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Two Things We Need More of; No, Not Money or Time – COURAGE and a SENSE of URGENCY

I remember watching an interview with the great actor Tom Hanks, following the filming of Captain Phillips, a movie based on the true story of a merchant marine boat captain’s heroic actions following his ship being seized by pirates. During the interview, Hanks said he thinks about one-third of people are courageous, another third are cowards and the final third could go either way depending on leadership and circumstances.

I’ve been fortunate to have the experience of being inspired, awed even, by people who take big risks to promote the greater good, usually in the face of likely significant repercussions for them personally. Unfortunately, these instances of bravery stand out for me in large part because they happen so infrequently. What happens many times over, is people including those in leadership positions, going with the flow, being unwilling to make waves or backing off so quickly in the face of a challenge to the suggestion of bold action, one has to think the effort was just for show. I’ve been told to “lie down” more times than I can count, and it seems to me that those directives came when I believed we were being too meek and slow in our efforts to fix things.

In the American justice system, we have numerous huge problems that impact far too many Americans for us to be timid in our thinking or action. One in 100 Americans in prison or jail, millions of minor children (more than the number diagnosed with autism or juvenile diabetes) with a parent incarcerated which means significant lasting repercussions for the parent and child, young African American men without high school diplomas who are more likely to be under criminal justice supervision than to have a job, literally billions of dollars spent annually with just about everyone agreeing that incarceration is a lousy investment in so many cases. And while there are leaders who have stepped forward and made real impacts, there are many more who have paid lip service to taking decisive action to fix these shameful realities by pounding their fists and shouting while the camera is on, and then going back to business as usual.

There has been any number of high quality studies and comprehensive reviews completed on the impact of mass incarceration in the United States and laws like mandatory minimums and three strikes, but every day I read about yet another blue ribbon panel, commission or work group being formed to review yet another aspect of the inequity in the justice system. I want to be clear that I am a proponent of methodologically rigorous reviews, but I am not a proponent of continuing such efforts while failing to take the actions we need to take to change the things we know are broken, are not meeting their goals or are not supporting the fundamental values of the American justice system. I see us stuck in “analysis, paralysis” mode. It doesn’t take any moxie to call for a commission to be formed, but it does take courage to demand action to end practices and policies which do not meet their goals, but remain popular.

Words matter, but in the end actions matter far more. Let’s resolve to spend less time studying, and more time acting on the evidence we already have. And if we are going to talk, then we need to stop talking justice professional to justice professional or academic to academic. We need to be communicating directly and clearly with the citizens across our country, who see and feel the impacts of the choices we’ve made to combat crime and drug abuse.

Governing is about making choices. As Americans we each have a duty and responsibility to each other to ensure the choices made both on what issues are tackled and the specific ways they are addressed, are smart, fair and support the fundamental values of fairness, equality, and equity.

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