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Q&A

It’s Big. It’s Ambitious. It’s Bipartisan. A New Organization Seeks to Propel Criminal Justice Reform

‘We are in an incredible moment of bipartisan agreement and cooperation on criminal justice,’ says Adam Gelb, founder of the new Council on Criminal Justice. ‘It’s a moment, but we want to make sure it’s not just a moment.’

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Over the past 30 years, Adam Gelb has written about, studied, and worked in the field of criminal justice, helping steer the ebb and flow of reform and researching the effects—good and bad—that new policies have had on the country.

Today, he’s taking those decades of experience and his connections with leading voices in the field and forming a new organization devoted to solving criminal justice problems in America.

The Council on Criminal Justice—a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank partially funded by Arnold Ventures—launched Tuesday with two significant goals: identifying the criminal justice policy challenges facing the nation and building consensus for solutions based on facts, evidence, and shared principles of justice.

“I think I am a bit of a rare bird in this field, having worked on these issues from so many different perspectives for such a long period of time now,” said Gelb, the organization’s founding president and CEO, a few days before the launch.

Among the stops in his career, Gelb has worked as a criminal justice reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staffer during the passage of the 1994 crime bill, a senior official to Georgia and Maryland governors, and—most recently—director of public safety initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, where he spent 12 years overseeing reform efforts in 35 states.

“I think that set of experiences has given me an uncommon understanding of the issues and kept me from becoming entrenched in any particular view,” he said. “I’ve worked at all different levels of government, nonprofits, newspapers, and politics. And so I come at this from the perspective of what’s best for the system and what’s best for the country, not what’s best for any particular stakeholder group.”

Council members include established criminal justice leaders and policymakers—including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Mark Holden of Koch Industries, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown—but also those who are often overlooked when it comes to reform: victims of crime, those who work in the corrections field, and formerly incarcerated people.

In a recent interview, Gelb shared how the Council on Criminal Justice came to be, what it hopes to accomplish, and why he believes now is the right time for a new national nonpartisan organization.

The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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Arnold Ventures

What do you hope the Council on Criminal Justice will achieve?

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Adam Gelb

Our big-picture goal is in our mission statement: We want to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and build consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all. There’s a more urgent piece as well, which is that we are in an incredible moment of bipartisan agreement and cooperation on criminal justice. We want to capture that consensus and lock it in and harness it to accelerate progress for years to come. It’s a moment, but we want to make sure it’s not just a moment. We’re trying to set a new expectation, a higher standard for how criminal justice policy is made, and to foster the relationships across the aisle and across the field that are critical to sustain momentum.

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Arnold Ventures

There are a number of national organizations that study criminal justice and push for policy reform. What makes this council unique?

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Adam Gelb

The council will have the expertise, the credibility, and the mandate to serve as a center of gravity for the field and an ongoing forum for consensus-building across all stakeholders and perspectives. That’s something that our field currently doesn’t have. There are lots of organizations that are doing incredible work to improve safety and justice, but to varying degrees, they don’t have the access or standing with policymakers that the council is designed to have. The council is built to have the intellectual horsepower and diverse expertise needed to translate research and data into policy and the clout to turn policy proposals into action. We’ll have policy muscle.

When you break it down, there are really three distinct elements: First, we are the only national invitational membership organization in the field. Council members are elected by the board of directors based on their track record of achievement and accomplishment in the field and their potential for leading the field into the future. Second, we’re the only nonpartisan think tank dedicated to criminal justice; we’re not part of a larger organization that comes to issues from an ideological perspective nor a place that does advocacy on multiple issues—we will be focusing exclusively on criminal justice. The third piece is that the membership structure will help us bridge divides and create lasting relationships and trust across all of the different parts of the criminal justice ecosystem.

Council members will be community-level practitioners, advocates, activists, researchers, professionals in law enforcement and courts and corrections, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels. We will also be including emerging leaders and people whose perspectives are often overlooked, such as directly impacted people [formerly incarcerated people and those who have been on probation or parole]. By putting such a broad spectrum of people in a room together, over and over, we hope to deepen the relationships that are key to progress. The council is founded on the notion that criminal justice policy needs to be driven by facts, evidence, and fundamental principles of justice, and we also realize that, at the end of the day, people have to trust the information they’re getting and trust the people they’re working with in order to move ahead.

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Arnold Ventures

What was the seed that started this organization? Was there one thing you can point to that sparked this concept?

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Adam Gelb

There was no single strike of lightning but a cumulative sense that the field had matured. In state after state, there was and is a real thirst for good, solid information about what actually works to reduce crime and incarceration. That eventually spun its way up even to Congress, where almost nothing else can get done because of partisan gridlock. I had the sense, as did many others working in the field for a long time, that this was the right idea at the right time. The fact that so many people of such high caliber and diversity have become part of our leadership is a testament to how far the field has come and the desire for an organization that can capture and sustain the progress we’ve made.

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Arnold Ventures

So did you just decide while you were working at Pew Charitable Trusts that, hey, there’s a need for this and I’m thinking I’ll leave here and start a new organization?

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Adam Gelb

That’s pretty much how it happened. It was an incredibly difficult decision. Pew is a fabulous place to work, and we had just gotten approval from the board to intensify our focus on probation and parole. Community supervision has been my home-base issue, the one I’m most passionate about and feel like there’s tremendous need for improvement, and so I was really excited about that work. At the same time, I had seen enough about where the country was with respect to wanting more criminal justice reform and had enough conversations with leaders in the field that I became convinced that this idea would not only be valuable but also viable. So I took the leap.

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Arnold Ventures

Criminal justice reform has been talked about for decades. Why is now the right time to launch this organization?

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Adam Gelb

In the last 10 years, there’s not only been this wave of reforms but also a recognition of the central role that criminal justice plays in our national well-being and our democracy. That it’s not a side issue, it’s a central issue. And it’s been at the top of the national radar before, but that was a generation or more ago. The last time this issue was at the top of the national agenda was in the late ’80s, early ’90s at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Since then, it’s fallen off the radar, and a good part of that was because crime did start to fall. At the same time, there was an explosion of research through the ’90s and into the new century that identified policies, practices, programs that actually work to reduce crime and recidivism in particular. Those two trends really helped open the door to the bipartisan approach that has come to dominate and define the field over the past several years now.

I don’t think that this kind of organization would have been possible even just five years ago. Criminal justice used to be one of the most divisive issues in American politics. Today there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that our system is not producing enough safety or justice and that we need deep reform. This doesn’t mean that everybody agrees about everything. There are going to be plenty of tough issues and conversations ahead. What we do share is a commitment to grounding criminal justice policy in facts and evidence and fundamental principles of justice and to doing the hard work it takes to tackle and overcome differences.

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Arnold Ventures

A key part of the council is establishing task forces that can provide the government with policy recommendations. How will these priorities and policy recommendations be established?

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Adam Gelb

They are going to be established by our Issues Committee, which is a joint committee of directors and trustees chaired by Gil Kerlikowske, who was a national drug czar and police chief in several cities. That committee will have the central role in determining what issues we focus on for research and the issues that will be the subjects of member task forces. They will be looking for issues that are important and urgent but also where there is a basis for consensus—issues that would be actionable and move things forward. It’s likely to be a mix of topics that already are bubbling in the body politic and could benefit from an extra nudge from a diverse group of respected experts and also topics that should be percolating but aren’t.

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Arnold Ventures

What are some of the criminal justice issues the council wants to address first?

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Adam Gelb

There are two buckets of things we plan to do: one is to construct model policies and the other is to set strategic priorities—where should the field put its focus, where should policymakers and practitioners and researchers, advocates, even funders, be paying the most attention and focusing their efforts?

Our first task force is on federal priorities. The question before the group is what politically viable steps can the federal government take at this juncture to improve safety and justice? So it’s very broad. It’s an opportunity for the group to point to top priorities in the federal criminal justice system, with other federal agencies, and with respect to federal assistance to state and local governments and communities. That task force is being chaired by former Georgia Gov. and Congressman Nathan Deal, who just left the governor’s mansion in January. We’re thrilled to have someone like Gov. Deal, who has championed criminal justice reform for so many years and has experience: He was a judge, he was a prosecutor, he was a state legislator before he went to Congress, and then came back as governor, so he is another person who has seen the system from all angles and has a deep experience.

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Arnold Ventures

How were members of the boards of directors and trustees chosen?

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Adam Gelb

I picked them with a tremendous amount of consultation and advice from dozens and dozens of people, particularly Laurie Robinson, our board chair. I’ve spoken with well over 200 people. We were looking for people who have done serious and amazing work to improve the system and people who are willing to come to the table and have honest conversations about the issues and not just dig in their heels with their preexisting positions or on behalf of the stakeholder groups they represent in their day jobs. That was the chief criteria.

Beyond that, we were looking for people who represented the many and diverse sectors of the system, including formerly incarcerated people and victims, program providers and advocates and activists on the ground, and researchers and others. We also have some representation from the business community and will grow to others outside the justice world who can generate even greater awareness of evidence-based solutions and greater demand for improvement.

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Arnold Ventures

The people on the boards are representative of all these different sectors. Am I right in understanding that the task forces will also be that way?

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Adam Gelb

Exactly. This will be a constant and repetitive exercise of putting together the right mix of perspectives and voices to ensure that the task force findings and recommendations are informed by the best available research but also by the best available experience on the ground. It will be a combination of staff and leadership figuring out what is the right mix of people or the perspectives and voices that need to be at the table for this conversation.

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Arnold Ventures

Council members include established criminal justice leaders and policymakers but also those who are often overlooked when it comes to reform: victims of crime, those who work in the corrections field and formerly incarcerated people. Why is it important to include those voices?

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Adam Gelb

Precisely because they have been overlooked and their experiences need to be brought to the center of the conversation. It is a central constituency for the organization. These are the people whose lives are most directly affected by the system, and the people running it and studying it and writing about it have got to incorporate their experiences and their suggestions into their work. By creating an ongoing forum and opportunities for directly impacted people and victims to interact with and build relationships with policymakers in Washington and state capitals, we are helping to build the proximity that’s needed if we are going to make the best decisions about how to improve the system.

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Arnold Ventures

The council stresses the importance of “sound data and research”—focusing more on policies grounded in facts and evidence than anecdote. Why is that so important?

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Adam Gelb

Because good intentions are not good enough. Over the past half century, the criminal justice landscape has been littered with programs and policies that seemed like a good idea but didn’t pan out. And when people’s lives are stake, you have to be able to innovate, but it’s too important to ignore the research that has over time identified approaches that really can work and those that really don’t and can be even harmful. There’s both an opportunity and an obligation for policymakers to learn what the research and data show and move the system in those directions.

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Arnold Ventures

During your time working at Pew Charitable Trusts, you oversaw reform efforts in 35 states, helping states advance policies in sentencing and corrections. What are some of the standout reforms you can recall, and do you hope that any of those achievements can be scaled federally?

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Adam Gelb

We’ve already seen that happen with the First Step Act—the big piece of federal legislation—in many ways. Texas in 2007 really got the ball rolling; it didn’t go deep in terms of statutory change but it plowed millions of dollars into incarceration alternatives. That resonated loudly in state capitals across the country because it was Texas, and nobody thinks that Texas would do anything that is soft on crime. As awareness of Texas grew across the country, other states embarked on their own reforms and it really then started to snowball, culminating in one of the most comprehensive packages, which was adopted in 2017 by one of the most conservative states, Louisiana.

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Arnold Ventures

Do you think that those reforms in those states can be broadened to be some of the policy recommendations you make federally?

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Adam Gelb

The task force is considering just that now. Georgia is probably the state that has most persistently, year after year, pursued additional reforms, and several of them have already found their way into the federal system, in part because of Gov. Deal’s leadership and because of Rep. Doug Collins from Georgia, who was on the Judiciary Committee and brought the Georgia reforms to the federal policy conversation.

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Arnold Ventures

We’re in an age of polarized politics. Why do you think calls for criminal justice reform have been one area where parties agree that something needs to be done?

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Adam Gelb

Because the problems are so compelling and the solutions are readily at grasp. There are three pieces to this: First, states like Texas have had such success in bringing down crime and incarceration at the same time. The second is there is strong public support for reforms across the ideological spectrum and includes some leading conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and the Kochs, who have embraced and championed reform, recognizing that the corrections system is a government bureaucracy, and just like any other government bureaucracy, it deserves skepticism and scrutiny.

And thirdly, there’s been tremendous growth in the research into what actually works to stop the cycle of recidivism. Forty years ago, when we started down the prison-building path and when prisons became the weapon of choice in the country’s fight against crime, we didn’t know very much at all about what reduces recidivism. Today we do. We don’t have any magic solutions, but we do have a robust body of research that identifies the policies and practices that actually help people turn their lives around and get on the right track.