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UB Law launching Center for Criminal Justice Reform with event examining Gun Trace Task Force

The University of Baltimore School of Law is home to a new Center for Criminal Justice Reform that will focus on improving public safety and addressing the harms caused by the legal system.

The center’s first event will examine a recently released investigation into the disgraced Gun Trace Task Force unit of the Baltimore Police Department. The author of the extensive report, former DOJ Inspector General Michael Bromwich, will present findings and answer questions from community members.

The Center for Criminal Justice Reform and the Office of the Public Defender will host the discussion on Feb. 22 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

This type of event exemplifies the goals of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said Heather Warnken, the center’s executive director.

“We wanted to revive an opportunity for the community and others who are working on these issues every day to have access to the lead investigator and author of this report and engage him in a robust dialogue about the findings,” Warnken said.

Heather Warnken was named the executive director of the new Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

The Center for Criminal Justice Reform is launching with help from a $2 million donation from Baltimore Law alumnus Samuel G. Rose, of the class of ’62. Rose received his law degree while attending night classes and had a career in commercial real estate.

“While there is more attention being paid to the criminal justice system these days, from my perspective it can only help to have The University of Baltimore School of Law focused on these issues in every way possible,” Rose said in a news release.

“It’s both exciting and gratifying to support efforts to improve the lives of individuals — the wrongly accused and the excessively punished — while working more broadly to influence local and national policy around violence prevention, mass incarceration, juvenile justice, and more.”

Warnken said she hopes the new center will serve as a “convener” — a place where community members can talk with government entities and decisionmakers about reforms to the legal system.

“This is really about partnering in ways that have a tangible effect that can be felt in people’s lives, especially people directly impacted by the harm of the criminal legal system,” Warnken said.

Warnken joined the center this year after working as a visiting fellow with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, where she studied how to assist communities and individuals affected by crime victimization.

The Center for Criminal Justice Reform has already begun work on several initiatives, Warnken said. The center is partnering with New York University to determine strategies for reducing gun violence in Baltimore without contributing to mass incarceration. The Department of Justice has also provided funding for the center to examine ways that criminal justice funds can be used to reduce racial disparities, as well as how to make the grant-making process more equitable.

A group of UB Law students are also working with the Office of the Public Defender to seek the release of prisoners serving long sentences they received for crimes committed as juveniles. The project became possible after last year’s passage of the Juvenile Restoration Act, which allows minors who were sentenced as adults to request sentence reductions after serving 20 years.

The center will also make evidence-based policy recommendations and will work to redefine existing narratives about the legal system and Baltimore, said David Jaros, the center’s faculty director. A punitive approach to crime, for example, has not led to safer communities, he said.

“Some of the initial work that these projects relate to (involve) breaking down that false dichotomy between victims and people who are involved in perpetrating crime,” Jaros said. “This is, in fact, the same community. Dealing with these problems means not separating things into bad guys and good guys.”

Jaros also acknowledged that both he and Warnken are white, and will be working on issues that primarily affect people of color in a city that is majority Black.

“We’re aware that that creates a special obligation to lift up all kinds of voices, but also to make sure that we are responding to what the community is defining as their needs and interests, rather than dictating what those needs and interests are,” he said.