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Humanizing Criminal Justice

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Apr 20, 2016

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Michael Sean SpenceFormer New York prosecutor Michael-Sean Spence ’04 could have hammered the owner of an auto repair and body shop in April 2014. The paper trail pointed to under reporting of close to $1 million in income from various insurance companies, and the Queens District Attorney's Office had a case for full restitution and incarceration.

But Spence considered other factors. The elderly defendant had cancer that required treatment, for example. And he had employees who would lose their jobs if the business failed. So Spence negotiated a settlement that allowed the man to pay the majority of what he owed without serving time.

“My goal is to make my state safer, while humanizing criminal justice,” Spence says.

Now as an Empire State Fellow appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, Spence has an opportunity to promote procedural justice on a larger scale.

The two-year fellowship, which started in September 2015, targets mid-career professionals identified as high-potential public servants. Already Spence has relocated to New York’s capital in Albany, where he interacts regularly with police chiefs, mayors, district attorneys, lawmakers and other community leaders.

Spence has friends who participated in the April 2015 march from New York to Washington, D.C., and he understands the rationale behind recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice. But he has found his voice working for change from the inside out.

“It’s about knowing when to protest and when to engage in conversation,” he says.

Spence says his passion for justice started at the University of Maryland, where he worked with administrators to address racial insensitivities that surfaced in 2003. “Even then, I did not run to protest, even though it was an option,” Spence says. “Instead I engaged the University’s VP of Student Affairs in a conversation to bring about change.”

Between classes at Smith, he served as Black Student Union president, vice president of the campus NAACP chapter and Concerts Director of Student Entertainment Events. He also worked in Van Munching Hall and landed summer internships at New York Life Insurance, WorldCom, Northrop Grumman and Fox. “I was very entrenched in the school, and I love it to this day,” he says.

After graduation Spence went straight to law school at Howard University. He says his business and legal background helped him launch his career, working closely with forensic accountants in the prosecution of organized tax evasion and commercial theft. “I can have a business perspective as well as a legal perspective,” Spence says.

The Empire State Fellowship will create new opportunities for Spence, but his focus will remain on procedural justice. “We must work to build legitimacy and trust,” he says. “The problem now is that people don’t trust the system.” /DJ/