Mission & Background

The Center for Justice at Columbia University is committed to reducing the nation’s reliance on incarceration and advancing alternative approaches to safety and justice through education, research and policy. Its mission is to help transform a criminal justice system from one that is driven by punishment and retribution to one that is centered on prevention and healing. The Center is interdisciplinary and built around community collaboration. It works in partnership with schools, departments, centers and institutes across Columbia, other universities, government agencies, community organizations, advocates and those directly affected by the criminal justice system.


The United States currently leads the world in its incarceration rate, with more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails. This figure, which marks a 500% increase over the past three decades, means that while the U.S. boasts a mere five percent of the world’s population, it has more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The causes and consequences of mass incarceration are numerous and far-reaching, leading many to assert that it is the civil rights issue of today. From minimum mandatory sentencing and the war on drugs to discriminatory policing and the disproportionate implementation and impact of criminal justice policies on people of color, to private prisons and the divestment from education, to the use of punishment as the primary tool of addressing societal challenges and to the impacts on democracy and voting rights; families, communities and the larger society have been deeply affected by our current criminal justice system.

The United States is now at a historical moment where the consequences of mass incarceration and criminal justice policy have captured public attention promoting calls for change across partisan divide. Based in the strongly held belief that universities have a large role to play in enacting social change, the Center seeks to engage and harness the collective capacity of Columbia University and its range of resources, including faculty and students, to impact the trajectory of criminal justice policy. The Center is an interdisciplinary project as we seek to work beyond individual disciplines to create and support social change. Towards this end, we strongly believe that working in collaboration with those directly affected by mass incarceration and criminal justice policy, including people who have been formerly incarcerated and community organizations and advocates working on these issues, is critical to developing effective solutions. Lastly, we aim to serve as a bridge between academia and community and grass-roots organizations.

The Center was launched in 2014, growing out of a year long pilot project called the Justice Initiative. Its origins date back to 2009 with the founding of the Criminal Justice Initiative: Supporting Children, Families and Communities, based at the School of Social Work. CJI is recognized as a leader in developing programs and trainings addressing mass incarceration and its consequences. CJI has also succeeded in building a web of relationships with a wide array of faculty, students and community members working on issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice.