DC Justice Lab aims to deconstruct the criminal justice world starting with the laws that built it
The Des caught up with the founder and Executive Director of DC Justice Lab, Patrice Sulton, about the most pressing issues facing the district and what the lab is doing about it.
This Q&A is the first in a series of interviews with leaders in D.C. criminal justice. In this series The Des will shed light on the latest efforts of the D.C. criminal justice community and how our readers can get involved.
The Des: Why did you found the D.C. Justice Lab?
Sulton: The short answer is to change all of the laws. The longer answer is [that] I came out of directly representing people in criminal cases and civil rights cases and moved on to this really cool project to rewrite all criminal offenses and penalties [laws]. And [I] learned how much more effective it can be to redo an entire scheme at once and thought to myself well after I finish this project I would love to start an organization that's looking not just at this substantive criminal law in the middle, which I get excited and nerdy about, but other areas of criminal procedure policing, how we treat people who are being incarcerated or who are trying get their record cleared or who are on probation. And see, we could write those statutes really well and write them with people who were directly impacted by this stuff so that I could get sort of some of the gratification I was used to getting from direct services work and some of the like broader impact of doing the policy work.
My plan was to do that this year because that's when the criminal code, the revised criminal code was coming out. But last summer there was a moment kind of like no other that we've ever had where there was all of this ground swell of energy around really doing something transformative around policing and I had an interest in doing that. So I just sort of launched the organization early as this volunteer group that was going to like rewrite the laws around policing in D.C. and it turned out really well. I was very impressed with the proposals that we were able to come up with the students. What I've realized is we've had these huge two sets of proposals and then there is no criminal justice organization in D.C. to actually turn those proposals into policies and so I was more committed than ever to come out and run D.C. Justice Lab full time.
The Des: What do you think is the most pressing issue in the Washington D.C. criminal justice system?
Sulton: Because it's the biggest of all the projects: the idea of just completely changing how we define what constitutes an offense and how much punishment to assign. That one I think is the most pressing issue. I really have a place in my heart for this revised Criminal Code. I think my theory of change is that if you limit the authority of police prosecutors and prisons then that's the most transformative change, and it's the one that most closely aligns what's happening with what people’s actual moral beliefs are about punishment. And I think we have a real problem in each of the other areas as well.
The [D.C.] jail has been getting a ton of attention over the last few weeks even though we've been talking about it for so much longer than that and so in some ways that feels most urgent because it's prolonged torture, and there are like people in there that we can't get out that we can't help at all. And then on the policing side, it's just every day is a day that people are really in danger not of just fatal police shootings but of lots of civil rights violations. And I think that those small injustices or I shouldn’t say small injustices, but those like less notable injustices, really tear at the fabric of the community in a way that's hard to repair.
The Des: What is your organization doing to solve this problem?
Sulton: We've done deep dives into each of these issues and developed a number of proposals. So I’m the only person in the city who worked on the revised Criminal Code. What we're doing is trying to continue working with people who are directly impacted, not just to develop the ideas about what should happen but to actually make those things law. And so our role is to work with folks, draft a statutory language in a way that's really thoughtful and smart and get those changes enacted. And as we grow I'd love to see more and more outside of the legislative space, like there's a lot of policy that happens at the executive level but most of the changes that we're working on are our rules of law right now.
The Des: What is your advice for the average citizen, who has little or no experience with activism who want to get involved?
Sulton: Well it depends on what they are most most interested in in terms of the contribution they want to make. I haven't really turned down many volunteers. And what I use do is try to figure out, first of all what's the solution that you think has been overlooked or a problem that you this is overlooked and how do you want to make contribution. For example, my classmate who has a law background but really doesn’t know criminal law or criminal procedure stepped up and did all of the legal work needed to get D.C. Justice Lab off the ground. And to me that's a tremendous contribution to criminal justice reform even though the work that they were doing was helping us right contracts and bylaws and stuff.
I think that there are always ways to just say, “Hey, can I identify a group of people, whether it's a you know a formally organized organization like mine or if it's a loose association of people or just a group of protesters and see how I can support them.” Whether it's buying them some water bottles or writing their contracts or helping them draft the legislation they need or helping them convene a group of people to think through and work through things. All of those things are really helpful. I work with a ton of students and so the way volunteerism looks at D.C. Justice Lab is a little different than it is other places because I'm just a teacher by nature and I like it to be an opportunity for them to learn something new as well as opposed to other settings where you might volunteer.
The Des: What is your greatest achievement in criminal justice reform so far?
Sulton: I'm really excited about a few different things. I mean the easiest, most concrete thing for me to get my hands around is we drafted legislation that actually got introduced. So writing the bills, getting council members to see their merit and introduce them has been really exciting. The other is building an organization right that has legs and can work on criminal justice issues going forward that's independent of me as an individual advocate. And then changing the conversation around criminal justice reform. We've got huge pushes on what public safety should look like, and then changing the conversation about who should be at the table and who should be driving the change.