SAE is incredibly pleased to be spotlighting Marc Levin, one of our firm’s most prestigious criminal justice system experts. Mr. Levin has 15 years of experience consulting for and directing the development programs of non-profit health, behavioral health, criminal justice and human rights organizations, during which he raised over $50 million from U.S. government agencies, European governments, the UN and World Bank, and over 25 U.S. foundations. Prior to entering the development field, Marc worked for 22 years as a social worker in the mental health field as a clinician specializing in children and adolescents, as a mental health center director, and as a faculty member of several NY-area graduate schools of social work. Mr. Levin has also served as a consultant to hospitals, schools and social service agencies on how to promote the mental health of children and families, and co-established the first county jail mental health program in New Jersey.
SAE’s Project Manager had the opportunity to interview Mr. Levin about his fascinating road to social work practice and then later, development and consulting. Below is a brief transcription of SAE’s Interview with Mr. Levin.
Marc Levin – M
Kristan McIntosh (SAE Project Manager) – K
K: Let’s start with a little bit of background. You’re a social worker by training right? What made you first decide to become a social worker?
M: Social work actually wasn’t what I started out thinking that I wanted to do. I received my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, and after college, while I was working in the South Bronx as a VISTA volunteer during the height of the Vietnam War, I was drafted into the U.S. Army. I reported for induction but announced that I was refusing to serve, was prosecuted and sentenced to prison. That decision changed my life. I served most of my sentence in a medium security federal prison and experienced what most U.S. prisoners do: a correctional system that foments violence and racial division and undermines self-esteem. When I was released it was difficult to find work that met the conditions of my parole. Typical of what most people with felony convictions experience I could not even land a position as a night clerk in a hospital pharmacy. The HR interviewer there suggested instead that I meet with the hospital’s Social Work Director. I was skeptical at first—I knew I did not have anything close the required MSW education and experience—but some wonderful people took a chance on me. I spent four wonderful years there in the Dept. of Psychiatry –at first working on a locked forensic ward- that led me to Hunter’s School of Social Work where I received my MSW in 1974. After Hunter I was fortunate to work in several different capacities as a social worker, including mental health center children’s clinician, community organizer and eventually clinic director, social work educator, private practitioner and program development consultant.
K: So was it your time in prison that led you to become more interested in the criminal justice field specifically?
M: My own personal experiences while in prison certainly inform my criminal justice work now. I found it specifically significant to see what happens to mentally ill people who are imprisoned. It was horrific 45 years ago, and as the recent headlines about Riker’s Island demonstrate, little has changed to reduce their victimization. After over 20 years of doing direct service work, I decided to make the change to development, which led in 2010 to signing on as the part-time Development Director at The Sentencing Project. I had known about their remarkable mix of research and advocacy work for some time. For a long time they were a rare, but unwavering voice for criminal justice reform. They are small—11 staff in all—but their impact is remarkable. This past year their work was cited and their staff interviewed more than 200 times various media outlets. My role with them involves helping them obtain what is mostly foundation funding, as well as overseeing their individual giving program.
K: And you’ve been a Consultant with SAE for over five years now as well.
M: I really enjoy my work with SAE for a couple reasons. I always feel well-supported by SAE’s staff and fellow consultants, and I have definitely learned a lot. Each project that I do builds on knowledge gained from the one before.
K: One of my favorite projects that we worked on together was your successful DOJ Justice and Mental Health Collaboration project with the New Orleans Public Health Department. As I remember, there were numerous stakeholders involved in that one, all of whom were coming together to meet a very real need in that city during 2012. What was that experience like?
M: That project was a challenging but very rewarding one. Compounding the challenges that the City of New Orleans was experiencing within their justice system at the time, was the fact that Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city. For example, more than half of the psychiatrists who fled the storm did not return. Jails, clinics and record systems were heavily damages as well. They really hadn’t yet recovered by the time this Department of Justice opportunity came around. However, we had the opportunity to work with an incredible group of professionals who were really smart, creative and passionate about the work that they were doing. The Department of Public Health had brought people from all walks of life from the community together to think about how they could improve the city’s criminal justice system. This project built off of that base. One of the reasons I think that project was so successful is that we had the right people at the table involved in planning. They had an amazing vision, and I was able to bring my knowledge of other places where this kind of community based advisory model had worked. The timeframe was quite tight, but with this team we were really able to think about how to make this as effective as possible and then put it to paper in the form of a funded proposal. The project is now in its second year.
K: In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing issues facing the criminal justice system today?
M: Well I have to start out by saying that criminal justice system experts are all pinching themselves today because momentum for reform has increased dramatically over the past three years. Some of the issues actually have bipartisan support. I think this is due to the decades of careful research and targeted advocacy that The Sentencing Project and others have put in, combined with the economic disaster that has made states to ask hard questions about how they should spend their tax revenues. However, it’s not all good news. The Smarter Sentencing Act Bill that was designed to reform sentencing practices with respect to drug offenses and to increase investment in community-based services has stalled in Congress. And even though the number individuals in U.S. jails and prisons have stabilized over the past three years, the United States still has more people incarcerated (2.2 million) than any other country in the world, maintains the highest rate of incarceration as well. We are also the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole. Another major issue that needs far more attention is the horrific conditions that exist inside most prisons, particularly when it comes to the use of solitary confinement. Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day, including some 25,000 (10,000 of whom have a severe mental illness) in long-term solitary in “supermax” prisons. Another issue that needs greater attention is the pervasiveness and culture of silence surrounding of sexual assault in correction facilities—half of which are committed by correctional staff on prisoners.. The good news is these issues are now on the map and people—even politicians– are not as afraid to talk about them like they used to be.
One challenge that people are finally beginning to talk about more is racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, which are just now beginning to narrow. But there are systematic barriers to justice that play out often along racial lines. The Sentencing Project just came out with a report on this called Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies. People don’t like to talk much about race, so I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of media coverage the report has gained. The effects of incarceration on people who are serving time and on their families is so enormous that it’s critical we take the time to take a hard look at our systematic discrimination.
K: Before this interview, I pulled Steve Estrine, SAE’s CEO, aside and asked him to describe you. His words were, “Cool, Calm, and Collected,” which is quite true! How do you manage to maintain your cool with so much going on?
M: Did he really say that? I think I have a greater ability to remain calm now that I am older. I also have learned to minimize stress by not taking on projects that are not a true fit with my expertise, and balancing work and the rest of what is ultimately important. The nice thing is that I enjoy the work that I do and I really do see an impact of what I am doing. Sometimes there will be a stressful tight turnaround grant writing project that gives me a moment of panic, but then I take a deep breath and ask myself, “How many times have you done this before?” Also, I think being in therapy longer than Woody Allen has certainly been helpful in my ability to stay calm. [Laughs]
K: As you know, SAE has two social work graduate student interns this year (which we are very excited about!). If you were asked to give some words of wisdom to those who are just beginning in the field, what would you say?
M: I would encourage them to really work hard to stay self aware throughout their careers. Because the work we do as social workers involves the well-being of people, we have a duty to be highly responsible and self-aware. We should examine relentlessly what we are doing, why we are doing it, and the impacts that our actions have. Good supervision and continuous learning are really important in this regard.
K: Thanks, Marc, for all of your hard work and passion for the work that we do! I really feel as though it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to work with you, now and moving forward, in making real change for the communities with whom we work.
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