Interview With Pot Czar, Crime Expert and Public Policy Professor Mark Kleiman

By Eric K. Williams

Mark Kleiman is the newly appointed Marijuana consultant or Pot Czar of Washington state, and he was in New York City in early October at a New York University forum titled, ‘CONVERSATIONS ON URBANIZATION.’ He is one of many leading experts on crime in America. The focus of Kleiman’s appearance was on crime reduction, the American Criminal Justice System, and efforts to reform it. As the U.S. is now the world’s largest jailer of its own citizens, efforts calling for reform has gained momentum among academics and policy experts in recent years.

The UCLA Public Policy Professor is a leading expert on the topic of crime in America while never having worked as a a cop in Law Enforcement. Yet, his expertise on the subject goes back decades as Kleiman was also a policy wonk working in the Department of Justice in Washington in the late 1970’s. Kleiman is a leading blogger and organizer of the California-based blog site called, ‘The Reality Based Community.’ He is also the author of several books, has been the expert commentator on crime in America appearing on CNN, and other networks, who has also served as an adviser to both the federal government, and local state governments on crime control and drug abuse policies. Indeed, he is a nationally recognized expert in the field of crime.

Kleiman’s address, and later question and answer session with largely NYU students in attendance, came just days before his formal appointment as the new Washington State Pot Czar had hit the national news. Washington State voters had approved a measure to legalize recreational marijuana in the 2012 General Election that year, becoming only one of two American states to do so, thus far. His appearance was part of NYU’s Stern Urbanization Project that examines the global changes in city living, and policy choices both mayors and municipal governments will have to address in the coming years.

Debate among legal experts, academics, and those in law enforcement vary greatly over what to do with proposed national reform measures. One book that has stirred deep debate on the topic is ‘THE NEW JIM CROW: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness,‘ the recently published, and highly controversial book by Ohio State University Law Professor, Michele Alexander.

In this short discussion, your correspondent was curious as to how Kleiman’s view differed with Alexander’s on the matter of reform. What new measures, for example, should be put in place, and how the matter of race, always the elephant in the room, plays out in the American legal justice system. The question was important, as many published legal experts hold differing views on the matter of reform. (The video interview that appears below begins 36 seconds in. What you see is an overview of the smallish audience, and Kleiman sitting on the dais with Paul Romer, the Stern Project Director at NYU’s Marron Institute. This video segment was filmed and produced by Ardina Seward.)

What was surprising in this instance was the confrontational, and interventionist comments by Paul Romer, the Director of the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, on the first question posed to Kleiman. Captured here, and much to his credit, Kleiman stood his ground, and took the question Romer had brushed-off head on. He acknowledged the importance of the Alexander book in the larger national discussion of reform, and offered his own candid comments and views that differed on the American Legal Justice system, matters of race, and how in his view, the criminal justice system impacts both the minority and larger communities across the U.S.

While one may not agree with everything he said, the legal and societal vision of reform expressed by Kleiman here is thought provoking. He suggests here, as he did in his general presentation at NYU of releasing 80 per cent of the current prison population back into society. Yet, that view has also opened-up newer questions, and left others unanswered about the methodology’s of reform and how it would be enacted for both returning inmates, and those newly impacted communities.

One case in point, was Kleiman’s call for what he termed ‘training wheels’ for returning ex-convicts. Those who are re-integrated back into their largely urban communities and monitored on camera, as suggested here, is one that opens several questions on the hows, and whats.

The ‘what,’ and ‘how’ questions here are those that would include the costs for housing in ever more expensive urban centers. Where do you put these new returnees? And just as important, what training programs, or job possibilities, would be put in place for returning inmates who would not be relegated to ‘going it alone,’ and not just staying in their monitored dwellings? Kleiman’s suggestions for some observers could appear to be proposals that have not been thought through in the current urban environment.

Kleiman raises several controversial issues on justice system reform that is sure to inflame the national debate. Most recently as he settles into his new position, he has endorsed a November ballot measure that calls for Marijuana legalization in Oregon, a neighboring state. He will be an interesting voice, and one person to watch on matters of public policy making on crime, drug abuse, and now, Marijuana legal issues nationally with his new consultative position in Washington State.