The Veteran Advocate: Hawkins Q&A

This week, the Coalition for Public Safety announced Steven W. Hawkins as its new president, overseeing the work of the nation’s largest bipartisan criminal justice reform organization. Hawkins is a veteran advocate for justice, most recently serving as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. He brings an extensive 25-year history of bipartisan leadership and collaboration to the Coalition, having worked closely with organizations and leaders across the political spectrum.

As Hawkins wraps up his first week as President, the Coalition staff sat down with him to discuss his new role and what’s next for the Coalition.

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Coalition: You have a long career in issue advocacy and especially in the pursuit of justice. What drew you to the Coalition for Public Safety?

The Coalition is a truly unique organization and represents a rare opportunity to leverage voices from across the ideological spectrum to achieve meaningful and lasting reform.

First and foremost, it’s a bipartisan coalition, bringing together the wisdom, experience, and influence of the most prominent conservative and progressive organizations. It’s inspiring to see groups that are traditionally opposed to each other coming together and working toward a common goal: to reform the nation’s broken criminal justice system.

Secondly, my career and my work has been marked by a continued fight to advance criminal justice reform. Too many Americans have been unfairly and negatively impacted by a correctional system that continues growing without restraint. It’s time that we create a system rooted in fairness – fairness for the families impacted by lengthy prison sentences; fairness for taxpayers who shell out $80 billion annually to pay for prisons; and fairness for the next generation of young Americans who should be empowered to fulfill their potential and experience firsthand that in this country, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can do and become anything that you want.

Coalition: What are you most looking forward to as the Coalition’s new President?

I’m really looking forward to working side by side with our conservative and progressive partners. These eight organizations are among the most influential voices across the nation, and they all possess impressive legacies of achieving substantive reform on behalf of their members. We too often see partisan gridlock standing in the way of commonsense reforms. When that gridlock evaporates, what we’re left with is a united group of change makers – and anything is possible in that environment.

Coalition: What do you see as the most important priority as President in the coming months?

I’ve hit the ground running and am eager to advance our partners’ shared priorities for comprehensive criminal justice reform at the federal level and in the states. We’ve seen great progress in the last year, but by leveraging our partners’ considerable expertise and reach and continuing to engage new voices in the movement, I think we can accomplish a great deal more.

Pursuing comprehensive criminal justice reform, and truly transforming the status quo, is going to require a long-term approach. Sometimes it might mean two steps forward and one step back – but I think we have a unique opportunity to elevate the national conversation around criminal justice reform. I am convinced that the more people are educated about the need for these commonsense reforms, the more the tide will continue to turn in our favor.

Coalition: How do you think the Coalition will be able to help advance comprehensive reforms, and where do you see the Coalition and its partners having the most impact?

In its first year of existence, the Coalition has made tremendous inroads and has quickly gained recognition as a leading force in the reform effort. Using this influence, and this incredible platform to help shape the national debate, the Coalition has a strong capacity to educate the public about the need for reform, and help drive an informed national conversation on how we can achieve a smarter, fairer and more cost-effective criminal justice system.

Coalition: Criminal Justice Reform has been on the radars of advocates for many years, but it has emerged as a focus of national concern and discussion in the past couple of years. Why do you think criminal justice reform has become such a universal issue of concern, and what makes this moment more important than others before it?

With 2.3 million Americans behind bars, and with one in three American adults possessing a criminal record, the justice system impacts people in virtually every community and in every walk of life. Children of incarcerated parents feel the sting of the justice system when their mother or father isn’t around for a birthday; spouses of an incarcerated person feel the pressures of raising a family alone when their partner isn’t there; and formerly incarcerated people themselves feel the impact of a criminal record when they return home.

I think because so many people are impacted by the system, it’s become a national priority. Communities are impacted by incarceration, schools are impacted, families, church congregations, places of business – they are all impacted in some way.