Who's Helping the Formerly Incarcerated Lead the Fight for Criminal Justice Reform?

Amid a lot of work going on right now to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the number of people in prison, the group JustLeadershipUSA has found an unusual niche. Its vision is to cut the prison population in half by 2030—and to do so in large part by empowering formerly incarcerated people to lead advocacy campaigns for decarceration at the state, local, and federal levels. In fact, JustLeadershipUSA is a membership organization of formerly incarcerated individuals and it is led by one such individual, Glenn Martin, who spent six years in New York State prisons before becoming a leader in the nonprofit world.

JustLeadershipUSA also has some notable allies on its board of directors and its advisory board in the form of Michelle Alexander—who helped make the issue of justice reform such a red-hot topic with her book The New Jim Crow—along with Piper Kerman of Orange is the New Black fame. The criminal justice scholar Bruce Western is also involved, as well as a number of others, including Vivian Nixon, who leads Community and College Fellowship, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated women acquire education at the college level and beyond.

Glenn Martin has proven to be an avid and talented fundraiser, judging by the funders who've swung behind his group in a relatively short period of time. 

So far, JustLeadershipUSA's biggest backer is the Ford Foundation, which has a long history in of backing criminal justice reform and has lately been at the cutting edge of foundation efforts to address racial equity issues. Other supporters include the Sills Family Foundation, the Harry Joe Brown Jr. Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation, Brightwater Fund, and the Abrons Foundation.

Sills is a funder we hadn't heard of before, but was started relatively recently (in 2003) and has a strong focus on supporting families impacted by incarceration, particularly women. Brightwater Fund is another relatively new player, started as recently as 2009, with a focus on children and youth as well as low-income populations in its grantmaking. Interestingly, the Harry Joe Brown Jr. Foundation is named for its founder, who passed in 2005, and personally spent some time in prison in the 1990s for making false statements to federal regulators. The Public Welfare Foundation, of course, has long been a stalwart backer of social justice groups, and reports that it has given out over $570 million to nearly 5,000 organizations over the past 70 years. Public Welfare prides itself on funding what it calls “difficult, often overlooked” areas as part of its grantmaking priorities, and has been moving a lot of money lately in the criminal justice space, including for juvenile justice reform.

While JustLeadershipUSA has both authenticity and serious star power behind it and is showing early funding success with a small but robust group of backers, the question remains whether the broader philanthropic community will open up its coffers to this “for us, by us” approach to criminal justice reform. It's worth reiterating that organizations like this are pretty unusual in the advocacy and policy world overall, with funding dollars so often going to outfits run by veteran practitioners and experts. On the other hand, there's a growing recognition that more grant dollars should be going to groups that are run by the same people they speak for. JustLeadershipUSA certainly fits that bill.