With CUSSW Playing a Key Role, Columbia University Commits to Criminal Justice Reform

Angela Davis poster

Internationally acclaimed social justice activist Angela Davis will return to Columbia University on April 5 to address the group that convenes for “Beyond the Bars: Moving Forward,” the third annual conference on criminal justice organized by students and faculty at the Columbia University School of Social Work  (CUSSW) in conjunction with their counterparts at other schools across the university and city.

The conference, which takes place April 5–6, is expected to attract hundreds of students and faculty from across Columbia University and New York City, along with leading criminal justice activists, many of whom were formerly incarcerated.

Davis served as keynote speaker at last year’s conference, where she attracted a standing-room-only audience. At this year’s event, she is joined in that role by TV personality Marc Lamont Hill of Teachers College, and Soffiyah Elijah, the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York.

The keynote addresses take place the evening of Friday April 5th at Lerner Hall on the Morningside campus, and on Saturday April 6th, the venue shifts to the School of Social Work Building, 1255 Amsterdam Avenue, for panels on topics such as solitary confinement, higher education in prison, alternatives to incarceration, stop and frisk policies, collateral punishments upon reentry, the paradigm of retribution and punishment, and a public health perspective on criminal justice.

Davis’s return marks an uptick in interest across campus on this important social issue. With support from Provost John Coatsworth, leading Columbia University faculty and community partners recently launched a cross-disciplinary initiative to generate solutions to America's broken system of mass incarceration. The launch event for this initiative, which took place in February on Morningside campus, was planned and organized by Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins, who direct the Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI) at CUSSW under Professor Nabila El-Bassel.

"The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prison population—reflecting policy outcomes that have had enormous multigenerational socioeconomic and racial consequences," said CUSSW Dean Jeanette C. Takamura. "Yet the inaugural event of this university-wide initiative represents a moment of real possibility. Because the system of mass incarceration is broadly recognized as a failure, significant change is possible."

Professor Eric Kandel, who was unable to attend the inaugural meeting but has offered his support to the initiative, agreed. "It would be wonderful, given the problems with the mental health system and the criminal justice system, if there were a comprehensive alternative to incarceration. This initiative will provide leadership,” said the prominent neuroscientist and Nobel laureate.

Soffiyah Elijah of the Correctional Association of New York, and one of this year's featured conference speakers, said she particularly supported the university-community collaboration that is central to the initiative:

It is extremely important for the university to support the growing momentum to bring about meaningful criminal justice reforms. This community collaboration has great potential and signals a significant step forward.

Geraldine Downey, Dean of Social Sciences and one of the meeting conveners, said: "The breadth and depth of interest among participants at the meeting provide an excellent foundation for developing the kind of problem-solving collaborations we hope that this initiative will facilitate.”

Key links: