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Alice Mahoney / Senior Staff Photographer

Students walk by the School of Social Work on Amsterdam Avenue and 121st Street. Administrators behind the school's Criminal Justice Initiative are looking to publicize the program.

A year into their pilot program, the School of Social Work administrators behind the Criminal Justice Initiative are looking to publicize the initiative by launching a new website early next month.

The website, which goes live Dec. 9, is intended to increase exposure for the initiative by highlighting faculty and student research and promoting new courses and activities.

Samuel Roberts, policy coordinator of the initiative and a professor of history and sociomedical sciences, said the program helps find ways to improve the treatment of people who have shown positive change serving long sentences in New York state prisons.

“The system itself is not only unjust and frequently not rehabilitative, it is also fiscally unsustainable and morally indefensible,” Roberts said, adding that he believes mass incarceration is one of the greatest engines of social inequality in the United States. 

“Addressing this means taking on thorny questions which are not currently part of our political and social discussion,” he said.

Project manager Cameron Rasmussen,  Social Work '13, said one of the unique features of the growing initiative is its drive to collaborate with the community, or people directly affected by incarceration, and community organizations working around these issues. 

“We're thinking nationally, but acting locally,” Rasmussen said. Administrators are inviting people in the neighborhoods around Columbia to meetings. 

“The overall mission of the initiative is to reduce reliance on incarceration, and challenge the use of punishment as the primary tool by which we deal with societal challenges,” he said.

The new website will help further this goal by making what's happening at Columbia accessible to a larger group of people. In addition to criminal justice courses and research, the site will promote yearlong film and speaker series. There will be several film screenings in the spring and three or four next fall.

“There will also be a talk-back after the screening, and a space for all audience members to talk amongst themselves in order to foster discussion about criminal justice,” Rasmussen said.

A launch event for the website, as well as for the first speakers and films, is being planned for February in order to formally introduce the CJI to campus.

As the initiative grows, Rasmussen wants to increase the number of students directly involved. 

Intern Skye Ross, Public Health/Social Work '15, has enjoyed working with educators and researchers from across schools at Columbia to tackle the issues that arise with mass incarceration.

“As a student, I feel like my voice is heard and that my opinion matters, even though I clearly have less experience in the field,” Ross said, comparing herself to the other people in the initiative. “I'm learning in every meeting I attend, and there are so many opportunities to learn more.”

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