In Memoriam: Barry Krisberg

On the Passing of Barry Krisberg

We are sad to pass on the news of the death of Barry Krisberg on February 13, 2024.   Many in the Law School, Legal Studies, the Thelton Henderson Center for Social Justice, and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform knew him or knew about him, so we are taking the liberty of circulating this remembrance to the Law School Community. 

Barry received his MA in criminology and PhD in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and shortly afterwards joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an Assistant Professor in Berkeley’s School of Criminology, where he served from 1971 until the School’s closure in 1976. Following his five years at Berkeley, he joined the staff of the San Francisco office of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency as a Senior Research Associate. He was named President of the NCCD in 1983, a post he held until 2008.  Throughout his career, he was associated with Berkeley Law.  He taught Juvenile Justice in the Legal Studies Program for many years, taught a course on Prison Law and Policy in the JD Program, and for a while after retirement was the Director for Research and Policy of the Earl Warren Center for Criminal Justice.  Barry’s genius was “facts,” straightforward honesty, and his good nature. Everyone who knew him held him in the highest regard.  He had the ear and respect of radical criminologists, religious leaders of all faiths, editorial writers for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, key committee members in the United States Congress and dozens of state legislatures from New York to California and Minnesota to Florida.  He also had the respect of dozens of foundations and NGO’s active in juvenile justice reform, helped them set priorities and develop ambitious and productive programs, and was firm but gentle when confronting their shortcomings.  It was probably this rapport with such a wide array of groups that accounted for Barry’s phenomenal ability to lead diverse people toward consensus. 

He and his talented staff at NCCD produced hundreds of fact-driven studies on juvenile delinquency and the counterproductive impact of harsh juvenile justice practices.  His leadership at NCCD was legendary.  Always scraping for funding, Barry recruited first rate and committed researchers who were productive beyond belief.  Together, they responded to requests from private funding organizations, state and local agencies, and various federal offices.  They produced short, focused and convincing research reports that were both sophisticated and readable.  Cumulatively, they presented powerful information that changed minds and altered policies. NCCD and juvenile justice reform thrived during Barry’s tenure at NCCD. He led by example and through respect for colleagues, and his good nature. During his leadership, NCCD became a model research organization for producing action-oriented research reports designed to illuminate problems and change practices. 

Along the way, Barry and various collaborators wrote half a dozen well-received books on delinquency and juvenile justice.  During a period when adult prison populations were skyrocketing, juvenile custody dropped precipitously. Barry played a decisive role in this.  He was successful in convincing legislators almost everywhere that “youth is different.” His accomplishments are too many and too varied to list.  Perhaps his single greatest (certainly one of his proudest) achievement took place in Washington, D.C., during testimony before a House Committee, where he convinced it to add an amendment on a huge funding package that would prohibit federal funding to states that locked kids up with adult offenders. This accomplishment set the pattern for the states.  We suspect that he was responsible for keeping more juveniles out of custody than any other single person in the United States. 

He also devoted considerable attention to crowding and its consequences in juvenile and adult custodial facilities.  He conducted research, served as an expert witness, and worked as a special master in several cases that required significant population reductions in overcrowding prisons.  His work was persuasive.  Perhaps his single most important report in this vein was as an expert witness in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, where he assembled findings of a great many studies showing that decisions to significantly reduce prison populations have no measurable effect on subsequent crime rates, findings that found their way into Judge Thelton Henderson’s decision for a three judge trial court panel and into Justice Kennedy’s surprise opinion in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata(2011) ( formerly Plata v.Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger).This report must be the gold standard for such documents. 

Barry Krisberg was a giant among giants in the never ending battle to fight for dignity and decency in the administration of criminal justice.

Barry is survived by his wife Karen McKie and their sons Moshe and Zaïd.

Malcolm Feeley

Rosann Greenspan