Leading with Conviction: JustLeadershipUSA
by Glenn Martin and Sasha Graham
For decades, advocates and scholars alike have publicly decried the crippling financial and human costs of mass incarceration. Today their calls for reform are amplified by an emerging bipartisan consensus that current incarceration trends are unsustainable, ineffective and increasingly harmful to individuals, families, communities and society as a whole.
Several states, including New York, New Jersey and California, have prioritized criminal justice reforms intended to reduce excessive criminalization and incarceration.1 Last year, 300 bills were introduced on the state level that promoted smarter, healthier approaches to crime prevention and reductions in our overreliance on incarceration.2 Yet despite this abundance of political will and a growing legion of zealous advocates, we have yet to realize significant and widespread reform of our criminal justice system. In fact, recent successes notwithstanding, the justice system continues to operate at full throttle, consuming millions of individuals, countless families and entire communities.
The problem is that for far too long the individuals and communities directly impacted by mass incarceration have been glaringly absent – or worse, omitted – from the conversation. Ironically, in a movement established in their name, the currently and formerly incarcerated are often relegated to roles of service provision and symbolism. It is not enough that advocates for reform be genuine believers in the depravity and inhumanity of our carceral policies. The failure of policy makers, advocates and service providers to invest time and energy into cultivating meaningful ways to work collaboratively with people and communities most impacted by the criminal justice system has expunged the expertise needed to achieve substantial reform.
No community wants, needs or understands the urgency of sweeping reform more than those held captive by the disastrous policy failures of a broken justice system. These individuals not only bring a valuable and culturally-competent frame to the discussion, but “living closer to the problem” often means that they have given significant thought to possible solutions. In what appears to be a watershed moment for criminal justice reform we need these communities of the currently and formerly incarcerated to instruct us on what needs to change, where we can improve and what strategies we need to implement.
JustLeadershipUSA is dedicated to putting new and authentic drivers in the seat of the reform locomotive. We know that it is not for lack of intelligence or hard work that formerly incarcerated people rarely assume roles of leadership, but a lack of access to resources and opportunities. We believe that everyone has the capacity to lead, though not everyone is exposed to opportunities that teach them critical leadership skills. Through our leadership development training program we instruct formerly incarcerated people with proven leadership capacity in their respective careers and communities, to drive decarceration efforts around the country.
Together with the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia University, JustLeadershipUSA has collaborated with over 50 formerly incarcerated leaders to research, develop and employ a dynamic and inclusive leadership model. Our cohort-based training practices include peer coaching sessions, peer group learning projects and individualized one-on-one sessions, to produce a sustainable leadership community that fosters ongoing development and support long after the program is complete.
While we believe those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, we know this does not exempt the rest of us from playing our part in correcting the wanton harm produced by four decades of failed criminal justice policy. Contrary to popular sentiment, mass incarceration is neither a minority issue nor a poor people’s issue, but an American issue. The criminal justice system is a menacing threat to our democracy – squandering the potential of millions of Americans, destroying families and communities, and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars each year.
At JustLeadershipUSA, we know that the presence of allies has been crucial to every movement against systemic injustice (the abolition of slavery, the women’s rights movement, the Civil Rights movement, etc.). As such, we employ a membership model to encourage people of all backgrounds, including those who are incarcerated, to band together against policies that are wasteful and ineffective and to incentivize investment in practices that are fairer, smarter and morally aligned with our values.
Our founder, Glenn E. Martin, a national criminal justice reform advocate and formerly incarcerated individual, created JustLeadershipUSA because he believes one of the most unjust features of the existing system is that the millions of men and women in America’s prisons have been barred from making decisions regarding their own lives. JustLeadershipUSA knows that systemic change is accelerated and amplified through strength in numbers. We ask that people who are currently incarcerated and the more than 60 million American adults who have criminal records3 become members of our movement to elevate the voices of those impacted by incarceration and articulate their own salvation, as only they can.
By joining JustLeadershipUSA you are safeguarding against the adoption of policies contrary to your best interests and the health and well-being of your families and communities. As a member your contributions will fund our efforts to replace mandatory sentencing laws with more flexible and individualized guidelines, eliminate the use of “three-strike” laws, eliminate tough-on-crime-era truth in sentencing laws, expand labor market opportunities for formerly incarcerated people and encourage the increased use of prison population reduction strategies such as executive pardons, parole release, clemency and merit time. Together, with a united voice and a united vision for reform, we can halve the U.S. prison population by 2030 and afford those who are incarcerated equal opportunities to be part of the solution.
To become a member of JustLeadershipUSA, please send $10.00 (the cost of annual membership) to JustLeadershipUSA at 112 West 34th Street, Suite 2104, New York, NY 10120. Also, please spread the word about JustLeadershipUSA; ask your family and friends to become members, too! Together we can redefine JUSTICE.
For more information, visit our website: www.justleadershipusa.org.
1 Mauer, Marc, “Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States,” The Sentencing Project, July 2014.
2 Cockburn, Chloe, “Ending Mass Incarceration: Progress Report,” ACLU, May 28, 2014; www.aclu.org/smart-justice-fair-justice/ending-mass-incarceration-progress-report.
3 Rodriguez, Michelle and Maurice Emsellem, “65 Million Need Not Apply: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment,” National Employment Law Project, March 2011.
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