30 July, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

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Interview with President of the Vera Institute of Justice, Nicholas Turner

“New York is the American miracle story.”

Nicholas Turner is the President of the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization which has long been at the forefront of criminal justice reform across the United States, and is distinctly focused on securing equal justice, ending mass incarceration, and strengthening families and communities through expanding access to healthcare, keeping minors out of prisons, and the elimination of inmates in isolation from their loved ones during incarceration. Nicholas has worked with the institute for 16 years, and has been chiefly responsible for a myriad of initiatives including Vera’s state sentencing and corrections initiative, Vera’s domestic violence projects and the creation of its youth justice program. 

You can watch the full interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mi5MugQUdA

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

JORDAN: New York City is experiencing a significant rise in crime. Through the end of 2020, murders were up 41% over 2019 and 53% over 2018. Shooting victims were up 103% over 2019 and 109% over 2018. What explains this dramatic rise in violent crime during the pandemic? 

TURNER: Jordan, it’s a great question. Let me set a little bit of context first. Both of the phenomena you talked about are significant, and we should be concerned about them. Still, there’s also been a fair amount of hyperbole and attaching these phenomena as consequences of certain things, which is just factually incorrect. We should understand the increases in the last two years as substantial increases, but overall violence, homicides, and shootings in New York are at historic lows. If you look at the mid-1990s until now, homicide is down over 80%. Shootings are down a similar number, and almost all classes of crime are down significantly. We’ve seen a huge reduction in crime in this city for the past 30 years, and it’s in that context that we’ve seen an upsurge in shooting, violence, and homicide. Some people say that “it’s the highest point in the history of the city,” and that’s simply not true. It is something to be concerned about, however. The answer to your question is a really tough one. There are all sorts of explanations, and obviously, the one that’s staring us in the face is the pandemic’s impact. If you think about the disparate impact of the pandemic’s hardships – death, sickness, loss of jobs, loss of incomes – those have typically been worse in Black and Brown communities. Imagine being in a community where almost all households have seen a huge loss of income. The combination of hardship, loss of income, disruption, loss of hope has different impacts in different places. There have been other concerns about the police retreat after the death of George Floyd and the protests. One theory that has not been supported by the data is that reforms that were put in place dramatically reducing the use of money bail spurred an increase in shootings and homicides. There’s a lot of debate about it, and we don’t really know, but the two things I talked about are probably the predominant forces. 

JORDAN: I’m glad you brought up the possible retreat of the NYPD and the discussion around the reforms put in place last year – we’re going to get to both of those later. Before we do, given the rise in violent crime relative to 2018, there’s been some debate on whether now is the right time to be focused on reform or on bringing that level of crime back down. What’s your take on that? Which should we be prioritizing (if either)? 

TURNER: Well, I think it’s important to do both. That question presupposes that you cannot address violence through any other means besides using the tools we’ve used for decades – aggressive policing and aggressive incarceration. However, there’s substantial literature and experience that public safety is delivered through other means – investment in civic institutions, investment in violence interruption – I think the answer is “both-and.” How do we seek to provide true community safety through means that aren’t just totally reliant on law enforcement? We’ve learned through decades of law enforcement being the answer that it undermines individual, family, and community stability. It further increases communities’ distress, and we need to be thinking broadly about other strategies to reduce violence. What does a limited role for police look like, and what else do we need to be investing in smartly to reduce violence? 

JORDAN: Right, we shouldn’t be treating the two as mutually exclusive. It should be a joint effort – reforms and community improvement will subsequently bring down crime. 

TURNER: That’s exactly right. 

JORDAN: As part of that initiative, the NYC State Council and NYC State Legislature have reduced offenses for “public order crimes” – public urination, public drinking, these are no longer going to be prosecuted. According to DA Cy Vance, even turnstile jumping is now a “crime of poverty.” Based on your answer to the previous question, I’m assuming these initiatives help reduce criminal activity and rebuild cracks in communities that formed due to aggressive policing and overenforcement of relatively harmless crimes. 

TURNER: I think that’s right. One of the things we need to understand is that there’s been a tendency towards overcriminalization and overenforcement – what I’d describe as the harmful hand of law enforcement. I’ll give you a national statistic that provides an example. Every year there are 10.6 million arrests, and when you disaggregate them, you see that 80% of those arrests are for crimes related to homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health. In contrast, only 5% are related to violent crime. We have the police responding to many things, and what we’ve seen over the past few years in New York is that arrests, criminal summons’, and stop and frisk have all dropped. We’re seeing a retreat from the conventional American law enforcement response. That’s all in the context of crime overall going down, with homicides and shootings as an exception. It’s essential to think about how police can surgically respond to things that they ought to respond to but stay out of situations that don’t require two cops with sidearms to address. If you think about Eric Garner’s death in 2014, everyone remembers him saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” when he was wrestled to the ground. However, one of the first things he said was, “why are you always on me?” One of the cops who approached him interdicted him because he was allegedly selling single cigarettes. We criminalize a lot of conduct and ask the police to intervene on things they shouldn’t be involved in – in New York, that trend is starting to get better, and we need to keep seeing that. 

JORDAN: Absolutely. Following that trend, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea disbanded undercover units that were part of “stop and frisk” and a big part of the city’s progressive policing policy following 9/11. Was that move a good thing fundamentally, and will it lead to a reduction in crime overall? 

TURNER: What you’re talking about is the disbanding of the street crimes unit, the “jump out” unit, which was responsible for shootings of unarmed people and a disproportionate level of violence, and I think that was proper. Many people are asking now, who is better suited to respond to homelessness or a public mental breakdown? Why do we call the cops instead of investing in response teams trained in behavioral health? Why do we have police officers in schools instead of other modes of discipline? There’s a more extensive conversation about whether we can find non-police actors better positioned to respond to conduct of concern. The definitive answer to that is yes, and we’re starting to see that in New York and a lot of other cities around the country. Charlottesville has taken police out of schools. Oakland and Berkeley have taken police off of traffic duty. There’s no reason for cops to be doing either of those things. You’re on to a significant point about reducing police jurisdiction and ensuring that when we call the police, they are the appropriate first responders. 

JORDAN: Right, the NYPD is not a blanket solution. We need to be looking at what groups are actually qualified to handle these situations.

TURNER: Frankly, it’s a hard thing for the public to get their heads around. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the only way to deliver public safety is to call 9-1-1 and ask the police to come, but we know that there are better-positioned responders and that we’re asking the police to do things they’re not trained for. 

JORDAN: An interesting aspect of this conversation is that some minority communities are expressing fear over where this might lead. Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams has expressed concern that his constituents aren’t getting the police response that they deserve and have requested. Does this conversation have the potential to disproportionately impact minority neighborhoods negatively? 

TURNER: It’s one of those things where both can be true. We rely on the police to do too much, and often police underserve Black and Brown communities in various ways. Police can underserve with a slow response time, a lack of courtesy and respect, negative and impersonal interactions. Again, there’s a tendency to quickly go to the argument of “well, people in Brownsville are complaining about shootings; therefore, it makes no sense to think about reform the way police enforce in that neighborhood.” That’s skipping a bunch of steps. The right path to take is to say: “we hear your concerns about the need for service and response from the government. What is the right range of responses? What should the police be responding to, and what should they stay out of? Should we invest more in violence interruption? Should we invest more in things that help communities to thrive (summer jobs for kids, stable housing, streetlights, etc.)? Do we need different responders for when someone is decompensating or needs a shelter bed? The answer to all of these is yes! People need to disaggregate and not immediately go to the argument of “Black and Brown folks have voiced concern about the violence, so it simply doesn’t make sense for us to think about curtailing police response and creating new responses.” We have to be more sophisticated than that. 

JORDAN: One thing that’s become very apparent to me during this conversation, and as I’ve done my own research, is that people on both sides tend to apply blanket policies and statements when this is a much more nuanced issue. On one side, you have people advocating for the abolition of police or a flat budget cut and leave it at that, and similarly, on the other side, people are saying, “no, we need police; it’s the only way to solve crime, etc.” The reality is this is a much more sophisticated issue which warrants a sophisticated response. Moving away from the police, let’s get into active reforms for a bit. Both the city and state of New York have instituted a myriad of reform measures over the past five years, such as the Right to Know Act, Youth Engagement Track, Raise the Age Law, shuttering state correctional facilities, etc. These reforms don’t seem to have done a lot to stop violent crime. Granted, that is not their sole purpose, but many people believe that a focus of criminal justice reform should be ensuring that crime overall, but especially violent crime, goes down. In your mind, how could these reforms be improved to properly address this new issue? 

TURNER: That’s a great question. In the layperson’s mind, the expectation is that long sentences or a high likelihood of incarceration deters criminal activity. There’s actually very little evidence to support that. We need to look at it differently. Sometimes people think about these things as binaries – if we reduce the size and impact of the justice system, crime will go up (like a seesaw). One of the things we are rarely talking about is the cost of the system. The Brennan Center for Justice put out some important research that shows that if you’re an individual convicted of a misdemeanor, your lifetime earnings expectancy drops by 16%. If you’re convicted of a felony, your lifetime earnings expectancy drops by 22%, and if you’ve spent time in jail, your lifetime earrings expectancy drops by 51%. I use all of that to say that historically, we haven’t had a good conversation about the carceral system, violent crime, and the carceral system’s cost on an individual and their family. What does it mean for communities that are depleted by this system? I want to push back on the notion that this is binary and say that we need to look at it with a much more complex lens. Even if one were to stipulate that the criminal legal system produces safety benefits, what are the burdens that it produces, and do we merely rationalize those away? That’s something too few people pay attention to. 

JORDAN: I totally agree. You’re the first person I’ve heard throughout the past year talk about the extended impact of being incarcerated, and that surprises me, as that’s one of my most pressing concerns. The justice system should not be set up to punish those who do their time and their families. That seems like a huge problem I haven’t heard anyone talk about. Most discussions are focused on police and very immediate criminal justice. 

TURNER: I’m glad to hear you say that. In this country, over 2.5 million kids have an incarcerated parent. It got to be so significant that even Sesame Street created a character to speak to them. There’s a lot of data on the economic burdens that level of incarceration imposes on the parents and families left behind. We often don’t talk about that at all, and part of it is because there is a stigma associated with it. People are ashamed of the conduct of a family member or just don’t want to talk about it and so that private pain never surfaces. The last thing I want to say is that the way the media and public officials tend to speak about these matters is that they oversimplify the narrative. It’s always been a story of cops and robbers, that this is how you respond to disorder in cities or concern about drugs. The narrative has always been to ratchet up the response. People are very much conditioned to only see it in that way. 

JORDAN: Yes, and I think it’s really troubling that that’s the way we portray a much more complex struggle. We’ve talked a lot about the wave of reform following George Floyd’s death, and I just wanted to get your opinion on something. Governor Cuomo signed 10 police reform bills into law, which covered a massive range of different areas. Simple question first: have these initiatives worked? 

TURNER: No. Too soon to tell, but my professional suspicion is that these reforms themselves will not be sufficient. Everything Governor Cuomo has pushed through, and the requirements that localities need to produce all operate from what I’d describe as “institutional reform.” It assumes that the institution that needs reform is policing. By hiring better people, training more effectively, shaping a better culture around police, create real consequences for inappropriate police action, the problem will disappear. It’s all about making the machine better and then establishing some degree of accountability after the fact. The argument I would make is that instead of “defund the police,” I tend to think of it more as “divest and invest.” We require systemic reform, not institutional reform. It’s not just policing. It’s about the jurisdiction’s approach to delivering community safety. As a general rule, we’ve asked the police to respond to everything, violent crime, school safety, homelessness, and mental breakdown alike. What we’ve done is overinvest in an entity with a broader jurisdiction than it needs and underinvest in tools that could be more effective and less lethal – tools like public health responses to mental health/substance crises, a different approach to school safety, enforcing traffic laws differently. We need to shrink the jurisdiction of the police and invest in other things. That’s what Cuomo didn’t do. He said, “here’s the box. We’re going to reform within the box,” and I’m saying that we need to look at the whole complex. New York City spends $11 billion per year on policing. If you look at the 75 biggest cities around the country, they’re spending 25-30% of their annual funds on policing. That’s an incredible amount of money to spend on policing. If we think about how to deploy those resources better, especially in a post-pandemic period of austerity, I think we’re having a very different conversation. 

JORDAN: Definitely. It’s not about sticking with one machine, but instead, we should be building others better suited for the times we’re in and the problems New York faces. Last question. In a matter of months, New York will know its next mayoral administration. They won’t take office until January 2022, but for all intents and purposes, come June, we will know who the next mayor will be. Where would you like their focus to be within criminal justice reform – what should they be principally concerned with? 

TURNER: People are alarmed about the increase in homicides and shootings for the past two years, and we undoubtedly need to get a handle on that, but New York’s story is one where we’ve massively reduced the use of incarceration and massively reduced crime at the same time. It is the American miracle story. It’s quite contrary to what most people think happens. The next mayor needs to continue in that direction – shrink our overuse of police enforcement and incarceration. Reimagine would be the first piece, I would say. Public safety cannot just be a law enforcement exercise. Think about what you need to invest in to create genuine community public safety. Reinvesting in those efforts we’ve discussed earlier is the second thing. These are two critical aspects of what the next mayor needs to do, and then they also need to think about common-sense things like how do you help people thrive post-incarceration. The city can be doing much more to help these people reintegrate with the necessary skill and the necessary support. Helping returning citizens become productive and thriving members of their communities is another important piece. 

JORDAN: You called New York the “American miracle story,” and I think that’s a wonderful note to end on.

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