Formerly Incarcerated Leaders Are No Longer Demanding a Seat at the Table, We Are Building Our Own

April 29, 2023

This country stands at an urgent inflection point. One in three Americans has an arrest or conviction record. Contact with the criminal legal system creates a permanent public record that affects nearly every aspect of a person’s life.

We know this for a fact. We are both formerly incarcerated, and we represent a new body of formerly incarcerated leaders who are rising up to have a voice at the national level for the very first time.

The overreach of the criminal legal system has translated into entrenched legal barriers that deny access to opportunity for millions of people — disproportionately people of color. These policies limit and deny the ability for people to access economic opportunity. Full stop.

The fallout of a criminal record permanently punishes individuals, families, and whole communities, consigning them into a lifetime of poverty. At the same time, these laws and policies create barriers for businesses that want to hire quality candidates who happen to have a criminal record.

In all, people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system experience reduced annual earnings by an average of 52 percent compared with individuals who have not. Up to 75 percent of people who have been incarcerated face unemployment up to a year after their release. Unemployment among people with criminal records is well over 20 percent.

People impacted by the criminal legal system, both those incarcerated and those convicted but not incarcerated, experience an aggregate of $372.3 billion in lost wages. It is estimated that this will cost the U.S. economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion between 2019 and 2028.

This is economically unsustainable and negatively affects public safety. Indeed, livable wage employment is a significant protective factor against recidivism. It is also the pathway to prosperity and builds thriving communities.

The systems that created tens of thousands of these permanent punishments that exist today were not created by accident—they represent choices over decades that were birthed in stigma, bias, and racism and perpetuated by fear and distrust.

And they can be undone.

Shirley Chisholm once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But, my friends, we’re here to tell you we are tired of carrying chairs and waiting to be invited to other peoples’ tables. Instead, today we are here to announce that we are building our own table!

For too long people harmed by mass incarceration and correctional control have been furthest from resources and power to advance change. Today we are building a movement where people impacted by the criminal legal system hold power and agency to chart progress on their own terms.

This is the work of the JustUS Coordinating Council (JCC), an inaugural policy and advocacy table composed of directly impacted leaders across the nation. This initiative is officially being launched during “Second Chance Month,” today (Saturday, April 29), with a gathering on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, followed by an inaugural “Second Chance Freedom Ball,” where we will be celebrating formerly incarcerated people who have received their freedom: Bill Underwood and Ebony Underwood, Darrell Jones, Jimmie Gardner, Fox and Rob Rich, Tony Lewis Sr. and Tony Lewis Jr., and the hundreds of others in the room.

We could not be more proud of what this table has already accomplished together. Last month — with the support and partnership of the Center for Employment Opportunities, Jobs for the Future, and the Justice and Mobility Fund — we released a first-of-its-kind report grounded in the JCC’s perspectives titled “Building the Table: Advancing a Sustained Federal Commitment to Ensure Economic Justice for Systems-Impacted Individuals.” This report lifts up solutions and lays the foundation for the necessary and essential work to alleviate the physical, emotional, and economic harms done at the hands of the criminal legal system and fully heal communities.

The first order of business for the JCC — and our first recommendation in this landmark report — is to establish a national economic Bill of Rights for systems-impacted individuals. The first of our demands is simple and bold. We are asking our federal government to invest in us — people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system — by allocating $10 billion in new resources for critical workforce, employment, and other supports that are necessary to thrive.

We cannot do this work alone. Advancing this vision of advancing systemic economic justice reforms will require a myriad of partners.

So we’re asking you to join us on this historic day and beyond — in solidarity — to build a world where, as in the words of one of our JCC members has said, “A world where I and so many others can truly belong and thrive, to define and then reach our full potential and not merely live under the illusion of inclusion. A world where all people matter.”

DeAnna Hoskins is President and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), the only national-level, tax-exempt criminal justice organization that is both founded by and led by formerly incarcerated people. She is also the founder of the JustUS Coordinating Council.
Xavier McElrath-Bey serves as Co-Executive Director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) and is a co-founder of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN).

Your donation to JLUSA empowers directly impacted people.

Thank you so much for supporting our mission here at JLUSA! Your donation helps to support our network of leaders working to dismantle oppressive systems and uplift people and families impacted by mass incarceration across the country.

All charitable donations made to JLUSA are fully tax deductible, as allowable by the IRS.