The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute (LVJI) launched in December 2020 to develop a reimagined criminal justice system that is equitable and fair for all. The Institute was an outgrowth of the Color of Justice organization that has been working to bring attention to local criminal justice issues. Several Color of Justice members saw the need for an academic-level institute to conduct data-driven research on the various processes of the criminal justice complex and their effect on our communities. With a generous pledge of multi-year support from the Unfinished Business Foundation, LVJI is building a solid community base for its mission of research, policy development, and advocacy. As part of our long-range research collaborative, faculty members from Muhlenberg College, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, and Penn State University are taking a comprehensive look at the criminal justice system in the Lehigh Valley through the lens of structural racism, crime, and justice. Study of Lehigh and Northampton Counties affords our team the opportunity to take a “deep dive” into the intricacies of all aspects of the justice system, from policing, to the court processes, to jail conditions, to re-entry programs, to probation and parole. Since the Lehigh Valley is often seen as a microcosm of the nation, we believe the solutions we craft also could be implemented in other communities. As we follow the data to lay out the case for change, we believe our arguments will resonate with a wide cross-section of the public. LVJI, along with many like-minded organizations, tackles important issues related to policing, charging decisions, bail and pretrial decisions, court proceedings, and sentencing. Through research, policy, and advocacy, LVJI works to uncover the most jarring criminal justice issues right in our own backyard. In order to create safe, sustainable outcomes for a reimagined criminal justice system, we utilize data-driven research and the shared expertise of activists, attorneys, academics, researchers, and formerly-incarcerated individuals.
From the first point of contact to the aftermath of arrest and conviction, and every step in between, LVJI identifies aspects of the criminal justice system that have damaged our community rather than sustained it. LVJI especially considers those who are most pressed by structural inequity, making them the priority that drives the reimagined system. From its inception, the American criminal justice system has been rooted in racism and oppression — bolstered by the wording of the 13th Amendment and resultant Jim Crow laws. For example, black Americans are jailed at five times the rate of white Americans. This disproportionately targets people of color and people who lack resources to escape the cycle. We continue to endure the strain of this dark past. The U.S. holds the world’s highest incarceration rate per capita and the third-highest recidivism rate. By identifying the multilayered roots of each issue, and creating alternatives to a failed system, we can promote an equitable and community based justice system.
We asked board members at LVJI about the justice process and sustainability.
Bob Walden, Treasurer of LVJI, replied “Our criminal ‘justice’ system is not sustainable. Period. Our system of policing, militarism, and mass incarceration is built on systemic racism, white supremacy, and economic exploitation. Ultimately, the criminal justice system needs to be replaced with violence prevention, active nonviolent intervention, and restorative justice practices. The transition requires ending destructive attitudes and practices that have been centuries in the making, and will require sustained collaborative work among many people and organizations. LVJI documents the destructive aspects of our existing system of mass incarceration and advocates for policy changes that will help to mend broken relationships. Acknowledging the truth about our failed ‘justice’ system is the first step toward constructive change.”
According to Joseph Welsh, Executive Director of LVJI, “when families fail, communities fail.” This is why we must provide our community with alternative emergency response teams such as social workers and mental health professionals trained to de-escalate issues. In addition, he states “Emergency response models that de-escalate problems in our neighborhoods, rather than escalate them, lead to sustainable communities.” If our system does not serve to rehabilitate or respond mindfully to community needs, we cannot succeed in sustaining our community.
Board member and criminal defense attorney Ed Angelo, who co-chairs LVJI’s Police Reform Committee, reminds us of the essence we channel with our organization, which drives LVJI’s passion. According to Ed, “The Inauguration Poet, Amanda Gorman, reminded us that hope too gives us courage to stay on course and not accept anything but a fully reimagined criminal justice system that focuses on compassion, empathy, and benevolence, rather than retribution.”
Although the criminal justice system is currently unsustainable, LVJI believes in the potential of creating a sustainable, restorative justice system that can promote sustainable communities — but the work still needs to be done. Progressive criminal justice policies oriented around safety and quality of life — like the ones present in Nordic countries — serve as an effective model for sustainability, by focusing heavily on rehabilitation and humane conditions. In addition, there is an emphasis on overall quality of life and equitable distribution of resources and social services.
Creating a reimagined system in the Valley is challenging, yet possible. Ideally, the criminal justice system would function through rehabilitation rather than punishment, as this would allow individuals to have a smooth, safe, and successful reentry into society. In this way, a reimagined system that serves the interests of the community leads to greater sustainability. Rehabilitation over penalization would promote sustainable living — both now and for the future.
Cecelia is a recent graduate of Moravian College holding a B.A. in Political Science and Peace and Justice Studies, a unique, self-designed major. She is passionate about social justice and research and is now the Administrative Coordinator for the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute