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Balancing Justice in New York

"Balancing Justice in New York" first took shape at a meeting of ten people at a church in Albany in 1998. Paddy Lane, a longtime activist on criminal justice issues, was frustrated with the way the state Legislature was handling corrections issues. The number of inmates has skyrocketed in the 1990s, mainly due to a set of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The Legislature has reacted to the increase by pouring more and more money into prison construction. As a result, Lane felt, New York was siphoning resources away from other priorities in order to transform small-time offenders into hardened criminals.

As someone who knew a lot about the issue, Lane clearly had her own opinions about what the Legislature should do. But she felt that the only way to create change would be to bring large numbers of ordinary citizens together, give them the various facts and arguments about the situation, help them listen to and learn from each other, and ask for their recommendations.

She had heard about a study circle program that had done just that. In 1996 and 1997, "Balancing Justice in Oklahoma," spearheaded by the League of Women Voters in that state, involved almost 1,000 people in study circles on criminal justice and corrections.

With assistance from the Study Circles Resource Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Pomfret, Connecticut, study circles in the last 10 years have taken hold in more than 200 communities across the country. These communities have found in the study circle model a way of bringing together a broad cross section of everyday people, across customary political and social dividing lines, to deliberate on complex and controversial public issues that affect their lives, and to take action on those issues.

Through the commitment and creativity of local organizers, the study circle has become an innovative structure for deliberative democracy. Nationally, study circles have been widely acknowledged as a practice that effectively addresses such issues as race relations, education reform, crime and violence, growth and development, and criminal justice.

One result of the "Balancing Justice in Oklahoma" study circle program was a new state law that embraced the policy ideas upheld by the study circle participants. So Lane brought those ten people together in Albany to float the idea of a program similar to the one in Oklahoma. The group was enthusiastic, but to everyone it seemed like a long shot. How could anyone involve thousands of citizens in coordinated, intensive dialogue in New York, that contentious and contrary empire? The entire population of Oklahoma could probably fit on Staten Island.

Once again, the League of Women Voters rose to the occasion. Several League members attended that first meeting, and they began making calls. Lee Serravillo, the executive director of the League in New York, was enthusiastic about Lane's idea when it was relayed to him.

Two years later, about 2,500 people were taking part in almost 200 study circles in 71 communities throughout the state. "We have demonstrated that small-group dialogue among people of diverse opinions is energizing and empowering, and moves people to action," said Lane, who had written all the grants and provided a persistent central presence as the project came to fruition. The coordinator of the project, Rob Marchiony, spent much of late 1999 and early 2000 crisscrossing the state to visit local coordinators.

New Yorkers had just as much to talk about as their counterparts in Oklahoma; their state is also in a corrections crisis. "The project...has spurred officials to look at ways to keep low-level offenders form clogging jail space," said one county sheriff. "In turn, there was common ground between people of liberal and conservative viewpoints." (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

At 21 action forums held throughout the state in April and May of this year, approximately 55 task forces were formed to start work on various action ideas. These groups are focusing on ideas such as crime prevention, drug law reform, public education on justice issues, restorative justice projects, the role of race in the criminal justice system, alternatives to incarceration, and support for prison families.

"What occurred during the course of the study circles process throughout the state was a truly unique new collaboration of criminal justice professionals and citizens, analyzing our state's criminal justice system to discern ways that it might be improved," wrote the state League in its report on the program. "The resulting dialogues created a great deal of energy and willingness to explore new options. This is a potent expression of grass-roots democracy, open to all viewpoints, which engages citizens in determining public policy. Those who participated have expressed an interest in continuing to help educate the public and engage yet more people."

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