Winthrop Faculty Dean Presses for Criminal Justice Reform

Harvard Law School professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. advocated for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration in a TEDx talk entitled “Justice is a decision,” arguing that wrongful convictions are widespread and often overlooked.

Sullivan, who is also a Winthrop House Faculty Dean and former adviser to President Barack Obama, began the talk with stories from his personal experiences exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals in Brooklyn, N.Y. In some cases, wrongfully convicted individuals spent years in prison or died before their release, Sullivan said.

In an interview Tuesday, Sullivan noted that although he considers the United States’s criminal justice system “the greatest legal system in the world, there still are very many people who fall through the cracks.”

“We should aspire to have a criminal justice system where each and every person has full protection and equal protection under the law and until we get there, we as a citizenry should not rest,” he said.

Sullivan suggested changing the conservative mantra of being “tough on crime” to instead being “smart on crime” in order to remedy the understanding of race in the system.


“If we behave that way, then we will begin to weed out some of the subjective biases that adhere in the criminal justice system and all citizens will begin to be treated with equal protection under the law,” Sullivan said in the interview.

Sullivan also said that President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric on criminal justice has mirrored “‘tough on crime’ vocabulary.” Trump has vowed to bring “law and order” back to “crime infested” cities, and has given law enforcement officials his “complete and total support.”

“Time will tell what sort of policies he will enact,” Sullivan said. “My inclination is to reserve judgement and see how his administration handles the pressing issues of criminal justice reform.”

Nate Mook, an organizer of the Washington, D.C. TEDx conference at which Sullivan spoke in October, said he created the theme of “New Rules” with the intention of addressing what citizens should improve in the next decade.

“When we looked at our theme for 2016, we felt like the world was a little bit upside down,” Mook said. “The future required us to start thinking about these ‘New Rules’ that could guide us in the next century.”

Apart from his work in criminal law and race theory at the Law School, Sullivan previously directed the D.C. Public Defender Service and worked to release thousands of inmates in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He also represented the family of Michael Brown, a black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo in 2014.

“If there’s anything that we’ve learned—anything that I’ve learned—with this conviction integrity work, it’s that justice doesn’t just happen. People make justice happen,” Sullivan said at the TEDx conference. “Justice is not a thing that just descends from above and makes everything right.”

—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kguillaume07.


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