Students gathered virtually and in person at Weill Hall Thursday evening for a conversation between Judge Laurel Beatty Blunt and Public Policy Dean Celeste Watkins-Hayes about the intersections between policymaking and the criminal justice system. The event, titled “What policymakers need to know about the criminal justice system,” was the latest in the Policy Talks @ the Ford School lecture series and drew an interdisciplinary audience that included students studying social work, business and public policy.
Watkins-Hayes opened the event by introducing Blunt, who serves on the state of Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals and is a Townsley Foundation Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.
Blunt began by discussing the evolution of her understanding of the criminal justice system. When she first became a judge, Blunt said she began visiting prisons, jails, mental health facilities and community-based correctional facilities, commonly known as halfway houses. She said her perspective on crime became more nuanced after her visits.
“I think a really big part of being a judge is seeing what’s happening in your community,” Blunt said. “Even if you have good intentions, if you don’t know what is going on in your community … and recognize the million ways people wind up in front of you, even with good intentions, you might not get it right.”
Blunt also noted the importance of seeing and understanding the consequences of the decisions she makes. She emphasized that going to facilities and speaking to people such as psychiatrists and wardens has had a significant impact on her understanding of crime and punishment.
“I had not just an abstract view of what I was doing,” Blunt said. “I actually could picture in my head what I was doing and where I was sending someone, and that was so helpful to me as a judge, and I am convinced that it will be helpful to policymakers too.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, Rackham student Krysta December, who listened to the discussion, expressed her appreciation for Blunt’s emphasis on visiting certain facilities herself.
“I liked that she really put herself into everything, like visiting policymakers, prisons and halfway houses,” December said.
December also spoke about the importance of first-hand experience with people in various stages and institutions of the criminal justice system in the context of her own studies and interests in social policy.
“I have to understand the communities that I’m making decisions for, which might mean that I have to go into (those) communities,” December said. “I might need to involve not just myself or other policymakers, but people that I never thought of, from places that I don’t normally agree with, even.”
In response to a question about how policymakers can work from a space of nuance within the criminal justice system, Blunt described the importance of treating everyone as an individual with unique circumstances and personal history. She gave examples of cases under her jurisdiction related to the abuse of opioids, and spoke about the importance in her role to consider certain cases in a different light based on how an individual was exposed to opioids.
“Every person is different,” Blunt said. “I think that you have to consider everything that got them in front of you.”
Part of seeing each case on an individual basis, Blunt said, is knowing as much as possible about a person’s education, mental health history, family and other aspects of their background. Blunt also brought up disparities related to access to educational and employment opportunities, noting how disproportionate access to intervention mechanisms such as substance abuse and mental health treatment exacerbates these disparities across communities.
“You have to look at each person individually, but also recognize that crime, domestic violence (and other) things like that do not see class,” Blunt said. “The difference, a lot of times, is the access … to education, and (individuals) have different access to healthcare.”
Blunt moved on to describe experiences where her sentencing options were limited based on available facilities and institutions. She said working in rural areas, where the only sentencing options were prison, probation or programs with limited spots, influenced her thinking on alternative sentencing options.
“I could only give people so many chances because I couldn’t create more beds,” Blunt said. “At some point I had to say, ‘I can’t give you any more chances, because there’s somebody else that needs that bed in the mental health hospital or someone (who needs) that treatment facility or someone who needs that space at the community based correctional facility.’ I think that we need to make up our minds; do we want to be rehabilitative, or do we want to be punitive?”
As the discussion began to wrap up, Watkins-Hayes asked what current policy issues Blunt is following closely. Blunt brought up the topic of expungement – the process of erasing or wiping a criminal record – and shared her perspective on the idea of revisiting cases to consider for expungement, referring back to her statements earlier in the conversation about the incarceration of young adults.
“I’m very interested in expungement because of having those experiences where I didn’t think somebody should be paying at 50 for something they did at 20,” Blunt said.
In an interview with The Daily, Rackham student Flor Azul Lorenzo echoed the importance of intervention mechanisms — such as community and youth programs — as preventative measures for incarceration as well as the expungement laws that Blunt mentioned in the conversation.
“I’ve shared concern about not having enough interventions in education and employment,” Lorenzo said. “(Blunt) talked so much about how many people in prison have been there since they were 20 years old. And it’s hard because although this is present, there still hasn’t been an established, shared belief that it has to change.”
Lorenzo said it’s important to have conversations about criminal justice among students to foster understanding of the intersectional nature of policies that span education, employment and community programs.
“It is very important for us to (have these conversations) even though students may fear that they don’t have enough knowledge to care about the issue or actually engage with this issue,” Lorenzo said. “It is important that we have these conversations … because at the end of the day, everything is interconnected.”
Daily Staff Reporter Bronwyn Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.