Rising stars in criminal justice reform

The phenomenal progress of the criminal justice reform movement was built through the hard work of countless men and women over many years. We traveled around the country to meet with five of those people who are working from outside the system to ignite change.  

Desmond Meade (Florida Rights Restoration Coalition)

Desmond Meade lost his right to vote after he was sentenced to prison on multiple felony convictions. Although he was released early, Meade found life outside of prison hard. Addicted to drugs, unemployed, and homeless he attempted suicide in August 2005 while standing along the train tracks waiting for the train to come. It never did. Taking that as a sign, he turned his life around. He got sober – and he got a purpose: to make sure returning citizens like him get a say in how their government is run. Desmond Meade now serves as the President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a group dedicated to restoring the voting rights of Florida’s ex-felons.

Last year, the FRRC was instrumental in passing Florida’s Amendment 4, which automatically restored voting and civil rights to people convicted of most felonies after the completion of their sentences. Florida previously had one of the strictest voting laws in the country, barring 1 in 10 adults from voting due to a previous felony conviction. With its passage, Amendment 4 legalized the single largest voting block since the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote in 1920.

But Meade’s fight continues. Earlier this month, the Florida House of Representatives voted along party lines to defang Amendment 4 by mandating that ex-felons pay all fines and fees associated with their case before voting, essentially disenfranchising many of the 1.5 million convicted felons who had just regained their right. While nothing has formally passed the House or Senate yet, reformers are watching the debates closely to ensure their reforms are not watered down.

Freethink: Out of all the reform movements you could have led, what inspired you to focus on voter restoration?

Desmond: I live in Florida. When I started this work back in 2006 Florida was one of the worst states that permanently disenfranchised citizens. I felt the brunt of it as a returning citizen and wanted to do something about it.

Freethink: What’s the success you’re most proud of and how did you have to think differently to achieve it?

Desmond: That’s easy, getting Amendment 4 passed in Florida – it passed with 64 percent of the votes! Yes we had to think differently in order to win it. A lot of times when we talk about criminal justice reform, the type of person that we have in mind is normally a person of color who is incarcerated. Typically when you talk about felon disenfranchisement, most folks go straight to the disproportionate impacts that they have on African-Americans. And they stay there. Then felon disenfranchisement is a narrative of ‘it’s an African-American mission’ when it’s actually much broader than that.

The reality is that the criminal justice system impacts way more people than those that are actually incarcerated. And while there is a disproportionate impact on people of color, particularly African-Americans, it still impacts people from all races. So really speaking felon disenfranchisement from that perspective was an adjustment that we had to make.

Freethink: Did you ever think about quitting?

Desmond: Well, there were many times when this work was hard and I thought about giving up but I think the saving grace is that I couldn’t give up because I was directly impacted. I think at its hardest point was when there was no support and no money. And, at times when I felt alone in this effort. You start to question, how much further can we go? How much can we take? But every time we’d get to that point, we saw somebody else who was a directly impacted returning citizen. And just hearing their stories provided me with the energy to keep pushing forward.

Freethink: What is the biggest obstacle you’re currently facing?

Desmond: Politics. Partisan politics intrudes too much into the lives of everyday citizens. The hardest obstacle is to keep the issue elevated above partisan politics. And now that we’ve passed Amendment 4, partisan politics is asserting itself back into this movement and whenever there’s partisan bickering the only people that suffer are the regular people, the voters. So we’re maintaining the focus on what’s most important, and that’s about the people. At the end of the day, our discussion is about real people’s lives. We’re not going to allow politicians to cause us to lose focus on that.

Freethink: What are the broader implications of your work?

Desmond: A more inclusive democracy is a more vibrant democracy and a more vibrant democracy is good for everybody. Elected officials should be held accountable whenever we get into a situation where our voices are being ignored. That is a direct attack against democracy.

And, I think that this is really an opportunity to get people who have never lost their rights but are not registered to vote, to really understand how tenuous the situation is now.

Freethink: What possibility of change are you most looking forward to this year?

Desmond: I’m looking forward to getting more people registered, more people educated, and more people engaged. I want to make civic engagement something that’s exciting and honorable to do. Politicians are going to be politicians and the only way we can change the trajectory is at the ballot box. 

Gabriel Leader-Rose, Jelani Anglin, Malik Reeves (Good Call NYC)

Good Call NYC focuses their reform efforts on improving the pre-trial detention process. Unfortunately, many people who are arrested and subsequently have their cell phones taken away don’t have access to contact information for their loved ones – unless of course they’ve memorized the phone numbers – much less have the contact information for a lawyer. The inability to call for help in those critical hours after an arrest comes with devastating consequences: loss of jobs, wrongfully sent to jail, and perhaps even admitting to crimes they did not commit. Good Call NYC was created to solve this problem by acting as a 24/7 arrest hotline. By calling 1-833-3-GOODCALL, arrestees can be immediately linked up with an attorney as well as have their loved ones notified of their location.

Good Call now covers all five boroughs of NYC and has plans to expand nationally. Gabe Leader-Rose and Jelani Anglin serve as co-executive directors and Malik Reeves is the community engagement coordinator.

Freethink: Out of all the reform movements you could have led, what inspired you to focus on pre-trial detention?

Gabe: When we were figuring out how we wanted to contribute to the criminal justice reform movement, we really wanted to start with the most pressing issues facing the community and folks who have to deal with racism, over-policing and the criminal justice system on a daily basis. We went out into the community and talked to dozens and dozens of folks who have had these experiences and we heard over and over again stories about people being arrested for reasons that they shouldn’t have been arrested for in the first place – trivial things like hopping a turnstile or drinking a beer in front of their apartment and then having to go through this really terrible process where it felt like being thrown into a black box.

So, we really tried to respond to that and focus on this critical 24 – 48 hours after an arrest where more often than not, people don’t have access to the resources that they need.

Jelani: For me, growing up in New York City and being a young, black male, way too often I’ve heard stories of friends that have been arrested and their lives are changed significantly just because of an arrest for a trivial reason. as a black male, I deal with this issue every day as I walk out this door. Even today and now, I can walk out the door and be falsely arrested because of the color of my skin. It sucks. Thinking about that, we wanted to create a resource where folks have that layer of protection. I think it’s imperative that we have the community onboard paving the way for this because the folks that have proximity understand what’s going on.

Freethink: What is the biggest obstacle you’re currently facing?

Jelani: Getting the word out to those who need us most has been an obstacle, but we’re seeing a lot of organic growth in terms of folks being receptive to what we do because it works. We’re in the community, we’re grassroots. It’s really having a friend tell a friend and getting that word of mouth out. It’s a very interesting thing because when folks find out how lean we are, they always say we’re punching above our weight because our team is lean but we’re making sure that we’re out there in the community. We launched two and a half years ago and just became city-wide this August.

Freethink: What’s the success you’re most proud of and how did you have to think differently to achieve it?

Gabe: We had a call a while ago where the cops showed up at an apartment and it was a single mom and her 17-year-old son and they accused her son of stealing a backpack. He was completely innocent, he complied because he wanted to clear it up. So they went into the precinct. His mom followed and went in and asked where her son was. She wanted to help him get through this process. The police at the precinct told her they did not know where her son was.

Luckily she had heard about Good Call’s number from some of the community outreach that we had done. She was able to get a lawyer on the phone right away. He called around to a number of different precincts, found out where her son was, and actually physically went to meet with him. When he got to the precinct he was able to witness the police bring her son in a biased lineup where they basically showed her son to the victim first and suggested that that’s who they thought committed this crime. Of course, the victim picked her son out because they led her to do so. Unfortunately, this happens all the time – but since his attorney witnessed it and claimed a violation of procedure, the young man was able to be released and go home that very night as opposed to being on a bus to Rikers Island.

Jelani: We’ve been able to bring a new thought process to looking at this problem. There’s thinking within communities sometimes that the folks that look different from us are against us. We’re actually changing that narrative by being a diverse team in the community who are really just there to help empower folks. We’re seeing people unite from different colors, sexual orientations, to really help communities that are at risk of dealing with negative policing and lack of access to legal representation. Folks don’t have to look like you in order to help you.

Freethink: Did you ever think about quitting?

Jelani: I think in the early days when we had a lot of folks that weren’t as optimistic as we were about what we were doing. We did deal with some pushback there and folks being naysayers. As a non-profit, we went six and seven months with no pay and just had to get out there on our own and advocate to the community that this process worked. We put together pennies to support ourselves while running this organization. We really had to make some hard decisions. I think what brought us out of that is the fact that no matter how much we struggled in the office, there was hope on the streets.

Whenever we spoke to folks in the community, they were so happy that we were doing this. They believed that this was the right thing to do. I had somebody give me $100 in a parking lot once, out of their own pocket; meanwhile, we’re trying to get money from foundations that were turning their nose up. I think that was a difficult time but I think our team was strong and the faith in the community really help us push through that.

Freethink: Why are you still in this fight?

Malik: The fight ain’t over. It’s a battle every day out here just getting the word out there. Folks need to know about this because this is a powerful resource.

Freethink: What are the broader implications of your work?

Gabe: The sixth amendment guarantees everyone access to an attorney, to a fair process but the reality is that if you can’t afford a private attorney, the process looks very, very different. Not being able to have legal representation when you need it most, in the critical moment after you’ve been arrested, really skews the whole process and makes the overall problem of over policing and mass incarceration that much worse.

We really want to use our organization and our model to be able to protect people’s rights and really make that sixth amendment and just treatment a reality for everyone. We’re also thinking about how we can use our platform to go beyond just offering a hotline but also supporting advocacy efforts and policy reform so that hopefully, one day, we can put ourselves out of business.

Freethink: What possibility of change are you most looking forward to this year?

Gabe:  While I think getting rid of some of these blatantly, horrific practices like cash bail or charging 15-year-olds as adults are a great starting ground, I really hope we can take that momentum to actually rethink what jail is and what prison is and what police are and their role in society. I think some of those issues that are really deeply rooted in our culture and in the system are what really needs to be changed to move to a truly fair and just society and system.

Jelani:  Criminal justice has become sexy in a certain type of way where folks advocate against cash bail but can’t tell you the significance of it. What happens in pre-trial many times, is often why that person ends up needing bail because they didn’t have access to legal representation. I’m really just interested to see how pretrial reform may develop because folks are working on shifting the focus from bail to pretrial.

Topeka Sam and Vanee Sykes (Hope House NYC)

Topeka K. Sam and Vanee Sykes met while incarcerated in federal prison in 2013. Since their release, they’ve dedicated their lives to changing the narrative of formerly incarcerated women to one of understanding and second chances.

Sam is the founder of The Ladies of Hope Ministries (LOHM) which focuses on helping marginalized women and girls reenter society through spiritual empowerment, education, entrepreneurship, and advocacy. One of the programs that LOHM provides for transitioning women is a place to stay and a community of support through Hope House NYC. Hope House is located in the Bronx and was founded by both Sam and Sykes as a way to provide affordable housing to transitioning women. Women are able to stay at Hope House for up to one year as they readjust to their family life, to their role in the community, to new employment and educational opportunities, and to healing themselves. At the conclusion of the year, Hope House staff helps the women move into permanent housing while retaining their connection to Hope House NYC for support.

Freethink: Out of all the reform movements you could have led, what inspired you to focus on re-entry reform for women?

Topeka: It was my experience as an incarcerated woman. I was in approximately five different prisons and jails in the country over the three years I was incarcerated, including a federal half-way house. During this experience, I saw the lack of services, programming, access of opportunity for women and young girls who were transitioning and felt that I could impact the field and the world by utilizing my experience to create change and movement around women.

Vanee: For me, re-entry began the minute I walked up the hill into Federal prison. I was able to self-surrender, which means the judge gave me three months to get my affairs in order because he knew that I had children. So, yeah to walk up the hill with the pillowcase – my real life, everything pushed into a pillowcase – I realized then that I had to take control of my life and that my life would expand. The pillowcase would not be confined to just those few things. I began to think in my head what would the next steps of my life look like because I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to work back in city government. So I began to create for myself what I wanted my life to look like from day one.

It’s important for women to begin to think of re-entry while still in prison, not waiting for their counselor to call them 18 months before being released to put them in re-entry classes, but for them to start creating re-entry for themselves and knowing that whatever they put in their mind that it’s achievable. I wanted to help women who might not have thought about that process – not because of any fault of their own, maybe they just don’t know how to manage things or look for resources.

Freethink: What’s the success you’re most proud of and how did you have to think differently to achieve it?

Topeka: The success I’m most proud of is creating an organization that is led by and for impacted women and girls. This means that some women who are working with the organization have been incarcerated, some have had parents who were incarcerated, brothers who were incarcerated, and/or loved ones who were incarcerated. So we are 100% impacted.

The way I thought differently to achieve that success was understanding that everyone given an opportunity can thrive. I was told originally that I need to have a certain skill set, a certain level of education, a certain level of experience to build an organization. I chose not to do that initially because I felt there are no amount of degrees, no amount of work history that can lead to actually having this experience and being able to actually influence change. I had the opportunity to go back to school when I came home but the Spirit of God moved me to start Ladies of Hope Ministries and I decided not to look at a person’s educational background or experience when hiring – I look at their passion.

Vanee: I’m most proud of creating Hope House with my partner Topeka. Hope House is just not a beautiful space as you can see physically but it’s a mental safe space for women and what I realize in this journey is that there are a lot of women who are hurting. In here it’s okay to not be okay.

I sit at this table with young women who were victims of horrific sex trafficking crimes and it’s okay for them to say, “You know Miss Vanee, this happened or that happened” and we can cry our way through things knowing that the tears are just a part of the process that we provide here. Just being in a space where women know that vulnerability is a strength. And when you can identify what those demons and those monsters are then you know how to attack them and that’s the beauty of being in here. Being a victim of sexual molestation, I had to work through some things because I wanted to be able to trust again. I think that’s what the beauty of this is, just being able to trust again and know that everyone doesn’t mean you harm. And that’s the beauty that I’m most proud of.

Through this, I realized is if women are in a beautiful space, they show up beautifully. And that’s something people don’t always think about. When I was incarcerated I knew that I wanted to live my life the way I did on the outside – meaning, I still got up at 5:30 in the morning like if I was going to my high paying job, I ironed my uniform because I wasn’t going to wear a wrinkled uniform around the facility because that’s not the way I dressed on the outside. I wanted to make sure my hair, my makeup was done every day. So I began to think that even though I’m in this situation, in a dreary building with hopelessness, I’m still going to look for life and beauty. So imagine if we come out of prison and we put women in a beautiful space. If women are able to thrive in that dreary spot, imagine what they could do if we give them a beautiful space and an opportunity of a second chance.

Freethink: Did you ever think about quitting?

Topeka: The work became extremely hard when I began having more of a national profile. It wasn’t by choice. Some people began trying to discredit the work we were doing, it was emotionally draining. It was difficult and I thank God for grace and for the understanding to pray and for having sisters like Vanee who I could talk to so I wasn’t alone through that. But it was painful because as you began to build and want to change the injustices that are happening in the country, you realize that there is so much trauma that is intertwined in this work and this movement because people haven’t been healed. Prisons don’t heal people. People are hurt and they haven’t been healed.

Vanee: When we began to get opposition from the community board and from our neighbors, that was hard. Prior to them knowing that Hope House was going to be a place for women returning home they would see me and Topeka. And of course you see me walking down the street dressed up and with my nice clothes on you wouldn’t think I’m a woman who was formerly incarcerated in federal prison and that’s the narrative we have to change. I could be someone’s mother, I could be someone’s aunt, I could be someone’s grandmother.

When the community found out that we were actually going to be a safe space for formerly incarcerated women they began to really attack us. They thought it was a great idea but they just did not want it in this section, in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. So we began to explain to them that this area actually had the highest number of people who would be returning home.

The way I look at it if you know people are returning to your community wouldn’t you want there to be services in place for these women so they don’t re-offend? If they’re coming back to your community, isn’t it your responsibility to say, you know what let’s try to get programs, let’s try to make sure we keep them from doing whatever they did prior. They began to really say mean things about me and Topeka, they actually even called our parole officers, tried to get us put back into prison. That’s when I was like, “is this worth it?” But then you begin to think about the women that you left behind who may not be as vocal as Topeka and I and who may not have the strength to endure. So that’s when I knew that we can endure. We can stand because at the end of the day, me and Topeka had a strong support network, we had family support so our situation was not the norm. If we didn’t continue to stand then who was going to stand for the sisters that we left behind?

Now, we’re great with our neighbors. I think what happens is that you have to change the narrative. We don’t hold anything against them, they just didn’t know what to expect and we get that. I understand because prior to incarceration that’s not something I thought about either. They just heard women and prison but what we showed them is that our house is probably the quietest house on the block. The women here, they sweep, they keep the yard clean. They all work, they’re in school so I think what they realize is that these are just women who are just trying to have another go at life. They’re very friendly. We even give food from our angel food project to some of our neighbors. So the community we see has changed and it’s bigger than Hope House.

Freethink: Why are you still in this fight and hopeful about the future?

Topeka: I’m still in the fight because there are millions of people still incarcerated. I’m hopeful about the future because as we continue the fight we are helping to pass legislation around the country that are changing conditions of confinement. We are changing the narrative around the faces of women in prison. As long as there are people who are incarcerated and people who are coming home from incarceration we are going to continue to be in the fight.

Vanee: My oldest son graduated from Howard University while I was incarcerated and my daughter graduated from Middle School and was in High School. I missed five birthdays for each of them. I missed Christmases. So when they look at me and they say, “Mom, I’m proud of you” that’s why I do it. And of course they’re happy that Hope House was formed but if I was working anywhere they would say, “Mom, I’m proud of you”. Because prior to incarcerated I suffered from depression and I didn’t deal with things and mental illness. They’re not proud of the Vanee that’s the program director of Hope House – they’re proud of Vanee, the mother who’s able to get up out of bed every day and who can grasp a hold of life and who can make it through life in a healthy manner. And if I know what that pride does for me, then I know what it will do for every mother who comes to Hope House or for every mother that we encounter. I want them to be able to hear their children, the people that they gave life to, turn around and give them back that same life. It’s like full circle.

Freethink: What is the biggest obstacle you’re currently facing?

Topeka: The biggest obstacle that I am facing with the organization I would say is fundraising. Unfortunately, people see direct service as not a fundable service. A lot of foundations want to fund advocacy work. For me, the most tangible service we have is Hope House and that is considered a direct service. So we may receive a grant or two toward housing but the money that we really need for direct services isn’t there. We have to change the narrative around what advocacy looks like. You cannot advocate for anyone, not even yourself if you do not have anywhere to sleep and have no food in your stomach. It’s impossible to do. So the narrative that we are creating with Ladies of Hope Ministries and Hope House is that those are basic needs and when you have your basic needs met then you’re empowered to begin to advocate for yourself.

Vanee: It’s an obstacle to change the narrative with landlords. That’s our biggest thing, you know to dispel any myths about women who are coming out of prison. We know that they do background checks. It may come up that’s she’s formerly incarcerated but that should not be a criteria if she’s working to have a safe space for her and the children to lay their head.

Freethink: What are the broader implications of your work?

Topeka: We are in the Bronx. If we are not here that means that there are several women who will become homeless. If we do not continue to raise funding to provide safe places for people then people are going to be homeless, back in the system and potentially back in prison. So everything is at stake.

Vanee: Generations and families’ destinies are at stake here.

Freethink: What possibility of change are you most looking forward to this year?

Topeka: I’m hopeful that each state will be able to find alternatives to incarceration to stop the flow of women going into prison. I’m hopeful that we will understand that safe housing is a necessity and a human right for every single person in this country.

Vanee: I’m looking forward to more services on the outside before women get caught up in the system. A lot of women who are incarcerated should not be incarcerated. It would be great to get to these women before they feel like they have to make the choices they do. For a lot of women I met behind the wall, it came to a point of ‘where is my child going to be able to eat and am I going to have to do something that I may not necessarily want to do?’ So I think what needs to happen is before it gets to that point that resources and services should be available.

I’m also hopeful that we’ll get more services for women already behind bars. You have so many women who are in prison who are mentally hurting. Incarceration is not for those women. Because I know that when I got to prison I wanted to get mental health services and I was told that I wasn’t crazy enough because on paper I present well. I’m well spoken and there were other women who needed the services more. I needed the services too because I was dying and screaming inside. 

Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

After 12 years Deanna Van Buren left her job as a corporate architect to design spaces for a new type of criminal justice system. This approach, known as restorative justice, places an emphasis on restoring relationships broken by the crime instead of punitive sentencing. Her recent project has been designing Restore Oakland, a restorative justice center in Oakland, California slated to open this summer. She hopes this center will help “shift resources away from prisons and punishment and toward community reinvestment and restorative justice.”

She’s the co-founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, based in Oakland, California.

Freethink: What inspired you to marry your passion for architecture with the criminal justice system?

Deanna: I’d been practicing for a decade in corporate America and doing pretty high-end architectural work but I just didn’t want to practice that way anymore. I was looking for a way to exit that mode of practice and I heard about restorative justice from Fawyna Davis and Angela Davis who are activist lawyers and I was totally ignited.

The infrastructure that we build as architects for criminal justice, supports and props up that (traditional) system and it has a certain look and feel to it that supports the values of that system. My advocacy is always what you believe you build. If you believe it you’ll make it and you’ll manifest it, and then once you manifest it, it exacerbates all the issues of that manifestation.

A rendering of the Restoring Oakland campus currently under construction. RestoringOakland.org

Freethink: What does architecture designed for restorative justice look like?

Deanna: Initially just finding a place that’s a neutral territory, a place that’s safe for all parties to come to where they feel both physically safe and emotionally safe. That can be challenging. You ideally have a creative environment where the natural world and the built world are intertwined and interconnected. We use a lot from what we’ve learned in evidence-based design in healthcare and education facilities. Daylight and the use of nature in the space is important.

We look at the work of Peter Levine who’s created something called somatic experiencing which is a form of alternative therapy aimed at relieving the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. We use some of his techniques which center around the need to have objects in an environment to allow people to touch and rest their eyes. We allow cool off spaces so that people can get out of the dialogue if they need to go into an environment that’s calming and soothing. That can be done through materials, colors, making sure people have views to outdoor environments. Furniture is important, the materials of the walls are important. So there’s a lot of design criteria that is part of that experience.

Freethink: What’s the success you’re most proud of and how did you have to think differently to achieve it?

Deanna: The success that I’m most proud of is that the idea and concept of a restorative justice center has now emerged into the public realm. That was an idea that I came up with many, many years ago, and now people just use it. They don’t know where it came from and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the world is an idea about a place or a building type that never existed before and people are just saying, hey, I need one of these places. It’s amazing to me. I think it’s wonderful. I really am excited about it.

As a kid, we lived in Stafford County Virginia. We were the first African-American family in that community. We didn’t fit in there so I think that experience had a lot to do with it and needing to be able to move in white spaces, black spaces, and everything in between in order to get where I wanted to be and do the things I wanted to do. This has enabled me to not always necessarily need to go along with the group. I question the system, I question things a little bit more.

Freethink: Why are you still in this fight and hopeful about the future?

Deanna: You can talk about restorative justice, but when you show it to someone and you create an environment where it can happen, that’s powerful. That’s a powerful move. To manifest something, physically, and you’re in it, that’s powerful.

It’s as powerful as going to prison, except the opposite.

Freethink: What are the broader implications of your work?

Deanna: Our work is really seeking to reinvest in communities and see all the money we spend on criminal justice, disinvested and reinvested in communities and the environment is critical to the success of that. That’s housing, that’s re-entry facilities, that’s workforce development opportunities. How do we rethink that issue and begin to invest in the communities that have been decimated, knowing that those communities are changing all the time, that gentrification is happening, that people are getting misplaced? How do people own the building? People need to own the infrastructure of their communities and have a role in what it looks and what gets built there as opposed to the past.

Freethink: What possibility of change are you most looking forward to this year?

Deanna: This year I’m looking forward to seeing more of our projects built. Restore Oakland will be completed, it’ll be done at the end of this month. I’m looking forward to our first re-entry campus getting started and moving forward. I’m looking forward to us becoming developers. We will now own the buildings that we design so that we can make sure that they’re getting done and that they are looking the way they need to and that people have places they can work and live and do.

Alex Busansky (Impact Justice)

Photo by Lise Metzger

Alex Busanksy is the founder and President of Impact Justice (IJ), a national criminal justice innovation and research center based in Oakland, California. IJ was launched in 2015 based on the idea that they would “imagine, innovate, and accept absolutely nothing about the status quo of our current justice system.” The IJ team spends a significant amount of time looking at where reforms aren’t happening, creating an innovative solution to the problem, and then following up with studies and impact testing. Data collection is a very important component of IJ’s philosophy.

“We’re doing things that are based on research, evaluation, and testing,” says Busanksy. The tests allow them to mitigate the risks, allowing for more innovation. “For us, innovation is about risk and imagination. The reality is that some things are going to work and some things aren’t. But if we’re going to create the kind of bold change that I and many others want, we have to try some different things.

Among their many projects, IJ recently launched The Homecoming Project which helps returning citizens find affordable housing. Dubbed as the “Airbnb for the formerly incarcerated”, the project provides subsidies to homeowners in exchange for renting a room at an affordable rate to a recently released prisoner.

Freethink: What inspired you to focus get involved with the criminal justice reform movement?

Alex: I was raised with the idea that I live in a community and that I’m connected to people whether I know them or not. You need to be attentive to give to people who don’t have the same amount of privilege. I had parents who lived that philosophy. It’s about partnering with people to try to improve our homes, our streets, our blocks, our neighborhoods, our communities.

We talk about the criminal justice problem as if it requires a criminal justice solution, but in many ways the criminal justice problem requires everybody to engage in the solution whether it be housing, maternal care, economic growth, mental health, education, all of that. If you do all these things well, you can fix up your criminal justice problem.

Freethink: What’s the success you’re most proud of and how did you have to think differently to achieve it?

Alex: One is the Homecoming Project. There was a problem that people didn’t know how to address. We’re all raised to think that when a conflict arises, we’ll just go to criminal court and it’ll get resolved. We know these roles so well – you and I could sit down right now and write a legal thriller involving a courtroom and we’d probably get it right. And yet when you talk to people who get engaged in the system, both those people who are prosecuted and those people who we see as victims, none of them are happy with the system. We’re not solving the problem, right? Recidivism rates are high, the cost of incarceration outstrips that of what many states are putting into the educational programs they invest in, right? It’s just not working. And yet we keep doing the same old bad, long thing over and over again. So we really had to think differently by pushing back and saying, “Let’s just go outside the box for a second. If we had to start this all over again what would we do?”

We recognized that 30% of people leaving prison to become homeless at some point. You have a dramatically increased likelihood of being homeless if you’ve been incarcerated or in the criminal justice system. We know all of this and yet the housing program we have for the formerly incarcerated is we lock them up again. Super expensive. With the Homecoming Project, we created a win-win situation. Homeowners were able to enjoy extra income while returning citizens were able to gain a safe and stable environment to live in.

Freethink: Did you ever think about quitting?

Alex: You know you need to know this about me: I am hardwired as an optimist so giving up is a really difficult concept. I have been disappointed.

I’m 56 years old. I was born in 1962. When I was born there were roughly 200,000 people incarcerated in this country, 200,000. Today there are 2.3 million people. We didn’t get to where we are overnight. It wasn’t one policy, one moment, one anything, and so I’ve always seen this as a long ethics struggle. This is a long-term struggle. It’s going to take years, decades to do what needs to be done.

Freethink: Why is it important that you don’t fail?

Alex: People’s lives will be forever changed depending on what happens. You know there are people, prison abolitionists who will say, “Don’t spend any money prisons. Don’t focus on prisons. Don’t make them too nice, they’ll be attractive for people to send other people to.” And I get that. I want to starve the beast. But when I think of a loved one who is in prison, what am I going to say to them? ‘This is a generational fight. Sorry, I can’t really spend any time with you. I can’t focus on your needs, hopes, and desires?’ I have to and it makes it complicated, but I think that’s the responsibility that we have. You have to both have a long game and what are we doing next week?

Freethink: What possibility of change are you most looking forward to this year?

Alex: I think we’re slowly beginning to see a change in perception about how people see formerly incarcerated people. That the thing that they did, that’s called the worst thing that they did, to use Bryan Stevenson’s language, doesn’t define who they are and that they’re still people. It’s not happening everywhere but you can see it happening in different ways in different places.

New tiny home village for unhoused people to open in 2023
Salt Lake City is building a new tiny home village to help Utahns experiencing chronic homelessness get off the street permanently.
Inventions that are fighting the rise of facial recognition technology
Combating the rise of facial-recognition technology, designers have created clothing and accessories to help to conceal people’s identities.
Starlink turns on coverage over Iran to bypass censorship 
Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet is active over Iran, but the terminals to access it must make it inside the country.
Turning Appalachia’s contaminated creek water into art
Acid mine drainage turns thousands of creeks orange in Appalachia. True Pigments is pulling that pollution to create paint pigments.
Ukrainian artists turn to NFTs to tell their stories 
A Kyiv gallerist and Puerto Rican art gallery are auctioning off NFTs of art created in conflict to support Ukrainian artists.
Up Next
Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories