Advocating for a Better Justice System in America

gerard robinson

If you ever find yourself in conversation with Gerard Robinson, you might want to buckle your seatbelt. Having studied and worked at the intersection of education policy and the criminal justice system for decades, he has a lot to say. 

Robinson, who joined the Batten School in the fall of 2023 as a professor of practice in public policy and law, has an understanding of America’s penal systems that is historical, encyclopedic, peppered with factual evidence and flavored with his own philosophical musings. He’s apt to cite research from the RAND Corporation, reference Alexander de Tocqueville and quote from scripture (Genesis, Chapter 4, Verse 12-13, in which Cain kills Abel, leading to the biblical concept of punishment). 

Permeating his scholarly discourse and driving his career is a clear personal passion for how public policy can, and must, be rendered to fulfill the American ideal of rehabilitation and post-release opportunities for the 1.2 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. 

“I tell people I do ‘Middle Passage’ work,” he says. “The front end is bail reform and unfair sentencing, but once a person is inside prison, the question is, what is re-entry going to look like?” 

The question remains central for Robinson, an expert on K-12 and higher education, criminal justice reform, race in American institutions and education within U.S. prisons. 

A career path unfolds

A native of Los Angeles, Robinson enrolled in Howard University as a philosophy major. While there, he mentored local youth in the juvenile justice system in Washington D.C. Connecting the dots between access to education and the potential for being incarcerated, Robinson decided to become an educator. 

He returned to southern California to teach 5th grade. In 1992, his community erupted after a jury acquitted police officers of brutally beating Rodney King. “I spent a lot of time in south central LA, thinking about what we can do to rebuild, how do I make a difference,” he says. A colleague encouraged him to consider public policy work, and he took a one-year post in the state Senate. 

“Everything for me just changed. It was an ‘aha’ moment – I realized how much I liked public policy, it gave me a chance to focus on education but through the lens of health, economics, social work, politics and law.” 

gerard robinson
Robison served as Secretary of Education under then-Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. At right, Robinson looks on (fourth from the left) as the governor signs education legislation.

He earned a master’s degree in educational public policy from Harvard University, and went on to work with several nonprofit organizations. He served as Secretary of Education with the administration of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and subsequently was Commissioner of Education for Florida. 

A prolific writer and perennial educator, Robinson has penned dozens of op-eds for outlets including The Washington Post, CNN, Forbes, Newsweek and USA Today, making the case for expanding educational opportunities for young people, to help them avoid being caught up in the criminal justice system, and for people in prison to help them succeed once they are released.  

In the classroom

Robinson has been teaching at UVA Law School since 2020, leading a course on education inside prisons and a seminar on ethical values. Last fall at the Batten School, he taught a class on education, prisons and public policy, where he challenged students to expand their understanding about who is incarcerated and why, and how public policy can better prepare inmates for success when they’re released.  

Studies show that people who take classes while in prison are up to 28% less likely to return. Access to the federal Pell grant program has been an important tool to help them earn credentials and prepare for life on the outside, says Robinson, who advocated to make the program permanent as of last summer. He published a law review article about the topic.

Students interested in the “school-to-prison” pipeline, prison reform and recidivism should seek opportunities to get involved in state legislatures, as volunteers in schools or prisons—or simply ask important questions, Robinson says. 

“Our students are in positions of power, they’re in conversations with powerful people, and if someone brings up the idea of locking people up, then pose the question of: what then? What do we do with them once they’re inside?”  He believes, and sees the proof, that “we all pay financially, socially, morally and politically by having a prison system that’s not providing opportunities for education, personal or workforce development. About 95% of people who are incarcerated will come out some day, so one way or another, we’re going to see them.”

Ever on a learning curve, Robinson traveled to Norway and Germany in May 2023  to explore how they are grappling with these issues, and in January 2023 he toured prisons in Brazil. The ARrow Center for Justice organized the prison visits as well as meetings with key officials In each country.

When not teaching or writing, he spends time with his wife, Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, head of the new Education Rights Institute, who is a professor at UVA Law School and an affiliated faculty member at Batten. They have two school-aged daughters, and their eldest daughter works in Hollywood. For fun, he likes to browse the shelves at antique book stores and occasionally binge watch a streaming series – international espionage, British humor, and historical personalities. 


Read our report of Professor Robinson’s “Batten Hour” talk in November > 


Garrett Hall at Sunset

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