Last week, in my annual message, “In Defense of Nuance,” I referenced New York City’s important effort to close Rikers Island, the scourge of America’s biased, broken criminal justice system. Over the past few days, I have heard a number of responses that merit acknowledgment. Your points of view are important. Your care and commitment to our shared work is evident, appreciated, and indispensable.
The Ford Foundation is unwavering in its commitment to ending mass incarceration. We envision a world where people are not locked up in cages, treated inhumanely, and stripped of their dignity. To work toward this goal we support a range of initiatives and organizations working to eradicate the harmful footprint of mass incarceration and protect and promote the humanity and dignity of all people.
Our grantees are on the frontlines of criminal justice reform advocacy, working to usher in bail and sentencing reforms, to lift up the communities most affected by mass incarceration, to shift government investment from carceral systems to community-based solutions, to expand diversion and restorative justice programs, and to ensure that people returning home have both the rights and assistance they need to thrive.
As a black man with many family members who have been ensnared in the system, I know, personally, that the distance between justice and injustice is perilously, painfully short—especially as a result of entrenched discrimination and economic inequality. I am proud of our work—all of it—to reform a discriminatory system that treats millions of people so unfairly. I marvel, with appreciation for the partnership of many, at how far and how fast we have moved our cause forward.
Through the good work of people inside and outside of government, the jail population in New York City is now well below that of most large cities in the United States. However, there is more to be done. We believe the city’s leaders must affirmatively commit to closing Rikers and to lowering the jail population beyond its stated goal of 4,600 beds. They should prioritize significantly more positive investments in our communities to provide opportunities for people to thrive and that address structural inequality. The City of New York must set an example for the country by transforming the punitive culture within our jails to one that values human dignity.
I am deeply grateful to activists in the movement— including activists in the abolition and criminal justice reform movements—for all they have done to accelerate an end to mass incarceration. In the context of my reflection on the destruction of nuance in our public discourse, I do want to clarify that, in order for our common goal of decarceration to be realized in New York City and our nation, we must come together in dialogue and work together where possible. We look forward to engaging in conversations with those who do have different vantage points on this crucial issue.
As the leader of the Ford Foundation, I want to make clear that we believe in free speech and the right and necessity to speak up and speak out, even when that comes in the form of criticism. To realize our collective vision of ending mass incarceration in our city and our nation, it is essential that we join together to support healthy, thriving communities.