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The Center for Justice and Human Dignity focuses on safely reducing unnecessary prison sentences, creating conditions for wellness on the inside, and strengthening early release mechanisms and policies that support decarceration.

To explore and highlight the crucial steps required to center dignity in the justice system from front to back, CJHD united a variety of stakeholders at its October 2023 summit, Rewriting the Sentence II.

CJHD has the unique capacity to unite a variety of stakeholders at this summit by building off of its predecessor’s deep relationships with system actors who have been immersed in this work for decades. We had the tremendous opportunity to engage this group of experts and practitioners in an effective and innovative setting for peer learning to discuss various alternative approaches that reduce contact with the criminal legal system, define the cultural paradigm shifts taking place in the field, and explore the application of evidence-based programming for restorative and rehabilitative outcomes.

At this summit, CJHD encouraged recognition of successful existing models and best practices, while also identifying the critical harms of the existing punitive system and the barriers to reform. In particular, a fundamental element of this convening was recognizing the crucial need for trauma-informed practices across all aspects of the criminal legal system. The current practices systematically traumatize individuals and strip their humanity in countless ways. This harm must be reduced, and a replacement must be built that preserves and promotes dignity, reduces recidivism, prioritizes community investment and bolsters health in all communities, and more. CJHD aims to encourage cross-pollination of innovative practices among federal, state, county, and individual stakeholders in order to create tangible momentum toward reducing incarceration and increasing alternative, non-carceral dispositions of a wide array of criminal cases.

Defining a successful summit

The ultimate goal of this gathering was to spark change in the hearts and minds of system actors and reduce or remove the systematic impulse or default toward punishment and confinement. We hope to expand the capacity of individual system stakeholders–judges, prosecutors, defenders, probation officers, and case managers–to maintain a moral and evidence-based commitment to their work.

Rewriting the Sentence II featured a stellar lineup of speakers, sessions, interactive roundtables, and discussions, and was well-attended by a diverse representation of judicial, prosecutorial, pretrial, probation, and other legal officials from a variety of states as well as at the federal level. This gathering acted as a space for meaningful interchange between leaders and practitioners already steeped in the alternatives-to-imprisonment landscape with those curious to engage further on ATI implementation. We saw individuals departing from this summit as ambassadors for these alternatives in their respective districts and communities.

The Summit included virtual interactive sessions with incarcerated persons, and presented expert insights on issues such as procedural justice, trauma-informed care, and behavioral science.

The Summit featured a stellar lineup of speakers, including United States Sentencing Commission Chairman Judge Carlton Reeves and Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters. Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, Founder and Director of the Institute for Trauma-Informed Systems Change at McLean/Harvard, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), delivered the Summit’s keynote address on how to transform the criminal legal system into a more trauma-responsive environment.

Assistance in Expanding Alternatives to Incarceration

Innovative and effective alternatives to incarceration (ATIs) exist in isolated pockets throughout the country but need to be expanded and scaled. With limited established ATI guidelines and resources, leaders and practitioners are faced with the challenge of developing their own programs, often having to rely on volunteered staff time in order to develop and implement ATIs within their jurisdictions. This approach cannot guarantee full and equitable access for all eligible individuals and limits the potential for systemic change that supports public safety while reducing costs. While courts in some areas have been the primary beneficiaries of deep philanthropic investments to develop and expand ATIs, many courts have not had this same access to resources.

CJHD intends to connect jurisdictions interested in launching ATIs with jurisdictions that have well-established ATI programs and to support their adaptation and implementation, consistent with the specific needs of the interested jurisdictions. CJHD has the unique ability to serve as a connecter and facilitator in the establishment of ATI programs, guided by its notable Steering Committee of 20 current and former reform-minded judges and its executive director, an attorney directly impacted by incarceration who comes from government leadership and currently serves on the advisory board for the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, DOJ’s Justice Counts National Steering Committee, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance/CSG Reentry 2030 National Advisory board. These relationships and appointments provide an immense and engaged network to support CJHD’s ATI portfolio.

The outcomes of CJHD’s successful fall 2023 Rewriting the Sentence II Summit are also a testament to the organization’s convening and community building capacities. The Summit presented a unique opportunity for hundreds of federal and state judges, prosecutors, attorneys, pretrial and probation officials, members of the directly impacted community, nonprofit organizations and advocates, academics, and other criminal justice system stakeholders to gather to discuss strategies for expanding ATIs to foster a more effective criminal justice system. The Summit featured crucial discussions revealing the state of the data on ATIs; practical suggestions for establishing problem-solving courts, including mental health and drug courts; advice to judges, prosecutors, and other court practitioners on integrating evidence-based, trauma-informed programming into the toolbox of sentencing options; and stories from beneficiaries of ATIs, along with the judges and prosecutors who decided to offer or accept a diversion from incarceration. The Summit also centered the voices of survivors of harm, emphasized restorative approaches to justice, and included a live virtual panel with currently incarcerated people.

Following the Summit, CJHD gathered many responses from stakeholders across the field who requested support, guidance, and resources for their jurisdictions to establish or expand their ATI programs. Now, CJHD’s Assistance for ATIs Initiative seeks to develop and provide resources, recommendations, and implementation assistance to jurisdictions across the country, tailored to each individual need and landscape. In the coming months, CJHD looks to develop a training and technical assistance program that supports these jurisdictions in developing ATI models that have stakeholder buy-in, are sustainable, and informed by best practices.

To establish the Assistance for ATIs Initiative, and in response to significant interest from jurisdictions around the country, CJHD looks to develop the tools, reference guides, staffing, communications, partnerships, strategy, and infrastructure for the initiative to succeed. The work will focus on expanding the development and implementation of youth and young adult ATI programs, law enforcement-led diversion, deferred prosecution programs, as well as veteran, treatment, and other specialty courts across the nation, leading to safer, healthier, and more resilient communities. CJHD is uniquely situated, and the timing is ripe, to effectively impact the federal criminal courts.

Improving Prison Conditions

Alongside correctional leaders and staff, advocates, health experts, and currently and formerly incarcerated people, the Center for Justice and Human Dignity explores and addresses the crisis in prison conditions and identifies immediately actionable interventions.

Improved conditions of confinement not only make prisons more humane for incarcerated people but for staff as well. This, in turn, enables more effective rehabilitation, ultimately resulting in a reduction in recidivism, greater protection of the public, and less strain on public resources. The more support and respect we grant individuals in prison, the greater likelihood we are to see them return to their communities with hope and determination to succeed post-release.

We envision a system in which our prisons promote a rehabilitative experience affording incarcerated people the dignity every human being deserves. When a person is denied basic self-determination and is forced to endure mental and physical abuse,  they are likely to emerge more disposed to harm than before. The perpetual stress in the current dehumanizing prison environment negatively impacts the health of both staff and residents. By contrast, by fostering an environment that promotes the self-worth of both staff and residents, we empower them to reach greater potential on a personal level and contribute to their families and greater communities.

Former federal Judge, longtime Director of the Federal Judicial Center, and current CJHD Board Member Jeremy Fogel, in his keynote address at Aleph’s Rewriting the Sentence Summit at Columbia Law School in 2019, described how “a truly transformative approach to criminal justice requires not only an abstract respect for every person, but also a genuine openness, to meeting each person, where he or she is, and experiencing our common humanity.” We believe these sentiments lie at the heart of the shift in thinking that we are proposing: a deeper respect for human dignity within the prison system, as well as a recognition that, just as in “free” society, a culture of positive reinforcement is more effective than one of punishment and negativity.

Unfortunately, as Chairman Dick Durbin pointed out at a 2022 Senate Committee on the Judiciary oversight hearing of the BOP, “Many of the people languishing in federal prison have paid their debt and do not need to be there. They should be developing vocational skills, receiving mental health counseling and educational services, and reentering society as productive members of our communities.” The senator added, “Our federal prison system, in many critical respects, failed to fulfill its fundamental purpose to provide safe, humane conditions of confinement and ensure the positive return of incarcerated individuals to the community.”[1]

[1] U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, September 29, 2022, available at

Strengthening Early Release Policies

Clemency and compassionate release opportunities for incarcerated people have existed for a long time in both the state and federal prison systems. However, these processes are difficult for people and their families to navigate. They are notoriously arduous, labor-intensive, and severely underutilized by decision-makers. Often, there are strict or vague eligibility criteria, categorical exclusions, contradictory guidance, and lengthy “black box” review processes.

At the same time, there are incarcerated individuals who are elderly, facing serious or terminal medical conditions without proper healthcare, or serving sentences for offenses that current legislation has downgraded or decriminalized. These are individuals who no longer pose a risk to public safety, but current sentencing review and release practice is not sufficient to return these individuals back to their families and communities. More streamlined discussion around categorical review of groups of people ready for release is needed to address the injustice of sentences that no longer serve any rehabilitative or deterrent purposes.

Alongside subject-matter experts, we develop, refine, and scale effective and innovative approaches to navigating these release processes. We will advance promising practices through technical assistance with local decision-makers, including governor’s offices and parole boards, committed to identifying individuals who should be released through efficient and equitable mechanisms. The Center for Justice and Human Dignity also facilitates open conversations that highlight effective practices and bring together community-based practitioners and policymakers. Through symposia featuring leaders in the field, landscape analyses of clemency practices across the country, and other resources compiling innovative sentencing review and release work, our team seeks to promote dialogue that will lead to changes in practice and policy.