During a summer dominated by media attention on “stop and frisk” laws and the George Zimmerman trial, Karol Mason was sworn in as the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs. She oversees an annual budget of more than $2 billion to support state, local and tribal criminal justice agencies, juvenile justice programs and research initiatives. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has aggressively launched criminal justice overhauls, announcing last week, for example, that Justice will stop pursuing mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level nonviolent drug offenders. The interview with Mason has been edited.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in office?
After I was sworn in on June 3, I met with office and bureau deputies to see what they thought was important. I had seven town hall meetings to catch the rest of the employees and a series of three-day listening sessions with stakeholders. One of the things I came away with is that . . . I represent the good work of lots of very talented people. We have wonderful partners out in the community interested in rolling up their sleeves. The listening sessions are so important. We don’t have as much money as we would like. But the people who aren’t receiving as much money are just as excited to see what we’re doing.
It shows we’re all excited about what we’re doing.
How do you pick programs to fund?
Most money is formula money through the Bureau of Justice Assistance Grants. Formula money is given to states and allocated down to local government. The second chunk of formula money we give is through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency. The discretionary funds aren’t as robust as we would like, but we use them in a way that will maximize what we can do in a community. We would like to ask people to be thoughtful about alternatives to incarceration. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) is figuring out the best way to solve criminal justice issues. We have a focus on mental health, drugs.
We have to look at what the underlying issue is. There is a disproportionate number of minority youth in our corrections and juvenile justice system. We ask the states to use the formula money we give them to examine their processes and address that.
Your office’s research says African American youth are arrested more than twice as often as white youth. In his remarks after George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, President Obama said the country needs to think about how to “bolster and reinforce” African American boys. What is your office doing in response?
One role that the Office of Justice already plays and will continue to play is how do we make our young men of color feel valued? The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Education Department and the Administration for Children and Families [are] working to prevent circumstances where kids come in contact with the criminal juvenile justice system, and if they do, how to deal with them. For me, incarceration is the last resort. How do we create environments where they’re successful? We fund mentoring programs. The Department of Education looks at supportive school discipline . . . .
We are working with them to make sure discipline issues in our schools are treated as discipline issues and not as criminal justice issues.
Obama also said the DOJ should work on law enforcement training to reduce mistrust in the justice system. What is being done on that front?
One of the questions that came up in the listening session was: What role can the Office of Justice Programs and its partners play in the dialogue about how to increase public confidence in law enforcement? Through programs in the Office for Victims of Crime and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, we have ideas to improve communities and law enforcement. The system works when everyone thinks the system is fair. As in, even if the conclusion isn’t what you’d like, you trust the process.
What does that look like to you?
Research shows that when you treat people with respect, they trust the system. We facilitate the training that helps people come up with practices that demonstrate respect. We approach it from the victim’s side as well. If you build victim confidence and how law enforcement responds to their needs, that builds trust. Harvard’s executive policing training has disseminated best practices, and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office is very involved in this as well. They’ve got a lot of information about what works and what doesn’t.
Given the controversy regarding “stop and frisk” laws and the residual anger over the Zimmerman case, how do you reconcile your work with the negative perceptions people might have of law enforcement?
I have a different perspective in life. I look at it as an opportunity. People care about the issue of law enforcement now. It’s at the front of what they’re thinking and it gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about what we know works. The law enforcement community is eager to show what they understand and what we can do.
As former deputy associate attorney general, you gained a lot of experience working with tribal communities. What was that like?
The country has come a long way, and we’re facing a lot of challenges as a nation to achieve equal treatment for everyone. For the first Americans, that continues to be a challenge and continues to be important. . . .There’s a big gap in how Native American and Alaska natives experience the criminal justice system.
A significant number of Native American women have been victims of or have been exposed to sexual assault. That served as a foundation for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and its additional protections. One of the things we can do through our programs is to provide resources that address the full spectrum of issues, including law enforcement, juvenile justice, victims services and sexual-assault nurse examination training. We put a lot of focus on how to combine resources across all grant programs for how we can address these issues on a holistic and systemic basis.
What did you do specifically?
What we did under Attorney General Holder was to consolidate tribal-specific grant programs under one specific solicitation. In the past, we had multiple grant programs and funding streams, and tribes would have to apply separately for each grant program. In response to the tribes’ request for more flexible funding to address their criminal justice needs, the department decided to make it easier for tribal government to apply for grants by putting them under one umbrella called the Combined Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS).
How was that received by the tribal community?
We saw an increase in the number of tribes that we reached through the CTAS application process. Numbers aside, the biggest benefit has been tribes implementing thoughtful strategic planning so that people think more holistically of what they need, so we fund what they have identified as a strategic plan.
What inspired you for your line of work?
I’m a child of the ’60s. I remember the excitement around the 1963 March on Washington. I was too young to go, but I remember the excitement of the African American community around the march. For me, I grew up in a time period where the Justice Department, particularly the Civil Rights Division, was viewed as responsible for the change happening in the country. For me to have the opportunity to come to work at the Department of Justice was the culmination of a dream. I am not a litigator, so it wasn’t an opportunity that I would have had. Fortunately, one of the things I was assigned was to oversee all the grant programs. To be in that position is my dream job because it’s the place to really make a difference in everyday people’s lives.