ClassACT, as part of its Justice & Civic Engagement Initiative, hosts this examination of one of the hot-button issues of our time: understanding racism in the criminal system and ending mass incarceration and police abuse of BIPOC communities. The panel has voices deeply familiar with community activism, prosecution, policing and public defense. Panelists include Rick Jones, Executive Director of JusticeAid’s 2021 grantee partner, NDS PACE; Gina Clayton-Johnson, Executive Director & Founder, Essie Justice Group (JusticeAid grantee partner in 2018); Christy E. Lopez, Law Professor, co-leader of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law; and Jason Williams, newly elected Orleans Parish District Attorney and former City Council President, New Orleans, La. Classmate Sylvester Monroe, former Washington Post journalist and author, will serve as the moderator.
Each year, JusticeAid, a ClassACT multi-year sustained collaborative partner, shines a spotlight on timely issues related to civil and human rights. “Following the events of 2020, police accountability and community empowerment demand a national conversation," explains JusticeAid co-Founder & CEO, our classmate, Steve Milliken. "This year we are raising money to support the expansion of NDS PACE, which is working on the front lines to address these issues."
To prepare our audience for this important conversation, we reached out to Steve, who connected us to Rick Jones, who heads the NDS PACE program (Police Accountability/Community Empowerment). Classmate Dick Friedman interviewed him for this article.
Rick promises that attendees will get a thorough look at the state of justice—and injustice. “This is an opportunity for folks to hear from a good mix of people all along the spectrum of the criminal legal system,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to do a deep dive on the state of policing in America, and also a way to understand how communities can take a more proactive role and be empowered in terms of self-determination and figuring out how they want to have public safety operate in their communities, all of which are the hallmarks of the NDS PACE program.”
Jones sees JusticeAid’s support of NDS PACE as a worthy follow-up to JusticeAid's focus on voter suppression in 2020. “JusticeAid was right on the money last year to be supporting election protection,” he says. "To see how dramatically important that protection was, particularly in a place like Georgia—we’re already seeing the manifestations of this.” He also points to how 2020 “really changed the landscape in lots of different ways. It really underscored the inequities, the disparities, the injustices. If you look at the communities that were the most heavily impacted by COVID, they were primarily communities of color and communities that were poor. The year 2020 and the pandemic really put a spotlight on the injustices of our society and of the legal system.”
In fact, there was a synergistic effect—a deadly one. Says Jones: “If you’re arrested and you’re poor and you’re black, the likelihood is that you’re going to have bail set on you and the likelihood is that you’re going to be unable to make that bail. Because of the situations in jail and your inability to protect yourself from that virus, it might very well be a death sentence. So we really began thinking about the business of compassionate release, how to safely take people out of the prisons and prevent prisons from being super spreader sites.”
With this year’s initiative, JusticeAid is returning to its roots in public defense. “NDS has always been about realizing and maximizing the underutilized and undervalued power of public defenders,” says Jones. “I think we have a different landscape now. You wouldn’t have the problems we have now if you had a strong and robust public defense program from the beginning. Prosecutors and police have been able to roam unfiltered and unfettered. Now with the NDS PACE program, we can try dismantling those systems in our society that perpetuate these inequalities.”
What does Jones seek from ClassACT? “Time and treasure!” He responds.
“For us to be successful, we need to have the resources. This is a 10-year, $10 million enterprise. Plus, we need people who have particular connections and specific talents—[especially] those who can help us strategize and plan.”