When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I'm not joking - I wanted to be a rock star. I was really into playing the guitar, and I was pretty good for my age. I was raised in a somewhat musical household. My grandmother was a radio cellist, which was an acceptable job for a woman in 1960s, 1950s Ohio. She continued being a radio cellist up until the point when my mum was an adolescent. So much so that it inspired my mum to look to be a professional musician, so she ended up going to the music conservatory at Oberlin.
Mum originally wanted to be a concert pianist. She showed up to the conservatory and within two weeks two things happened. Firstly, she’d been told by her professor that her hands were too small. And secondly, she was walking down the corridors of assorted rehearsal rooms, and she thought to herself, "Well, if these people are the ones I'm going to be going up against, and a lot of the people coming out of here, even they struggle, what hope do I have?" She didn't give up in that moment - she ended up getting a degree in piano performance - but she double-enrolled at the accompanying college and got another BA in music history.
She ended up doing a Fulbright, moving to Germany, becoming a musicologist, meeting my Dad, and having me. And some 15 years or so later, she finds her youngest son, me, sitting across from her in the living room, with a cracking voice and a pubescent disposition and attitude and associated impetuosity, asking about whether I could go to this newly established, unaccredited, wholly disreputable music school in the south of England, that was marketing itself as a school to turn people into rock musicians. To my knowledge, no one of repute has graduated from that place in the intervening years. But she put the kibosh on that idea.
Really what my parents said was, "Johann, you're going to go to college. You can continue this, and your music is a passion that's really important to nurture, but it's a part, rather than the whole. Bring that enthusiasm with you, but bring it to college." And so, I got to college and the first week I was there I was sitting at a party talking to a guy who ended up being one of my best friends. He revealed in our conversation that his big passion was playing blues music. We spent the rest of the night playing with one another, and ended up having a band that was probably one of the most memorable experiences in my college trajectory.
How did you decide to attend Haverford College?
Haverford is a microscopically small, liberal arts college just outside of Philadelphia with a Quaker tradition. Some members of my family, back in England, is Quaker and that's how we heard about Haverford. And true to form, I even had my own brief dalliance with Quakerism while I was at Haverford, but I couldn't get over the God stuff. It turns out, the God stuff is actually pretty central and it was all the fringe stuff that I liked.
I went to one of those private high schools in London that imposed an expectation upon you that you go to a respectable, household name institution. And I never fit into any of that. It always felt somehow alien to me. I think there was something in the choice to go to an obscure college that was not just deliberate but, in fact, central to its appeal. Haverford isn't a place where anyone gives a crap about what your grades are, or certainly what your grades were, so you just don't talk about them. That was a really great palate cleanser after the stuffiness that characterized where I went to high school in England.
How did you choose your major?
I was pretty committed to doing a foreign languages and literature major. I'm thinking about how to frame this as a strength, rather than a weakness - I was more committed to my community than I was to my studies when I started college. Academically, the idea of charting a path of not least but maybe lesser resistance seemed really appealing to me. I’d had plenty of training in different languages and I was pretty literarily minded at that point, so I was going to do some kind of Romance languages major, French and Italian and German, some combination of what’s clear to me now, in hindsight, was really just white people studies.
I realized, somewhere around sophomore or junior year, that I really hated a lot of the literature that I was being assigned to study. It just didn't do anything for me. At the same time, I was beginning to associate with a bunch of people who were sociology majors. I decided to take a sociology class, really kind of on a whim, and started getting hooked. Then, by dint of Haverford having one of these consortium agreements where I could take classes at Bryn Mawr or Swarthmore or UPenn, I ended up taking a couple of classes at UPenn where they had a criminology department.
I remember sitting in a class with a professor who had this extraordinarily seductive way of selling the material. As a 19 or 20-year-old, being told, "Here is a serious policy problem. Here are some things that you can commit yourselves to to fix some of those policy problems," that will seduce any 19, 20-year-old. And I was not an especially politically engaged late-adolescent.
But, the next semester, I found myself taking a class on religion and prison in America, for which I was making regular trips to Graterford Prison. Graterford is Pennsylvania's largest, oldest, most secure super-max, just outside of Philadelphia, and we would go hang out with a bunch of guys who had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. These guys, at least then, before the Supreme Court overturned LWOP sentences for kids, were going to die within those walls. And I, for the first time probably in my life, had a sense of professional, purposeful meaning.
I went back to that Penn professor and told him, "I'm interested - what do I need to do?" And he encouraged me to pursue this stuff at graduate school, which took me back to England.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I went straight into graduate school studying criminology at the University of Cambridge. So sociology takes as a premise that we are social beings and in order to understand behavior, we have to understand, first and foremost, that social feature. There's an old saying that the psychologist will study what's between your ears, and the sociologist will study everything else. It comes from the belief that there's a remarkable patterning to the way people interact with one another. Sociology is the study of those patterns.
Criminology is, as its originator first put it in the 1920s, “the scientific study of lawmaking, lawbreaking, and law applying.” It originates from the idea that criminal justice, like every other domain of public policy, is an institution that operates within an environment of scarce resources. So let's subject it to some kind of analysis where we can help figure out how people break laws, how we apply those laws, and how we help make society more just. Nowadays you have people who are interested in becoming cops or correctional officers or probation workers, and you have people who are interested in trying to help refine the system. You also have people who are trying to ask questions about whether those tools of control are, themselves, the problem.
The department at the University of Cambridge was very much committed to that same approach to thinking about the justice system that had first resonated with me while I was an undergrad. It was very committed to helping its students acquire the tools necessary to do that work of refinement.
I completed my master’s degree in the summer of 2009 when the recession hit, so I had a really nasty time getting a job straight after that. I was applying for jobs in nonprofits, civil service, think tanks, research institutes, essentially any kind of job that would allow me to use those kinds of tools that I had just picked up during my graduate education. So I found myself adrift for a year, before I eventually got a phone call, deus ex machina, saying, "Hey Johann, I've got some money for a research assistant working on a project helping build probation and parole systems across Europe. You want in?" And I said, "Absolutely," and, lo and behold, I found myself back at Cambridge.
In this instance, I was working to refine the operations of a bunch of Eastern European countries, which, in some instances, had no probation or parole system to speak of. You had kids being sent to prison, having awful things happen, and being released with no connective bridge back to their community. There was no infrastructure or resource apparatus to speak of. So I got to be part of a project that helped advise how to go about starting to build systems like that from scratch.
I worked there for three years, and I still stand by the work I did on that project. But it didn't occur to me at the time that there's something really strange about a 24-year-old kid sitting across the table from ministers of justice, counseling them about the direction that their justice policy should take. It didn't even occur to me in the moment that maybe there was something problematic about that.
At some level, this sparked a tension in my thinking, that maybe the style of policy reform that I was working to advance was somehow incomplete. What seemed not to add up at the time was that the kind of work that I was part of viewed the justice system as a series of inputs and outputs, and that if you refine each little cog, each input, you’ll get a better output. It's incremental, it's steady, but it's also very slow. And I was unsure about what are the questions that we're not allowing ourselves to ask. Like, for example, is this the machine that we actually want to be using? That seemed to me, at the time, not really a question that this whole style of policy reform was allowing me to ask.
And it was the growing sense of unease about the exclusion of different ways of thinking about the justice system, that ultimately led me to a point where, when my boss walked into my office and said, "Johann, I can't promote you any further. You need to get a doctorate. The question is, do you want to stay here in England?" I did not want to stay at that department, because I wanted to go somewhere that would allow me to think about criminal justice using a few more tools than the tools I was committed to at the time. The department that I find myself in now [at UC Berkeley] is one of very few departments that are equipped to help its students ask questions that seem less immediately exigent to a policymaker. Like, for example, "Who's sitting at the policy table?” because that, too, is a political question. The degree program itself is called Jurisprudence and Social Policy, and it’s one of only two PhD programs housed in law schools in the United States.
Academia is a really strange profession in that it front-loads the hardest thing you do as the first thing you do. You basically have to start your career writing your first book. After that, everything just gets easier. I'm at that stage where all I have left is to write the dissertation.
My dissertation takes as a premise that history works by accidents. That it could have very easily been the case that we didn't find ourselves in the position that we currently do, where it seems natural and inevitable that questions of justice policy, tax policy, homelessness, education, these questions seem like scientific questions to us. But it could have very easily been the case that we think of those not as scientific questions, but instead as political ones. That we're making decisions about who we are in our decisions about justice policy. We're saying something about ourselves, our justice system, our values. And what's most ingenious about that move is that that's still a political maneuver; it just doesn't look like one. That's the thrust of the dissertation.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
Something that I've been thinking about a lot in the past few months is the sense in which so many things that occupy me over the course of the day are a commitment to leaning in to all of the stumblings that I spend the rest of the day trying to understand. It's as though those stumblings are, themselves, the feature, rather than some kind of incidental byproduct.
To set that in contrast to what isn't a stumbling are those people whom we all encounter who seem to have all of the answers ready. Like the way I was describing myself across the table from those ministers of justice; beware the 24-year-old that thinks he has the answers. Where I am now, it's all of those stumblings, all of those uncertainties and indeterminancies, that's the only bit that's fun. That's the only thing that I'm here for anymore. Value the discomfort. It's the only place where growth happens.