This report documents the roles of formerly incarcerated leaders engaged in work related to reducing incarceration and rebuilding communities, drawing on in-depth interviews with 48 of these leaders conducted over a period of 14 months. These “leaders with conviction” have developed a set of capabilities that enable them to advance transformative change, both in the lives of individuals affected by mass incarceration and in the criminal legal systems that have devastated so many lives and communities. Their leadership assumes particular importance in the era of the Trump Presidency, when the durability of the ideological coalitions to undo the failed apparatus of mass incarceration will be tested.
Our analysis of these interviews indicates that a particular set of qualities equips this group of formerly incarcerated leaders to serve as organizational catalysts. Organizational catalysts are individuals with knowledge, influence, and credibility who are in a position to mobilize change. They operate at the intersection of communities and systems that do not usually interact, and bring a track record of commitment and an ability to communicate across different backgrounds and cultures. They can transform organizations and networks by (1) mobilizing varied forms of knowledge to promote change, (2) developing collaborations in strategic locations, (3) cultivating new organizational catalysts, and (4) maintaining pressure and support for action.
The leaders share three important characteristics contributing to their evolution into organizational catalysts: (1) first-hand experience with the criminal legal system, (2) education that legitimizes and enhances their knowledge and leadership capacity, and (3) jobs and activist positions placing them at the intersection of different communities and systems. This combination affords them multifaceted insight into the needs, barriers, and opportunities for transformation, as well as the legitimacy and influence needed to mobilize change based on that knowledge.
These leaders with conviction have developed the capacity to mobilize unusually diverse forms of social capital. As such, formerly incarcerated leaders are bonders (maintaining ties and sharing resources among those with a common identity linked to experiencing and seeking to transform the criminal justice system), bridgers (connecting individuals who would not ordinarily come in contact), and linkers (linking those with direct experience and knowledge of criminal justice to people in positions to influence public policy and change the public narrative). The leaders use their social capital both as an engine of mobility for those affected by mass incarceration and as a vehicle for catalyzing change. Their varied knowledge and experience equip them to speak the language of many different communities, and thus to communicate effectively with different audiences. They build trust with people who have experienced consistent stigmatization and dispel myths among people who hold stereotypes that have prevented them from learning the realities of the criminal justice system.
Three structural supports emerged from this study as crucial building blocks of leaders with conviction: (1) relationships with people who believe in them and support their development, including when they struggle, (2) education and training that cultivates their identity and capacity as leaders, and (3) institutional and policy design that makes them full participants in the decision-making process.
Criminal Law | Law | Law and Society
Center for Institutional and Social Change
Susan P. Sturm & Haran Tae,
Leading with Conviction: The Transformative Role of Formerly Incarcerated Leaders in Reducing Mass Incarceration,
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-547
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/2033