Exceptional Nonprofits in Criminal Justice Reform

Exceptional Nonprofits in Criminal Justice Reform

October 2, 2016

“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And so it is easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me


Mass incarceration needs to end. In an earlier post we explored how racial injustice underpins the criminal justice system. In this post we profile over two dozen inspiring nonprofits who are working toward positive change. 

The Namaste Foundation is making gifts to these organizations in solidarity with criminal justice reform and the Movement for Black Lives.


#cut50 – A call to reduce America’s prison population by 50%

#cut50,­ an initiative of The Dream Corps­, is a national bipartisan effort to smartly and safely reduce America’s incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

“We envision a criminal justice system that recognizes the humanity of the 2.2 million people currently behind bars in America and moves toward compassion and treatment rather than punishment and incarceration. With empathy, understanding, and love we can build the political will needed to rectify the damage caused by the incarceration industry on individuals, families and our society.” – Our Vision, #cut50

One of the spokespeople for #cut50 is Shaka Senghor, who was sent to prison at age 19 for second-degree murder, and then went on to become an award-winning author and leading voice in criminal justice reform. Shaka’s story of redemption is an inspiring reminder that our worst deeds don't define who we are.

“And that’s the thing about hope. In the moment when you feel it, it can seem foolish or sentimental or disconnected from reality. But hope knows that people change on a timeline that we can’t predict. We can never know the power that a word of kindness or an act of forgiveness will have on the person who needs it most.” – Shaka Senghor, Writing My Wrongs

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth – Rethinking juvenile justice

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) interrupts the “school to prison pipeline” and brings a restorative approach to repairing harm and creating healthier schools.

Here’s the organization’s Executive Director Fania Davis, a civil rights attorney and community activist, speaking more about her work from the stage at Bioneers


Equal Justice Initiative – Building a national lynching memorial

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. EJI is opening a national museum to honor the victims of lynching and explore African American history from enslavement to mass incarceration.

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vial lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” – Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice – Repairing the harm of crime

“Restorative justice is an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” - Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Howard Zehr has been called “the grandfather of restorative justice” and has helped spread education and training programs across the globe.

“Trauma is a core experience not only of those victimized, but also of many who offend. Much violence may actually be a reenactment of trauma that was experienced earlier but not responded to adequately. Society tends to respond by delivering more trauma in the form of imprisonment. While the realities of trauma must not be used to excuse, they must be understood, and they must be addressed.” – Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice offers a promising paradigm shift from retribution to restoration. Here is a comparison of the two approaches:


Insight Prison Project – Restorative justice at San Quentin State Prison

The Insight Prison Project puts restorative justice into practice at San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest prison. The group offers offers transformational programs for prisoners and parolees, which are supported by crime victims and community volunteers.

Insight Prison Project’s impact on well-being and successful reentry is extraordinary and irrefutable, leading to interest from other prisons around the country. The program demonstrates restorative justice’s readiness for larger scale capacity-building and roll-out.


Prison University Project – Higher education programs

Also at San Quentin, the Prison University Project highlights the need for more education programs in prisons. 

“The mission of the Prison University Project is to provide excellent higher education programs to people incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, to create a replicable model for such programs, and to stimulate public awareness and meaningful dialogue about higher education and criminal justice in California.” – Mission, Prison University Project

The Sentencing Project – Reforms in sentencing policy

For 30 years, The Sentencing Project has worked for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration. Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, is the author of Race to Incarcerate.


Ella Baker Center for Human Rights – Truth and reinvestment

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights works to end mass incarceration and to reinvest resources in healing communities. 

The Ella Baker Center was co-founded by Van Jones, a prominent civil rights advocate.


The Marshall Project – Investigative journalism about criminal justice

The Marshall Project seeks to elevate the issue of criminal justice to one of national urgency and to help spark a national conversation about reform. 

“We are a journalism organization because we think that journalism, done honestly and well, has infinite power to drive change.” – A Letter from Our Founder, The Marshall Project

Black Lives Matter – Advocating for dignity, justice, and respect

#BlackLivesMatter was started by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. #BlackLivesMatter is an online forum and national organization with dozens of local chapters in the United States.

“When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.” – About the Black Lives Matter Network

Here is a recent talk by Alicia Garza at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.


Innocence Project – Exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals

The Innocence Project works to free the staggering number of innocent people behind bars and to reform the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment. Their work exposes the many causes of wrongful convictions.


Legal Services for Prisoners With Children – Bringing families and communities together

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children engages in public policy, legal advocacy, grassroots organizing, and public education through projects like All of Us or None.

"In each of these areas we strive to realize our core belief that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have the right and the responsibility to speak and be heard in their own voices, transform their lives and communities, and fully participate in all aspects of society." – What We Do, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice – Promoting a humane and balanced system

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) seeks to reduce society’s reliance on incarceration as a solution to social problems. CJCJ provides services and policy analysis to promote a balanced and humane criminal justice system that reduces incarceration.” 

"Who can imagine if their own kid is troubled, that you put them in a place with 2,000 other people that are troubled, and put a wall around them? ...in practice it provides a rationale for a quick and easy disposal; get them out of sight and out of mind." - Dr. Jerome G. Miller, Founder, CJCJ

A Quest for Justice

As we looked for outstanding nonprofits, we felt resonance with these words:

“If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, a new movement will arise; and if civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will be pushed to the side as another generation of advocates come to the fore. Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system - a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard can muster, trapped as they may be in an outdated paradigm. This new generation of activists should not disrespect their elders or disparage their contributions or achievements; to the contrary, they should bow their heads in respect, for their forerunners have expended untold hours and made great sacrifices in an elusive quest for justice. But once respects have been paid, they should march right past them, emboldened, as King once said, by the fierce urgency of now.” - Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

Here are additional groups we’re giving to, and how they describe their efforts.


Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD) – Reinvigorating black social justice

“For the transformative organizers, leadership is understood more as a practice than a position, more a relationship than a role. Leadership is not simply a place in an organizational structure, it is a discipline and a path — a calling to become powerful catalysts of and embodiments of transformation.” – Denise Perry, Founder, BOLD

Black Alliance for Just Immigration – Bringing black voices together

“BAJI’s flagship project is the Black Immigration Network (BIN), a national alliance that brings together black-led organizations and programs to advance just immigration policies and promote cultural shifts our communities need. The BIN kinship provides a safe, communal space for diverse black communities to connect, engage and advocate for equality and justice for all.” – Who We Are, BAJI

Dev Color – Supporting black software engineers

“In 2015, a small group of Black engineers came together to start /dev/color. There were just eleven of us at the first meeting at a restaurant in San Francisco, but we all shared a common vision: to build a community of Black software engineers who helped one another reach ambitious career goals. Since then we’ve helped one another find new jobs, learn new technologies, start companies, and create a sense of belonging in Silicon Valley.” – Story, Dev Color

Equal Justice Under Law – Pro bono legal services for those in need

“Equal Justice Under Law provides pro bono legal services to those most in need, focusing on the systemic issues that create unjustifiable inequalities. We bring cases across the United States, engaging in litigation and advocacy to reform the structures, norms, and incentives that create and perpetuate violations of fundamental rights.” – Our Mission, Equal Justice Under Law

The Last Mile – Technology training and reentry programs

“The Last Mile (TLM) was created to provide programs that result in successful reentry and reduce recidivism. We believe that jobs are the key to breaking the cycle of incarceration. Our mission is to provide marketable skills that lead to employment. Our in an out program provides career training in prison with mentorship and job placement upon release.” – The Last Mile

Million Hoodies Movement for Justice – Grassroots organizing

“Founded in 2012, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice is a racial justice membership organization confronting anti-black racism and systemic violence. Our mission is to build next generation human rights leaders to end mass criminalization and gun violence through grassroots organizing, advocacy, and education. We are building a racial justice movement committed to creating a democracy where all Black and Brown people have social, political, cultural, and economic freedom and the right to be safe.” – Mission and Vision, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice

Prisoners Literature Project – Providing free books for prisoners

“The Prisoners Literature Project is an all-volunteer, non-profit group that sends free books directly to prisoners who request them from throughout the United States. Working almost continuously for thirty years, our U.S. prison books program has gotten (literally) tons of books into the American prison system, while staying overwhelmingly ‘grassroots’ – no full-time employees, no overhead eating up your donations.” – About Us, Prisoners Literature Project

Southern Vision Alliance – Leadership development for social, racial, and environmental justice

“The Southern Vision Alliance (SVA) is a grassroots intermediary organized for the charitable and educational purposes of providing infrastructure, capacity-building, and assistance to youth-centered organizations and programs. SVA supports leadership development and base-building work for social, racial, and environmental justice, along with gender equity, LGBTQ rights, and education justice in the US South.” – Southern Vision Alliance

Southerners On New Ground (SONG) – Community organizing and LGBTQ liberation

“Southerners On New Ground (SONG) is a regional Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South. We believe that we are bound together by a shared desire for ourselves, each other, and our communities to survive and thrive. We believe that Community Organizing is the best way for us to build collective power and transform the South. Out of this belief we are committed to building freedom movements rooted in southern traditions like community organizing, political education, storytelling, music, breaking bread, resistance, humor, performance, critical thinking, and celebration.” – Southerners On New Ground

Drug Policy Alliance – Ending the failed war on drugs

“Our supporters are individuals who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. Together we advance policies that reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and seek solutions that promote safety while upholding the sovereignty of individuals over their own minds and bodies. We work to ensure that our nation’s drug policies no longer arrest, incarcerate, disenfranchise and otherwise harm millions – particularly young people and people of color who are disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.” – About the Drug Policy Alliance

Color of Change – Online advocacy for racial justice

“Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over one million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America.” – Our Mission, Color of Change

Black Youth Project 100 – Young black activist training

“BYP100 is an activist member-based organization of Black 18-35 year olds, dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people. We do this through building a collective focused on transformative leadership development, direct action organizing, advocacy and education using a Black queer feminist lens.” – Who Are We, BYP100

Black Permaculture Network – Healing through connections with Earth

“BPN is a network of Afro-indigenous people who have come together through the practices of permaculture, agroecology, natural living and care of the earth. We recognize and honor the ancestral and historical knowledge that each of these land care practices embrace and strive to broaden inter-cultural dialogue around natural earth care; the love of people, plants and animals.” – About, Black Permaculture Network

Get Involved

Criminal justice reform and the Movement for Black Lives rely on the collective effort of every individual, united by a shared vision of international human rights. We invite you to support nonprofits like the ones profiled here, and be engaged in this work.

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color - people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits - and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt - these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create – rather than prevent – crime.” – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Can Foundations Stay Relevant?

Can Foundations Stay Relevant?

Racial Incarceration and Mass Injustice

Racial Incarceration and Mass Injustice