Local Politics and Criminal Justice Reform with Mohammed Alam

April 6, 2017

Mohammed Alam with the Manhattan Young Democrats at the Women's March in Washington, DC, January, 21, 2017.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast. I'm Alex Woodson.

Today I'm joined by Mohammed Alam. Mohammed is external affairs manager at the Center for Court Innovation, vice president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, and political director of New York State Young Democrats.

Thanks for coming by today, Mohammed.

MOHAMMED ALAM: Thank you for having me, Alex.

ALEX WOODSON: We'll get into the Trump administration and some of the day-to-day issues that you've been working with at the Center for Court Innovation and with the Democratic Party.

But first, what does the Center for Court Innovation do and what is your role there?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Before I start, I'd just like to say that these views are personal. Anything I say isn't representative of the organizations I represent.

My day-to-day job at the Center for Court Innovation: We have 23 different projects that the Center for Court Innovation focuses on, one of the projects being the Midtown Community Court, which is where I'm based. I do a broad range of activities, from building relationships with the community, expanding ongoing relationships that we already have, talking to elected officials about criminal justice reform legislation; I'm working with various senior staff on fundraising, securing grant money, and working on developing new projects.

Every now and then we'll see a problem within the justice system and we'll work with a team to develop a new program to address those problems.

ALEX WOODSON: How did you end up there?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Most of my criminal-justice-leaning identity started in college. Around sophomore-junior year I began hosting "Know Your Rights" forums on campus. After previously being stopped-and-frisked a few times, I figured, being that I went to university in Harlem, that the community really needs to be aware of what their rights are, to be aware of how to interact with the police, and build relationships in those communities. That's when that work began.

Once I graduated, a friend of mine sent me a link to this organization and said, "This is right up your alley." I applied, and that was it.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to start off very broadly, the federal government and a lot of local governments too have gone through a dramatic change in the last few months. How has that affected your work at the Center for Court Innovation?

MOHAMMED ALAM: I haven't seen an immediate effect as of yet. But we do know that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has various grant programs that they do give to organizations like ours. So maybe in the near future we might be seeing some budgetary restrictions on our end, especially after the president released his "skinny budget" and it included a drastic reduction in the Department of Justice. That will directly affect the amount of money they give to other programs that do this type of work.

ALEX WOODSON: So it is taking a little while to filter down to your level?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Yes. We don't expect it to happen for a little bit, but we keep in mind that it's coming down.

ALEX WOODSON: So you mentioned the Department of Justice and Jeff Sessions is the new head of the Department of Justice, the attorney general.

It was really interesting. I was watching a video on the Center for Court Innovation website explaining your mission. There are interviews with some of the people that the Center has worked with, people who support the Center. Michael Bloomberg made an appearance; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker; and there was also Eric Holder, who was Obama's attorney general. I don't think Jeff Sessions would appear on a Center for Court Innovation video—I could be wrong.

I'll just read from a Brennan Center report that came out in January: "Sessions appears to subscribe to outdated ideas about criminal justice policy that conservatives, progressives, and law enforcement have come to agree do not help reduce crime and unnecessarily increase the prison population. His views place him at odds with top Republicans and the current cross-partisan movement to reform the justice system."

As you were saying, you haven't really been affected by the changes in the DOJ. But just knowing Sessions' background and what he has been saying, what concerns you about his appointment?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Personally, everything about his background concerns me, from his very public history of having tensions with the black community, his outdated ideas of criminal justice, his unfavorable stance on racial justice in general. He is currently going through reviews of police/community relations and whether the DOJ should investigate police precincts for any type of discrimination, and we expect that he is not leaning towards the policies that the Obama administration had.

Every one of his proposed ideas seem to be problematic for any type of justice reform work. If anything, we are largely concerned that he might be taking us back several decades with progressive reform.

ALEX WOODSON: One thing that the Brennan Center pointed out—and that, as someone who really wants to see criminal justice reform myself, is something that made me excited—was that it seemed like there was a bipartisan movement towards this in the last few years. Maybe that has been overstated a little bit. But I know, for example, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has been very outspoken about that.

With the new attorney general, does that momentum just stop, or are there things that can happen at a state and local level to keep the momentum going?

MOHAMMED ALAM: I think it's twofold. One is that the DOJ played a very, very large role in national reform, and we don't expect them to play that role for the time being. It seems as though the administration is currently against the views of a majority of the people in the country. Most people throughout the United States want some type of reform. They are aware that in the way people get arrested and the way people are treated by law enforcement, the way people enter the court system, there are processes broken throughout all of these things. So everyone is aware that some reform needs to happen.

Right now focusing on local and state issues matters more because we don't see the federal government as an ally in this fight. At the same time, they control a lot of the narrative.

Obama released an executive order saying that the federal government will not privatize their federal prisons. We saw Attorney General Sessions immediately rewrote that. That's one major enactment in which they have proven to us that they will not be an ally. They're okay with privatized prisons, which is a large concern in the fight for criminal justice reform. But right now within the State of New York we are pushing for "raise the age," because it is one of the few states that doesn't have progressive policies around incarcerating children, seeing 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and trying them as that.

Recently, the Lippman commission released a report recommending to the city that we close down Rikers Island. Over the next decade, they will be doing that as well. The organization I work for was a partner in the Lippman commission, so we presented all of those.

ALEX WOODSON: Another thing you mentioned was the skinny budget. Trump has reallocated money in a lot of different ways in his budget. One of the biggest headlines about New York City in particular is that it is taking a lot of money away from anti-terrorism programs.

But for the Center for Court Innovation, for the work that you are doing, what specifically are you worried about with that budget?

MOHAMMED ALAM: I don't have an overall view of how our budgetary process breaks down, but we do receive grants from the Office of Justice program, which is within the DOJ. That helps us develop some of the programming that we do in order to address incarceration of [adolescents and young adults], address human trafficking issues, address procedural justice issues. From entering the court all the way to the sentencing there are multiple processes that the people in question don't understand, so we try a lot to remodel that so it can be more restorative instead of just punitive right off the bat.

All of these programs might be affected. We can't say for certain right now, but we expect that to happen at some point.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to change the subject a little bit to your work with the Manhattan Young Democrats and with the New York State Young Democrats. I'm sure this is an incredibly busy time for you.

What have you been focusing on with your work? How do you cut through everything and just get a job done?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Ironically, I was elected the vice president of the Manhattan Young Democrats two weeks after Election Day in November, and so coming into the role knowing that we have an enormous fight against us helped me refocus what my goals are for the next year that I serve in this role.

A lot of what we have been focusing on right now is rebuilding our grassroots network. We have seen that the national party, for all the great work that they did, we still lost the election. So we have to go back to our roots and start winning the fight locally and on the state level before we can reconvene on the federal level.

In that role, we focus on what we call the Open Seat Project. The goal of the Open Seat Project is to recruit and train young professionals to run for very local, small-level seats. New York County has its own Democratic Party, the Manhattan Democratic Party, and within that county they have county membership seats that you have to be elected for. We're training our members to petition, to fundraise, to go out there and knock on doors, build a small campaign, so they can get elected to country membership. Once they are on the country board of the party, they can start running for district leaders and higher-up offices; hopefully one day City Council, State Senate and Assembly.

All of these things—so we are trying to build up from a very, very local level and having what they call "building the bench," and we are trying to provide the Democratic Party with a large bench.

ALEX WOODSON: What have you seen from the people who are getting involved in politics now? Is there a common thread among them?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Yes. The one common thread is that they feel—I mean we all feel—both angry, a little bit of betrayal, confusion, between everything that has happened within our party, within the nation. I think everyone was so set on us winning that they didn't really think about what would happen if we did lose, and now we are seeing the consequences of what happens.

Our job right now as the national party, the state party, the local party, is to hone in on the people who feel that way and bring them back into the fold so we can have them be a part of the reform, be a part of the movement for change, both in how our party operates and in running for office.

ALEX WOODSON: I read just anecdotally that there has been a huge—it might be hard for you to say—increase in people who are wanting to run for office. Have you seen that as well?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Yes. We have seen a massive spike in people who have been wanting for run for office for every level. In New York City specifically—it's hard to view this because we live in somewhat of a bubble—if you're not a Democrat and you are running for office in New York City, it's hard. But, at least on the city level, we have City Council members who are term-limited, so several of them are going to vacate their seats, and a lot of people are running for City Council. We have district leaders who are all up for election this year, and a lot of people are running for that. We're training people to run for county committee seats.

But throughout the whole country we have seen just a massive increase in interest in running for office. We're working with organizations like She Should Run or Run for Something, to partner with them in training new candidates and giving them the materials they need to get into office and join this larger resistance.

ALEX WOODSON: Going forward in these elections, what do you think is the effective way to get elected? Obviously, what was just tried in November didn't work. So what are some new strategies that you're thinking about?

MOHAMMED ALAM: We're learning as we go. But what we do know is that we have to focus our efforts more locally than we have to nationally. We know that there are congressional elections coming on and there are currently a few special elections happening for House races.

But other than that, we have to work on rebuilding right now, and not two years from now and not four years from now. Us focusing on the presidential election only is what got us into this problem in the first place, that we've lost all of these local and state seats. The Republican Party has a majority of most state legislators, which allowed them to have a majority of most state secretaries, and secretaries of state are the individuals who control voting laws, have a massive influence on voter registration and voter IDs. This gradual loss of state and local seats is what created this problem. So we have to now go back and individualize what each city and what each state needs specifically and redirect those resources there.

ALEX WOODSON: You just mentioned that we kind of live in a bubble here in New York City. That is actually something we were talking about before the podcast started. It can seem like New York City is just this liberal bastion—New York State even, with Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand and representatives like Joe Crowley and Nydia Velazquez. But that's not exactly the case. I think some people might not realize the state issues that are going on in New York State. Could you explain why it's not the dreamland for Democrats that some people think it is?

MOHAMMED ALAM: It hurts me to say this, too, because I love the City of New York and I see it as kind of the progressive capital of the country. But it's not as perfect as people might think it is. Even though we have all of these amazing Democrats and liberal leaders in office, we have a lot of issues on the state level and within the party itself.

We don't have a majority of the State Senate, which creates various issues when we are trying to pass legislation.

There are a few problems behind why our state is not as liberal as we normally think it is. It is because, in addition to the Republicans controlling the State Senate, there's a faction of the Democratic Party where individuals who deem themselves independent Democrats—they call themselves the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC)—run as Democrats but they don't work with the Democrats. They get elected on a Democratic Party line, but once they're elected they caucus only with the Republicans, which means they support most, if not all, of the Republican ideals in the State Senate. So we technically have a majority, but several of our members have defected.

That creates a problem of leadership. That creates a problem of legislation. All of these issues create a lot of the identity problems that the state party is going through, because everyone is going at each other and nothing is really happening.

ALEX WOODSON: Just a few months into the Trump administration, a few more months after the election, what do you think the feeling is among the Young Democrats in New York and in New York City? Are you hopeful for the upcoming elections? You mentioned you felt a sense of betrayal in some ways. Are you optimistic?

MOHAMMED ALAM: Optimistic for local upcoming elections or national upcoming elections?

ALEX WOODSON: I guess both. I follow politics pretty closely, but I'm not really involved in these discussions with the Democratic Party. What are the discussions that are going on now? I would hope that the shock has worn off and everyone is working hard right now.

MOHAMMED ALAM: Yes, everyone is working really hard right now. But I don't think the shock has worn off. The current administration is very effective at continually shocking people. So we're always on the edge of our seats; we're always going through these 24-hour cycles of craziness and confusion as to what's going to come next.

I would like to think we're optimistic about the future, especially with the sheer number of people who have been wanting to get involved. While the Manhattan Young Democrats is already a large organization, since Election Day we have had several hundred new members join our organization. The same thing with the New York State Young Democrats and the same thing with the Young Democrats of America, our national organization. To have that massive increase of involvement, we know that we have the momentum to possibly change things. So that's why I'm optimistic.

ALEX WOODSON: Just a final question. What's in the future for you? Do you see yourself running for office one day?

MOHAMMED ALAM: I don't see myself running for office. I like to be the political strategist. I want to help build things; I want to help build a movement, build campaigns. At least in the immediate future I am going to go to law school. Once I get out of law school I'll probably focus a lot on civil rights injustices and criminal justice reform, so continue the work I'm doing but expand it into protecting the rights of individuals who have been discriminated against, and then within that, hopefully, work on finding progressive candidates to run for office and support that work.

ALEX WOODSON: Mohammed Alam, thank you very much for joining us on the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast.

MOHAMMED ALAM: Thank you so much for having me.

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