Imagining Prison Abolition

Imagine a world that is more just, laws that are more compassionate and people being freer.

Georgetown Law professor and author Paul Butler is very familiar with the U.S. criminal justice system. As a former prosecutor, he once fought for long sentences. Now he’s advocating for the abolition of prisons. While that sounds extreme, in this talk he explores what would replace prisons, how people who cause harm could be dealt with in the absence of incarceration, and why abolition would make everyone safer and our society more just.

Incarceration is a relatively recent development in the history of punishment, with the first modern prison constructed in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. The American penitentiary was intended as a reform, making the institution of punishment more humane and rehabilitative. Because the United States now locks up more people than almost any country in the history of the world, this nation is perhaps the best laboratory to assess the success of the experiment. By virtually any measure, prisons have not worked. They are sites of cruelty, dehumanization, and violence, as well as subordination by race, class, and gender. Prisons traumatize virtually all who come into contact with them. Is there a better way? He posits that 50% of the prison population could be released and we would feel no effect.

Butler frequently consults on issues of race and criminal justice. He feels the system is broken and advocates for non-violent drug offenders to receive treatment rather than punishment. Abolition of prison could be the ultimate reform. Butler is not saying there should be no consequences for criminality. He calls it gradual decarceration and looks at ways to accomplish the goals of prison more effectively.

Butler is a Professor in Law at Georgetown. His most recent book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, published in July 2017, was named one of the 50 best non-fiction books of 2017 by The Washington Post. The New York Times described Chokehold as the best book on criminal justice reform since The New Jim Crow. It was a finalist for the 2018 NAACP Image Award for best non-fiction.

Watch — Prison Abolition, and a Mule with Paul Butler

Managing California’s Financial Future

California is the worlds fifth-largest economy. That makes State Treasurer Fiona Ma’s job quite complex. Her office handles everything from financing housing development to collecting cannabis sales tax. Recently, she sat down with Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, to discuss the financial challenges the state is facing.

Two of the biggest issues Ma is working on are inextricably intertwined: housing and transportation. As the state’s population grows, limited housing supplies are becoming more and more expensive, forcing workers farther from city centers, and snarling commutes. One of the potential solutions she suggests is public-private partnerships, like the Virgin Trains project that will eventually connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

During their conversation, Ma touches on a number of other issues impacting Californians. She covers a new law that will ensure local governments get sales tax from Amazon, the growing need for senior housing, a plan to help city governments stay on top of their finances, California’s controversial proposition 13, and much more.

Watch — Financial Policy and Sustainability with California State Treasurer Fiona Ma

How Safe Are We? Janet Napolitano on Homeland Security

A lot has changed since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Department of Homeland Security was created to safeguard the country against terrorism and other threats. As the former head of the agency, Janet Napolitano says we are now safer in many ways. She says it would be nearly impossible for someone to orchestrate another 9/11 style attack using planes as weapons. But, there are other threats to the homeland today, some of which are not getting the attention she believes they deserve.

In a recent talk at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, Napolitano spoke about her time at DHS, and her new book, “How Safe Are We?: Homeland Security Since 9/11.” She says there are three main risks to the safety of Americans: climate change, cyber-attacks, and gun violence. Napolitano says while climate change might not seem like a priority for DHS, it is increasing threats from deadly storms, drought, wildfires and rising sea levels in the US. And, it’s contributing to drought and devastation around the world which can create environments where extremism can take hold.

Napolitano says while there are several serious threats that need to be addressed, the main focus of the current administration – the southern border – is not one of them. As the former governor of Arizona, Napolitano is well-versed in border issues. She agrees that there are problems that need to be addressed, but disagrees with the methods President Trump has proposed. She advocates for increasing technology between ports of entry, and beefing up security at the ports to combat human and drug trafficking. As for the increase of migrants coming from Central America, Napolitano says it’s a crisis we can get through, but not something we can stop with the harsh treatment of asylum-seekers. She points to Colombia as an example of how the US can help restore public institutions in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, and remove the motivation for people to flee.

After her talk, Napolitano takes questions from students and moderator Orville Thomas on everything from how social media companies can combat hate speech, to whether President Trump has reached out for advice.

Watch — How Safe Are We? Janet Napolitano Discusses Homeland Security Since 9/11

Is it Time to Rethink the Idea of the Amoral Economic Man?

There is a widely held belief that when designing public policy or legal systems, it makes the most sense to assume that all citizens are entirely self-interested and amoral. It’s a theory known as “homo economicus” or “economic man.” But, economist Samuel Bowles argues against that belief in his book The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are no Substitute for Good Citizens. Bowles laid out the case for his argument during a recent talk at UC Berkeley.

Bowles says there are two key reasons to move away from the economic man idea. First, he says polices that follow the paradigm can be self-fulling – making the assumption of universal amorality truer than it might otherwise be under different policies. Second, he argues that fines and rewards often do not work as intended.

The problem Bowles argues, is that incentives can “crowd out” otherwise altruistic motives people might have for any given action. He cites the classic example of a daycare that imposed a small fee for parents who showed up late. The result? Many more late parents. The thinking goes that the fee turned being late into a commodity rather than an inconsiderate action. Thus, the incentive backfired, and ended up having the opposite of its intended effect.

However, Bowles says incentives themselves are not to blame. He argues they can be designed in a such a way to encourage good civic behavior, while avoiding possible pitfalls. For example, when Ireland wanted to get rid of plastic bags, lawmakers imposed a small tax. But, they paired the tax with a huge media campaign about not trashing the Emerald Isle. Appealing to citizens better nature made the difference, and most shoppers stopped using plastic bags within weeks.

Watch — The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens

The CRISPR Revolution

Jennifer Doudna is a leader in the CRISPR revolution. This new technology is a gene editing tool that manipulates DNA within organisms. The editing process has a wide variety of applications including correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases and improving crops.

Doudna, Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology at UC Berkeley, sat down to talk with Harry Kreisler about her life and how she came to be involved in this amazing discovery.

They also discuss how education and public advocacy can broaden insight into the ethical and policy dimensions of the biological revolution that is upon us.

Watch Unraveling CRISPR-Cas9 with Jennifer Doudna – Conversations with History