“The fact is, jail breeds more crime than it prevents, longer sentences don’t disincentivize crime, people age out of committing crime, and the vengeance aspect doesn’t actually make a person who suffered a loss feel whole," Gerson says.
Pedro Gerson MPP/JD'14

Why does crime happen, and can systems be put in place so that it doesn’t?

That is the question Pedro Gerson MPP/JD'14 and his colleagues at The Bronx Defenders address daily. That is, when they are not helping New York's underprivileged and underserved navigate the complexities surrounding criminal proceedings, immigration, housing and property rights, child custody, family conflict, and the myriad legal entanglements that ensnare their clients.

Gerson and The Bronx Defenders are an ideal fit for each other. Both try always to see the big picture beyond the individual cases they are working on that day, that week, or that month. 

“The Bronx Defenders is a holistic public defense office. We view the impacts of involvement in the criminal justice system more broadly than just a criminal case. Interdisciplinary teams help each client sort through their legal and social support needs. As a result, the office is much more in tune with thinking about criminal justice from a policy standpoint. We have a policy branch that I'm hoping to get more involved in as time goes on,” said Gerson.

"The Bronx Defenders is a public defender nonprofit that is radically transforming how low-income people in the Bronx are represented in the justice system and, in doing so, is transforming the system itself."

Bail reformproperty forfeiture laws, and human trafficking are some of the policy initiatives that The Bronx Defenders have tackled. And, while still on the front lines, helping one client at a time, Gerson’s already thinking about other big-picture policy issues. In his opinion, one of the most significant issues is reexamining the necessity of prisons. 

“The fact is, jail breeds more crime than it prevents, longer sentences don’t disincentivize crime, people age out of committing crime, and the vengeance aspect doesn’t actually make a person who suffered a loss feel whole. And yet, we continue jailing people and the standard response to the crime problem is to jail more people and for longer periods,” said Gerson.

It was the desire to address big-picture policy questions like this that motivated Gerson to pursue graduate degrees in law and public policy simultaneously. Despite some uncertainty about the financial viability of pulling off such a feat, Gerson applied to Harris during his second year at the University of Chicago Law School. With some financial aid from the school, Gerson was able to enroll, earning his dual JD/MPP in 2014. 

“I didn’t want to end up cornered into a purely legal career. Having a policy degree will help in broadening the questions that I’ll want to be answering in my career, and in giving me the tools to answer them or get closer to answering them,” he said.

Arming himself with the tools and flexibility to take on a variety of roles and challenges has been a theme throughout Gerson’s education and professional career. It is what brought Gerson from his home in Mexico City to seek a liberal arts education at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The versatility of that liberal arts degree served Gerson well when, upon graduation, he returned to his home country to take on a variety of roles. As a writer for Revista Etcétera, he covered media and technology related to social networks and public policy. He was an adjunct professor at IBERO Ciudad de México and Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). While teaching, he also served as a project manager for a leading Mexico City think tank.

“One of the great things about a liberal arts education and then a policy one is that it allows for flexibility. Because I didn't know what issues I cared about the most, I think the most important thing for me was to gain tools that I could then apply anywhere, and that was also very valuable in terms of the MPP,” Gerson noted.

He would encourage current and incoming Harris students to consider a similar approach to their education.

“Don’t get hung up on learning only marketable skills. That will help get you your first job, but you want to build on top of knowledge and passion for something. Take classes in things you are interested in, and from professors you find engaging,” he advised.