We had the pleasure to interview Michael Mitchell (PPIA 2009, Carnegie Mellon University) who is the Senior Policy Analyst and Program Director of the State Policy Fellowship Program at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Mr. Mitchell focuses on criminal and juvenile justice reform and reinvestment as well as state higher education funding and affordability, and the fellowship program is for recently graduated Masters students interested in conducting research and analyses on critical state budget and tax policy issues.
Below is our interview with Mr. Mitchell where he discusses how PPIA has impacted his graduate studies and his professional career, the significance of his work today, and some of his proudest accomplishments.
How did PPIA impact your career?
The Public Policy and International Affairs Program has played a huge role in shaping the early years of my career. It gave me confidence that I could not only get into a top-tier public policy school, but that I could thrive at one. Working with graduate level instructors, taking graduate level classes and learning aside other talented and passionate young people – many of them also students of color – gave me the shot of confidence I’d need to excel in graduate school.
PPIA has also been an entry-point into an invaluable network of dedicated public policy advocates. Almost without exception at any conference I attend or networking event I find myself at, I run into other PPIA alum. Having that built-in network that I can tap into is great and helps facilitate the connections I need to do my day-to-day work well. On a more personal level, some of my closest friends are people that I met during my summer as a PPIA Fellow – it’s been amazing to grow and advance in our careers together and support each other throughout all of it.
Lastly, my summer with PPIA gave me a glimpse into all the different types of careers and roles that could be available to me if I pursued a career in shaping public policy. Having an idea of what I could do with a master’s degree in public policy helped me go into graduate school and the job market with my eyes open and ready for a range of opportunities.
You mention that you are focusing on criminal and juvenile justice reform. Could you talk a little more about what you are working on and why your work is significant today?
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a Washington, D.C.-based policy institute that conducts research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic policy, policies related to poverty, and several social programs at both the federal and state levels. In my role as a Senior Policy Analyst, I focus on fiscal policy – that is, what we choose to spend public tax dollars on and how we choose to raise those tax dollars. This, of course, intersects with almost every other area of policy you can imagine including criminal and juvenile justice.
For criminal and juvenile justice advocates, this is an especially important moment in time as a narrow window of opportunity has emerged where folks along the ideological spectrum are realizing that the tremendous human and fiscal costs of our current criminal justice policies are unsustainable. It is possible that for the first time in decades, states may choose to enact reforms that would markedly slow, and perhaps even reverse, the growth of their prison populations. In a country where more than 2.2 million people sit locked up in prison and jail cells on any given day and states spend more than $50 billion on prisons and parole, there’s no overstating how tremendous a policy shift this would be.
As a Senior Policy Analyst, my work in this environment has focused on highlighting how costly our criminal justice is – for families, for whole communities and for state budgets. I argue that states can and should shrink their prison populations, spend less money on locking people up and instead put those resources into other more socially productive areas of spending, like better schools, child-care for families and mental or physical health care. It has been exciting to work and partner with other social justice organizations, author reports and participate in panel discussions to accomplish these goals.
In addition to making the case for shrinking our reliance on prisons, I’ve also engaged in research on the intersection of criminal fees and fines and state fiscal policy. This is an issue which has gained significant and growing attention in recent years especially after the tragic shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. As the resulting Department of Justice’s report of the Ferguson police department uncovered, local policymakers had become dangerously reliant on revenues generated from court fees and criminal fines to fund day-to-day government operations. This is not only an issue in Ferguson, and my research has focused on detailing this trend and what fiscal policy solutions exist to reverse it.
Throughout your professional experiences, what achievement are you most proud of?
Along with being a Senior Policy Analyst here at the Center, I’m also the Director of the State Policy Fellowship Program –a two-year policy fellowship opportunity for recently graduated master’s students. The program identifies highly motivated candidates – paying particular attention to candidates having experience with communities that are underrepresented in state policy debates – with a demonstrated interest in working on public policies that affect low-income and diverse communities and have implications for racial equity.
As the Program Director, I oversee almost every aspect of the program, from day-to-day interactions with the fellows, to alumni engagement, to the recruitment and application review process. It is so remarkably rewarding to engage with such talented and passionate individuals and to see them grow and thrive in research placements across the country. As someone who has benefited deeply from fellowship experiences in my own career I feel extremely honored to have the chance to pay that opportunity forward.
CBPP’s Mission Statement: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a nonpartisan research and policy institute. We pursue federal and state policies designed both to reduce poverty and inequality and to restore fiscal responsibility in equitable and effective ways. We apply our deep expertise in budget and tax issues and in programs and policies that help low-income people, in order to help inform debates and achieve better policy outcomes.