Greetings, Reality-Based Community readers. My name is John Maki, and I’m an Illinois-based criminal justice policy wonk. I asked Mark if I could blog at RBC, so I could reflect on my recent experiences in criminal justice policy and government. I just finished up a four-year term as the Executive Director of the State of Illinois’ public safety research and grant-making agency, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. During that time, I played a key part in developing state and local criminal justice policy, including helping to coordinate a state commission dedicated to reducing Illinois’ prison population by 25% by 2025. In my job, I also oversaw state and federal public safety grant making. This included an unprecedented expansion of victim services funding under the federal Victims of Crime Act formula grant, which saw Illinois’ award increase from about $17 million in 2014 to about $77 million in 2015 and to about $127 million this year. Before I came to state government, I worked in criminal justice reform. This was primarily through my role as the Executive Director of the John Howard Association, an Illinois’ based non-profit that monitors prisons and jails and advocates for reforms that improve conditions of confinement and reduces the reliance on incarceration.
In recent years, I’d argue it’s been the best of times and the worst of times to work in criminal justice reform and government. On the one hand, it’s remarkable to think about how popular criminal justice reform has become—or even to reflect on the mere fact that the once lonely and often maligned field of criminal justice reform can be described as popular. This has been a welcome development, as it’s helped bring about some positive changes, stopped even more bad ideas from becoming law, and highlighted the harm overly punitive criminal justice policies have caused people and communities.
On the other hand, as support for criminal justice reform has increased, I think there has also been a clear and growing sense among a broad and diverse group of people that the criminal justice system and government in general are broken, and that the overall trust that people need to have in these institutions for them to work effectively is fractured. In many ways, this cynicism is the just result of the history of government and politics and their vicious intersection in the criminal justice system. But the sources of this cynicism are also complex, particularly in our current political environment which seems constituted by regular assaults on the integrity of government. While the distrust people feel toward the criminal justice system and government in general is thus understandable and legitimate, I think it’s also deeply troubling. And I’m worried that if it continues to grow, it could undermine the goals and achievements of criminal justice reform, as it participates in the general erosion of trust that is essential to our governmental institutions and democracy.
In my work, I’ve always believed that criminal justice reform was important not simply because it was dedicated to improving our overall response to crime, but also because it provided a powerful way to think about and reform government itself. This belief stemmed from a deeper set of assumptions. I believed that the biggest problems with our criminal justice system stemmed from more essential problems that often plague government—including the tendency for government to operate without clear purpose and vision, oversight, and democratic accountability. As an advocate, I’ve tried to design and promote policies that address these issues, and as a government employee, I’ve tried to implement and operationalize these kinds of policies in the agency I led. After 10 years of this work, my colleagues and I have accomplished most of the goals that I hoped I’d achieve, but I left my job with a strong feeling that there are fundamental questions and problems that my efforts and the way I have conceptualized my work couldn’t touch.
It’s difficult to reflect on something while you’re doing it. In my experience, this is particularly true about working in government, which seems more suited to implementing or testing an idea or theory than it is for questioning the significance of what you’re doing. So, over the last two years, I’ve kept a journal where I’ve jotted down thoughts, questions, and problems that grew out of my work in criminal justice, victim services, and government. My goal was to think through these ideas after I left my job. I’m now hoping I can find some clarity in fleshing them out on RBC. And while my work has been rooted in Illinois’ government and politics, I hope together we can glean from it some general insights that you’ll find interesting too.