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The Square One Project unites researchers, policymakers, practitioners to conceptualize a new criminal justice paradigm

Washington, D.C. – The Square One Project, a three-year initiative to rethink justice policies from top to bottom, launched today at D.C.’s National Press Club. Square One brings together a diverse cross-section of academics, policymakers, and community organizers to re-examine traditional responses to crime and envision a new paradigm that can address systemic inequalities such as poverty and racial discrimination. The Columbia University Justice Lab, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) support the project.

Square One seeks to reform a criminal justice system in urgent need of change. Over the last four decades, the number of people in America’s prisons and jails has increased 500 percent. Prisons are overcrowded, states struggle to fund basic services, and racial inequities inherent in the system have devastated communities.

“The project asks: If we set aside the traditional response to crime, and ask first whether other responses might be more effective — if we begin at ‘square one’ — how would criminal justice policy be different?” said Kelli Rhee, President and CEO of LJAF.

The initiative consists of three core components: an executive session focusing on justice policy; roundtables in cities across the country; and a comprehensive community engagement and communications strategy. In the executive session, about 30 leading experts, practitioners, and scholars will meet twice a year to develop and refine proposals.

“This format will test and push participants to challenge their own thinking and consider new options,” said Bruce Western, co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab. “These frank, off-the-record discussions will ultimately yield fresh discourse and new research among academics, policymakers, practitioners, and communities.”

Roundtable sessions will invite broader engagement with community members and a variety of stakeholder groups, tackling a single, complex policy challenge. The first Square One roundtable is scheduled for Oct. 11-13 in Durham, N.C., in partnership with North Carolina Central University. The discussions, held at the NCCU School of Law, will be live-streamed.

“We are emerging from the ‘tough on crime’ era with the sobering realization that our resources have been misspent,” said Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at LJAF. “Over decades, we built a response to crime that relied blindly on incarceration and punishment, and provided too little safety, justice, or healing. Now is the time for a new vision—the time to dig deep, challenge our imaginations, and build a new response to crime that comes closer to justice.”

 

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