Conversation about criminal justice: Wasserberger leads panel on law, activism, and academia

Divya Ponda, Staff Writer

Jordan Wasserberger (11) led a Zoom panel last Monday about recent progressive trends in policing, legal reform, infrastructure development, and mass protests and their impacts on crime statistics, community development, and incarceration.

At the event, guest speakers Manhattan DA Candidate Tali Farhadian, President of the Vera Institute of Justice Nicholas Turner, and Professor of Criminology at The University of Pennsylvania Dr. Aaron Chalfin represented three aspects of criminal justice: law, activism, and academia, providing viewers with a diverse array of perspectives on these critical issues, Wasserberger said.  

Wasserberger hosted the panel because he feels strongly about the current social justice issues within our system, he said. “Especially over the past two years, criminal justice and criminal justice reform has become much more of a focus, certainly nationally but also among us here at Horace Mann,” he said. 

As students became more involved in these issues, Wasserberger conducted more research about criminal justice, he said. “It increasingly became something I wanted to shed a light on and use my abilities at Horace Mann to reach a wider audience.” 

Madhav Menon (12) felt that the discussions were diverse because Farhadian’s opinion was more conservative-leaning, Chalfin’s was based on statistics, and Turner’s was more liberal, he said. 

During the panel, Wasserberger raised the point that some of the media have coined the idea that all cops are bad, he said. Turner brought up the widely used rhetoric that policing in the modern era evolved from slave catchers, but Chalfin and Farhadian disagreed. Wasserberger felt that the disagreements between the panelists were important and necessary in creating a more balanced and healthy discussion, he said. 

“It’s insane to say that everyone who wears a badge is racist, and that’s a shocking statement,” Farhadian said. However, we still do have to hold individuals accountable when they commit crimes, no matter who they are, and no matter what uniform they are wearing, she said. 

Society expects police to deal with some weighty problems that we have all created, Chalfin said. “There are some institutional features of policing that have created racially disparate impacts, but we also deploy police on the basis of where violence happens,” he said. “It’s very easy for us to throw police under the bus, because we don’t want to deal with the fact that we’re all sort of complicit in creating the society that we have.”

Turner, on the other hand, said that frustration with the police and policing system is warranted. “American policing has a troubled and difficult history; there is no part of American policing that hasn’t demonstrated racially disparate outcomes,” Turner said. “The distrust people feel — that you can reform that system and cleanse it of all that — is not an unreasonable thing.”

Regardless of these diverse opinions, the panelists were still able to have a grounded and empathetic conversation about race, Turner said. “Even though all three of them seemed to differ politically, they all agreed that changes needed to be made to the criminal justice system,” Menon said. 

“A lot of times when we talk about topics like criminal justice, the conversation tends to be incredibly one sided,” Menon said. “When most of the school has one political viewpoint, it can be very hard for people with differing viewpoints — no matter how slight that difference may be — to feel safe or feel like their opinion matters.” 

Difficult conversations are necessary for progress, Turner said. “Searching with inquiry, integrity of thinking, and wrestling with the hard questions is important,” he said. The transformation of the American justice system is going to require generations of work, so we need to encourage a level of sophisticated conversation and exploration among this generation, he said. 

“We live in a nation with free speech, people have a right to differing opinions so long as they are based on facts, logic, and reason,” Wasserberger said. “We have to make sure our opinions are valid, heard, and respected.”