groups, making suspension a civil rights issue. Students who are suspended are at high risk for dropping out of school and getting into trouble with the law—the entry point into the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Researchers have also demonstrated that the lack of a high school diploma affects lifetime earning capability, adds to the risk of health problems, and increases the demand for social services.

Losen says the UCLA study provides an economic analysis that makes the oft-heard call to “invest in schools not prisons” more persuasive. “This report is the first to provide national estimates and start to fill that knowledge gap,” he says.

By exposing the cumulative costs of suspension, Losen hopes the study will encourage teachers and school administrators to think twice about using the practice for all but the most serious infractions. He also hopes that districts that have been reluctant to invest in interventions are prompted to take action. “We need to invest in teacher training to help them manage behavior in their classrooms, and we need resources to help students avoid suspension,” he says. 


By Natalie Smith and Bruce Western 


This documentary film project is produced as part of the Justice and Poverty Project at Harvard University.  Through collaborative filmmaking, the project aims to engage and elevate the voices of individuals and families who have experienced incarceration.

To understand incarceration, we believe it is important to first ask those with direct experience what it has meant for them. Listening to people who have been to prison expands the conversation about justice and includes voices that have too often been silenced, excluded, or ignored.

The stories in this project are told by men and women – fathers, sisters, neighbors, and friends – who are living in a time when incarceration rates are historically high.  While the videos focus on narratives of imprisonment, the experiences of each storyteller extend beyond their interactions with the criminal justice system.  When you watch these videos, please remember that each segment has been cut and edited from a much longer interview, and that each interview is just a short excerpt about a much broader life.  

We would like to extend a special thank you to the Fortune Society for connecting us with some of the individuals featured in this project and for providing a space to film interviews.  To learn more about the work of the Fortune Society, visit their website: http://fortunesociety.org/ 


By Adam Travis

HousingVoucherFormThe most common form of housing assistance for low-income families comes in the form of a voucher designed for use in the private rental market. One objective of a tenant-based voucher approach is to promote residential mobility. Tenants can, in theory, use their vouchers almost anywhere, provided the rental unit desired meets certain affordability and quality standards. One longstanding hope has been that providing struggling families with the means to move to more desirable neighborhoods will benefit families and erode pockets of concentrated poverty.

In practice, however, many voucher holders continue to rent units in extremely poor neighborhoods. One reason for this is that landlords have an incentive to steer voucher holders towards especially hard to rent units in less desirable neighborhoods. Voucher holders pay a fixed portion of their income towards rent and the voucher covers the remaining portion of the rent, up to a locally defined ceiling. Currently, HUD calculates these ceilings for entire metropolitan areas, a large geographic scale that elides meaningful variation in rents across city neighborhoods. Consequently, landlords who own units in less desirable neighborhoods can sometimes command above-market prices by renting to voucher holding tenants.

In 2011, housing authorities in Dallas, Texas, began using zip-code specific rent ceilings for housing vouchers. A recent evaluation of this policy-change found that it improved the average neighborhood quality of Dallas voucher holders at no additional costs. Vouchers used in less expensive neighborhoods were capped at a lower threshold, saving money. Vouchers used in more expensive neighborhoods were capped at a higher threshold, allowing tenants who wanted to move into these neighborhoods the ability to do so. The results from Dallas suggest that using more precise data on neighborhood-level rents may improve outcomes for participants in the nation’s largest rental assistance program.


By Ellen McCann

When people want to know if the corrections system is working, the question they ask is: “What is the recidivism rate?” It’s understandable that we try to use the recidivism rate as a measure of progress; it’s simple to understand. But the recidivism rate is only one part of the story. It doesn’t begin to measure whether the formerly incarcerated person has actually changed his or her behavior.

There is a big difference between the person who steps off the bus from prison and goes straight back to dealing, or stealing, or commiting assaults, and the person who tries to make it six months or more after release, who is struggling to find housing and healthcare and a job that might stick, and fails because of the barriers he or she faces. The second person is an indicator that our programs to prepare someone to reenter society are effective, but the community receiving them is not.

A more meaningful approach is to answer two difficult questions, which are interconnected: Have we improved offender outcomes? Have we enhanced public safety?

How should we measure improving offender outcomes? This is difficult to wrap our arms around, and it is  tempting to rely on the old standard—recidivism. Did he return to a facility? Did she get picked up by the police? The recidivism rate gives us a measure of system flow. It might even suggest a good measure of the supervision effect, but it does not provide a measure of what a person is doing with his time and behavioral change. Not only should we look at how long a person succeeds at staying out of prison but we should also look at the outcomes that are positive: Did she enroll in training, apply for jobs, complete a treatment program? All of these things can improve our communities for both the offender and the neighborhood when the returning citizen evolves into a taxpayer, a voter, and a contributor to his neighborhood.

With recidivism, we haven’t been measuring offender outcomes or community outcomes, but rather system response. Let’s reassess and reach some agreement on how we conceptualize outcomes. With a light at the end of the mass incarceration tunnel in sight, this is more important now than it has ever been.


By April Austin

“You can’t restore a life, but you can make reparations,” says Jennifer Page, who earned a PhD in Political Science from Harvard and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Brown University. She prefers the term “reparative justice” over “restorative justice,” and her research leads her to conclude that when cities and police forces collaborate with victims’ families to design a comprehensive package of reparations, they strengthen the community. Without reparations, relations between the police and citizens—especially citizens of color—continue to fester.

Page, who wrote her 2015 dissertation on Reparations and State Accountability, views police killings in the light of her study of the abuse of state power. In cases of police misconduct, “governments often prioritize spending taxpayer dollars on an expensive legal defense instead of putting that money directly into a settlement with victims’ families,” she says. And when there is a settlement, “it will often be accompanied by a disclaimer in which the city does not acknowledge wrongdoing.” She adds, “the legal language can be at odds with the understandable desire of families for the police and city officials to admit that irrevocable harm was done, and to take full responsibility for it.”

A Tale of Two Cities

Page points to the example of two Ohio cities that responded very differently to deadly police shootings: Cincinnati and Cleveland. In the first case, the University of Cincinnati (which is publicly funded) agreed to make reparations to the family of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man who was shot to death by a white university police officer on July 19, 2015 during a traffic stop. In the second, a grand jury declined to charge a white Cleveland police officer in the November 22, 2014 killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who was shot while holding a pellet gun.

Reaffirming Community

The University of Cincinnati, which fired the officer involved (he is now awaiting trial for murder) entered into mediation with the DuBose family. They reached an accord in just two days. Details of the settlement include:

  • payment to the DuBose family of $4.85 million
  • tuition-free UC undergraduate education for DuBose’s 12 children
  • an eventual on-campus memorial to DuBose
  • an apology from UC President Santa J. Ono
  • and an invitation for DuBose’s family to participate in Community Advisory Committee meetings aimed at creating comprehensive reform in the university police department

In Cincinnati, all parties say they support the outcome. The victim’s sister said the provision “brings us peace with the fact that they are going to make some reforms.”

Driving a Wedge

By contrast, the Cleveland investigation dragged on for more than a year, involving not only the Cleveland police but also the Cuyahoga County sheriff’s office. Lawyers for Rice’s family have called for a special prosecutor and have asked the Justice Department to investigate. They’ve filed a civil lawsuit. The city has not apologized for the killing, although the mayor did say he regretted legal language in a court brief that cast blame on Rice—the victim—for “failure … to exercise due care to avoid injury.”

In Cleveland, the distrust and ill will is hardening between the city and its residents. Dissatisfaction with how the city has managed the crisis will keep alive the investigation—and invective—for months to come, at a tremendous cost to the community and also to taxpayers. 

UPDATE April 25, 2016

The City of Cleveland reached a settlement to pay $6 million to the family of Tamir Rice. In return, the family waives the right to a federal civil rights trial. Under the terms of the agreement, the city does not admit wrongdoing, and Mayor Frank Jackson stopped short of an apology. He said, “At the end of the day, a 12-year-old child lost their life, and that should not have happened."


By Adam Travis

Coverage of the presidential election is in full swing as primary voters head to the polls to nominate each party’s candidate. Nationally televised debates have drawn attention to a wide range of important national issues – immigration, health care, income inequality, financial regulation, public education, national security, etc.. Missing from this list, however, is housing – a subject on which there has yet to be serious public debate.

Campaign websites are of little help. Hillary Clinton’s website details a $25 billion “housing investment program,” although the extent to which these funds be used to expand the supply of affordable rental housing (as opposed to supporting homeownership initiatives) is unclear. Other candidates’ websites make little mention of housing policy.

Why the aversion to discussing housing issues? Part of it may have to do with the primary season calendar – housing is comparatively more affordable in early primary states, such as Iowa or New Hampshire, than late primary states, such as California or New York. But a big reason is likely that the problems of housing affordability and substandard housing quality are perceived as complex and costly. For example, the existing stock of public housing in the United States faces nearly $30 billion in deferred maintenance, but the 2015 budget included only $1.8 billion for these repairs.  Meanwhile, only about one in four eligible households receives any form of housing assistance at all.

And yet there is no shortage of ideas about how local, state, and federal governments might take action to address the shortage of well-maintained, affordable units. For example, policy-makers and researchers have proposed a number of reforms to the mortgage interest deduction, a housing subsidy that primarily benefits households with incomes over $100,000.  Or, to take another example, results from a recent demonstration project suggest that setting voucher rent ceilings by zip-code, instead of metropolitan area, can lead to improvements in the neighborhood quality for voucher holders at minimal cost


By Bruce Western

Policy analysts are widely observing that significant reductions in incarceration will involve reducing sentences for people convicted of violence. Still, most of the talk about criminal justice reform has focused on drug sentencing, and some property crime that has been recalibrated from felony to misdemeanor.

Violent crimes are the third rail of the mass incarceration debate. Most elected officials are so far only willing to extend leniency to those convicted of drug and property offenses. Sentencing reform before Congress focuses on sentences for drug offenses. The President’s clemency initiative and retroactivity in federal sentencing guidelines is also limited to those without violent convictions.

There’s a lot to say about this topic but as a first cut I’ll observe that the language of violent offenders and non-violent offenders is sociologically inaccurate and self-limiting. First, sociologically inaccurate. People who go to prison generally don’t tend to specialize much. People convicted of violence may mostly be involved in the drug trade or property crime. More fundamentally, people’s conviction offense is often telling us more about their social context than their behavioral propensity. In the Boston Reentry Study we found that people who were sent to prison were exposed to a high level of violence over a lifetime, but not just as offenders. Frequently, they were victims of violence and witnesses too.

Second, the language of violent and nonviolent offenders is self-limiting. Here, policymakers (and voters) are trying to find the innocent, the people deserving of compassion and mercy; the rest can serve long sentences. If the policy goal is to significantly reduce prison populations, then we cannot get there if we’re locked into the language of violent and non-violent. By adopting the distinction, we’ve already decided on harsh punishment for some and compassion for others. Fundamental reform extends compassion to all.

The question we have to grapple with is the place of violence in the poor communities that supply the prison population. Harsh punishment is neither fair nor effective in contexts in which violence can flourish, and for people who have long histories of victimization themselves. Abandoning the language of violent and nonviolent offenders is an important first step to reform.


By Adam Travis

The public health catastrophe in Flint is a horrific example of what can happen in places where economic decline meets political neglect. Almost by definition, declining cities tend to experience significant population loss – a process that accelerates the decline of property values and the shrinking of the local tax base. Cities short on revenue are more likely to face difficult decisions about the provision of essential goods, such as fire safety or clean drinking water.

Social scientists have not always seen the decline of places and the erosion of public services as especially problematic. In one influential mid-century formulation, individuals were thought to “vote with their feet,” selecting into (or out of) localities based on their desired level of public goods provision. However, most scholars who study patterns of residential mobility have long recognized that individual and contextual constraints place limits on the ability of households to move into or out of communities.

When cities face the prospect of hard times, who leaves and who stays? Summary statistics from the U.S. census, available online at the National Historical Geographic Information System, can help provide some very basic answers. Flint, for example, lost over 90,000 residents between 1970 and 2010 – nearly half of its total population. Homeowners were more likely to leave than renters: Between 1970 and 2010 Flint saw a 47% decline in the number of owner-occupied households, but almost no change in the number of renter-occupied households. Most of this population loss appears to have been driven by white-flight: Between 1970 and 2010 Flint saw a 67% decrease in the number of white homeowners and a 52% decrease in the number of white renting households. Over the same period, Flint saw a 25% increase in the number of black homeowners, while the number of black renting households shot up by nearly 90%. 


By April Austin

Steve Meacham
Steve Meacham
When real estate developers hear housing advocates talking about the housing crisis, they say, “When is there not a housing crisis?” Steve Meacham doesn’t disagree. “When you’re in a down market you have one kind of crisis, in a hot market like the one in Boston you have a different kind of crisis.”

Meacham works for City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), a housing rights and tenant advocacy organization in Boston. For more than 40 years, the organization has been fighting against the “market forces that dictate people’s lives, rather than the other way around,” he says. 

In 2010, as a response to the 2008 housing market crash, Massachusetts passed a Just Cause Eviction Law that protects tenants living in bank-owned foreclosed properties. The legislation, however, does not protect tenants in properties owned by entities other than the bank. These property owners can still evict without giving a reason (called “no-fault eviction”). To place this into a national context, very few states have Just Cause Eviction statutes, but many cities do, including San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New York. Most cities with rent control require anti-eviction laws.

Now, in the face of Boston’s strong housing and rental market, CLVU is pushing for further tenant protections. Mayor Marty Walsh may be taking some steps in that direction: In his Jan. 18 State of the City address, he announced that his administration would create an Office of Housing Stability to help residents avoid eviction and find emergency housing.

A “home rule” petition (requiring state approval) being put forward this spring by CLVU and other housing advocacy groups would do three things, according to Meacham:

1. Prevent evictions of homeowners after foreclosure without good cause.
2. Prevent flipping of buildings through building clear-outs using no fault eviction laws.
3. Require mediation before owners can use no fault eviction laws to enforce rent increases
     of more than 5 percent.


Meacham considers the petition “modest,” adding that its last provision might add about a month onto the eviction process. Opponents argue that increasing the protections for tenants will slow the process and stop all real estate investment in Boston, a statement that Meacham calls “against all common sense.” He continues, “All we’re asking is that the landlord sit down for one meeting with the tenant.” Getting the two sides together can make good things happen, he says, especially when both sides are informed of their rights under the existing law. Such cooperation can mean the difference between tenants staying in their home or being forced to leave it.

Meacham’s job is to empower people who face eviction feeling they have very little agency in their lives. “We provide a place for collective moral deliberation,” he says. “We tell them, ‘What’s happening to you is not right, it’s not just.’” At weekly CLVU meetings, residents come together to learn about the “shield” (a knowledge of the law and their rights) and the “sword” (community action), that together encapsulate the group’s philosophy and approach. They also receive free, personalized legal advice.

CLVU’s track record speaks for itself: 95 percent of the residents who seek help are able to stay in their homes much longer than they would have imagined, and often win long-term contracts, Meacham says. 


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