Barefoot Lawyers, Communities, and the Earth: Legal Empowerment and the Struggle for Stewardship

By Vivek Maru, CEO, Namati

The global human rights movement has made extraordinary progress, at least by the letter of the law. Many countries now enshrine basic rights in national legislation. But people continue to struggle to exercise those rights in practice. The UN estimated that four billion people worldwide live outside of the law's protection. For them, the law is an abstraction, or worse, a threat. They can be driven from their land, extorted by officials, and intimidated by violence.

This profound global rights gap is nowhere more urgent than in the realm of environmental and climate justice. Research demonstrates that secure community land rights are a necessary precursor to successfully addressing deforestation, food insecurity, and poverty. Time and again, we see that when communities have secure governance over their lands, they choose to conserve and wisely steward their resources – creating a bulwark against the destabilization of key resources like water, soil, and agricultural crops due to rising temperatures.

Yet nearly half of the world’s people do not have secure rights to govern their lands. Meanwhile, these same lands are vulnerable to increasing foreign investment interest and speculation by national elites. As demand for (cheap, unregulated) land increases while climate stability decreases, rural communities around the world face imminent threats to their homes, lives, and livelihoods.

These external destabilizing influences often set off a cascade of multiple and overlapping intra-community challenges. Often the divisive tactics of investors create community divisions, while infrastructure development degrades livelihoods. Elites may make back-room deals with local leaders, undermining community trust of those leaders.

It is only when local communities are empowered to claim their rights – both customary rights and those enshrined in national law – and fully participate in decision-making about their customary lands, that we find positive outcomes for sustainable resource stewardship and community resilience in the face of climate change.

To help achieve these outcomes worldwide, Namati champions an approach—grassroots legal advocates, sometimes known as barefoot lawyers or community paralegals—for placing the power of law in the hands of people. The advocates are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. Paralegals help people to understand, use, and ultimately shape the law.

For example, in 2015, paralegals in Sierra Leone worked with ten communities in the north of the country to secure a more equitable lease agreement between the communities and a logging company. They successfully negotiated provisions for the protection of traditional or sacred grounds, profit sharing with communities, and protection from environmental harm.

In Myanmar, paralegals work with farmers who have suffered land-grabbing by the military under decades of dictatorship, offering practical advice on land laws to a much larger group of people than could be assisted by lawyers alone. Since 2013, Namati and several grassroots groups have helped nearly 10,000 farmers across seven states to protect their land rights under new Burmese law. Thousands of farmers have received land use certificates, and thousands of hectares of grabbed land have been returned to small-hold farmers.

Paralegal casework can also inform lasting policy change. In India, intensive paralegal efforts on several mining cases – resulting in valuable evidence about how the laws work in practice – gave advocates the information they needed to call for strengthened federal mining regulations. As a result, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change included the paralegals’ proposed changes in an amendment to the relevant law.

Paralegals offer a practical, effective method for enabling communities to assume their rightful roles as primary stewards of their lands and resources. And paralegal experience in pursuing land and environmental justice can inform regional, national and even global advocacy on environmental protection. In the context of increasing resource scarcity and a shifting climate, respecting the rights of people closest to the land is essential to preserving our most precious shared resources. It is also what justice demands.

 To learn more about Namati’s impact click here.

Vivek Maru is the CEO of Namati. Namati and its partners deploy grassroots legal advocates to take on some of the greatest challenges of our times including protecting community lands, seeking environmental justice, securing citizenship rights and realizing the right to health. Just this year Vivek and Namati received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Watch his acceptance speech here. Previously, Vivek co-founded and co-directed the Sierra Leonean organization Timap for Justice, which has been recognized by the International Crisis Group, Transparency International, and President Jimmy Carter as a pioneering model for delivering justice services in the context of a weak state and a plural legal system. He also served as senior counsel in the Justice Reform Group of the World Bank. His work focused on rule of law reform and governance, primarily in West Africa and South Asia.

From Global Warming to Genocide Warning: Climate Change and Mass Atrocities

by Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

In the winter of 2006 Syria experienced the beginning of the most crippling drought in its recorded history. By 2009 key crops had declined by more than half, plunging almost a million people into food insecurity. In the northeast of the country farmers lost 85% of their livestock as wells dried up and farm animals died. About 10% of the population saw their livelihoods wiped out. During the three-year drought, more than 1.5 million Syrians fled from their farms, migrating to Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and other urban centers.

Rising temperatures and declining rainfall afflicted the entire Fertile Crescent, where agriculture was first born about 11,000 years ago, but fell particularly severely upon Syria. The ruling Assad family didn’t create the drought, but decades of dictatorship and dysfunctional policies around water management and unsustainable agriculture exacerbated its consequences. Facing poverty, hunger and water scarcity, resentments accumulated on the periphery of Syria’s cities and in the countryside. Then came the “Arab Spring.”

The confluence of these events has caused some to draw a causal link between them. In the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, “It’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record.” Environmental disaster intensified the “political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region,” adding stress on cities plagued by crumbling infrastructure, social inequality, overcrowding and corruption. In this scenario, climate change helped ignite the most bitter and bloody civil war of our times, providing a disturbing portent of our potential future.

Threat Multiplier

Kerry is not alone in identifying a disturbing credible connection between climate change and deadly conflict. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued in his Millennium Report that climate change “may increase social and political tensions in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways.” In 2014 the US Department of Defense described climate change as a “threat multiplier,” noting that a rise in global temperatures may “intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” posing a particular threat to already fractured societies.

These challenges may also increase the possibility of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Although the UN’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes does not specifically address global warming, there are two risk factors that are directly relevant: motives or incentives, and triggering factors. Triggering factors could include environmental changes that drastically affect entire societies, including severe drought or natural disaster. Motives or incentives could potentially include a dramatic widening of inequality because of climate change, including food and water scarcity, environmental degradation, and the political manipulation of access to precious resources. But does the existing evidence support this grim prognosis?

In 2007 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon linked climate change to the outbreak of deadly conflict in Darfur, arguing that a harsh drought had resulted in armed hostilities between settled farmers and nomadic herders. In 2012 deadly inter-communal clashes between Orma and Pokomo communities in Kenya’s Tana River Delta were perceived as being primarily driven by tribal animosities and political rivalries. However, the two ethnic communities were actually fighting over water access, scarce grazing land and tensions arising from land development.

Fighting between semi-nomadic herders and settled farmers has also occurred in Ethiopia, Central African Republic and elsewhere, sometimes escalating to the level of mass atrocity crimes. For example, in Nigeria rising temperatures and drought have caused Fulani herdsmen to migrate further south than ever before. In doing so, they have clashed with established agricultural communities. The fact that the Fulani herdsmen are mainly Muslim and the communities they are battling are predominately Christian has deepened animosities in a country that is already experiencing deadly conflict. While Boko Haram’s atrocities have attracted international headlines, there have been at least 6500 deaths resulting from violence between the Fulani and other communities in Nigeria since 2010.

Extended dry seasons, caused by climate change, could have a similar effect on ethnic conflict in South Sudan, where traditions of cattle raiding between competing communities of Neur, Murle and Dinka have increased in longevity and violent intensity over the last decade. Meanwhile in Yemen, growing water scarcity has had a direct impact on the conduct of the country’s civil war. Armed forces on both sides have deliberately targeted infrastructure in order to deprive rival civilian populations of access to water, effectively weaponising climate change.

Where governance is weak, the threat posed by climate change looms largest. There are predictions that accelerating climate change could potentially displace between 50 and 250 million people globally. It will also increase global hunger and the regularity of catastrophic environmental events. The resulting pressures may limit the capacity of some governments in the developing world to fulfill their basic functions.

We have already experienced this firsthand in relation to the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Understandably, the governments of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone prioritized the health emergency over programs to consolidate the rule of law, dealing with past conflicts, and strengthening human rights institutions. Similar re-prioritization may occur in the face of expanded environmental crises with a long-term impact on political stability and economic development.

In 2010 the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law released a study of African governments’ institutional resilience to potential challenges presented by climate change. Of the 53 African states studied, the ten most fragile were (in descending order) Cote d’ Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Comoros, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Seven of those have already endured mass atrocities in their recent history, or are experiencing them now. This is the context in which climate change could reignite old conflicts or create conditions for new predatory politics.

2° Temperature Rise = Genocide?

Nevertheless, it is important not to conflate climate change, conflict and the risk of mass atrocities. At least one study has used historical data regarding temperature variation in Africa to argue that “a 1˚ C increase in temperature” leads to “a 4.5% increase in civil war.” But predictive modeling developed from such studies runs the risk of being wildly misleading. There is certainly no evidence that a one or two degree increase in global temperatures will automatically increase the likelihood of genocide in Africa or anywhere else.

I come from a “sunburnt country” and have personally experienced extended drought. But water scarcity in Western Australia has never resulted in civil war or a refugee exodus as it has in Syria. Similarly, no one is trying to bomb Southern California’s depleted water reservoirs like they are in Yemen. And herdsmen are not migrating south from Oregon to kill people and secure access to fertile grazing lands in Silicon Valley.

This should remind us that political history and economic development play an indispensable role in all of this. Indeed, even in areas most vulnerable to climate change and extreme conflict, the results are not universally negative. Water management in the Lake Chad Basin and the threat posed by Boko Haram has actually enhanced cross-border cooperation between Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Climate change undoubtedly threatens the future of our planet, but it might also enhance diplomatic collaboration.

Mass atrocities are the result of a convergence of vulnerabilities, of which climate change is just one. In the future ethnic warlords, authoritarian rulers and aspiring demagogues will undoubtedly use the consequences of climate change to mobilize support. But to quote Vesselin Popovski of United Nations University, “what will drive their fight is not the rain, the temperature, or the sea level.” The primary causes of conflict will remain raw politics and naked economics.

Precisely because climate change is a global problem, it provokes us to think beyond borders. From the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to upholding our international responsibility to protect, the solution lies in severing the link between climate and survival for those people and places that are most susceptible to the ruinous effects of climate change. This should give us hope. Mass atrocity crimes are incited, organized and perpetrated by human beings. That means that like climate change, they can still be prevented by human beings.

Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, has worked extensively with governments and civil society organizations in South Africa, East Timor, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Between 1994 and 2002 Dr. Adams worked with Sinn Féin and former IRA prisoners in support of the Northern Ireland peace process. He is also a former anti-apartheid activist and member of the African National Congress in South Africa.

Making History at Standing Rock: Tribes Are Leading Action to Preserve the Planet

by Trip Van Noppen, President, Earthjustice

In North Dakota, thousands of people are now encamped on the banks of the Cannonball River to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline with the Standing Rock Sioux.  Routed through sacred sites, the $3.8 billion pipeline would transport Bakken oil under the Missouri River, where a break or leak would poison water for Standing Rock and potentially millions of people downstream.  Members of at least 280 tribes and First Nations have come from around the U.S. and Canada to peacefully demonstrate, making this the largest gathering of tribes in generations.  Delegations of indigenous peoples have come from as far away as New Zealand and the Ecuadoran Amazon, and more people arrive every day. “It’s powerful. It’s one of the most beautiful things that I’m fortunate to witness,” says David Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.   

It’s a historic moment and one that matters to the climate movement.  Beyond the massive Dakota Access pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux have joined 49 other tribes and First Nations to create a united front against the full suite of new pipelines and other proposed infrastructure projects that would entrench dependence on oil.  This leadership offers new hope for keeping oil unburned.  But it is reductive to call Dakota Access the “next Keystone” as many commentators have done.  Above all, this is a fight for justice, tribal sovereignty, and fundamental rights to protect land and water, to keep culture and “survive as distinct peoples,” as Leonard Peltier recently put it.    

For my organization, Earthjustice, it is an extraordinary privilege to represent the Tribe in a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s deeply flawed process for permitting the pipeline.  This 1,200 mile-long project is going forward without any comprehensive environmental review or meaningful consultation with the Tribe, as Dakota Access secured the necessary approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using a self-service permitting scheme that is urgently in need of reform.  While the Corps has insisted that the Tribe’s concerns about threats to water are unwarranted, the pipeline’s original route was shifted toward Standing Rock when it became clear that a leak or a spill would contaminate drinking water in the relatively prosperous, overwhelmingly white city of Bismarck.  The Tribe did not have any meaningful say in that decision, and now the Tribe bears the risk of poisoned water.  Meanwhile, the companies building the pipeline have rushed to bulldoze and destroy ancestral burial grounds that lie in the route’s new path.  

For the Sioux, it’s a painfully familiar story.  As Chairman Archambault wrote in a recent op-ed that ran in The New York Times:

This is the third time that the Sioux Nation’s lands and resources have been taken without regard for tribal interests. The Sioux peoples signed treaties in 1851 and 1868. The government broke them before the ink was dry. When the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River in 1958, it took our riverfront forests, fruit orchards and most fertile farmland to create Lake Oahe. Now the Corps is taking our clean water and sacred places by approving this river crossing. Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity.

To say that America’s prosperity comes at the tribes’ expense is a gentle critique given the history.  Fossil fuel development and its flip side, climate change, represent a new assault on the tribes, and that injustice resonates around the world.

Indigenous people including the Standing Rock Sioux are unifying in an unprecedented way to combat that injustice, and they are enjoying tremendous success.  This past spring, the Lummi Nation successfully enforced their treaty-protected fishing rights to block the largest coal port proposed in North America.  Shortly before that, the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation in British Columbia turned down $1.5 billion from the oil giant Petronas, blocking a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in fragile salmon habitat.  And these inspiring efforts are not exclusive to North America.  Invoking their traditional land rights, the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples of Australia are standing between India’s Adani Group and what would be the world’s biggest coal mine (and another blow to the Great Barrier Reef).  Meanwhile, in India, tribal protests are blocking an extraordinary number of new coal mines—at great personal risk to the protesters involved.  These are just a few examples among many.

The common thread is that indigenous peoples around the world are leading essential action to preserve the planet.  To quote Rebecca Adamson, the founder of First Peoples Worldwide, “It is not a coincidence that 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is to be found on indigenous lands.” 

With the gathering of so many indigenous leaders at Standing Rock, there is an unprecedented opportunity —and pressing need —to support their efforts in a sustained way that honors their priorities.  Adamson makes the point that “less than one tenth of a percent of the hundreds of millions of aid and philanthropic dollars going to prevent, mitigate and adapt to climate change goes directly to indigenous peoples.”  Even putting aside the unfairness of that allocation, it is out of step with the outsize contribution that indigenous leaders are making.

Which brings us full circle to progress in the Dakota Access fight.  On September 9, a federal district court denied the Tribe’s request for a court order blocking further construction, but minutes after the opinion issued, the Justice Department and the Army Corps issued a joint statement announcing their desire to revisit approvals for the project in light of the Tribe’s concerns.  The Corps has deferred the grant of final approvals needed to route the line under the Missouri River, and the agencies have promised to initiate “a formal, government-to-government consultation,” stating that “this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”  While the future of the Dakota Access pipeline is still very much in question, this remarkable announcement represents a dramatic shift in position and tone by the U.S. federal government.  That shift is a testament to the power of the movement that is growing in North Dakota. Now is the time to help it grow.

Earthjustice wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health; to preserve magnificent places and wildlife; to advance clean energy; and to combat climate change.  We provide free legal representation, communications and other support to a broad array of clients including tribes and indigenous peoples throughout the U.S. and around the world. 

Trip Van Noppen serves Earthjustice as its President, leading the organization's staff, board, and supporters to advance its mission of using the courts to protect our environment and people's health. After earning degrees from Yale and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Trip clerked for a federal district judge from 1980–82. He then practiced law in Raleigh, NC, from 1982 until 1997, in a litigation practice emphasizing civil rights, employment, environmental, and toxic tort cases. In 1998, Trip joined the Southern Environmental Law Center and became director of that organization’s Carolinas Office. Both in private practice and at SELC, Trip has handled a variety of environmental cases and cases involving access to the courts. He was named North Carolina’s “Air Conservationist of the Year” in 1996 and has taught environmental justice as a visiting scholar at Duke University.

Imagining Freedom

By Caitlin Heising, Philanthropy Research Associate, Article 3 Advisors.

I couldn’t believe that only six months ago, the man in a suit standing onstage at SFJAZZ telling us about his three wives (Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock, and – “would you believe it” – Kim Kardashian) had been in prison. In fact, this charming man, Anthony Ray Hinton, had spent the last 30 years on Alabama’s death row, most of the time in solitary confinement, for a crime he did not commit. So, of course, Mr. Hinton had not actually married these three beautiful women. He let his colorful imagination come up with love stories and world travels to escape the daily prison monotony and occasional smells of burning flesh coming from the nearby electric chair.

Mr. Hinton is not alone in this inhumane circumstance, though he was fortunate to have Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, as his lawyer. In addition to exonerating innocent death row prisoners, Mr. Stevenson puts forth a powerful argument that in our country, slavery did not end, but rather evolved. Generations later, its legacy is continuing racism in a society where a black person is six times more likely than a white person to go to prison for the same crime.

The failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices has served to reinforce a corrosive legacy affecting our country’s legitimacy around human rights. The U.S. now has the largest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people imprisoned along with 7 million on probation or parole. Out of the 9.3 million people in the correctional system, 1 in 3 are African-American.

Currently, the prison system makes $74 billion in profit, the gross domestic product of 133 nations. There is something fundamentally wrong with this situation, which should be recognized as an unacceptable human rights abuse that also weakens America’s moral authority around the world. If we systematically disregard the rights and dignity of people within our borders, how can we expect to have a say in, let alone positively influence, the advancement of international human rights norms abroad?

Considering the extent of this broken system, Article 3 Advisors, the human rights philanthropy consultancy led by The Philanthropy Workshop board members Darian Swig (TPW 2005-2006) and David Keller (TPW 2001-2002), chose to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform for its annual event commemorating International Human Rights Day on December 10th. A3A Human Rights Day brought together advocates, philanthropists, and politicians to hear firsthand from Mr. Hinton, Mr. Stevenson, and other experts and practitioners in the U.S. criminal justice system. With more than 100 people in the room listening raptly to Mr. Hinton’s story and hearing from visionaries such as Van Jones and George Gascón about what needs to be done, we joined an important conversation with humanity, dignity, and freedom at its core.

The proximity was powerful, almost palpable, as many people were brought to tears hearing how Mr. Hinton was kept locked up even after solid evidence of his innocence emerged 16 years before he was finally released. The system in which he found himself did not have to listen to him, his lawyers, or even concrete facts. The powerful players involved could – and still can – choose to look away, or forget, or villainize innocent people for being poor and black.

What’s badly needed, according to Mr. Stevenson, is a change in the narrative we collectively tell ourselves. We need to start actively remembering our country’s history of slavery, lynching, resistance to the civil rights movement, and Jim Crow segregation, rather than continuing to try to move on by burying it in the depths of history books. Our culture attempts to suggest that slavery is a thing of the past when really it has evolved into a legacy of racial inequality. As we can tell from today’s systemic poverty, endemic institutional discrimination, police brutality, and skyrocketing incarceration levels, our current incognizance of the deep ties between slavery and mass incarceration has not served to realize “a more perfect union.”

In a significant first step to this end, Mr. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are embarking on a capital campaign this year to build the Montgomery Memorial to Peace and Justice, which will memorialize lives lost to lynching in towns throughout the South. To achieve real change, we need to identify and challenge some of the stories our culture tries to tell.

In another life, Mr. Hinton could have been a comedian, politician, professor – he has the type of charisma that keeps you hanging on every word. Our unfair criminal justice system denied him the opportunity to live free and realize his potential. Yet he said he has no anger or regrets; he forgives the individuals involved in his unjust ordeal. He is clearly living his purpose now, sharing his story around the country to humanize our incarcerated masses and bring about systemic change. I can say that everyone at A3A Human Rights Day was inspired by his openness, resilience, and hope. Let’s act now, following Mr. Hinton’s lead, to make our country one that truly creates opportunity and freedom for all.

To learn more about the history of racial injustice in America from slavery to mass incarceration, click here to view an animated film from Equal Justice Initiative.

The Man on Death Row Who Changed Me

Today, on International Human Rights Day, we are closing out our U.S. criminal justice reform blog series with a post by Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His post is an essay adapted from his best selling book, Just Mercy. In it, he reflects on an experience from his law school days and the impact it had on the trajectory of his career. To view the entire blog series, click here.

We’ve chosen to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform on International Human Rights Day because we believe that the failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices reinforces a corrosive legacy affecting domestic legitimacy; and thus, our ability to advance international human rights norms abroad.  It is our hope that by putting the U.S. criminal justice system in the spotlight, we join an important conversation with humanity, human dignity and freedom at its core.


The Man on Death Row Who Changed Me

The visitation room was 100 feet square, with a few stools bolted to the floor and wire mesh running across the room. For family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were “contact visits” — the two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit more privacy. I began worrying about my lack of preparation. I had scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasn’t sure how I would fill even 15 minutes with what I knew. I sat down on a stool and waited until I heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door.

The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me and quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He was a young, neatly groomed African-American man with short hair — clean-shaven, medium build — wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar, like everyone I grew up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone I’d talk to on the street. As the guard left, the metal door banged loudly behind him.

I walked over and offered my hand. The man, who had been convicted of murder, shook it cautiously. We sat down.

“I’m very sorry,” I blurted out. “I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, O.K., I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student, I’m not a real lawyer.” Despite all my preparations and rehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly. “I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”

He looked at me, worried. “Is everything all right with my case?”

“Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”

He interrupted my chatter by grabbing my hands. “I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”

“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.

“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”

I was astonished. We began to talk. It turned out that he and I were exactly the same age. He told me about his family and his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music and about prison. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I had stayed long past my allotted time. I looked at my watch. I had been there three hours.

The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.

“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”

I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in church where I grew up. I hadn’t heard it in years. Because his ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, he almost stumbled when the guard shoved him forward. But he kept on singing.

His voice was filled with desire. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. But that day, I could hear him as he went down the hall, until the echo of his earnest, soaring voice faded. When it had gone, the still silence of that space sounded different from when I entered. Even today, after 30 years of defending death-row prisoners, I still hear him.

Bryan Stevenson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Mr. Stevenson has successfully argued several cases in the United States Supreme Court and recently won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. Read more >>

Open Justice: Embracing Transparency

Written by Attorney General Kamala Harris, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series.

As a career prosecutor and California’s top cop, I know that neighborhoods are safer when communities and local law enforcement have a mutual trust. That’s why the national conversation about the relationship between communities and law enforcement is so important. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina, and elsewhere have brought police-community relations to the top of our national consciousness. This conversation is about justice for the victims and their families, but it’s also about making our entire nation safer.

We all need to come together to deliver on the potential of this momentum. That’s why my office recently launched OpenJustice, a first-of-its kind initiative that embraces transparency improve trust and policy-making in the criminal justice system. Here at the California Department of Justice, we collect a treasure trove of criminal justice data. OpenJustice seeks to make that information publicly available, so that everyday people can see what we are doing to uphold the civil rights of all individuals, promote justice in our communities, and ensure the safety of law enforcement.

OpenJustice is part of a “Smart on Crime” approach that takes a holistic look at criminal justice policy.  This means applying innovative, data-proven methods to make sure our criminal justice system is doing what it was intended to: improve public safety.  By using the universal language of numbers, OpenJustice makes it easy for the public to see how we’re doing – and where we can do better. 

As a first step with OpenJustice, we launched an Open Data Portal a public, online repository of criminal justice data – and a Justice Dashboard, which highlights key data in an interactive, engaging, and easy-to-use way. We started with three important datasets: (1) Deaths in Custody, (2) Arrest Rates and (3) Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted.  But no single statistic will provide a complete picture of such a complicated issue. So we plan to keep adding additional data to OpenJustice to broaden the conversation.

OpenJustice is our contribution to what I hope will become a nationwide, data-driven criminal justice reform movement. To help build that movement, we’ve also partnered with the White House Police Data Initiative to support more local law enforcement agencies in California open up their data and to provide a model for other states to adopt. 

Sharing this data with the public may force some difficult conversations, but it’ll also bring clarity and facts into the conversation. By being transparent about how we’re doing, by being smart about where we are focusing our resources, and by being innovative in adopting new technologies and data-driven solutions, we can make huge strides in fostering the relationship of trust between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to serve, making everyone safer. 

Kamala D. Harris is the 32nd Attorney General of the State of California. She is the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian to hold the office in the history of California.

As chief law enforcement officer for the State of California, Attorney General Harris has focused on combating transnational gangs, increasing the adoption of technology and data-driven policing by law enforcement, and improving public safety by reducing recidivism. She has fought to reduce elementary school truancy in California, preserve the state’s natural resources, and ensure marriage equality for all Californians. She has also worked with the technology industry to improve online privacy and safety. Read more >>

No One Truly Knows a Nation Until One Has Been Inside its Jails

Written by Jean Oelwang, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series. Title quote from Nelson Mandela. 

I grew up thinking America was the greatest place on earth, a land of freedom and opportunities.  Where my father came from humble beginnings and worked hard to give us everything we needed in life.  I grew up proud to be an American.  

Today I’m ashamed.  I’m ashamed that in this land of plenty, we are marginalising the most vulnerable people in our American family.  We spend our energy on reality TV politics focused on sound bites and cheap shots, rather than thinking about how we work together to tackle the tough issues and fix our nation to ensure everyone has a chance.  

We are only 5% of the world’s population, yet we have 25% of the world’s prisoners in our criminal “justice” system, many of them for minor drug offences, many of them people of colour.  We say the right “politically correct” things, but in our real life reality show, our systems are poisoned with racial discrimination, perpetuating the hidden apartheid of our time, right here in America.  

Mandela once stated “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”.  If he were to visit our jails today, he would find them filled with the most vulnerable Americans; people who are mentally ill, who have addiction problems, who have often suffered abuses in their lives that we will never even begin to comprehend.   Mandela’s first question would likely be, how are we taking care of these folks?  We would have to respond that we are putting them in solitary confinement, putting them back out into the streets with a “black mark” on their records so they will struggle to find work, giving them no help with their addiction and mental health issues and in the worst case, actually executing them (it feels barbaric to even write those words).  What would he think of our nation?  

My first brush with “justice” was when I was working in a homeless shelter in Chicago and a young man who lived at the shelter was accused of pulling a knife on a woman on a public bus.  Yet there was no knife, no wound, no witnesses, nothing to implicate this young man, beyond this woman’s accusation.  A group of us went to court as character witnesses for him, a quiet, gentle soul, very excited to be training to become a chef.  During the trial he was given a lawyer who was late each day and more focused on eating his lunch in the courtroom than on defending him.  So, with absolutely no evidence, he was convicted and ended up joining the ranks of over a million other men of colour in the US prison system.  His young life abruptly interrupted by a complete lack of justice.  

Justice is a tricky thing.  It is often warped by righteousness, biases and the desire for closure.  Over the last year we’ve been watching with horror as Richard Glossip escaped the execution chamber in Oklahoma four times, each time with his children and family standing by up until the very last minute.  

The primary evidence against him is the testimony of Justin Sneed, the actual murderer, who spared his own life by pointing to Richard Glossip as the instigator of the crime.  

Today I’m ashamed to be an American.  All of us have the blood of over 1.421 people who have been executed under our watch.

How can we ever expect to be a nation leading through moral courage on the global stage if we are not demonstrating this in our own backyard?  

We can change this and bring justice back into our criminal justice system.  There are many great folks like Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Sister Helen Prejean, The 8th Amendment Project– and others who are already on the path to delivering positive reform.  As philanthropists, business leaders and fellow human beings, we need to step up and support their important work. 

Every single one of us can and must take action.  So we can all stand up and respond to Nelson Mandela’s question with pride, that we are a nation who takes care of its most vulnerable and one that creates opportunities and freedom for all.  

Jean Oelwang is President and a Trustee of Virgin Unite, the entrepreneurial foundation of the Virgin Group.. In 2003, Jean left her post as joint CEO of Virgin Mobile Australia to begin working with Richard Branson and the Virgin staff from around the world to create Virgin Unite. Over the last 12 years, Jean has worked with partners to create new approaches to social and environmental issues, such as the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship and a global platform to support budding entrepreneurs. She has helped incubate a number of global leadership initiatives such as The Elders, the Carbon War Room, The B Team and Ocean Unite. In addition, Jean has been instrumental in working with Virgin’s businesses and others worldwide to put driving positive change at their core. Connect: @JeanOelwang@VirginUnite  

The Crisis of the American Criminal Justice System is Bad News for Everyone

 Written by Richard Branson and Van Jones, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series.

From the perspective of philanthropic institutions and individuals, criminal justice is not a distant problem that primarily concerns governments. The failures of the criminal justice system, from mass incarceration to egregious racial inequalities, have had such profound corrosive impacts that they can no longer be ignored. 

With 2.3 million people in the US prison system, 7 million on parole or probation, and 1 in 3 African-American men expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetime, we are facing a crisis of dramatic proportions. The system is so fundamentally broken that its very capacity to deliver justice has to be called into question. Equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and due process are frequently and often quite deliberately violated, tipping the scales to a point that conviction or acquittal are no longer a question of guilt or innocence, but rather a matter of socio-economic status and race. If you can’t pay for a good defence, the odds are stacked against you. If you are black or Hispanic and can’t pay for your defence, you are screwed. 

It’s an unacceptable status quo that also weakens America’s moral authority abroad. Indefinite solitary confinement, life without parole for minors and the fact that one in nine death row inmates will eventually be exonerated do not exactly strengthen our negotiating position when trying to stand up for human rights elsewhere. 

Beyond the staggering facts, the broader consequences are quite clear: this crisis threatens to roll back and undo years, if not decades, of social progress, much of which was accomplished with passionate support from the philanthropic community. Public health goals are undermined by everything from stress related-illnesses to high HIV transmission rates within prisons. Family formation is interrupted; children lose contact with incarcerated parents. Economic development is undercut when large numbers of African-Americans have felony convictions that lock them out of the job market. No question, if the legacies of the civil rights movement, of the fight for equality and of the war against poverty are to endure, we are all called upon to join forces and help restore justice, dignity, fairness and equality – the bedrock principles of healthy, equitable and prosperous societies.

To be frank, this is a momentous challenge many philanthropic organisations have to come to terms with as they seek to find their own role in the 21st century. Much of philanthropy still prefers to treat symptoms, rather than pushing for systemic change. It’s time to shift our priorities. 

How can this be done? First of all, reform needs champions and resources. Modern philanthropy should be prepared to provide both.

Part of the exercise is to listen to the voices of the criminal justice reform movement. The wider public, as well as mainstream media, are only slowly beginning to understand the extent of the problem. As advocates, champions and thought leaders, philanthropies can help amplify awareness of the causal relationships between a broken system and its devastating impacts. There is enormous room for positive and meaningful programmatic work to highlight best practices, vocally support reform efforts and grassroots initiatives. 

The good news is that change is happening. Ballot initiatives and legislative proposals seek to undo years of injustice. Unlikely alliances are forming across party lines and ideological positions, recognizing that the human and economic cost of these continued injustices, estimated as in excess of $80 billion a year, is not just unsustainable, but also deeply un-American 

While the window for change is open -- with so much at stake for so many -- philanthropy needs to continue working open doors of opportunity, while doing everything possible to close prison doors. Both are necessary. 


Since starting youth culture magazine “Student” at aged 16, Richard Branson has found entrepreneurial ways to drive positive change in the world.  In 2004 he established Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, which unites people and entrepreneurial ideas to create opportunities for a better world. Most of his time is spent building businesses that will make a positive difference in the world and working with Virgin Unite and organisations it has incubated (The Elders, The Carbon War Room, The B Team, Ocean Unite and Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship). He also serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy and supports ocean conservation with the Ocean Elders. Connect: @virginunite@richardbranson |

Van Jones is a CNN political commentator, regularly appearing across the network’s programming and special political coverage. Jones is a Yale-educated attorney. He is the author of two New York Times best-selling books, The Green Collar Economy (2008) and Rebuild the Dream (2012). The second book chronicles his journey as an environmental and human rights activist to becoming a White House policy advisor. He was the main advocate for the Green Jobs Act. Signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007, the Green Jobs Act was the first piece of federal legislation to codify the term “green jobs.” During the Obama Administration, the legislation has resulted in $500 million in national funding for green jobs training. Van is founder of Dream Corps, Rebuild The Dream, Green For All, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Color of Change. Connect@Cut_50 | @VanJones68 |

Criminal Justice Reform and the Role of Philanthropy

The massive failure within the U.S. criminal justice system is no longer excusable or avoidable. The stark reality is that our history and our criminal justice policies and practices do not align with our principles.

Slavery, the Civil War, the failure of reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, Terrorism through lynching, resistance to the civil rights movement, endemic institutional discrimination and systemic poverty, and police brutality has resulted in a broken criminal justice system. The U.S. has the largest incarceration rate in the world with 2.3 million people imprisoned along with 7 million on probation or parole. Out of the 9.3 million people in the correctional system, 1 in 3 are African-American. Currently, the prison system makes $74 billion in profit, the gross domestic product of 133 nations. There is something fundamentally wrong and unjust with this situation. 

The failure to face history along with decades of misguided policies and practices has reinforced a corrosive legacy that affects domestic legitimacy eroding efforts to realize “a more perfect union”. Equally important, this reality strains international relations undermining progress towards a more secure, just and prosperous world at large.

Yet, across the country and across the political spectrum the moment for truth, reconciliation and justice is upon us. International Human Rights Day (December 10th) honoring the UN Declaration of Human Rights is an ideal time to rally around shared values such as justice, dignity, fairness and equality. By listening to the voices of the criminal justice reform movement philanthropists can help amplifying awareness, clarify issues, and focus on systemic solutions. Individually and collectively philanthropists are poised to make deep and lasting contributions to the movement for human dignity and justice.  

U.S. criminal justice reform is urgent, timely, ripe and catalytic making now the time for action. Funders have the opportunity to help strengthen and sustain the movement through alignment and advocacy. Find your area of focus within the field of criminal justice reform and apply your time, talent and treasure. 

To put it simply, in the field of criminal justice reform, hope and empathy needs to replace fear and anger. Each of us can make a difference. 

David Keller has been actively engaged in strategic philanthropy since 2002 and is the Founder of the David and Anita Keller Foundation. Additionally, David is the Chief Solutions Officer at Article 3 Advisors, a not-for-profit consulting practice working at the nexus of human rights and strategic philanthropy. He is on also on the board of The Philanthropy Workshop.

Shut the Revolving Door of Prison

This article originally appeared in Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice

Written by Attorney General Kamala Harris

America is a global leader on many fronts, including our record incarceration rate. Over the last 40 years, the country’s prison population has grown 500 percent. We now house more than one-fifth of the world’s incarcerated population. In California, the prison population grew three times faster than the general population between 1990 and 2005. With severe overcrowding in the state’s prisons and increased scrutiny on the effectiveness of incarceration in enhancing public safety, California has had to develop innovative policies to hold criminals accountable and stop prison’s revolving door.

For several decades, tough laws and long sentences have created the illusion that public safety is best served when we treat all offenders the same way: arrest, convict, incarcerate, and hope they somehow learn their lesson. As a career prosecutor, I firmly believe there must be swift and certain consequences for crimes, and that certain offenses call for nothing less than long-term imprisonment.

But we also know that the majority of prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses — what I call the base of the “crime pyramid.” At the top of the pyramid are the most serious and violent crimes, which are committed far less often but should demand most of our attention in law enforcement. At the base of the pyramid are the vast majority of crimes committed, which are nonviolent and non-serious. Yet the manner in which our system deals with low-level offenders wastes precious resources needed to fight more serious crime and truly enhance public safety.

Crime is not a monolith. Instead of a one-size-fits-all justice system that responds to all crime as equal, we need a “Smart on Crime” approach — one that applies innovative, data-driven methods to make our system more efficient and effective. Being smart on crime means that we focus on the top of the pyramid and avoid treating all offenders the same way. This approach has three pillars: maintain a relentless focus on reducing violence and prosecuting violent criminals, identify key points in the lives of young offenders to stop the escalation of criminal behavior, and support victims of crime.

The issue of mass incarceration was brought into sharp focus for California when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 2011 Brown v. Plata decision, requiring the state to reduce its prison population by approximately 46,000 inmates due to overcrowding. This ruling forced California’s leaders to confront how our state approached incarceration, particularly when more than 90 percent of prisoners return to their communities and are unprepared to be productive members of society. In response to this ruling, the California legislature passed the Criminal Justice Realignment Act of 2011 (“Realignment”). Realignment shifted responsibility for the incarceration and supervision of low-level, nonviolent offenders from state prisons to California’s 58 counties. It also funded counties to handle their increased responsibilities and create alternatives to incarceration and successful reentry.

Since then, Realignment has achieved one of its primary purposes: to significantly reduce California’s prison population. California has reduced its state prison population by 30,000 and also shifted the supervision of 50,000 offenders from state parole agencies to county probation departments. Further, Realignment has allowed us to increase our return on investment, so that dollars we spend on criminal justice better equip inmates with the tools and skills they need to ensure they do not reoffend. This is particularly important because incarceration in California is expensive. Statewide, we spend an estimated $13 billion per year on prisons, yet nearly two-thirds of all state prisoners go on to reoffend within three years of release. These high rates of recidivism are not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, they are a serious threat to California’s public safety.

There has been a movement to change these trends, to adopt the smart on crime approach, and build evidence of its effectiveness for some time. In 2005, as district attorney of San Francisco, I put this strategy to the test when we created “Back on Track,” a comprehensive reentry initiative for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. The initiative focused on personal responsibility by holding offenders accountable for their behavior. In exchange, participants engaged in intensive reentry, life skills training, and education and employment opportunities to reduce the alarmingly high chance that they would resume a life of crime upon their release.

Back on Track worked. The re-offense rate for participants was 10 percent, compared to 54 percent for non-participants who had committed the same types of crime. Taxpayer savings were significant. The program cost less than $5,000 per person, compared to the $43,000 it cost to house an offender in jail for one year. Back on Track yielded a substantial return on investment for the city and for California. Not only did we save taxpayer dollars for each successful participant who did not return to jail, the effort also grew the local labor force, expanded the tax base, and had a number of collateral benefits (e.g., higher child support payments). We were honored that the U.S. Department of Justice designated Back on Track as a model for law enforcement.

Building on this success, I created the Division of Recidivism Reduction and Reentry (“DR3”) of the California Department of Justice in November 2013. DR3 aims to reduce recidivism by partnering with counties and district attorneys. DR3 identifies effective evidence-based best practices, measures their success in reducing recidivism and facilitating successful reentry, and identifies public and private funding sources to support those initiatives.

In February 2015, we launched “Back on Track-LA.” This holistic reentry initiative targets nonviolent offenders in the Los Angeles County jail system to prepare them to reenter society as contributing and law-abiding members. Using evidence-based practices, the initiative combines in-custody education with the critical services for a seamless transition to out-of-custody life. The in-custody program provides cognitive behavioral therapy, academic and career-technical education, life skills, and reentry training. It also provides child support services, parenting and family services, identification cards, health services, and tattoo removal. Through partner schools, “Back on Track-LA” offers remedial and college courses, as well as certification courses in welding, construction, and other careers that match California’s workforce needs.

After release from jail, the out-of-custody program provides employment, housing, and continuing education services. An Employment Advisory Board assists participants with job placement and the LA County Probation Department provides transitional housing for participants for up to 120 days and coaches who continue to monitor and assist participants for one year after release. Participants can continue toward completing high school studies, and transfer their college credits earned while in-custody to any California community college.

A foundational component of Back on Track-LA is personal accountability. Participants create individual responsibility plans and are guided by coaches who will hold them accountable to benchmarks. Participants make the transition from lives of crime to become productive members of society, benefitting not only their communities and families, but also California taxpayers.

Back on Track is proof that we can be smarter in reducing crime than simply perpetuating the pricey revolving door to prison. At the federal, state, and local levels, we need to explore how to best scale and replicate proven approaches. We should continue building partnerships across agencies, such as sheriff’s departments, probation departments, community colleges, and other public and private sector entities to pool their expertise and resources toward the goals of stopping recidivism and preventing crime.

Being smart on crime also means using the best and most innovative tools available to increase the effectiveness of law enforcement and criminal justice. Using state-of-the-art technology, California tracks program outcomes such as recidivism, educational attainment, employment, and child support payments. For example, we have collected data points on each of Back on Track-LA’s program elements. Through data collection, we are setting a new standard for what “success” means in recidivism-reduction programs.

Recidivism reduction is a long-term commitment, and our programs must equally reflect that commitment. And we must measure progress toward those goals. To facilitate these reforms, last October I proposed a single statewide definition of recidivism, which represents a data-driven approach to evaluate recidivism rates and measure the effectiveness of criminal justice policies and programs. California and many other states lack a uniform way to measure the rate of individuals who recidivate. One shared definition of recidivism is critical if we are to be smart on crime.

Our country has an opportunity to adopt a modern, cost-effective crime-fighting agenda that delivers the safety we deserve. States can deliver accountability and achieve cost-effectiveness by implementing reentry programs, such as California’s Back on Track, to ensure that offenders successfully transition from in-custody to out-of-custody life and stop committing crimes. Providing these services reduces recidivism, saves money, and prevents crime. It helps redirect nonviolent offenders from a life of repeated crime and prison time to get their lives back on track.

In recent years, public opinion on criminal justice policy has changed. The message has been clear: We cannot continue to do business as usual, then act surprised when individuals reoffend. We are at a seminal moment for criminal justice policy — not just in California, but across the nation. We can no longer afford to ignore our incarceration problem — the financial and societal costs for victims, communities, and taxpayers are too high. The smart on crime approach can shut the revolving door between prisons and our communities for good.

Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.