Advocating For Our Future

“Any system that allows us to turn a blind-eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system. Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”

– President of the United States, Barack Obama

Decarceration is possible without compromising public safety.

It is possible to build a society where restoration, not incarceration, is the answer. States across the country are already beginning to downsize their juvenile and adult prison populations while also decreasing rates of serious crime. You can help achieve a safer and more just America.

Incarcerating America

At the federal level, people incarcerated on a drug conviction make up half the prison population. At the state level the number of people convicted of drug offenses has increased eleven fold since 1980.

The Sentencing Project, 2013

Incarcerating America

Current Issues


With a 66% recidivism rate, annual operating costs in the hundreds of millions ($167k per resident, per year), and hundreds of reports of staff brutality and violence each year, what Rikers fails to deliver in public safety it delivers in human carnage. Undertrained corrections officers routinely inflict severe and unwarranted abuse on adolescent and mentally ill people. In 2013 alone, use of excessive force by officers resulted in 1057 injuries among an adolescent population of only 791. The “deep seated culture of violence” as described by the US Department of Justice, regularly results in critical injuries that are “beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat.” In 2013, an alarming 77 percent of Rikers residents who sustained such injuries received a mental health diagnosis.

The brutality and inhumane treatment that defines everyday life for the men and women at Rikers does not advance the primary purposes of the justice system: to protect the public and deter criminal behavior. To the contrary, it normalizes and validates the use of violence. JustLeadershipUSA’s ambitious proposal for the closing of Rikers and the right-sizing and decentralization of NYC’s jail system would present an opportunity to make smart investments in cost effective public safety measures that have been shown to work.

Keeping individuals who pose a low risk to public safety near the communities they call home and offering alternatives to incarceration, such as supervision, intervention, and services that are responsive to their risk and needs decreases the likelihood that they will reoffend and improves public safety.

Recent shifts in political thinking from being “tough on crime” to “smart on crime” are generating hope for right-sizing our criminal justice system. Twenty-nine states lowered their incarceration rates between 2006 and 2011, and all but three of those states experienced a drop-in crime. Trends reflect a growing consciousness in America that higher incarceration rates are not making us any safer and there exist viable, community based alternatives that are less costly and more effective at reducing crime. However, there is much more work to be done.

JustLeadershipUSA values the knowledge, perspective and expertise that people with the lived experience of incarceration and criminalization bring to the conversation on criminal justice reform. As such, we work to elevate, strengthen and infuse the voices of those 65 million Americans who have passed through the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems into the dominant discourse on reform. Through our annual Leading with Conviction training program we build on America’s momentum toward decarceration by creating a network of formerly incarcerated leaders equipped with the skills, qualities, and vision to drive policy reform efforts on state and local levels.

In New York State, #FREEnewyork, led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with organizations and directly impacted communities is a bold, statewide campaign demanding overhaul of New York’s criminal justice system. In New York State, more than 25,000 people are held in county jails. Shockingly, 70% have not been convicted. They are legally innocent but denied their freedom because of New York’s broken bail, speedy trial and discovery laws. This is a mockery of justice. New Yorkers will no longer settle for compromise measures or partial reforms to address the urgent issue of mass incarceration.

Through a multi-pronged strategy, #FREEnewyork is building the power and leadership of New Yorkers most harmed by incarceration, demanding bold legislative action and fundamental change to New York’s criminal justice system. 

New York must pass bail reform that: Eliminates money bail; Protects the assumption of innocence & the right to freedom; Sets strong limits on when & how any pretrial conditions are set; Never uses biased risk assessment tools.

New York must pass a discovery law that is: Open; Early; Automatic; Mandatory.

New York must pass a true speedy trial law that: Dictates specific timelines for when a defendant must be brought to trial; Covers all crime categories; Truly protects the right to a fair and timely trial.

Learn more about #FREEnewyork here!

Join the campaign – contact:

As President Obama nears the middle of his last term, his administration made a priority of addressing some of the most criticized and ineffective measures of the drug war, such as mandatory minimums and “three-strikes” style sentence enhancements, which many experts blame for the massive US prison population.

Most recently, President Obama announced plans to expand clemency eligibility to potentially thousands of people who have been jailed for nonviolent offenses under historically harsher sentencing guidelines. JustleadershipUSA commends the President for his commitment to reducing the number of lives still held captive under the disastrous policy failures of America’s longest social war.

The initiative is a major step forward in the movement to decarcerate America but it falls short of the giant leap needed to correct the unconscionable social devastation resulting from America’s forty year overreliance on incarceration to stem problems of social and economic development.

The consequences of mass incarceration extend far beyond the costs to the individuals behind bars, and to the families that are disrupted and the overburdened communities whose residents constantly cycle in and out.

True justice requires the wholesale decarceration initiative promoted by JustLeadershipUSA. Together we can reverse the traumatic generational effects inflicted on the communities our policies have failed.


For the last four decades, America has relentlessly relied on incarceration as a solution to complex social problems– discarding far too many lives and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars each year. Like any disease, this nation’s prison epidemic affects a broad spectrum of individuals, families, and communities. Mass imprisonment severs important family relationships–consigning millions of American children to multigenerational poverty, low educational achievement, poor social and emotional development and potential future criminal justice involvement. The cycling in and out of Americans diminishes our capacity to build stronger, safer communities by straining the fragile social networks of the poor neighborhoods that absorb the 600,000 men and women returning home each year.

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On a national level, the explosive growth of our prison population poses a formidable threat to America’s economic prosperity. High removal rates of working age, able bodied citizens results in an enormous loss of human capital and diminishes the quality of our workforce. Incarceration produces unparalleled rates of unemployment, with rates as high as 60 percent among formerly incarcerated individuals in states like New York, almost ten times the national rate. High unemployment among formerly incarcerated people results in a loss of income tax revenue, higher state and federal government assistance payouts, and detracts from spending for other essential government services.

Americans across the political spectrum are coming to terms with the reality that our current rates of incarceration are too costly, ineffective, and unsustainable, making prison reform an increasingly bipartisan effort. JustLeadershipUSA is working to strengthen America–its communities, its values, and its traditions–by elevating the voice of individuals and communities that are most impacted by crime and imprisonment to drive smart reforms that reduce our reliance on incarceration. The time has come to put fewer people in prison and instead tackle our social problems head on. Our American values remind us that prisons must no longer serve as a substitute for sound social policies. Problems like mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness are better addressed through comprehensive community based social services and interventions that cost less and yield greater results. Join #halfby2030 and demand a justice system that is fair, effective, and reflective of our values.

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