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.

Why I Decided To Go Back To Prison


At age 17, Shaka Senghor was shot three times in his own neighborhood.  Living in reactionary fear, he then killed a man and was sent to prison. There, he was hostile and angry becoming the “worst of the worst,” eventually landing him in solitary confinement for seven years. After receiving a profound letter from his son, he re-examined his life and began a difficult self-transformation. With the help of mentors, his family and partner, literature and writing, he practiced forgiveness and reconciliation. He spent two decades in prison before he was released. Shaka received a fellowship at MIT Media Lab, became a professor at the University of Michigan and now works with formally incarcerated men and women who are integrating back into society. Additionally, he mentors at-risk youth going down a path reminiscent of his own, creating an empathetic space for change. 

His compelling blog piece was written for the Article 3 blog series on U.S. criminal justice reform and details his experience of returning to prison in an entirely different context. 



For the first time in the five years I have been home, the emotions of what 19 years in prison did to me hit me like a brick in the face. Just two weeks prior, I had been invited to speak at a Black History Month program at Handlon Correctional Facility. When I walked inside the prison, everything about serving time came rushing back to me. The sound of gates crashing closed, officers barking orders and the laughter and jokes of incarcerated men, all reminded me of the years I spent inside. However, the thing that struck me at the core of my being was the utter disdain and disgust that I saw in the eyes of two officers who stared me down with such intense hatred that it caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. They didn’t want me there and it was very apparent that they were holding a grudge against me because of my past. In fact, I would later learn that several officers had taken the flier with my face on it, which had been posted around the facility, and shared it amongst each other as they talked about how angry they were that I was being allowed back inside. This was just another in a long line of reminders that there are some people who truly don’t believe in second chances.

Despite the anger in their eyes, I smiled, because at the end of the day I wasn’t there for them. I was there to fellowship with my brothers. I was there to pour love, hope and inspiration into men who continue to inspire my work today. I was there because I wanted these men, my brothers, to know they weren’t and will never be forgotten, at least not by me. I drove to the prison because I wanted to tell them face to face, man to man, brother to brother that I carry them in my heart everywhere I go, and that every time I share my story, I am sharing their story because we are forever connected by the misfortune of our circumstances. Most importantly, I drove the 2 hours to the prison to be searched and run through metal detectors several times because I want these brothers — my brothers — to know that they have a second chance to do something meaningful with their lives. Yes, that’s why I was there.

Once inside the auditorium where I was scheduled to speak, thoughts of how the men would react to my presence bounced around in my head. I wondered how many of them I had served time with. I wondered what old friends would look like. I wondered who would absorb the food for thought I had to share. Although I had thought about what I was going to say on my drive up to Ionia, when the first brother walked in the room and came up and hugged me, all of that went out of the window. In that moment, I knew that I had to let my soul speak and not my head.

As the men filed in, my heart began to break inside. Men I had grown up with, who were once vibrant with life despite their circumstances, were now showing the signs of being beat down and broken by the reality of incarceration. Their eyes no longer shined with the optimism of men who believed they would be given a second chance. Their faces were somber and heavy with the sadness and pain of being left to wither away in the cold and indifferent world of prison. In addition to the men whose spirits appeared to be broken was another reality that has always troubled me — mental illness. Over a third of the 150 men who were present showed clear signs of being under the influence of heavy psychotropic drugs. But in the midst of this all, there were glimmers of light that manifested in the form of my former bunkie and a few other men who I had served time with. Their smiles were bright and I could see and feel the love and pride in their eyes. It was that energy that fed my soul for the next hour and a half. By the time I was done, that light had expanded across the auditorium and all of the men were now smiling and laughing as I joked with them and loved on them as a brother, friend and man of my word. Before I came home, I told them I would never forget them, and five years later my word remains intact.

When I was done they gave me a standing ovation, and one by one they came and gave me hugs and shook my hand. Today I heard “I am proud of you” over 100 times!!! When I got in my truck to leave, I thought about the drive up there and it struck me that the last 24 years of my life has been connected to prison. As I drove past the other 3 prisons on the same road, I asked the Creator would it always be like this and why I was chosen for this calling. Within one minute of asking these questions, a song in my play list by the artist T.I. came on called ‘Hallelujah.’ It was one of his song’s I normally skip past because I don’t care for the beat, but this time I just let it play out and it blew my mind because the song was talking about his life in prison. Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a deal to me because it’s the reality that many rappers understand far too well. However, as soon as that song went off 2Pac’s song ‘Hold Ya Head’ from his Makaveli album came on. Back-to-back songs about prison right after I had asked the question. There was no doubt in my mind that the Creator had spoken and its with this understanding that I will continue doing everything in my power to offer hope and inspiration in places where its needed most. My belief is that we are at a moment in history that can forever change how we treat them men and women on lockdown, especially those with mental illness. A little bit of hope goes a long way. 


Shaka Senghor is a writer, mentor and motivational speaker whose story has inspired youth and young adults at high schools, universities, and conferences across the nation. He is founder of the Atonement Project, a recipient of the 2012 Black Male Engagement (BMe) Leadership Award, a 2013 MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, a Fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network, and teaches a course on the Atonement Project at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2014, Shaka shared his story on the world-renowned TED stage and in just four months his talk reached more than 1,000,000 views.  

Shaka was recently named the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year and currently serves as the Director of Strategy for #Cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.

Solitary Confinement Is Cruel and All Too Common

This article is reposted in its entirety from The New York Times and is written by their Editorial Board. 

If mass incarceration is one of modern America’s deepest pathologies, solitary confinement is the concentrated version of it: far too many people locked up for far too long for no good reason, at no clear benefit to anyone.

The practice “literally drives men mad,” Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court said in an appearance before Congress last March, highlighting the case of a California man isolated for 25 years. In July, President Obama became the first president to denounce the use of solitary. Locking people up alone for years or decades, he said, “is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt?”

These remarks are notable only because they come from the highest levels of government. Many Americans have been aware of the horror of indefinite solitary confinement for years.

On Tuesday, the slow push for meaningful reform got a big shove in the right direction. In a sweeping, unprecedented class-action settlement, California officials agreed to a drastic overhaul of the state’s solitary confinement system, the largest, most indiscriminate and most brutal in the country.

Alex Nabaum

Alex Nabaum

The settlement — which ends a lawsuit brought on behalf of a number of long-serving inmates — will mean the immediate release of more than 1,000 isolated inmates back into the general prison population. When the suit was filed in 2012, 500 of these inmates had been held for more than 10 years in tiny, windowless cells with virtually no human contact. At most, they had 90 minutes a day to take a shower or stand alone in a concrete “yard.” (A 2011 United Nations report said that stays longer than 15 days could amount to torture.)

The offenses that landed them in solitary? Most often, it was evidence that they were “affiliated” with a prison gang, whether or not they had broken any rules. The risk they posed to other inmates was rarely a factor. Still, they had to wait six years for a chance at review. Any evidence of continuing gang ties meant at least six more years.

Since 2011, tens of thousands of California inmates have gone on hunger strikes to protest the state’s use of solitary confinement. Under the settlement — negotiated by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the inmates — California will end indefinite solitary sentences. In all, the reforms are expected to reduce the state’s solitary population, which is now over 2,800, by more than half.

The reduction will come from two groups. Prisoners who have been held for 10 or more years will be moved to a special restricted unit with other inmates, where they can take educational courses and have normal human contact as they prepare to return to the general population.

And all those held in solitary because of gang connections will be released immediately to the general population, unless they have recently committed a serious offense — like assault, possessing a weapon, or selling drugs. Even in those cases, there is a clear, time-limited path for inmates to work their way out of solitary.

The national problem remains. Despite important reform efforts by officials in states like Colorado, Washington and Ohio, on any given day at least 80,000 people are held in some version of solitary. And despite overwhelming evidence of the psychological damage solitary confinement inflicts on inmates, no court has yet ruled that it violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (A concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy in June hinted strongly that he would be open to such a claim.)

Therein lies the importance of California’s settlement: If a state with the worst record can do something to reduce its reliance on solitary, broad reform is surely possible around the country. Obviously prison officials need flexibility in managing truly dangerous or vulnerable inmates. But as those officials themselves have begun to agree, locking people in near-total isolation for years is not the answer. 

Slavery to Mass Incarceration

The elaborate myth of racial difference that was created to sustain American slavery persists today. Slavery did not end in 1865, it evolved. #SlaveryEvolved The legacy of slavery can be seen in the presumption of guilt and dangerousness assigned to African Americans, especially young men and boys, the racial profiling and mistreatment that presumption creates, and the racial dynamics of mass incarceration.

Video by Equal Justice Initiative
Narration: Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of EJI
Artist: Molly Crabapple