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Just Leadership USA (JLUSA), a national nonprofit led by formerly incarcerated leaders dedicated to decarceration, released their 2021-2024 Roadmap in March. The roadmap is a set of immediate, mid-term, and long-term criminal justice policy recommendations for the Biden administration that come in the form of executive actions, administrative rules and regulations, legislative recommendations, and constitutional reforms that center the civil rights of currently and formerly incarcerated people. 

JLUSA president and CEO DeAnna Hoskins worked as a senior policy advisor at the Department of Justice under the Obama administration. As a formerly incarcerated person, Hoskins acutely understands the importance of shaping policy demands around the experiences of those who have been inside the system. Too often, however, she says this doesn’t happen, and the consequences are devastating.

“Normally what’s missing when the voices [of incarcerated people] aren’t there are the intricate details of how that policy plays out in the community,” said Hoskins. “The reason we’re in this conversation right now is because of the ‘94 crime bill that our current president ran on. Well, the ’94 crime bill at the time, on paper, seemed like the solution to the violence, to the war on drugs, to punish people in some way. Nobody expected the mass incarceration, the devastation of families, the devastation to the community that took place. So, not listening to people who have been inside and not centering the voices of those who have been impacted is allowing us to continue to make mistakes.”

The roadmap folds in a strong acknowledgment of the expertise of those directly impacted by the criminal justice system. Among the short-term executive orders and actions that the roadmap recommends is the appointment of a directly impacted person as a Criminal Justice/Reentry Czar, a new position that would serve within the White House Domestic Policy Council and lead the Interagency Reentry Council. According to the roadmap, “only someone who has experienced the transition from incarceration to freedom can know about the many conditions of confinement detrimental to rehabilitation and the many insidious barriers people face upon reentry.” Key leaders in other White House departments such as the Office of Disability or the Office of Mental Health Services often have direct experience with the issues being tackled. However, as Hoskins noted, the criminal justice branch “is the only one that never gets the representative from their community in those powerful positions.”

The roadmap also calls for all federal agencies to use humanizing language to refer to current and former incarcerated people across all federal agencies. That means replacing terms such as “inmate,” “prisoner,” “convict,” “parolee,” and “felon” with terms like “people in prison,” “person on parole,” or “formerly incarcerated people,” which highlight personhood rather than status. That mirrors a larger slow-moving movement within the media to also use person-centered language when covering criminal justice.

Perhaps surprisingly, the roadmap doesn’t feature proposals for new pieces of legislation. Hoskins says that there is only an 18-month window before upcoming major elections, and as such, there may not be enough time to introduce completely new legislation.

“That’s why we were very deliberate and intentional with saying, ‘Here is the legislation that is on the table that needs to be taken a look at right now,’” Hoskins said. “We don’t have time to start from scratch.”

Instead, the organization advocates for policies that are currently under consideration by the administration, as well as administrative reforms and already proposed legislation like the Correctional Facility Disaster Preparedness Act of 2020 and the Medicaid Reentry Act. 

Hoskins says the roadmap is like a “puzzle,” with each tier automatically making space for and creating the possibility for movement on the next set of recommendations. Among the most urgent and immediately implementable changes that JLUSA calls for is the reversal of Trump era policies. That includes the reversal of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directives to prosecutors about the use of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug convictions and the reinstatement of former Attorney General Eric Holder’s Smart on Crime initiative that, among other things, directed against the use of certain sentence enhancements which would create harsher sentences for those with prior convictions. The Roadmap also seeks to roll back parts of the First Step Act, including the use of risk assessment tools that provide access to recidivism reduction and education programs, but which have also been found to be racially biased and discriminatory. With the introduction of COVID-19 into correctional facilities, Hoskins says the tools’ failure to be developed within a racial lens has had a stark impact.

“African Americans and Latinos who had been imprisoned for years were not eligible to go home because they scored 50 or higher on the risk assessment tool,” she said.

The recommendation reveals some new, unconsidered barriers facing those who have been or currently are incarcerated, illuminating yet again the necessity of having those communities craft policy directives. As Hoskins describes it, the platform is a “roadmap for how to give freedom and liberation for the 70 million people out here with a criminal background.” That means addressing issues related to accessing public assistance, expanding the definition of “homeless” to include those leaving prison so that they may be eligible for HUD programs, and being protected against workforce discrimination. The roadmap also presses for longer term constitutional reforms, including the abolition of the death penalty and the repeal of the 13th Amendment’s allowance of involuntary servitude for incarcerated people.

JLUSA says that since its launch, the roadmap has garnered wide support, particularly from state-based partners who view the platform as a guide for issues where they can apply pressure to lawmakers, senators, and representatives. Hoskins finds hope in the fact that there are nominees for positions within the Department of Justice who have backgrounds in criminal justice advocacy or who have expressed openness to working with advocates, such as associate attorney general nominee Vanita Gupta.

JLUSA is currently in conversation with White House officials and met with the Biden-Harris Bureau of Justice Assistance last week to discuss their initiatives.. The Bureau has reportedly expressed interest in the roadmap, particularly its focus on reentry and removing barriers for those returning home from prison. JLUSA says the Bureau will be sharing the roadmap with their policy team for deeper discussion. This week Hoskins will  speak with previous Obama administration appointees to brainstorm the further. Movement on JLUSA’s platform will likely come once all confirmations take place.

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.