Chung kicked off his talk by describing his first job as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. He explained that he wanted to “do good” in the criminal justice system, but frequently saw examples of unfair or unjust outcomes. He also witnessed the consequences of the lack of trust between the justice system and communities it serves.
He described how his experience as a prosecutor has informed his current work at American Progress, focusing on reducing the footprint of the criminal justice system, making it fairer, more equitable, and more effective. In particular, Chung talked about the much-needed emphasis on work to prevent people from getting into the system in the first place, rather than waiting until they are already in it.
Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota was cited by Chung as a bold reformer in the justice system and an active participant in American Progress’ “Mayors for Smart on Crime” initiative. On Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Mayor Carter proposed a $1.5 million-dollar plan to curb violence without adding police officers. The plan’s goal is to improve streets, community spaces, and youth social services. Chung noted that this is one of the first times he’s ever seen a public official redirect resources from law enforcement to community violence prevention efforts.
Chung believes that empowering communities to participate in anti-crime efforts is how we can diminish the role of the justice system and what will help keep youth and many others out of the system. By solely focusing on those who have been granted second chances or who have reentered the system, the system cannot change. Mr. Chung explained that we must focus on the inputs into the system to change the system.
At the end of Chung’s talk, attendees engaged with him and each other in a discussion of the issues and asked several questions including how non-lawyers could get involved in advocating reform. Chung noted that there are at least 4 to 5 independently elected or appointed public officials involved in the various levels of the criminal justice system - including police chiefs, governors, district attorneys, sheriffs, etc. - and that local elections do matter in influencing the system. To help communities prevent their members from committing acts of violence and entering the system, Chung said that we must ensure that there is investment into our communities. Attendees added that a key component of the investment must focus on mental health problems. Prisons and jails should not be treated like mental health centers; many inmates would benefit greatly from being treated in the community. The group also discussed restorative justice efforts and how to scale them up to a more system-wide level.
For more information about American Progress’ work on criminal justice reform, including a soon to be released book of essays written by both currently and formerly incarcerated individuals titled What We Know, sign up for the Smart on Crime email list today.
Appleseed wishes to thank Ed Chung for sharing his thoughts and knowledge with our supporters from around the DC metro area who attended this event. Please stay tuned to Appleseed’s website to learn about future events, and subscribe to our email list to receive updates about our work: http://bit.ly/AppleseedSubscribe.