Impact Justice has pioneered the nation’s first AmeriCorps program specifically for formerly incarcerated and other system-impacted individuals: California Justice Leaders. During their year or more of service, the Justice Leaders are embedded in community-based organizations across the state of California where they serve as mentors and credible messengers, helping justice-involved young people overcome many of the same challenges they once faced.
The Research and Action Center has been monitoring the implementation and outcomes of this groundbreaking innovation since it launched in 2020 and is currently in year two of a three-year study. Evaluation is critical for any new program, especially one that, if successful, could be replicated. The movement to bring credible messengers into relationship with system-involved young people is growing, and California Justice Leaders is poised to become a national model.
Through interviews and surveys with current Justice Leaders and alums, as well as stakeholders at partnering organizations, our team of researchers is identifying what the program does well and its particular benefits, while also illuminating how the model might be refined or expanded to be even more effective. Early on, for example, our evaluation surfaced the limited stipend amount provided by AmeriCorps as a financial challenge for members, precipitating the creation of LeadOn in Los Angeles County, which provides an opportunity for Justice Leaders to take on additional responsibilities at their service sites and earn money beyond their AmeriCorps stipend.
Findings to date reveal a successful program with room to grow. CJL clearly prepares members to excel in their AmeriCorps service roles and in their future careers. Members universally credit the training, encouragement, and support from program staff as essential to becoming confident in their ability to draw on their own experiences to successfully mentor youth.
They made me feel I mattered, that my story matters, like go and tell your story because you’re going to influence a lot of people by telling your story.
– CJL Member
Community-based organizations and the youth they serve also reap rewards, with partnering CBOs praising the Justice Leaders’ influence on youth and describing the program as a way to expand their organization’s capacity and impact.
[CJL members] come with the right skills … and the lived experience alone is huge
– CBO Partner
For the Justice Leaders, the program is a vehicle for their own professional growth. Across the board, members describe the experience as pivotal in their career paths – from building job search skills, as the chart below shows, to building confidence and ambition.
I’m more than just a messenger. CJL has taught me how to become someone who [eventually] could run this program
– CJL Member
Our interviews with alums showed that many of them would appreciate and benefit from some ongoing support in the area of professional development – something the program will be able to do with a new role dedicated to coordinating the ever-growing alumni network.