37th Annual Meeting Re-Cap: Rethinking American Justice

New York City - On May 10, 2016, Philanthropy New York held its 37th Annual Meeting, the programmatic elements of which focused on justice reform. The themes of the day's programming on "Rethinking American Justice" flowed directly from the ideas expressed extraordinarily persuasively in the book "The New Jim Crow" by author and Annual Meeting headline panelist Michelle Alexander.

Before listening to a dynamic line-up of speakers, PNY members participated in the annual business meeting portion of the day and elected new board members Charles Buice, president of the Tiger Foundation, Pamela Foster, managing director, program operations and associate general counsel of the Rockefeller Foundation and Yancy Ruben Garrido, senior program officer for the Clark Foundation.  They also heard from PNY President Ronna Brown about the major accomplishements of the previous year and the ongoing strategic planning process.  PNY Board Chair Philip Li gave a short, inspiring talk about the many forms of leadership that Philanthropy New York nurtures among its members.

Li then kicked off the programmatic elements of the day:

Opening Panel: Building Political Consensus on Criminal Justice Reform

Malika Saada Saar, Public Policy and Government Relations Senior Counsel-Civil and Human Rights, Google, kicked off the opening discussion, "Building Political Consensus on Criminal Justice Reform," with Mark Holden, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, Koch Industries, David Yassky, Dean, Pace Law School and Kenneth Zimmerman, Director, US Programs, Open Society Foundations, to discuss ways the bi-partisan movement on justice reform is happening, why it’s happening now and what are the roadblocks ahead.

The panelists touched upon the importance of policy reform on the state level, the moral and economic arguments against justice reform, the need to shift the "tough on crime" and "superpredator" narratives, and the impact of mass incarceration on women and girls. 

PHIL Talks

PNY's signature “PHIL Talks” – a set of rapid-fire presentations by three fascinating leaders, Glenn E. Martin, Charles Nuñez and Andrea Ritchie - were the second element of the program on "Rethinking American Justice."

These rapid-fire presentations covered topics like women's lack of visibility in the criminal justice system, The "Raise the Age" campaign and inclusion of those who have directly experienced the criminal justice system in the leadership of reform movements.

Glenn E. Martin, Founder, JustLeadershipUSA

Martin is a formerly incarcerated person, in a country where 70 million Americans have a criminal record on file. The JustLeadershipUSA founder raised his powerful voice to show the injustice of the system as well as the obstacles those who are cycled through the system face when they try to leave it behend.

“In my experience, people go to prison and they learn how to live without hope, opportunity and compassion so they can survive,” he said, but adding, “I met some America’s best and brightest while I was in prison and that’s not the conversation we tend to have about people who get locked up.”

Charles Nuñez, Community Advocate, Youth Represent

In 2007 he was a normal teenager who wanted to be a handsome ladies man and keep some money in his pocket while living with his parents and brothers. At a young age he found ways to make money by selling Pokemon cards, mix CDs, but in May 2007, a month before high school graduation, he made the biggest mistake of his life which resulted in an arrest for a violent felony. He was only 17 but charged as an adult. He spent almost six months at Rikers Island.

“Everything you heard is true, and more than likely worse. Things that happened there, I’m still coping with today. And these are things such as mentally preparing myself every time I wanted to call my family. They physically assaulted anyone who didn’t pay them to use the phone.”

He was strip-searched over 100 times. He said he thought his release date would be the best day of his life, but he had no idea that he was walking out of one nightmare into another as the criminal justice system continued to punish him in innumerable ways, including the threat of having his family evicted from their housing, the near impossibility of becoming gainfully employed and major barriers to accessing higher education.

“While other kids were getting letters of acceptance or denial, I was getting letters demanding my rap sheet, court records and details of the crime.”

Andrea RitchieSoros Justice Fellow, Co-author: “Say Her Name,” “Roadmap for Change” and “Queer (In)Justice”

Andrea Ritchie  coordinates the policing subgroup of the LGBT federal criminal justice working group. She gave a PHIL Talk that not only "said their names" and told their stories, but presented startling statistics on police brutality show gender and sexual identity also need to be front and center along with race and poverty in any discussion of criminal justice and selective enforcement.

“NYC Housing Police shot Eleanor Bumpers as they were evicting her for being a few hundred dollars behind in her rent,” said Ritchie. “If her story had become iconic in the same way King’s did, maybe in addition to talking about driving while black, we would also be talking about living while elderly, disabled, black and female.”

Special Performance

Liza Jessie Peterson, playwright-performer, “The Peculiar Patriot,” MAPP International Productions, is an actress, poet, playwright, educator and advocate. Liza has written several plays including her most recent one woman play The Peculiar Patriot, which embarked on a national prison tour where she performed in over 35 jails and penitentiaries across the country.


Headline Panel: Rethinking American Justice

In his opening remarks to Philanthropy New York members, Erik Eckholm, National Legal Correspondent, the New York Times spoke on his own introduction to these issues when he moved back to the United States some years ago to report on poverty and criminal justice. He learned that the actual rate at which Americans were incarcerated on any given day had jumped four times within forty years, between 1970 and 2010—a startling fact given that during the latter half of that period, crime rates dropped very steeply, yet the incarceration rate kept going up. Worst still was the racialized aspect. Eckholm discovered that a disproportionate amount of black males comprise the inmate population, with high school drop outs comprising 60% of incarcerated men.

Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” Civil Rights and Legal Scholar, and Senior Fellow at Ford Foundation, uses these two statistics as a launching pad for exploring the underlying factors for why mass incarceration exists in this form today. She describes how disinvestments in brown and black urban communities coupled with discriminatory policies punished black and brown urban communities for their own lack of opportunities. Throughout her remarks, Alexander asserted her claim that the American criminal justice system serves as a form of racialized social control for poor communities of color.

Drawing upon her arguments in “The New Jim Crow,” she exclaimed, “we declared a literal war on the most vulnerable communities. We slashed drug treatment and we invested billions of dollars in a prison building boom, and now here we are decades later with this system of mass incarceration that isn’t just a failed set of criminal policy—it’s the failure in our journey towards a multiracial, multiethnic democracy to truly treat all people of all colors as though their lives matter.” She then raised greater questions on what a compassionate society looked like, citing research showing that the most punitive societies were the most diverse, while the inverse was true for homogenous societies. She called on those with access to the levels to power to think about restorative justice rather than piecemeal reform, and to think about policies that centered compassion rather than punishment.  

Continuing on this thread, Hon. Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge, State of New York, Latham & Watkins LLP, Of Counsel and Chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, brought up how the national attention to Ferguson, Baltimore, and other tragedies humanized the victims of mass incarceration, and galvanized the momentum for change. As the highest Judge for the state of New York, he tried to set the table on criminal justice reform. Because he did not have to run for re-election, he was free to state his beliefs without worrying about political blowback, and he used his position to implement change from within the system.

Lippman declared that “this movement for reform to me is focused around particular criminal justice issues and then the overarching issues of mass incarceration and over-criminalization. And in this regard, I'm very pleased to be the chair of an independent commission on criminal justice incarceration reform here in New York City, appointed by the speaker of the city council and otherwise known as the Rikers commission.”

Nicholas Turner, President and Director, Vera Institute of Justice, echoed Judge Lippman’s assertion that a multilateral strategy is needed to tackle both individual problems within the criminal justice system and the structure of the system itself. He also agreed with Alexander’s critique of American Democracy and the role of race in our country, but countered with his own hopefulness in reform from the inside the system. Turner claimed that his work with the Vera Institute is inherently optimistic, as it is based on the belief that there are people like Judge Lippman who had their hands on the levers of power and share ambitions for true justice—they just need help taking those big ideas and making them concrete on a scale that improves the lives of thousands of people.    

He then advocated for the need for patience in the fight for large-scale reform efforts on criminal justice. Those who considered themselves social justice warriors shied away from tackling the ugliness that is criminal justice reform, leading to underinvestment in the sector for forty years.

“We won't roll back what we have created over decades, over centuries— it's going to take time and it's going to take growth and strength in the field,” stated Turner. “The biggest caution I can offer to those of you … is remain patient. Sometimes people in philanthropy come up to me and ask, ‘What is the biggest risk? Is it about making the wrong bet on a policy that we might work on?’ and I say no, one of the biggest risks is expecting outcomes too soon.”

The remainder of the panel focused on the strategies the philanthropic sector can employ to move the needle on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration, along with the most promising and transformative reforms the panelists have seen in criminal justice policy.

Table of Contents

Photo Gallery

See who was there and how your colleagues interacted with these leaders!

PHIL Talks

Special Performance

Headline Panel


Check out our Annual Meeting Program for an outline of the day's events and detailed speaker bios.

Full Program Video

Tweet Team

Thank you to our official "Tweet Team" and everyone who helped keep the conversation going on Twitter: 
Jennifer Arieta
Lori Bezahler
Kathryn Gonzalez
Christine Haran
Khrystyna Olenchuk
Lenore Neier