Faculty Spotlight: Professor Theodore Johnson on Leadership and Public Policymaking in the Criminal Justice System

Theodore Johnson

If you watch, listen, or read about contemporary public policy and politics, chances are you have come across the work of Dr. Theodore Johnson. His work has been featured in publications including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He regularly presents at conferences and often appears as an expert guest on national networks including MSNBC, CNN, and NPR discussing public policy, race and politics.

Professor Johnson is not only a scholar of our democratic processes, he is uniquely positioned to shape it as well. He has more than 15 years of public policy experience in federal departments and agencies and has served as a naval officer for over 20 years, earning the rank of Commander. He worked in the White House as a Fellow under President Obama. Currently, Johnson serves as Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, an independent, non-partisan law and policy organization. 

We recently interviewed Professor Johnson to learn more about his public policy research and how criminal justice leaders can affect policy change.

What have been some of your most rewarding accomplishments in your career so far?

Before my current career as a scholar at a think tank, I was a military officer. I served in the US Navy for just under 21 years and have a number of accomplishments there that I’m quite proud of. But I think my most rewarding accomplishment was being selected as a White House Fellow in 2011-2012, where I got to spend a year learning about and contributing to the innerworkings of our federal government. It was an amazing learning experience and provided incredible access to our national leaders.

You have been a leader in a variety of contexts – as Navy Commander, White House Fellow, professor, scholar and more. Is there a common thread of key leadership principals that guide you?

I am a firm believer in giving people the guidance and support they need to succeed and then getting out of the way and allowing them to use their ingenuity to get the work done. When we know what’s expected of us, are not micromanaged, and are permitted to put our creativity to work, amazing things happen.

What are some of the research and policy solutions that you are focused on at the Brennan Center for Justice?

The Brennan Center for Justice is focused on protecting our systems of democracy through strengthening voting rights protections, addressing election security and the role of money in politics, ending mass incarceration, and ensuring our civil liberties are guarded from undue government infringements. Each of these topics have obvious interactions with racial inequality in the United States. So, in my role as senior fellow, I explore the intersection of race and threats to democratic institutions and processes. Because my area of expertise is African American voting behavior, most of my research is centered on the relationship between public policy outcomes, socioeconomic inequality, and more inclusive notions of civic participation.

How does your work at the Brennan Center for Justice fit within the criminal justice system?

The criminal justice system has long played a key role in the intersection of race and voting rights. Immediately after emancipation when black men were granted the right to vote, many states began enacting policies that criminalized a lot of behaviors and passed laws that disenfranchised those convicted of crimes. And the only way their access to the ballot was restored was often through an individual pardon by governors.

The same trend occurred during the Great Migration when six million black Americans left the South and moved to the Northeast, Midwest, and the West, changing the state and local politics. There again we see political use of the police force, judicial institutions, and correctional facilities as a means to disenfranchise black voters. So when I explore black voting behavior – and the impact of racial disparities on our voting choices – reform of the criminal justice system is important, mostly as a symptom of deeper issues of inequality the country is wrestling with. Black voters prioritize things like economic opportunity, affordable healthcare, and education because it’s usually the lack of one or all of these things that make them more likely to encounter the criminal justice system with the deck already stacked against them.

What are examples of some of the most compelling policy initiatives happening in criminal justice today?

Three initiatives strike me as the most interesting for criminal justice going forward. The first is the incorporation of more restorative justice programs that allow victims of violent crime to confront criminal offenders and work through the effects of that crime. The belief is that in many cases this is a more effective method of rehabilitation and reintegration into a community. The second is how technology will change incarceration. With everyone’s smartphone essentially being a location monitor around the clock, the spread of electronic monitoring as a replacement for physical incarceration for many crimes will have deep implications for criminal justice policies. And third, there is a growing call for the abolition of prisons, except in the most extreme cases. I’m interested to see what innovations emerge when locking up large numbers of people becomes too expensive, too unpopular, and too ineffective to continue. 

You are teaching CJ 555: Making a Difference in Criminal Justice. What are some of the public policy topics you focus on in your class?

In CJ 555, we explore the role of leadership in the criminal justice policymaking process. As such, we don’t focus on a specific policy topics as much as the different parts of the process and the factors for consideration when designing and implementing policies and programs. But because of the focus on process, we can explore case studies from different aspects of the criminal justice system – from policing to prison – and extract lessons from real world examples to meet the course learning objectives. Two of the recurring themes in my class this term are 1) the similarities between public health planning and criminal justice planning, and 2) the politics and policy debates around the First Step Act, a federal prison reform bill that I helped negotiate with the White House, Congress, and advocacy organizations.

What are some of the ways that leaders can influence policy initiatives? 

I tell my students all the time that there is no public policy without politics and public opinion. So leaders need to be exceptional communicators with a high level of awareness of the political climate in order to effect positive policy changes. Too often, technocratic leaders tend to identify a policy that solves a problem without paying enough attention to the court of public opinion, the typical need for compromise, and the importance of framing. To influence policy initiatives, leaders must think more holistically about the votes that their opponents and the public get on whether the initiative in question ever gets implemented.

Why are you passionate about preparing future leaders in the Criminal Justice system?

I’m most passionate about helping prepare leaders who are compassionate, ethical, and incorporate scholarship into their decisions and policies. That is, I hope students leave my class as technocrats with a soft spot for their fellow citizens. Too often, policymakers lean too heavily on data and statistics to create policy or on the will of the public, practitioners, and activists to create new policies. Good leaders recognize you need to integrate healthy doses of both to create and implement good policy that achieves the desired outcomes. When they are out of balance, bad policy tends to be the product. Being this type of leader, however, requires compromises and a willingness to not let perfect be the enemy of good. So leaders must be ethical so that the tough decisions they make are guided by a commitment to doing the most good for those who need it most. I hope my students walk away understanding this responsibility they have as leaders in criminal justice.

Learn more about the MS in Criminal Justice program.

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