Behind the Scenes with Nick Turner: Justice Reform Edition

Janaisa Walker
July 5, 2016

Nick TurnerNicholas Turner, President of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, has a job that includes grappling with some of the most controversial issues of fairness and justice facing our nation today. This is not an easy job and it’s not hard to imagine that it takes a toll emotionally. Nevertheless, he’s humble and open — so much so that he is willing to take time out of his (busy) day to sit down with me, an 18-year-old who is interested in justice reform.

After just a few minutes of talking, it’s clear that Nick is a parent before anything else, and a natural mentor. As he gave me pointers on pursuing a career as a lawyer and advocating for youth justice reform, he often referred back to his children and the things he tells them all the time One bit of life advice: never get to set in your plans, be flexible and adaptable while staying true to your passion.

As the leader of a 55-year-old nonprofit that is both well-established and pushing boundaries when it comes to justice reform, I imagine he lives that advice himself.  He and the Vera staff I met (and interviewed) are passionate about fixing what’s broken in our justice system.


Q: Tell  us about your career pathway: What did you study in college and what advice do you have for young people who are interested in careers in the justice field?

For someone who has spent close to 25 years working for social change, it may not be predictable that I studied things in college that do not necessarily relate. I was a history major, and took a lot of art history. My passion was modern European cultural and political history, although a class that was probably one of the more influential for me was a 21stCentury African American history class. Mine was a classic liberal arts education; I studied what inspired me and what I wanted to learn about, and in the process, I grew and learned to think and developed intellectual curiosity.

From college I returned to my hometown, Washington DC, where I worked for four years as a counselor and program director for Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an organization that helped teens and their families who were dealing with crises. I suppose it was a logical manifestation of the passion I drew from the African American history class I took my senior year.

My best advice for students is to think broadly and to pursue intellectual growth with curiosity and openness. I do not think you need to spend your college years preparing for a career in justice. Rather, take classes that inspire you, even if they have nothing to do with your later career, and better yet if they don’t. Once you leave college you will have less chance to grow and explore.

Q: How would you describe your job, and what’s the best thing about your work day?

My workday is extremely crowded and full of lots of different tasks. That’s what I like about being President of Vera. I help colleagues shape new projects; I supervise them in their work. I hire people and coach them through their careers.

I shape the direction of the organization not only in terms of the kind of work we do, but in terms of the kind of place we want to be. I have to raise money from foundations, government and individuals, which I enjoy a lot because it means connecting with people and helping them figure out how Vera and I can help them change the world for the better. A lot of people don’t like fundraising, but I do. When you are raising money for a good thing, a thing that produces positive societal change and affects people's lives for the better, it is a joy.

Q: What are the biggest movements right now to restore justice and fix the system? What issues are you most concerned about?

The two biggest movements are to roll back mass incarceration and to improve American policing. Both of them are really tough problems because they have developed for years, decades really. And frankly, if you see them as being connected to racism in our country, which I do, the problems find their roots hundreds of years ago. So the question is: How do you practically and concretely make change in things that have taken so long to develop and that most Americans were satisfied with for years? It is a really complicated problem.

A lot of people think that tough police tactics and imprisoning lots of people were important to reductions in crime we’ve experienced in the past two decades. But both were less important than people think, and in some ways both are counterproductive when it comes to safety, but that is a complicated argument that is hard for people to grasp.

Q: What solution(s) are you watching or working on?

[Vera and our partners] are working on a number of things to make a difference. They range from helping the police hold themselves accountable for improving community trust in what they do, to working to end over-incarceration at the local level— for example, through bail reform, diverting people who have behavioral health or substance abuse challenges.

We are also improving conditions of confinement so that people who are punished by being incarcerated are not further punished by the conditions they must live in. On that last piece, we are working hard to end the overuse of solitary confinement and we are working to return college education to prison, which the federal government de-funded 22 years ago.


janaisa walker

Janaisa Walker, the SparkAction Journalism and Advocacy Fellow Spring-Summer 2016, is a student at Syracuse University.