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Criminal Justice Reformer Amy Bach ’86 Gives Nicky Chapin Lecture

As the Upper School students wove their way into rows of green chairs, the guest speaker, Amy Bach ’86, could scarcely hide her excitement. After all, it had been a long time since she had been at Chapin.

A pioneer in the field of criminal justice reform, Ms. Bach was invited to be the speaker at the 19th annual Nicky Chapin Lecture, named for Nicky Stout Chapin ’52, an alumna and beloved former Chapin faculty member. 

On October 28, Ms. Bach found herself in the familiar Assembly Room, where she spoke with humor and passion about her Chapin years and her distinguished career. She is now the Executive Director and President of Measures for Justice, a non-profit she founded that has transformed how we measure and understand local criminal justice systems. As she would explain to the students, the Rochester, NY-based organization stemmed from her work on her acclaimed 2010 book, “Ordinary Justice: How America Holds Court.”

After a warm introduction by Mrs. Chapin, Ms. Bach hopped up to the podium. She looked out at the audience, including a sizable contingent of her 1986 classmates and her parents in the balcony, and smiled. 

“I haven’t been back to Chapin in 30 years,” Ms. Bach exclaimed brightly. “Except in my dreams.”

She described one particular dream during which assorted groups of students gathered in this very room. Instead of interacting with any of them, Ms. Bach simply watched. “Okay, so my dream isn’t as exciting as I’d like it to be,” she admitted. However, the dream depicted her as an astute observer of others, which is quite accurate.

Although she had close friends, “I was more interested in watching them than I was in joining up. It was a little bit lonely, but also fascinating,” she said, adding, “that habit of mine – just watching people from a distance – has stayed with me.”

What has also endured is a nugget of wisdom she gained from former Chapin Headmistress Mildred Berendsen. Quoting the previous Headmistress, Ethel Grey Stringfellow, Mrs. Berendsen regularly encouraged the students to “be conspicuous by being inconspicuous,” although Ms. Bach admitted to not fully understanding what this meant at the time.

After inviting the Upper School students to join her on a “journey,” she unspooled the incredible story of Quitman County, Mississippi, where she visited years earlier to research her book, and a plucky woman in the clerk’s office named Miss Wiggs.

Reviewing the lengthy list of cases Miss Wiggs generously shared with her, Ms. Bach realized – to her shock – that none was ever prosecuted. Worse yet, the lawyers and judges had no idea why. She learned of one especially brutal domestic case, which should have led to a “slam dunk” conviction, but languished instead. In fact, it had been an inconceivable 21 years since a single domestic violence case had gone to trial in that corner of Mississippi. 

As it turned out, Quitman County wasn’t an anomaly. “All across America, people who work inside and outside the criminal justice system cannot answer some basic questions like ‘How are we doing?’ and ‘Are we getting this right?’” Ms. Bach told her riveted audience, animatedly waving her arms.
 
She explained that, unlike school systems and hospitals, for example, which have metrics in place for evaluation and improvement, the U.S. criminal justice system lacked such tools, resulting in inefficiency, inconsistency and profound injustices. Ms. Bach was determined to tackle this immense issue beginning at the county level. 

“Counties are where most people encounter the system, so let’s focus there. Who’s going to jail? For what crimes? We need to be able to see trends and patterns and problems,” she stressed. Despite skeptics, objectors and myriad challenges, Ms. Bach persevered. “I went to an important funder,” she recounted, “and the funder said, ‘Look I think it’s a great idea, but you’re a journalist. I just don’t think a journalist can do it.’ Maybe, too, he didn’t think a woman could do it.”

In 2011, having completed her book, Ms. Bach created Measures for Justice (www.measuresforjustice.org) as a way to bring fairness and transparency to the criminal justice system by collecting, cleaning, coding and making available a treasure trove of public data from arrest to post-conviction. The organization’s data portal, launched in 2017, currently includes facts and figures from six states, encompassing nearly 400 counties. It’s expected that fourteen additional states will be added to the portal by 2020.

“With our data, you can reach into the heart of America and find places where people were treated differently because of their sex, ethnicity or because they were poor,” Ms. Bach said. Among many sobering statistics, she discovered counties where women are incarcerated three times more often than men, where people of color remain in jail five times longer for small crimes, and where white people were given a break five times more than people of color.

Now, eight years after founding Measures for Justice and receiving a multitude of accolades for her compassionate and courageous work, Ms. Bach reflected on Mrs. Berendsen’s advice all those years ago. “I think she wanted us to be inconspicuously conspicuous because everything truly valuable in this world lives in that place where you treat people with dignity when no one is looking, work hard and trust that you will have an impact, and are not afraid to be pushy about your ideas – if you truly believe in them,” she remarked.

Before Amy Bach concluded this thoroughly engaging and enlightening Assembly, she circled back once more to Chapin and the deep-rooted foundation it provided her. “This is the place that prepared me for my life’s work, and which feels like home,” she said, her eyes widening. “A sisterhood of the conspicuously inconspicuous.”