Cities Can Amplify Formerly Incarcerated Voices to Drive Justice Reform

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This is a guest post form Ronald Simpson-Bey, who serves as the Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement at JustLeadershipUSA.

For any criminal justice reform policy to be truly effective, and for it to deliver the results that are long overdue — the decarceration and decriminalization of black and brown communities and communities experiencing poverty – the policy must be informed by the people it will affect.

Directly impacted and formerly incarcerated individuals must be at the forefront of the decision-making, negotiating and advocacy that is part-and-parcel of urban policy planning. If they are not, then the policy is doomed to fail and we are bound to repeat the mistakes of our past.

We know this to be true because the success we’ve seen in our work is a result of adhering to this principle. JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA) is a national, member-driven criminal justice reform organization that aims to reduce the number of people under correctional control in the United States in half by 2030 (#halfby2030). The work is premised on the idea that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

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In order for those in office to be effective in their own work, they have to operate on a similar principle, and must engage directly with impacted people in the work they do.

There are several things that city policymakers can do:

  • Use platforms to elevate the voices of directly impacted individuals. To elevate the voices and amplify the leadership of directly impacted people, actively seek them out, engage them, and offer them the opportunity to speak to colleagues, media, or other groups – opportunities that are typically reserved for the status of an elected official. Moreover, never have a press conference regarding criminal justice reform that does not include and is not centered on the voices and experiences of directly impacted people.
  • Use intentional, humanizing language when referring to justice-involved individuals. Using humanizing language in communications is just as vital. It’s far too easy to cast formerly incarcerated individuals aside as the other when you talk about inmates, felons, convicts, offenders or ex-any-of-those-terms. It’s a lot harder to forget or overlook people when you recognize individuals as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters…as people. People do not stop being people when they are incarcerated and should never lose the dignity and humanity that ought to be afforded to people.
  • Frame advocacy and policy proposals around the experiences of directly impacted individuals. In listening to and seeing impacted people, it becomes easy to shape policy around the experiences they’ve endured. Formerly incarcerated individuals must be at the table, leading the conversation and helping bring ideas to fruition. Policy that is well-intentioned and seemingly well-crafted can lead to unintended, damaging consequences if directly impacted people are left out of reviewing, drafting, advising on, and negotiating around policy proposals.

If you are struggling to identify people with whom to engage in your jurisdiction, chances are that JLUSA knows someone you should talk to. That’s because, at its core, JLUSA is more than an advocacy organization. It is a leadership development organization with a very specific focus on building the leadership of formerly incarcerated advocates.

Any jurisdiction seeking to reform the criminal justice system should look to these advocates. Through the organization’s Emerging Leaders and Leading with Conviction programs, over 500 people have been trained across this country to leverage their experiences and amplify their leadership.

This is a broad base of people who are eager and willing to do the work that we all know must be done. Only by lifting directly impacted people up can we take the system from what it is now and redefine it, making it a transformative, community-focused, human-centered, and values-driven system that is truly worthy of being called a “justice” system.

0-RonaldSimpsonBey_JLUSA16_074.jpg About the Author: Ronald Simpson-Bey is the Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement at JustLeadershipUSA.