My guest today, Larry Miller, has had an incredible career in business. He started as an entry level accountant for the Campbell Soup Company, eventually rising up to run the Jordan brand at Nike. He took it over at perhaps the worst possible time — the year Michael Jordan retired from the N.B.A. And yet, somehow, he grew the Jordan brand from $150 million in annual revenues to more than $3 billion. But that’s only part of the story.
MILLER: I was in my cell and the guy who had administered the tests came down. I said, “Hey, did I pass?” He said, “Not only did you pass, but you got one of the highest grades I’ve seen. And we’d like for you to be the valedictorian for the graduating class.”
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
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Larry Miller’s story is unlike anyone else in the upper echelon of corporate America. You’ve heard about people who defied the odds — not the way Larry did. And once you’ve heard his story, it just might make you rethink some of your fundamental beliefs.
LEVITT: Larry, you have a remarkable story. So, how about we just start at the beginning? It’s 1959. You’re 10-years-old. You live in Philadelphia. Your family nickname was “The Champ”. How come?
MILLER: My uncle nicknamed me that. He always pumped me up to tell me that I could do whatever I wanted to do. At the time maybe he even saw more in me than I saw in myself. But I was a straight-A student, the teacher’s pet, the kid that was always doing the right thing.
LEVITT: Do you remember the first real crime you committed?
MILLER: Myself and a friend of mine stole a bicycle. He and I had gone up to the store to pick up something. We were into bikes at the time and as we were riding we saw this beautiful red English racer sitting out there. We rode by, he said, “Man, if that bike’s there when we come back, I’m taking it.” I was like, “Cool.” So, we came back, and the bike was sitting there, and we were riding on my bike together. He jumped off and grabbed that bike and we took it to his backyard, and the police came up. I ran through the house to try to get away and when I came out the front door there was a cop waiting there with the gun drawn and told me, “Stop, or I’ll blow your brains out.”
LEVITT: How old were you then?
MILLER: I was probably around 11 or 12. It’s interesting because instead of that being a deterrent, that pushed me to get more involved in the street and then that wasn’t too long after that, that I joined a gang. We weren’t into selling drugs or any of that stuff at that point. To me, it was just about feeling that you were a part of something that was bigger than yourself. It wasn’t about money. We kind of protected what we thought was our territory, which, you know, realizing we didn’t own any of it, but like, “Hey, this is ours. We’re not going to let anybody else come into our neighborhood.”
LEVITT: By the time you were 16, how many months or years did you spend in some form of juvenile detention?
MILLER: Well, up until the age of 16, I was, in and out, but I was pretty lucky. Like I would do three months here, a month here, a few days here. So, it was never any long period of time. At some point, you kind of knew you were going to end up going to jail for something.
LEVITT: It was an inevitability. You were living a lifestyle. Part of that lifestyle was going to jail.
MILLER: Pretty much. And then, when you start going in and out of jail at a young age like that, you grow up with the same people, because it’s a cycle that we’re all caught up in. So, when I was 13, 14, 15 — the same people I saw when I was 25, 26 in jail, because we all grew up in and out together.
LEVITT: So, everything changed for you in September of 1965. You were 16. You were looking to avenge the death of a friend killed by a rival gang and you ended up shooting and killing a young man, Edward White, who in the end, turned out not even to be part of that rival gang. You pled guilty to second-degree murder, and how long did you end up serving on that charge?
MILLER: I was actually tried and charged as an adult, even though I was 16. Fortunately, my parents were able to scrape together some money from family and friends and were able to get an attorney who worked out a deal for me to plead guilty to second-degree murder and my sentence was four-and-a-half to 20 years. And I did the four-and-a-half and got out. And had 15-and-a-half years of parole once I got out.
LEVITT: So, I think many listeners will be surprised by that number. Four-and-a-half years for murder, but it really wasn’t that unusual at the time. I went back and I found some data from 1960 from the U.S. Department of Justice. And the median time served by a first-time homicide offender in 1960 in the U.S. was 52 months, almost exactly four-and-a-half years. And it’s surprising because now the data is more like 17 years, so there’s been a tremendous change and I think many people are not actually very well attuned to just how punitive the system has become. And really, your story never could have happened in the current system. How did you spend those four-and-a-half years that you were locked up on that homicide charge?
MILLER: For the first nine months I was in the county jail, in adult prison, and I was, like, 16-years-old. There were a number of us around that time — young 16, 17-year-olds who had been arrested and charged as adults. So, we had a little crew there. And then I ended up doing the majority of the time at a place called Camp Hill, which was a juvenile penitentiary. One of the good things about being at the adult prison was I learned a lot from some of the older guys there. They told me, “You need to read, you need to learn as much as you can.” By the time I got to Camp Hill, I had kind of developed a reading addiction. Any time that I wasn’t busy working I was reading. New books were rare. I read everything from novels to classics to Westerns. Today sometimes I’ll be watching like Jeopardy! or something and I’m like, “How do I know that? It was probably something that I read years ago, and it just stuck in my head.”
LEVITT: You weren’t going to school when you’re on the outside, were you?
MILLER: I was still enrolled in school but hardly ever went. (SL^OK.) Usually, when I would go to school was when there was some gang activity planned at the school.
LEVITT: I find it interesting that it was easier for you to be bookish inside the prison than it was when you were on the outside.
MILLER: The reason is you have to fill that time somehow. And for me, it became reading. So, while I was there, they offered the G.E.D. exam, a general equivalency diploma. So, I was convinced to take the G.E.D. test. And I was in my cell and the guy who had administered the tests came down to my cell. I said, “Hey, did I pass?” He said, “Not only did you pass, but you got the highest grade out of anybody that took the test. Matter of fact, you got one of the highest grades I’ve seen. And we’d like for you to be the valedictorian, for the graduating class.” And I was like, “Man, I’m not doing that.” I was like, “Man, I’m not doing that. Get out of here.” So, I talked to some of my friends, and they were like, “Nah, man, you should do this. We’ll help you write the speech.” I remember we wrote the speech and the only part of it I can remember is the final line: “Let’s not serve time. Let’s let time serve us.”
LEVITT: So, you get out in 1970 on the murder charge, and the world has changed, while you were locked up. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Heroin takes hold.
MILLER: Vietnam War was raging during that time.
LEVITT: Yeah, Vietnam War.
MILLER: So, when I came home, it was really kind of tough for me. Heroin had taken over the neighborhood. My friends, who I grew up with, the majority of them were hooked on heroin. Some of them died from overdoses.
LEVITT: And you become deeply committed to the Nation of Islam. Can you tell me about that?
MILLER: Seeing everything that was going on when I came home, it was just so frustrating to me that I just felt like Black people in this country were in such horrible condition. I couldn’t understand why. I had always thought that at some point, when I was ready, I would join the Nation of Islam. What attracted me was we want to create things that are specifically good for Black people. And when I joined, I was straight up — wasn’t committing any crimes, wasn’t doing any drugs or alcohol, was working every day, recruiting people to the Nation. That was my focus at that point. Along the way, I started to feel like I wanted to be able to contribute more financially. And so, I started drifting into doing criminal things to be able to get money.
LEVITT: So, you would just show up and deliver enormous amounts of cash from these armed robberies you were doing. And they would say thank you and ask no questions.
MILLER: Pretty much. I’d take care of paying my bills and stuff like that, but the bulk of it would go to the Nation. And a lot of it is because even though we were criminals, we still had an affection and wanted to help our people. And so, we saw the Nation of Islam as a way of helping our people. The more we could give, the more help. So, at the end of the day, there was a noble intent behind the things that we were doing. It was more about, extorting money from other criminals, robbing establishments, that kind of thing, versus general people on the street.
LEVITT: Of course, if you do enough armed robberies, you will eventually get caught and you were convicted. So, how long were you sentenced for that next time?
MILLER: I was arrested for an armed robbery, and I ended up getting charged with three additional armed robberies. And all told, I was, again, very fortunate that I was only sentenced to four to 10 years.
LEVITT: So, what was your strategy in prison that time around?
MILLER: When I got there, I found out that they had this program where you could take college classes inside the jail. And then the way the program worked, you had to take a certain number of classes and have to have half of your minimum sentence in, and not have been in any trouble. And then you could qualify to move into these trailers that were outside the jail wall. And you lived in those trailers and left every day at seven, eight o’clock in the morning to go to school and just had to be back by eight o’clock in the evening. And when I heard about that program, I was like, “That’s how I want to do my time. Let me see what I got to do to qualify for that.”
LEVITT: I think that’s not how most people think prison works and they’d be right about prison today, because that is not how prison works today. But it’s interesting that in your time, that was not that uncommon program.
MILLER: No, it wasn’t. Educational release is what they called the program I was in, and there was also work release. So, guys lived outside in those trailers, and they left every day and went to work and had to be back by eight o’clock. If you weren’t back by eight o’clock, if you were a minute late, they’d take you back inside. And there were a lot of nights that we pulled in at 7:59:59, just beating the deadline.
LEVITT: I suspect that the people at school had no idea you were doing time, right? You were just another student.
MILLER: I was at Montgomery County Community College, there were a few people like counselors, they knew, but none of the other teachers or students knew. But I got my associates degree while I was in that program. It allowed me to acclimate back to the street, while getting an education. And the fact that programs like that don’t exist anymore, it really takes away opportunities for people to improve their lives. I feel like I’m living proof that a program like that can actually work and help them become a contributing member of society. If I didn’t have access to that program, I know for a fact, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done.
LEVITT: Yeah, it was back in 1994 when the federal law was passed that banned Pell grants for prisoners. And it really changed dramatically the landscape for prisoner education because Pell grants were the kind of financial aid that made it possible for prisoners to go and get higher education. Without them, most of the higher education programs in prisons were just canceled, so you wouldn’t have had those opportunities if you’d come 20 years later, or today.
MILLER: There was a guy there who was the liaison between the college and the prison. When I was about to graduate from the community college, he took me to a number of different schools before I decided to go to Temple. So, I got a lot of help and support, and I think that helped me to realize and believe that I really could change my life. In most cases, I think it’s hard for people to believe that, “Hey, I got this criminal record, I’ve done all this crazy stuff in my life. No one’s going to let me come out and get a good job or build a career.” But with programs like the one that I’ve been able to take advantage of and providing other educational opportunities and skillset opportunities for people, that can help people that start to believe that they can change their life.
LEVITT: So, you get your undergraduate degree from Temple, and you pass the accounting exam. You had to make a choice when you were applying to these firms about whether to reveal your criminal history. Did you tell some prospective employers? And how did the ones you told react?
MILLER: So, I was about to graduate with an accounting degree. I had the good grades, and the goal was to get hired by one of the big accounting firms. I had started to interview with a number of them, but the one that I was most interested was Arthur Anderson. And I went through their whole interview process, talked to a number of people. And the whole day I’m debating in my mind: should I share? Should I not say something? And toward the end of the day, I’m meeting with the hiring manager. I walked in his office and sat down and I’m thinking, “You know what, I’m going to go ahead and share.” So, I started to tell him about my background, about how I got my degree, about going through the program. And as I’m talking to him, I could see his face changing. And when I was done, he said, “Wow, this is an amazing story. I’m sure you’re going to do fantastic.” And he reached in his pocket, and he pulled out an envelope and he said, “I have an offer letter here that I was all ready to give you, but I can’t give it to you now. I can’t take that chance that this comes out somehow. So, I wish you the best.” And at that point, I was like, “I’m not going to share this anymore. I’m not going to deny it if anybody asks or if it comes up. I’m not going to lie on an application. But I’m not going to share it.” And I didn’t. From that point on, I never said anything to anyone that I worked with.
LEVITT: So, I have to say, you must be a damn good businessman because you didn’t even get started in the corporate world until you were in your thirties and you started more or less at the bottom — an entry level accountant for the Campbell Soup Company. And you just impressed people over and over, getting promoted internally, and getting hired away by new firms. And step by step, eventually, you become the president of Janssen, the swimwear company, and then you move over to Nike, and eventually, you take charge of the Jordan brand within Nike. That’s just remarkable. So, let me just ask you, putting your modesty aside for a moment, what do you think made you so successful in business?
MILLER: I feel like one of the things that’s critical for the leader is to have a clear vision for where we’re going or what the business is going to be. And that’s not an easy thing to do. You got to put the work in to figure out what that is, but once you determine, or you understand what that vision is, you got to be the person pushing people to buy into that vision.
LEVITT: On this podcast, I put a huge emphasis on data analysis. In your book, you do not talk much about using data as a source of your insights. It seems to me your success has been more instinctual, that you just had a knack for seeing where the future was going and taking your companies in the right direction. Is that a fair assessment?
MILLER: No. I think data is an incredibly important part of it because you have to have information that feeds what that vision should be. The fact that I have a finance and accounting background has been helpful for me over the years because even though I’m not in finance or in accounting, I understand what the numbers are saying. It did help to drive a lot of the decisions. I’ve also always tried to stay connected and understand what consumers are saying. What are consumers looking for from our brand? What do they expect from us? A lot of that’s driven by data.
LEVITT: You told an interesting story about how you were in a Nike store, and you saw a young woman who had a pair of Nike shoes and was walking around comparing the colors of the shoes to the apparel, and none of it matched and she ended up putting the shoes back. And that simple observation turned out to be a driving force in your trying to transform the entire idea behind Nike apparel.
MILLER: That was an “Aha” moment for me. At the time, Nike footwear and apparel were two separate operations, separate divisions. And a lot of times they didn’t connect, and I think that was one of the things that we do a million percent better at today.
LEVITT: It’s funny, because it is so obvious ex-post, but no one thought of it beforehand. No one was coordinating and those little kinds of insights are often the key factors that determine success or failure in the market. I think your special sauce, what’s made you so successful — probably you out worked everybody, too. But on top of that, you just have a way of looking at the world and seeing it differently than other people. And see it in a way that a business can do something with.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Larry Miller. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about how Larry decided to come clean with his story.
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LEVEY: Hey Levitt. So, today I have a question regarding Sudhir Venkatesh, who is a sociologist and a co-author of yours. He also was the host of a podcast series we did here at the Freakonomics Radio Network called Sudhir Breaks the Internet. So, our listener, Jacob, writes: “It seems like Sudhir’s background in sociology allowed him to observe things in a way that economists sometimes miss when they just look at the data. Do you think economists would benefit by updating their research toolkit and getting into the field more?”
LEVITT: Well, I think that’s a great question. Usually, I get a dataset, often from the U.S. government, and I plow through official statistics, and I try to find relationships. Well, with Sudhir, he had actually lived with a Chicago street gang for a number of years. And so, we were able to get a copy of the actual financial records, the books that the street gang had kept, and that was the kind of information no one had ever seen before. And on top of that, when we had questions, we would just ask the gang leader. And the answers we would get were very different than the answers we expected. So, I learned so much from that project. It changed my perspective, and I became a big believer in that kind of what you would call ethnographic approach.
LEVEY: Were you inspired to do more work along those lines? And do you think other economists should take that approach?
LEVITT: I’ve come to believe that there are two different sources of deep insights. And one of them is the way economists usually approach problems. And it’s what Danny Kahneman, the Nobel-prize winner, has called “the outsider view”. And back in the day when Danny, who’s been on this show, and I used to do consulting together, we would have a new client and we would go, and we’d sit with the company for a day, and we’d hear about everything they did. And frequently, as complete outsiders, we would have some fundamental insight — which we would borrow from some other setting — that would be eye opening to the people in the business. So, that’s what economists usually do. They’re outside the system, they look at data, and they can shed insights. So, I wouldn’t want economists to get away from that completely. But that is a very limited worldview. The Sudhir approach, is from firsthand observation to actually being part of a system In my work at R.I.S.C., the center I have now in Chicago, we emphasize this firsthand observation of seeing how things work and from the inside out, trying to see how to fix things.
LEVEY: In your own academic research, do you think there’s a situation that would have benefited or the research would have benefited from you actually being on the ground to observe a situation?
LEVITT: If you look at my academic papers, a common thread is I pretty much only wrote about stuff that I knew. So, I went to buy and sell houses and I said, “Wow, the incentives of real estate agents are really messed up. I just experienced that,” and I would write about it. I was really interested in gambling. So, I wrote a bunch of papers on gambling. I loved watching the T.V. show “Cops” and I liked doing ride-alongs in police cars. And so, I’ve wrote about criminal justice. So, in many ways, not to the same extent that Sudhir did, but my ideas came from my firsthand knowledge, rather from reading other academic papers. Maybe I am at heart more sociologist than economist. But the sociologists will protest that for sure.
LEVEY: I think your younger economist self, too, would be shaking his head right now.
LEVITT: Oh, I don’t know. From a very early age, my bookshelf was covered with sociology and ethnography books. I always thought there was more for me to learn by understanding this different approach than there was reading economics books. Look, if I hated sociology so much, I never would have worked with Sudhir.
LEVEY: Fair enough. Well, Jacob, thanks so much for your question. If you have a question for us, we can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show and Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
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In the second half of our conversation, there are two topics I want to cover. The first is that only recently did Larry decide to tell his story publicly, writing a book with his daughter called Jump that details his story. So, why did he decide to come forward now? And what was the reaction? In a cancel-culture world, can you just raise your hand and say, “Hey, by the way, I murdered someone?” And second, and more importantly, I want to have a conversation about the broader implications of Larry’s story for the way we run our criminal-justice system. I think this is an incredibly important topic and one that just isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
LEVITT: So, a sad part of your amazing story is that the whole time, this rise to the top, you’ve lived in terror of your criminal past coming out. It really took its toll on you, right?
MILLER: It definitely did. I, for years, had migraines and recurring nightmares of going back to jail or being arrested for something and not really knowing what it was, and trying to get back to my life. I constantly was in fear and was always really conscious of what I said when I talked to people. I realize now that trying to maintain this secret was actually eating me up inside, physically. I was carrying around this burden and nobody knew it. Once I started to talk to my daughter about my life and started to share with her all these things that I was holding in, it really helped. The migraine stopped. The nightmares stopped. It really was freeing for me to get all of this out and not have to be concerned about somebody springing something out that would ruin everything that I had built up to that point. And I feel a sense of freedom now to be me and to talk about all of my life, not just parts of it.
LEVITT: So, for so long you feared the truth coming out, and then you revealed everything in your book Jump. Did any of your fears come true? Did friends renounce you? Did Nike cut ties? Anything like that happen?
MILLER: It’s been almost just the opposite for me. When I first decided — or my daughter and I were in the process of doing this — I talked to two people, and that was M.J. — Michael Jordan — and Phil Knight. Both of them were extremely supportive and encouraging. And I think if it had been anything other than that, I would have been much more reluctant to do it, but the fact that the two of them were telling me that, “No, you need to tell this story. This is a story that can motivate and inspire people.” And they both said “Hey, if there’s something that I can do to help, don’t hesitate to reach out.” Nike has been incredible in terms of the support from Nike as a company and from individuals there.
LEVITT: So, I do think there were a couple of things that worked in your favor, Larry, about telling your story and getting a positive response. And the first one is that you took responsibility. You admitted what happened. And I think people might’ve reacted really differently if a New York Times investigative reporter had broken the story. I think second, it happened 50 years ago, and you were a teenager. Do you think that the way you took control of the situation was critical to the good outcome?
MILLER: I do. Once we decided to do this, it’s like, “O.K., I’m going to tell everything because that gives me the opportunity to create the narrative.” If the story is going to get out, I want to tell it on my terms. I want to tell it the way I saw it. I was fortunate enough to be able to do that. The thing that I wish I had done better was connecting with Mr. White’s family. I should’ve done that earlier on. I was nervous and afraid of doing it. Had thought about it, knew we had to do it, and actually had started to try to track them down, because it had been so long. The New York Times beat me to it. They were able to find them before I was, but since that time, I have connected with his family. I’ve met with them a couple times. They’re an incredible family. They have been willing to forgive me. If nothing else comes out of this project at all, the fact that I have that forgiveness from his family is worth anything else that I have done to get to this point.
LEVITT: So, given how well this all turned out, does it make you wish you had opened up a lot sooner?
MILLER: Sometimes it does, but I just wasn’t ready. I had to be at a point where I was comfortable sharing my life and exposing myself to the world, basically. And I’m ready to deal with it now, ready to work to improve the things that need to be improved as far as our criminal justice system and incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
LEVITT: So, we’ve talked a lot about your personal story, Larry, but I really feel like there’s a broader set of insights about public policy that we can get to using your story as a launchpad. There were various points that were inflection points that changed the path of your life. And the first one is you went from being “The Champ” to being a kid who was seduced by the streets. Do you have ideas about public policy that might’ve kept you on track?
MILLER: It was cool to be a street guy. And if somehow we could shift that for it to be cool to be a good student. One of the things that we did with the Jordan brand is we created something that at the time was called A’s for J’s. It was with one of our retail partners in Philadelphia, actually. Kids could receive credits towards Jordan product by getting good grades, by attendance. We knew kids were connected to the Jordan brand and the idea was how do we use that to motivate them. It actually evolved into our Wing scholarship program, where we provide a full free-ride to any school that a student wants to go to if they go through our program. And we actually work with community organizations in a number of cities right now where they recommend kids that have the ability, the desire, but they don’t have the financial wherewithal to be able to go to college and some of these students actually come back and intern with us and work with us.
LEVITT: Your story about A’s for J’s reminds me of when my friend Roland Fryer, who’s an economist — he was working as the chief equality officer in the New York public schools. And so, he could text kids who were in the New York public schools, but he couldn’t figure out what kind of texts to send them to motivate them. And eventually, he would get people like Jay-Z’s accountant to record a message. And the point was — this guy would say, “Look, you’re probably not going to grow up to be Jay-Z, but I just worked hard in school and now I’m hanging with Jay-Z and I’m making big money and you can do that, too.” And I thought that was such a good and interesting idea. Not trying to get rock stars to help people to stay in school, but the rock star’s accountant, that guy’s credible when he says you should stay in school.
MILLER: I always tell kids that you don’t have to be an athlete to be in the sports business. There are tons of jobs, tons of opportunities that don’t require you to be an athlete. And the more people understand and know that, they’ll be motivated to look into some of those opportunities because, to the point, there’s only one, Jay-Z. There’s one Michael Jordan, but there are hundreds of people that work with, and for, Jay-Z and Michael Jordan.
LEVITT: Yeah, exactly. Now obviously, so clear to your success was the access to education when you were in school and to the release programs. And as a nation, we adopted a very different set of policies. And I understand where they came from. The idea was people on the outside were being denied Pell grants — being denied opportunities to get education — and they were angry because these were going to prisoners, not to them. And there was tremendous political pressure to abandon many of those programs. And the same with release programs. It only takes a couple violent crimes committed by somebody on release and politically those release programs become inviable. So, I understand that, but here’s my take on it. I believe deeply that the new developments in technology open up fantastic options for improving criminal justice, but the system has been very slow to adopt. With the rise of the internet, so much educational content could be delivered remotely inside the prison, but my understanding is that most prisoners are completely denied access to the internet. And to me, that just is a terrible mistake and gets in the way of our progress.
MILLER: Education is, I believe, the key to changing people’s lives. The majority of people in prison are going to get out at some point. That’s the reality. And what we can do while they’re there to help them become contributors to society versus people who come out and take from society, that’s what we should be focused on and it’s not going to necessarily work for everybody, but I think the majority of people, given an opportunity, a lot of them would take advantage of it and be looking for ways to change their lives.
LEVITT: I was an early investor in a company called A.P.D.S. It must’ve been 10 years ago, and they had a really simple idea. They’re going to bring tablets into the prisons that have been loaded up with educational content. And it was such an obvious idea. A decade later, they’re still chugging away, but the progress has been so aggravatingly slow. I would’ve imagined a decade ago, that by now they’d have a tablet in the hands of every prisoner in the country, almost none. It’s really been frustrating. It’s turned out to be hard to bring education into the prisons. The other approach that was used with you is they brought the prisoners — they brought you — to education through a release program. And again, think about how technology has changed over time. So, right now we have G.P.S. on everybody. In your day, you left the prison at seven in the morning, you came back at eight at night. They had no idea where you were. But now we could make wearing a G.P.S. device a requirement of release, and we know where people were. We’d also have the capability to link their location to crimes committed. In this regard, I’ve been working with the Cook County Sheriff’s office on a pre-trial release program where we’ve now got something like three or 4,000 people at a time on these G.P.S. monitors.
MILLER: That’s a great idea. And I think we should be looking to push that, for sure.
LEVITT: I think it’s just the beginning because I believe that technology could allow us to fundamentally rethink criminal justice, because I would claim, with some evidence, that people, even a young Larry Miller mostly would not commit crimes if they knew that they would be caught and punished with a hundred-percent certainty for that crime.
MILLER: Yeah, absolutely. I’m all for rethinking the criminal justice system. The way it’s set up now, it’s obviously inequitable. There are a lot of issues with who gets sentenced and who doesn’t and what sentences are. A friend of mine was just released after 52 years. He was 19 when he went in.
LEVITT: Imagine going in at 19, coming out at 71, how the world has changed.
MILLER: I was there with his family to pick them up and it was amazing to see his reaction to technology and everything that he was encountering that first day out was amazing to watch. He killed someone — it wasn’t similar to my situation, but it was a homicide, and you know, I did four-and-a-half years, and he did 52.
LEVITT: One of the things that was most remarkable to me is you ended up in an amazing situation and yet you kept this loyalty to the people who you’d known in prison. And you went back and visited year after year. I’m surprised that you kept that loyalty.
MILLER: I just never wanted to lose that connection. These were friends, these were people that I lived with every day for years. I always felt like my experience while I was incarcerated the last time — that’s when I really grew, and learned, and changed my life.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to policing the last few years, but much less to prisons and jails. I believe deeply that technology holds the key to a radical rethinking about who we lock up and what we do with them while they’re locked up. I’m not soft on crime. I have tremendous empathy for victims, and I put enormous value on people feeling safe in their homes and neighborhoods. And I still think, that done properly using GPS devices and with the right incentives, we could probably let a million people out of prison with virtually no impact on the crime rate. It seems like a policy change that would be good for everyone. And yet, I’ve had almost no success getting policymakers interested. Maybe what I need is a Larry Miller.
And on the topic of prison education, there is one public-policy bright spot: starting July 1st, 2023, prisoners will once again be eligible to receive Pell grants.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: You’ve spent time as a door-to-door salesman for the Nation of Islam selling frozen fish and you’ve run Nike’s Jordan brand. What’s harder: selling fish or Air Jordans?
MILLER: Fish selling for sure.
- Larry Miller, chairman of the Jordan Brand at Nike.
- Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom, by Larry Miller and Laila Lacy (2022).
- “A Nike Executive Told of Once Killing a Man. Here’s What He Left Out,” by Jeré Longman and Kevin Draper (The New York Times, 2021).
- “U.S. Department of Education Announces It Will Expand the Second Chance Pell Experiment for the 2022-2023 Award Year,” by the U.S. Department of Education Press Office (2021).
- “Electronic Monitoring: What It Is, and What It Isn’t,” by Phil Rogers (NBC Chicago, 2021).
- “Congress Lifts Long-Standing Ban on Pell Grants to People in Prison,” by Andrea Cantora (The Conversation, 2020).
- “He Rose to the Highest Levels of Business and Basketball — but With a Secret,” by Howard Beck (Sports Illustrated, 2021).
- “An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s Finances,” by Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir A. Venkatesh (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2000).
- The Jordan Brand Wings Programs.
- “Daniel Kahneman on Why Our Judgment is Flawed — and What to Do About It,” by People I (Mostly) Admire, (2021).
- Sudhir Breaks the Internet.