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What It Means to Reimagine Justice’

A conversation with Jeremy Travis about the new book, Parsimony and Other Radical Ideas About Justice and his vision for this innovative approach.

Panel of four people on stage discussing the new book release of Jeremy Travis.
Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures participates in discussion launching his new book “Parsimony and Other Radical Ideas About Justice” on February 8, 2023. Hosted by The Square One Project special guests included Bruce Western, Anamika Dwivedi, Carrie Johnson and Halim Flowers. (The Square One Project)

Throughout its history, the U.S. criminal justice system has been marked by racially inequitable and overly punitive policies. At a moment when leaders across the political spectrum are demanding a reckoning with the problems of policing, violent crime, and mass incarceration, a new book edited by Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, and Bruce Western, director of the Justice Lab and Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Columbia University, presents a less-is-more vision of justice, one that acknowledges the racial harms of the past, emphasizes human dignity, and shares power with communities to create lasting public safety.

Parsimony and Other Radical Ideas About Justice is composed of chapters from a range of influential contributors — scholars, activists, legal practitioners, formerly incarcerated people, and more — brought together by the Square One Project at Columbia’s Justice Lab. This includes Vincent Schiraldi, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction and Probation, who makes the case for closing youth prisons and reinvesting the savings into community programs; Amanda Alexander, executive director of the Detroit Justice Center, and Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, who detail promising public safety strategies that don’t rely on police; and Elizabeth Trosch, chief district court judge for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, who outlines a process for addressing racial harm from the bench and changing policy to prevent future damage; and many others.

For Travis, the collection reflects the work that he has supported over 50 years as a justice researcher and reformer. Across many books on justice policy, and in his service as president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, director of the National Institute of Justice, and deputy commissioner for legal matters for the New York City Police Department (NYPD), Travis has consistently sought to reshape the justice system for the greater social good. We sat down with Travis and talked about the current justice landscape, the thinking that went into this intriguing new volume, and how the parsimony principle can lead to a society that is both safer and fairer.

This conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Arnold Ventures

At a personal level, what brought you to the field of criminal justice?

It was totally accidental. I had no plans to work in the criminal justice field. I moved to New York in 1971 and took a position as a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society. I have, in one way or another, been involved in criminal justice ever since. What keeps me in the field is the importance of the issues that we grapple with, both for the people involved and for our democracy.

Arnold Ventures

How have your views on the system changed across the years and the different roles you’ve played?

My views have changed, and my interests have evolved, largely because of the positions that I’ve held. The world of criminal justice has also changed profoundly over the past 50 years. There’s a chapter in my life when my most urgent concern was finding effective strategies to reduce violence and save lives. When I was deputy commissioner for legal matters at the NYPD, I had a front row seat to the rapid crime increase of the late 80s and early 90s. Then, when I was at the National Institute of Justice during the Clinton administration, I oversaw funding for research on how best to respond to violence. Perhaps the most important change in the criminal justice world over my career has been the steady growth in the use of prisons as our response to crime from the early 1970s until roughly 2010. As that change was occurring, I found myself increasingly drawn to the issues of sentencing and reentry, and ultimately to understanding the impact of mass incarceration on our country. Today, with the Square One Project, I find myself thinking a generation down the road to imagine different ways that our society might respond to the twin challenges of crime and punishment.

Arnold Ventures

One thing that has happened during your career is a long-term decline in violence. How has that helped to make reforms possible? And how have recent crime increases challenged those reform efforts?

When crime rates came down dramatically, starting in the early 90s, some of the pressure was taken off, and there was more room to advance reforms to the justice system. But the flip side of that coin is that if crime rates are going up, people are more anxious to invoke the punitive responses of the state, and not necessarily in a thoughtful way. That’s what we witnessed during the tough-on-crime era that Bruce Western and I have called the era of punitive excess.” Those policies have often been a winning strategy for politicians running for office. But they have also been highly damaging to the country, highly damaging to communities of color that have struggled with both heavy policing and high incarceration rates, and simply an ineffective response to the crime that’s plaguing those communities. In the present moment, when crime rates are going up again, our first challenge is to resist the temptation of looking to the criminal justice system to get tougher. At the same time, we need to make investments in the social infrastructure that will keep crime rates lower and in crime reduction strategies that we know are effective — particularly those that do not rely on heavy use of the powers of the state.

Arnold Ventures

What is parsimony, and why did you choose it as the guiding principle for this book?

The parsimony principle requires that any exercise of coercive state power under the color of law that infringes on personal liberty should be limited to only what is necessary to achieve a legitimate social purpose. Any infringement on our liberty beyond this limitation is gratuitous and may constitute state violence. Parsimony is a well-established jurisprudential principle dating back centuries, but it has not been part of our modern justice discourse. I have been fascinated by this principle for a long time. When I was chair of the National Academies consensus panel on high rates of incarceration, and Bruce Western was the vice chair, we came to the realization that the phenomenon of mass incarceration needed to be understood not only in terms of its political and empirical dynamics, but also as a failure of the country to observe core values that should limit the use of prison. Those values include proportionality, human dignity and citizenship, social justice, and parsimony, all of which we cast aside as we ramped up mass incarceration. Bruce and I started to think about whether those core values could provide a starting point for a new discussion on justice, and that’s what led to the creation of the Square One Project. For more specific applications of parsimony, I recommend that folks look at the book chapter called The Power of Parsimony,” in which Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, and I interrogate three areas of criminal justice policy — long prison sentences, solitary confinement, and collateral consequences — and discuss the ways that they violate the parsimony principle.

Arnold Ventures

You and Bruce Western compiled a diverse set of thinkers to write these essays, representing radically different backgrounds. How did you select the authors and ideas you included? 

At the Square One Project, our core mission is to reimagine justice. In creating the Executive Session of Square One, Bruce and I wanted to have people around the table who thought about justice issues from a variety of perspectives that would cause some sparks to fly. There were prosecutors and sheriffs, people who have been incarcerated, scholars and activists, people who represent the far right and the far left of the political spectrum, twenty-nine people in all. Over the three-year lifespan of the Executive Session, all participants were challenged to write or co-author a paper to advance new visions of justice. As the Session came to an end, we looked at the papers that had been produced and thought, these really should be memorialized in a book. Fortunately, the New Press agreed. Bruce and I wrote the introductory essay to set the stage, and these papers are now book chapters. Any one of them could stand alone and prompt a really rich discussion about what it means to reimagine justice.

Arnold Ventures

Which ideas in the book surprised you the most? Is there anything that was completely new to you, even as someone who has spent so much time working in this world? 

I hesitate to pick out specific ones. But I would encourage people to read the Nneka Jones Tapia chapter on jails and prisons, with its new vision for holistic safety within those institutions. Read the Matthew Desmond and Greisa Martinez Rosas chapter, with its fresh ideas for rethinking narratives around immigration and the justice system. Read the powerful Tracey Meares and Arthur Rizer chapter on the presumption of innocence and reforming pretrial detention. Taken together, the chapters in this book create a vibrant chorus of new voices and ideas that we hope will stimulate further conversation about the state of justice in this country and where we can be a generation from now.

Arnold Ventures

As you transition into your new role at Columbia’s Justice Lab and consider both the work you’ve done at Arnold Ventures and the radical changes documented in this book, what energizes you the most?

It used to be a lonely pursuit to fundamentally challenge the way the justice system operates. But now there’s a lot of energy from a younger generation. There’s also a broad left-right coalition that is moving ahead, notwithstanding the current challenges, to prompt new thinking and reforms. My hope is that we move beyond tinkering around the edges. The Square One Project will continue to provide a platform and create a network for people who are doing that work. I’m an optimist by nature, but I’m particularly optimistic right now, because we’re coming out of an era when the criminal justice system was off the rails with mass incarceration, mass supervision, and the excessive exercise of state power. There’s also a powerful call for reckoning with the long history of racial injustice in the justice system. Tackling this challenge will be the next chapter of the Square One Project. It will take time to develop new approaches to safety and justice, it will take a lot of political organizing, but most importantly it will take new ideas, and that’s what this volume is contributing.

Arnold Ventures

I want to depart for a moment from our discussion of the book. In your personal life, when you’re not grappling with justice reform, what’s the most interesting thing you have done recently? 

Along with my wife and a friend of ours, I recently visited I’ll have What She’s Having,” an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society on the history of the Jewish Deli. It’s a cultural history, as well as a food and immigration history, and it looks at what the phenomenon of the deli has meant to communities and popular culture. We decided that we had to get good pastrami afterwards, so we went to Pastrami Queen on the East Side, considered by some to be the best pastrami in the city. It was a classic New York City deep dive.

Arnold Ventures

What have you been reading lately, justice-related or otherwise, that you would recommend to readers? 

I just finished Master, Slave, Husband, Wife, by Ilyon Woo. I have a long-standing interest in nineteenth century African-American history, and this book is beautifully written and rich with historical detail. It’s the story of an enslaved Black couple who made a perilous trip from Georgia through slaveholding states to reach freedom in the North, and all the incredible risks they took to avoid being detected. Eventually, they reached Boston and became active in the abolition lecture circuit. I find it useful to understand history through personal stories, which provide a window into a larger national narrative. This book presents an arc through this critical time in our country’s history, when the contradictions embedded within our founding, between liberty and slavery, came to the fore.