Criminal Justice Reforms Should Be Part of a ‘True Safety Agenda’

A community leader and victim advocate says broad alliances were critical to historic changes in Louisiana

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Criminal Justice Reforms Should Be Part of a ‘True Safety Agenda’

Flozell Daniels Jr. is the president and chief executive of the Foundation for Louisiana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building stronger, more sustainable communities statewide. A longtime advocate for alleviating poverty and racial inequality, Daniels has become an influential voice in his state’s criminal justice reform movement. Early in his career in New Orleans, he worked as a specialist in urban policy in the Office of the Mayor, Division of Federal and State Programs.  Then he served as Tulane University’s assistant vice president and executive director of state and local affairs.

After his 20-year-old son was murdered in 2016, Daniels became a victim advocate and a proponent for changing state and local policies to increase public safety and improve the effectiveness and fairness of the justice system. Governor John Bel Edwards (D) appointed him to the state’s Justice Reinvestment Task Force that year, and he helped to develop historic sentencing and corrections reforms that were signed into law in 2017.  

This occasional series features interviews with influential leaders about how they became involved in criminal justice reform, how their views have evolved—sometimes in unexpected ways—and what's needed to sustain progress.

Q: You’ve been actively engaged in advocacy that deals with racial disparities, incarceration, and poverty. Can you talk a bit about how these are intertwined?

A: To begin with, I have lived as a black boy and man in America, and so my first way of thinking about this is informed by my experience. I grew up in an economically impoverished but culturally and socially rich community. I was born in 1970, so I came along when some of the benefits of the civil rights movement started to blossom. But over time, we started to see the challenges of work left undone, particularly with economic inequities that the civil rights movement leaned into but never really got to before Dr. King and others were assassinated.

Reforming the criminal justice system also was left out of the civil rights movement, and my framing of that issue comes from growing up and watching men in my majority black neighborhood disappear and not realizing that they were vanishing into the mass incarceration system of America.

Q: What are your views on the impact of imprisonment on crime?

A: I have strong views on this. I believe imprisonment in America has exacerbated crime.…  If you think about what drives violent crime at a behavioral level, there is nothing prison does to offset that. Instead, incarceration manufactures the kind of mental anguish and instability and anger that can actually lead to violent crime.

The way we do imprisonment in America also flies in the face of what research says about how to get people to reform their behavior and become contributing members of society. Think about people leaving prison with a felony record. They can’t get housing, they can’t get school loans, and they have a scarlet letter that prevents them from getting a job. And then we’re surprised when they steal lawnmowers or sell drugs to get by?

Prisons should be model centers of therapeutic service delivery. If they’re not that, then they’re not doing what they should be doing to keep us safe.

Q: Was there a particular moment when you realized that Louisiana’s approach to criminal justice had to change?

A: When I left the mayor’s office in the late 1990s, I had a good sense of it already. Then, during my career at Tulane, I worked with a re-entry project that was helping people returning to society from prison. A researcher had put together this 12-step-type program that offered housing placement, drug treatment, and counseling to help people reconnect to their family and society and see their worth.

My exposure to the project allowed me to get to know these people coming out of prison and see how alike we were. And I realized that we, as a society, had decided to throw them away. It was an eye-opening moment, because I realized that nothing about this system was working, and nothing about the approach was connected to a true safety agenda. Sure, there are some dangerous people who need to be sent down and dealt with for a while. But the rest of it? It isn’t working.

Q: You have said that the murder of your son made you commit for life to working on this issue. Can you talk about that, and about why you believe victims and survivors of crime should engage in the reform process?

A: When you lose a child, it’s a daily grief. You’re never well. I’ll never be the same. His mother will never be the same. His sister is a schoolteacher who teaches young kids, and she tells me, “Daddy, every day I have to cry in the bathroom.” My son would be 22 this year, and, in dealing with my grief, I often think of the families who have lost loved ones through violence before their time, and how uncommitted we are as a society to those people, whether the cause was a mass school shooting or domestic violence or the daily grind of killings in communities.

It’s important for us to own our own narrative, and it’s also important that we allow victims to decide not to get involved, because grief can be debilitating. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to do this work, it’s about advancing a justice agenda that diminishes the prevalence of violence that is so dominant in this country’s history. It’s about pointing out that what we are doing is not working. It’s hard, but I can’t not show up. There’s too much at stake, and too many other children to protect.

It’s also true that one reason it’s difficult for victims to be in this work is that they are not allowed to finish grieving, because most of these cases, like my son’s, don’t get solved. That has huge implications. As you might imagine, when the people who caused this harm to your family are still in the community, it diminishes your emotional health and ability to sleep.

Q: Can you describe the importance of working with different stakeholder groups to reach a common goal?

A: The governor appointed me to the Justice Reinvestment Task Force because he wanted someone with a unique perspective representing his interest, someone whose family had been a victim of violent crime. The rest of the task force was an ensemble of legislators, district attorneys, judges, public defenders, businesspeople, and others who were really interested in trying to figure this out. We were not on the same page by any means, but we had a shared interest in looking at the data, hearing testimony at town halls, asking questions, and doing the work that led to our recommendations.

We also had an incredible group of volunteers participating from very different places. The Smart on Crime folks [a state-based coalition of business leaders and conservative organizations supporting data-driven criminal justice reforms] are one example. These are relatively conservative people. I might have been fighting with them over tax policy the day before, but here they were aggressively moving a reform agenda on criminal justice, something I’d never seen or expected in my career. It’s been exciting and powerful to see people from such different backgrounds and experience come together and commit to the idea that what is good for people who traditionally have been placed at the margins of society is actually good for all of us.

I think the most surprising thing was seeing the conservative business communities getting on the right side of this argument and helping to fight tooth and nail to get this legislation passed. It totally shocked me. And I now have relationships with people who I would not otherwise have relationships with because of that experience.

Q: Are there any lessons or memorable experiences you can share from working with people whose views are very different than yours?

A: There is a gentleman who served with me on the budget subcommittee of the task force, and our initial conversation was an argument. He immediately expressed an opinion that I thought was ill-informed, and I was not going to have him asserting this view unchallenged when I believed he was wrong.

Eventually, we became colleagues. I learned and he learned that we were 90 percent on the same page. And he was willing to put himself on the line in support of some of these changes in a way that made it difficult for opponents to frame our task force as these crazy social justice types who don’t know anything. That was a game-changer from a policy perspective. It’s a lesson that has encouraged me to more actively seek out those unusual suspects, because there is power in building those connections.

Q:  What advice would you give to other criminal justice reform advocates as they continue to push for changes?

A: Keep pushing. Build relationships and maintain them. Trust people. Be really clear about what the outcomes could be and what alternatives exist to get you there. You don’t always get to the finish line the first time, or get everything you want. But luck saveth the prepared. Get ready and stay ready, because you never know when an opportunity will come knocking. When it does, you’ll need to mobilize your people and mobilize your narratives to get the work done.

We had a Democratic governor in a conservative red state who was a practicing lawyer whose brother and dad were sheriffs. He knew the challenge we faced in trying to improve the system, and he was willing to take it on. We got lucky, and folks were prepared.

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