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Will Millennials Embrace Prison Reform?

A couple of Harvard guys aim to find out.

Instead of spending their gap year zip-lining in Costa Rica or rail-passing across Europe, Scott Johnston and Pete Davis have decided to spend the year between their Harvard graduation and law school mobilizing students in support of prison reform. Using small grants from the Ford Foundation and other benefactors, the pair plans to visit ten campuses in the deep South to recruit “student ambassadors,” to stage events where former prisoners talk about the obstacles they faced returning to freedom, to create a Story-Corps-style bank of incarceration stories, and to build a “millennial prison reform agenda” for 2016. They held their first campus event last month at Georgetown University.

“Millennials – a generation free from the baggage of old ‘tough on crime’ debates – have attitudes especially receptive to the project of revitalizing the rehabilitative mission of prisons,” they wrote in their mission statement. If the generation emerging into adulthood is introduced to the failings of American prisons, the two men believe, it can do for prison reform what it has helped to do for marriage equality and Dream Act immigrants.

They talked with TMP’s Bill Keller. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Marshall Project: What got you started on this issue?

Pete: We noticed that this was not just another disheartening issue that could add to the national cynicism. This actually was starting to get traction as something that could change because of its bipartisan nature. When you see that Ken Cuccinelli1 and Newt Gingrich are posting op-eds about prison reform and groups like Right on Crime and libertarians and evangelicals are coming on to prison reform…suddenly in a time of congressional gridlock this might actually be something that we could have an effect on.

Ken Cuccinelli1Cuccinelli, a former attorney general of Virginia, was a Tea Party-backed candidate for governor in 2013. He lost to Terry McAuliffe.

Scott: I think it’s pretty typical of millennials to be socially committed but to have a little bit of difficulty figuring out which of those social problems is the one that they want to commit to. There’s the environment and there’s campaign finance reform and there’s gun control. I’ve been interested in prisons for a long time. My mom is Cuban, and my grandfather was put in prison in Cuba. A big influence was studying with Bruce Western2.

Bruce Western2A Harvard professor of criminal justice policy and an advocate of prison reform.

So the plan is, you pile into a van and visit campuses in the deep South, where you will stage events focused on the problem of reentry?

Pete: We want to make prison reform the millennial issue for the 2016 elections. Usually millennials get one or two nods during election season – “Oh, this is a youth issue” – and we want prison reform to be one of those issues. And the way that’s going to happen is by having a policy agenda and having enough millennials who believe that agenda is theirs, and that it’s worth voting and questioning candidates when they come to campus. We plan ten campus events – two per state in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana – where we bring in students, formerly incarcerated people, professors, legislators and prison groups, all talking and sharing. And we expect an agenda to emerge.

In your mission statement you say your generation is “especially receptive to the project of revitalizing the rehabilitative mission of prisons.” Why is that?

Pete: In the 80s and early 90s there were stories of, “Oh, there are roving bands of teenagers who are coming to attack you.” When the Omnibus Crime bill passed in 1994 it was basically the high tide of public fear. In 1994, I was four years old. By the time we were starting to listen to politicians – 2005 – the crime rate had declined sharply. I don’t think a Willie Horton ad would be as useful any more because crime is not so much in the public consciousness.

But why should millennials care enough to get involved in this, of all causes?

Pete: Hundreds of thousands of our neighbors who are not very different than ourselves are experiencing their twenties locked in a rusted system failing at its rehabilitative mission. Being passively tolerant is not enough to be just. It’s time we look behind the curtain and apply the generational creativity we have spent updating iPhone apps towards updating our prison system.

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Harvard is a pretty rarified sample of young America. Do you worry at all that this will come across as a couple of children of privilege preaching to the unenlightened?

Scott: Yes, we were really nervous about that…

Pete: That’s exactly why we’re designing this as a conversation. We’re not starting with an agenda...We can take the hits of, “Why should you be the MC’s of this conversation,” but we’re not going to come and tell you the content you have to believe.

Scott: We’re creative, we’re young, we’re energetic. We went to Harvard, which, whether we deserved it or not, opened up a lot of doors for us. We can make something happen on this issue.

You make a point of saying in your material that you, Scott, come from a conservative Mormon background and you, Pete, come from a progressive Catholic background.

Pete: Scott’s dad listened to Rush Limbaugh in the car as they were driving to school. My mom has MSNBC on three televisions when I go home.

Scott: The reason we bring that up at all is that we want people to see, even in the fact that the two of us are doing this together, that there are people on both sides of the aisle who care enough about this issue and are outraged enough to do something.

Pete: It’s not that we got lucky and found a conservative Mormon who supports prison reform. It’s because he’s a conservative Mormon that he supports prison reform.

Scott: There’s a passage in the Book of Mormon that says to follow Christ you have to “bear one another’s burdens…mourn with those that mourn…and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” As Mormons, every Sunday we renew our commitment to do that, and I take it seriously.