An Unsung Hero in Our Midst: Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Man Who Dealt the Biggest Blow to Mass Incarceration

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.

At a time when alternative facts rule the day and the landmark achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, and democracy itself, are on life support, it’s important for those of us in the know and in the struggle to share stories of local victories and “profiles in courage” to fuel our hope for a better tomorrow (particularly as thousands of recent law school graduates sit and prepare for their bar exams). Indeed, two quotes come to mind — the first from the late critically acclaimed historian and social activist Howard Zinn, the second from the slain New York Senator and promising presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy:

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." -Howard Zinn
“Each time a man [or woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” -Robert F. Kennedy

One such man is Harvard Law Professor and Harvard College Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.

I first met Dean Sullivan seven years ago, at Morehouse College’s “A Candle in the Dark Gala,” where I was honored to introduce him as that year’s Bennie Leadership Award recipient (one of the college’s highest alumni awards). Well, seven years ago, Sullivan was 43 years-old and just a year into his historic appointment as the first African American Faculty Dean (formerly known as House Master) in Harvard’s nearly 400-year history.

In addition to his appointment as Faculty Dean of Winthrop House at Harvard College, he’d been recruited from the faculty of Yale Law School (where he won the award for outstanding teaching after his first year) to Harvard Law School by then-Harvard Law School Dean (now Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan – where he continues to serve as a senior member of the faculty and Faculty Director of both the Criminal Justice Institute and the Trial Advocacy Workshop; before Yale, he served as Director of the D.C. Public Defender Service, where he broke records for never losing a case for his indigent defendants; and before that, he was a visiting scholar for the Law Society of Kenya, where he sat on a committee charged with drafting a new constitution for Kenya.

Seven years ago, he’d achieved this and more, but seven years later, he has clearly established himself as a history-making social engineer (of course Charles Hamilton Houston reminds us that “a lawyer’s either a social engineer or a parasite on society”). Not only has he just completed a $300-million capital campaign to completely renovate Winthrop House, enabling New Winthrop to open to its 500-plus students, (historically diverse) faculty and staff next month (a year ahead of schedule), but he was also recently invited to give a TED Talk in Washington, DC on the news that he’d won the release of more wrongfully incarcerated individuals — over 6,000 — than arguably anyone in U.S. history.

Dean Sullivan at Harvard’s Commencement (Diploma Ceremony, Winthrop House).
Dean Sullivan at Harvard’s Commencement (Diploma Ceremony, Winthrop House).

In her zeitgeist-shifting book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander reveals how President Reagan's malicious drug war media offensive cultivated an implicit bias against blacks, "[leaving] little doubt about who the enemy was in the War on Drugs," to the point where by the time a 1995 survey (published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education) asked "Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?" 95% of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5% imagined other groups (of course multiple studies have now shown that whites use drugs at a similar or higher rate than blacks).

Consequently, with the presumption of "criminality" being ascribed to "blackness" in the public mind, "blackness" was increasingly met with the presumption of "guilt" (without due process/fair trial) in the criminal justice system — a fact evinced by the rise in both (1) support for the racially biased death penalty over the past decades since the "get tough"/drug war campaigns, and (2) wrongful criminal convictions since that time.

On the latter, with "Gideon's promise" in mind, Dean Sullivan answered Justice's call in 2014 by designing and implementing a Conviction Review Unit for the newly elected Brooklyn District Attorney. In its first year, Sullivan discovered over 10 wrongful convictions (which the DA ultimately vacated, exonerating some citizens who had served over 30 years behind bars) and issued a clarion call to district attorneys across the nation to follow suit — given the fact that out of 2,300 district attorney offices nationwide, just over a dozen had conviction integrity programs as of 2014. Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit went on to exonerate more wrongfully convicted persons and has become regarded as the model conviction integrity program in the nation. In fact, Sullivan was recently tapped by the newly elected District Attorney of Chicago’s Cook County (the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the nation) to revamp that office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, in hopes of ending Cook County’s reputation as the “wrongful conviction capital of the U.S.

Whether at the D.C. Public Defender Service or in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and the criminal justice crisis that came with it — where Sullivan was tasked to design an indigent defense delivery system that resulted in the release of nearly all the 6,000 inmates who lacked representation and whose official records were destroyed by the hurricane; whether in Brooklyn or in Chicago; whether at Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute — educating law school students through practice in representing Massachusetts’ indigent defendants or at the White House — serving on the team that represented former president Bill Clinton or serving as Chair of the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee for then-Senator Obama’s (his former law school classmate) presidential campaign, member of the National Legal Advisory Group for the Obama campaign, and Advisor to the Department of Justice Presidential Transition Team; whether representing 1 of the Jena 6, the family of Michael Brown, or star athletes like Aaron Hernandez — winning what many said was an unwinnable case due to Hernandez’s prior murder conviction (not to mention the bitter-sweet posthumous exoneration on that prior conviction) — Sullivan has clearly established himself as the Muhammad Ali in the fight against Mass Incarceration and, in so doing, inspired us all to “take a minute of each day to do some justice” (see the Ted Talk, below, that left many in tears and earned him the only standing ovation of the day).

Nevertheless, for all the heavy-lifting that Dean Sullivan and his contemporaries (those like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, whom Ava DuVernay’s riveting documentary, 13th, prominently feature) have done, we have our work cut out for us. But with the wisdom of Coretta Scott King in mind (“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”) we take solace in the fact best illustrated through the Latin metaphor “nanos gigantum humeris insidentes,” which essentially says that we, as small and powerless as we may seem, can see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants. And should we ever stumble or falter along the way, we’ll look back, in Sankofa fashion, to glean from the luminous blueprint that these giants have left for us.

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