Ezekiel Edwards recently joined Arnold Ventures as vice president for criminal justice focusing on pretrial reforms. He will help develop strategies and investments to tackle issues with bail reform, public defense, and prosecutorial practices. Edwards joined Arnold Ventures after serving as a director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, which used litigation, advocacy, and public education to challenge unconstitutional policies and practices in the criminal legal system and end mass incarceration. His work included authoring several reports, including a groundbreaking report exposing racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws, “Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests.”
Edwards has also worked as a staff attorney at the Innocence Project, a criminal justice fellow at the Drum Major Institute of Public Policy, a public defender at the Bronx Defenders, an investigator at the New York State Capital Defender Office, and a paralegal in the Appellate Bureau of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
We sat down with Edwards to discuss how he’ll draw on his experience in the courtroom in his new role, where he’s found success in the past, and what it’s like advocating for pretrial reforms amidst a pandemic and spikes in violent crime.
AV: First, what attracted you to working to reform the criminal legal system?
Ezekiel Edwards: Since I was a child growing up in New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s, I have been consumed by how our country handles issues of crime and punishment, community safety, and how race insidiously affects our approach to those issues. My experiences growing up informed my desire to work on social and racial justice issues, and specifically criminal justice as the place where I most wanted to reduce harms and challenge the inhumanity that permeates the system.
I worked as an investigator for people facing the death penalty after college, which solidified my decision to become a lawyer. My career since graduating law school as a public defender, working for people who are wrongfully convicted, and as a civil rights attorney has been focused on reducing the number of people we incarcerate both pretrial and post conviction, expanding the horizon for how we hold people accountable and doing it in more humane and parsimonious ways, reducing community harms, and addressing the racism and racial bias that run rampant through the criminal legal system.
AV: Where have you found success challenging inequities in the criminal legal system?
EE: One part is bringing people around the table who have a common interest to solve a problem. This should usually be led by people who are directly affected by those problems, because I believe the mantra that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.
It is critical to come together as communities, advocates, lawyers, judges, police officers, and directly impacted people and try to hammer out better solutions that will take into account public safety, take into account reducing harms that are perpetrated on the community by government policy and principles, and reducing the ways that criminal laws are often selectively enforced against communities of color. So I think that having stakeholders from many different interests is really, really important. And I don’t think you’re going to create meaningful and particularly long lasting solutions unless you do that.
I also think it’s critical that we use our understanding of data and related analyses to educate the public, communities, and policymakers about how those systems are operating, and ways in which they are causing harm. In doing so we need to lift up the personal stories of people and families in communities that have been negatively impacted. It’s critical that we tell the human toll, but also use data and evidence both to explain how that toll is caused by systemic policies and practices and to demonstrate how there are more rational, efficient, humane policies and practices that would lead to more positive and more just outcomes — because we can’t solve problems that we don’t know about, we won’t solve problems that we don’t care about, and we won’t avoid repeating past mistakes unless we can prove that better options exist.
AV: You’ve had a very impressive career. Why did you decide to come to Arnold Ventures?
EE: Arnold Ventures is deeply committed to fixing a criminal legal system that is broken in many ways. I admire Arnold’s emphasis on evidence-based solutions and figuring out how they translate practically on the ground. By measuring reforms and policies and practices by rigorous metrics with the aim to minimize injustice and improve communities’ quality of life, we can increase opportunity for change. Ending policies that are unjust and arbitrary and developing and promoting practices that are proven to increase fairness and opportunity aligns closely with my personal and professional aspirations. To be able to do that kind of work among such a high functioning and visionary group of people in an environment in which smart risk taking is encouraged is exciting and a privilege. I had worked with Arnold Ventures when I was at the ACLU on some of our priority issues, and the experience had always been an exciting, inviting, and rigorous, and it was clear to me from the first time I came to AV’s offices that AV is deeply committed and serious about trying to remedy harms of the system and seek transformational change. So I’ve had respect for Arnold Ventures for a long time and I am very grateful to join this team and try to help.
AV: And are there any issues or places that you have your eye on? What do you hope to accomplish at Arnold Ventures overall?
EE: I think the problems we face remain daunting when it comes to the criminal justice system. I want to build upon the incredible work that Arnold has been doing around pretrial, particularly on our current priorities, which are bail reform/pretrial detention, prosecutorial reform, and public defense. Those are all issues that I have long cared about and done extensive work in, and which are critical to reform if we’re serious about repairing systems that are dysfunctional. And so I want to double down on those issues.
In addition, I think as much as AV is doing that, there’s much more we can do in these areas to have an even larger impact, which may require refining some of our goals and objectives and strategies around those issues. And I think there are areas that we have not yet explored fully or at all where Arnold could have a significant impact. So I’m excited to build up and build out.
In addition, there’s a really unacceptable lack of data and related analyses across criminal legal systems at every level. So many jurisdictions do not understand their own systems and can’t measure the impact of those systems. Are they having good outcomes or bad outcomes? They aren’t able to meaningfully improve their practices because they don’t have the data that would effectively guide them in those directions.
Furthermore, racial bias and racism is alive and well in this country — and certainly in the criminal legal system — which causes a daily tsunami of unnecessary harm and trauma to communities across the country. So there’s as much work to do now as ever.
AV: Are there any challenges that you anticipate, and do you have any plans to overcome them?
EE: There are always challenges, even when times seemed a bit calmer than they do today. Reforming systems as large and problematic and deeply embedded as our criminal punishment system is a major undertaking, to put it lightly. Advocating for better and more humane approaches to crime and punishment, and ensuring that communities are safe and healthy, has always been a perilous road to travel, particularly since much of that work seeks to prioritize increasing safety, reducing harms, and protecting the rights of marginalized individuals and communities. But working in partnership, with clear goals, seeking to move the dial in meaningful ways by being bold, courageous, proactive, creative, and ultimately hopeful in the belief that from shared goals of ending current harms of the criminal legal system and shared visions of evidence-based repairs we should embrace, we can be successful in replacing injustice with opportunity.
AV: You’re joining Arnold Ventures during a pandemic, when there’s much debate around a spike in homicides. What’s it like advocating for pretrial reform during this time?
EE: I think we are in a particularly difficult moment right now for criminal justice reform with the pandemic having upended so much about our lives and our connections, which has likely been a factor in an increase in certain crimes, most notably homicide.
Further, deep political divisions create a volatile climate where even the significant but fairly moderate wave of reforms that have been achieved in recent years are in jeopardy amid rising crime in certain places and an increasingly alarmist media message about crime and public safety — a message that can often assign causes and effects that are misleading and not based on evidence.
So I think we have to prioritize making sure that the hard-fought reforms that took place over many years, particularly of policing and pretrial justice, are protected, and that we continue to lay the ground for building on those positive changes and creating other reforms. I think to do that, in this environment, we have to make sure — and make clear to our grantees and to our allies and to stakeholders — that AV’s priority goals of community safety, fairness, and racial equity are harmonious and as important now as ever. And so it’s not an either or — either you have reforms that reduce the number of people unnecessarily incarcerated and challenge racism in the criminal justice system, or you have community safety. We can and should have both.