JustLeadershipUSA was founded on the principle that the people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power. For JLUSA, “the people” are the over 70 million who have been through this country’s criminal legal system. For many decades, the United States has been on an incarceration binge. Motivated by fear, racism, and raw political ambition, localities, states, and the federal government have enacted laws and policies that caused the imprisoned population to balloon—policies like mandatory sentencing laws, three strikes laws, stop and frisk policing, and the abolition of parole.
We understand that the criminal legal system is part of a much larger system of oppression that disproportionately plagues Black, Brown, and poor communities. The carceral system is in fact a dumping ground for the country’s other failed systems. It contains strong remnants of slavery. We are committed to disrupting a carceral system that, like slavery, is based on the subjugation of those under its control.
JLUSA was founded in 2014 by Glenn Martin, a New York native and nationally recognized leader and reform advocate who spent six years in New York State prisons. JLUSA’s founding premise was to empower leaders by investing in them with transformative leadership training, giving them the resources and support they needed to be in key leadership roles in the nationwide effort to decarcerate the United States and reimagine how the criminal legal system is utilized.
DeAnna Hoskins assumed the helm as President and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, in 2018. Ms. Hoskins, who hails from Cincinnati, Ohio, is a nationally recognized Leader and member of the 2016 Leading with Conviction cohort. She is herself a previously incarcerated individual who received a pardon from Governor Ted Strickland. With a strong background in the field of policy, reintegration, and advocacy, she was the first formerly incarcerated individual to served as Senior Policy Advisor Over Corrections and Reentry with the Department of Justice and as the Interim Deputy Director of the Federal Reentry Interagency Council during the Obama Administration before joining the staff of JLUSA.
Under DeAnna Hoskins’ leadership, JLUSA has transitioned from a start-up non-profit to a well-established organization and leader in the movement to decarcerate the United States. During 2020, JLUSA’s staff and board underwent an intensive strategic planning process. The organization remained committed to its founding principle: educating, elevating, and empowering people who have traditionally been excluded from power so they can be active change agents in dismantling the systemic racism and oppression that continues to marginalize them and their communities. DeAnna Hoskins explained:
In its first five years JLUSA also supported the building of a number of grassroot campaigns. These campaigns became our pilot projects to demonstrate that when those most impacted rise into leadership and demand change, change happens. JLUSA built the foundation of successful movements to close jails in Philadelphia (#CLOSEthecreek), Milwaukee (#CLOSEmsdf) and Los Angeles (JusticeLA), and New York (#CLOSErikers). We launched into the national spotlight with a major focus on our multi-complex state and local approach to close the infamous Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. Many efforts to close Rikers had failed in the past. JLUSA’s campaign achieved its goal because leaders directly impacted by the jail’s horrific conditions demanded its closure and the city’s divestment in punishment and investment in building healthy, thriving communities.
By providing training, resources, and access to a growing network of activists and advocates, JustLeadershipUSA is playing a vital, singular, and significant role in the nationwide movement to decarcerate the U.S.
Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress and once a presidential candidate famously said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” JLUSA is the proverbial folding chair. By serving as a national connector and resource for the currently and formerly incarcerated, their family members, and members of communities that have experienced the trauma and crippling consequences of a racist and out-of-control criminal legal system, we are building a robust base of people to be in the forefront of transformational change.
By serving as a national training platform and go-to resource, we are supporting and developing the next and future generations of leaders from the most marginalized and oppressed communities and empowering them with the skills and tools they need to be the change agents they are meant to be.
JLUSA believes that the U.S.’s most challenging barrier to expansive, systemic criminal and juvenile justice reform is the exclusion of those who have been directly impacted by our failed criminal justice policies from positions of leadership. Social justice policy advocacy is always challenging as the forces aligned in opposition are often better resourced. In the field of criminal justice reform, stigma and racism create additional hurdles for formerly incarcerated people to play a true leadership role. We are about supporting and empowering people so they can build local power within their own communities.
Dismantling the criminal legal system while reimagining social systems based on dignity, fairness, and equity requires an intersectional approach. JLUSA recognizes the interconnectedness of existing economic, social, and political customs, policies, practices, and laws that prevent so many people in this country from thriving. Criminal justice reform will not be achievable unless impacted communities have access to equitable educational and employment opportunities, decent and secure housing, excellent healthcare, and the civil rights, liberties, and freedoms to simply be. Building the political power needed to challenge and reform longstanding oppressive policies and practices requires effective leadership, coalition building, and access to organizing resources.
No movement for social justice has ever succeeded without the full participation and leadership of those most affected. Without our voices any changes adopted are at risk of being too incremental and less effective when bold change is both needed and obtainable. Without our voices, reform efforts are at risk of leaving out those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. With our voices, we can shape a new narrative about mass incarceration, the role of racism, and the continuing effects of slavery in American society. By increasing the visibility and credibility of our leaders, we challenge the social stigma that strips us of our dignity and our rights, and we plant the seeds of change.
JustLeadershipUSA is, at its core, a human rights organization. We believe in the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, immigration status, or involvement with the criminal legal system. This country’s treatment of people of all ages who are, or who have been, directly impacted by the criminal legal system violates the most fundamental human rights value—human dignity.
Incarcerated people suffer indignities from the moment they enter a jail or prison as they are subjected to invasive body searches, referred to as a number, deprived of any personal autonomy, and treated with contempt and derision by staff. Such indignities continue when they are released and written off by society as “ex-cons” who are unworthy of employment, housing, and civic participation. The injustices directly-impacted people face are too often compounded by discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, or immigration status.
Our antidote to the indifference and casual cruelty of the criminal legal system is benevolence. We follow the wisdom of the great poet and humanist Maya Angelou, who wrote, “Continue to be who you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.” We are keenly attuned to the physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles of directly impacted people, their families, and their communities as they navigate a world that is too often hostile. In our efforts to train and empower directly impacted people, we actively resist exploiting their experiences, pains, joys, traumas, and commitment to justice.
To achieve our mission—building local power and dismantling oppressive systems—we understand that we cannot do it alone. We do not want to do it alone. Our collaborative process begins with our primary stakeholders: JLUSA’s staff and board, people who have been harmed by the criminal legal system, the alumni of our training programs, and people who have a demonstrated interest and commitment to using their talents and experience to bring about systemic reform.
Other stakeholders with whom we seek to collaborate include the children and other family members of people directly impacted by incarceration. And we recognize the intersectionality of our struggle and collaborate with our allies working to dismantle other systems that oppress Black and Brown people and the poor. We also build relationships with local, state, and federal policymakers to ensure that people directly impacted by the criminal legal system have a seat at the policy table.