Economic Justice Means Reimagining the Justice System

“At 19 years old, I got my first felony and I thought it was over.”
Steve, Flintridge Center Graduate

The impacts of incarceration last far beyond time spent behind bars. Individuals who are returning home should be empowered and invited to fully participate in their communities. But without the opportunity to acquire family-sustaining employment, stable housing, and other wellness and healing supports, our community members can remain trapped in cycles of poverty and re-conviction.

The reality is that persistent stigma and bias, alongside systemic barriers — like collateral consequences and, in some states required disclosure, of a history of incarceration in housing, employment, and higher education applications — can create insurmountable barriers for reentering citizens to achieve economic equity. But philanthropy can play a critical role in reducing stigma and bias, and creating more effective pathways to economic equity by centering system-impacted individuals in all levels of the funding and program implementation process. 

Today, the cost of incarcerating one person in the state of California is $106,131 annually, yet nearly 50% of all state prisoners are re-convicted within three years of release. This high rate of recidivism wastes taxpayer dollars, and traps individuals and families in cycles of poverty: having a record reduces an individual’s annual earnings by an average of 52% — a loss equaling $500,000 over several decades. Additionally, the history and ongoing challenges of racism in the justice system have concentrated this economic impact in Black and Latinx communities, exacerbating the racial wealth gap.

Incarceration is a systemic and structural barrier to economic equity. But it doesn’t have to be.

Flintridge Center’s programs emerged in 2007 when our local community identified a gap in services for previously incarcerated adults. Individuals were coming home to employment restrictions, stigmatization, and limited resources. Through Flintridge’s programs, returning citizens don’t just “get a job.” They received wrap-around services over a longer time horizon to give them the opportunity to learn new skills, gain stability, and be connected to mental health, substance use, and other supportive resources. In other words, participants join the community. To date, nearly 2,000 individuals have graduated our apprenticeship program, and only 10% have returned to incarceration. Nationally, those who complete registered apprenticeships like ours earn average starting salaries of $77,000 and their lifetime earnings outpace those of their peers by $300,000 — effectively reversing the potential wage loss associated with incarceration.

But our success in the community is only possible because individuals impacted by the system are represented and included in all levels of our organization — from program instructors to the executive leadership team and everywhere in between. To truly reimagine our justice system and put the policy in place to back our vision, we must eliminate the stigma, bias and inequity associated with system involvement. This begins in our own communities: lifting up the lived realities, resilience, and successes of individuals and families impacted by the system and centering them in the work — a big part of which is philanthropic funding.

System-impacted individuals must participate in the funding decisions that will affect them. Because success does not only include evidence of positive life outcomes, or a high return on investment of reentry dollars. Success also means that our philanthropic institutions are actively reducing the distance between them and the communities they serve. Including system-impacted individuals in the decision-making process helps to eliminate barriers and stigma from the start.

The Flintridge Center is a good example of this approach. Flintridge was founded as a family foundation, with plans to distribute its funds throughout the greater Pasadena area and sunset in the early 2000s. But before this decision was made, they engaged in listening sessions with community members and local organizations who pointed to the persistent disparities that residents experienced, and the service gaps that remained for returning citizens. The result was the Apprenticeship Preparation Program, which prepares previously incarcerated community members for living-wage, union careers in construction.

But philanthropic entities don’t need to be on the brink of sunsetting to successfully implement this approach, and there is opportunity to learn from philanthropic leaders in this effort. One great example is the Canary Impact Fund, which was created, is run by, and provides grants to, individuals and organizations who are formerly incarcerated, and this has a significant impact on both the process of fund distribution, as well as programmatic outcomes. The Canary Fund proactively works with philanthropic entities to “to improve the connection between philanthropy and the communities it serves.”

Recent shifts, like Governor Newsom’s transformation of San Quentin and LA County’s adoption of a Care First, Jail Last approach, signal the start of a justice system reimagined. But these shifts cannot be attributed to policymakers alone. Flintridge Center is one in a growing network of community-led organizations in California, which includes the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and many others, who have long been working toward this change. Our decades-long work supporting community members returning home and providing evidence-based solutions is ultimately what empowers policy-makers to act. So as we reimagine the future of our justice system, we must also reimagine the way we do this work. Prioritizing community-driven leadership, opportunity, and investment in economic, social, and racial justice can only be achieved with closer, more trusting relationships between philanthropy and the communities it serves.

“I can see the future now, indefinitely.”
Tom, Flintridge Center Graduate

Josh McCurry has been the Executive Director of Flintridge Center since 2019, where he previously worked as the Resource Development & Communications Specialist. Prior to his involvement with Flintridge Center, Mr. McCurry worked at youth development nonprofits in Texas and Hawaii, and on community development projects in Indonesia and Ireland. He currently serves as the community-based 5th District Representative on the Los Angeles County Public Safety Realignment Team (PSRT), and as a board member for Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP!).

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This content was paid for by The James Irvine Foundation and created by Flintridge. The editorial staff at The Chronicle had no role in its preparation. Find out more about paid content.