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TFAS Hosts First Ever Symposium On Criminal Justice Reform

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Local and federal efforts to fight crime in the United States in recent decades have led to many unintended consequences including high levels of incarcerations, violations of civil rights and a cycle of crime.

This summer, TFAS set out to create an environment for education, open discussions and solutions surrounding criminal justice reform for its students and the legal community.

On July 9, The Fund for American Studies hosted it’s inaugural TFAS Symposium on Criminal Justice Reform for nearly 100 students in its undergraduate and legal programs as well as interns and young professionals in Washington, D.C. Made possible by the Charles Koch Foundation, the symposium exposed participants to lessons and intellectual discussions on the issues facing our country’s justice system.

“Through the TFAS Legal Studies Institute, we try to expose aspiring lawyers to cutting edge ideas in the law,” TFAS Executive Vice President Steve Slattery said. “Criminal justice has been an area where there’s been a lot of bipartisan discussion and ideas on how to reform, so we decided to take a day to focus on some of these issues.”

Students connect with expert speakers following one of their discussion panels.
Students connect with expert speakers following one of their discussion panels.

Understanding that criminal justice reform is an extremely broad field, with many issues facing diverse groups of people, TFAS looked at some the big picture topics in hopes to break down the problems and talk solutions.

Appropriately held at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, the day’s schedule was packed with panel discussions, networking receptions and a keynote luncheon with United States Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski.

During his keynote, “Myths about the Fairness of the U.S. Criminal Justice System,” Judge Kozinski painted an alarming picture of the criminal justice system by highlighting that much of the time, evidence and the judgement of prosecutors can be extremely faulty.

Kozinski shared that faulty evidence leads to a high number of prisoners who are unjustly sentenced for long periods of time.

“Part of the reason we have so many people in prison is once they’re convicted, the power of the system is to keep them there,” Judge Kozinski stated during his address.

The Honorable Alex Kozinski, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circut, speaks to guests during his keynote address at the symposium.
The Honorable Alex Kozinski, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circut, speaks to guests during his keynote address at the symposium.

Judge Kozinski was just one of nearly 20 expert speakers and panelists who participated in the symposium. Speakers hailed from reputable organizations including The Heritage Foundation, Institute for Justice, Koch Companies Public Sector, the Center for Criminal Justice Reform and more. Panelists included a past police captain, legal experts and people who have been directly impacted by the system.

“The day brought together some of the field’s leading experts and voices,” said Slattery. “We were able to find a lot of common ground surrounding the issues of criminal justice reform.”

Walter Godbee (IPVS 16), a student at the University of the Ozarks, especially enjoyed the panel discussion on “Sentencing, Incarceration and Reducing Recidivism.” Godbee says his favorite part of the day was hearing from panelist John Malcolm from the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. “He broke down the topics and got down to the crux of the issue that a lot of past criminals need help and not just punishment,” Godbee said.

TFAS student Walter Godbee (IPVS 16) speaks with panelist John Malcolm following the panel on "Sentencing, Incarceration and Reducing Recidivism."
TFAS student Walter Godbee (IPVS 16) speaks with panelist John Malcolm following the panel on “Sentencing, Incarceration and Reducing Recidivism.”

The sentencing panel also included legal experts Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Joe Luppino-Esposito of Right on Crime. These panelists showcased the unintended impacts of mandatory minimums in drug crimes. By showing examples where people were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, the panelists highlighted the importance of bringing back judges’ discretion in drug sentencing.

During the panel on “Criminal Intent, Prosecutorial Misconduct and the Proliferation of Criminal Laws,” former prosecutor Sidney Powell opened the students’ eyes to the vast power the federal government in misconduct cases by sharing examples from her recent book “Licensed to Lie.” The panelists who also included Craig Lerner, associate dean of the Antonin Scalia Law School and Shana-Tara O’Toole of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, showed that while most prosecutors are honorable, the ones who are not can use unethical and illegal tactics to win cases.

Later in the day, a panel on “Rehabilitation and the Road to Reentry” allowed students the unique opportunity to learn a new perspective on the 65 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record.

Students were addressed by Jesse Wiese of Prison Fellowships and Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, both previously incarcerated individuals who are now advocating for the rights of others. Along with Silas Horst, of Koch Companies Public Sector, these panelists shared the challenges people face after imprisonment and some of the steps they could take to combat these issues.

Panelist Jesse Wiese discusses reentry after imprisonment.
Panelist Jesse Wiese discusses reentry after imprisonment.

From job applications to changes in the world, the panelists gave an eye opening view of reentry into society. “We have a second prison in the U.S., it’s the cultural stigma that comes with life after prison,” panelist Jesse Weise said.

When sharing about the importance of empowering past prisoners, Pat Nolan reminded the students that “people have an intrinsic value,” and what they have done in the past shouldn’t define them.

Another particularly hot topic from the day was civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture allows police to seize any property they allege is involved in criminal activity. The idea that police can simply take people’s assets – like cars, boats and even bank accounts – really struck a chord with participants. Many students were shocked to learn that the state doesn’t have to prove anything to take people’s assets, but people must fight to get their property back, and that can take years of attorney fees.

During the civil forfeiture panel, speakers Rob Peccola of Institute for Justice, Jason Snead of Heritage and Leigh Maddox, a retired state police captain, led attendees in a discussion of recent cases where people’s civil liberties were violated. Maddox shockingly revealed that as a police captain in Maryland, incentives were in place for police to seize and sell criminal property as a means for revenue.

Sarah Murphy (CSS 12, LSI 16) was drawn to this issue as a potential career path. Murphy said learning about civil forfeiture helped her realized the human rights violations involved in criminal justice reform.

“This program has brought to light several issues for me that I didn’t think I would be interested in,” Murphy said. “Though the focus is on criminal law, there’s also been a focus on human rights issues today, which is what I’m interested in and the reason I went to law school.”

TFAS hopes to continue the Symposium on Criminal Justice Reform in years to come as a way to dive deeper into issues, discuss more challenges and solutions and inspire even more students to become advocates for criminal justice reform.

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