Far too often, contact with the criminal legal system is a barrier to employment and other opportunities for personal growth and professional development. California Justice Leaders, a collaboration between AmeriCorps and Impact Justice, flips the script, recruiting people because of their life experiences, not in spite of them.
Poised to become a national model, this first-of-a-kind AmeriCorps program enlists formerly incarcerated and system-impacted people to provide reentry coaching and mentorship to justice-involved youth and young adults who are facing many of the same challenges they once did. Drawing on common lived experience, the Justice Leaders function as credible messengers for their younger peers, a best-practice framework that guides their year or more of service at organizations across the state of California.
Through partnerships with California Volunteers and more than 20 community-based organizations in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Fresno, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and Alameda Counties, the Justice Leaders receive training and support to guide their work as reentry navigators and mentors as well as other professional development that expands their own future employment opportunities.
Each year more than 35 California Justice Leaders undertake the important work of inspiring and supporting young adults to make positive life choices after incarceration, from helping them find safe, affordable housing and paid work to continuing their education and forging healthy relationships—challenges they would otherwise face with little or no support. Justice Leaders also help the young people they mentor take advantage of California’s Honorable Discharge petition, opening doors that otherwise might remain closed to them.
The program is also a growth opportunity and launch pad for the Justice Leaders themselves, who transition from AmeriCorps placements into permanent jobs, go on to pursue advanced degrees, and excel in many other ways. AmeriCorps State and National Director Sonali Nijhawan captured it well when she said that CJL “showcases how a year of service can transform a community, benefiting both AmeriCorps members and the people they serve.”