Tired of repeatedly facing barriers due to their criminal records, a group of formerly-incarcerated community members in Baltimore had had enough. By 2012, they formalized the group into a nonprofit that led policy reform and removed the barriers for transitioning citizens. Ten years later, we are continuing that fight and legacy. In honor of Out For Justice’s ten-year anniversary, we’re highlighting ten of our milestones:
1. 2014: “Banned the Box” to reduce employment discrimination against individuals with criminal records
One of the biggest challenges for returning citizens was obtaining employment. Many employers required applicants to either disclose their criminal record or required background checks as part of the application process, allowing employers to discriminate against individuals with criminal records. Thanks to the advocacy of Out For Justice and our partners, the City of Baltimore joined nine other jurisdictions in "banning the box,” making it illegal for employers to conduct a criminal record check or ask an applicant if they have a criminal history before they are given an offer of conditional employment.
2. 2016: Reduced the stigma on individuals impacted by the criminal legal system
Through the Anti-Stigma Campaign, we co-hosted open discussions and events to educate the community on the impact of convictions, legal restrictions, and social stigmas that burden returning citizens. We also connected individuals with organizations and resources to assist them with their legal concerns. The culmination of the campaign was the Breakout Festival in the Oliver neighborhood, which showcased formerly incarcerated individuals as successful business owners, community leaders, and other beacons of positive change.
3. 2017: Partnered with Morgan State University on the historic ASCEND research project
Our directly-impacted members worked with Morgan State University’s Student-Centered, Entrepreneurship Development (ASCEND) program to conduct a reentry health needs assessment. Our directly impacted members and ASCEND program students conducted surveys, focus groups, and interviews to learn the physical and mental health needs of formerly-incarcerated individuals. The results serve as a guide for service providers and policy advocates.
4. 2017: Defeated the bail bondsman industry to eliminate cash bail for poor defendants
In Maryland’s discriminatory pretrial system, countless individuals who were not a threat to public safety were being jailed simply because they could not pay a commercial bond. Many of them consequently lost their wages, jobs, and housing. To fight this, we joined a coalition to strategize and ultimately protect the court rule that instructs judges against imposing cash bail on poor defendants who are not flight risks or do not pose danger. De-emphasizing the role of cash bail, and defeating the bail bond industry in the process, was a monumental win.
5. 2018: Bailed out and supported Black mamas
As a member of the DMV Bailout Coalition, we co-led a bailout campaign during the week of Mother’s Day. In addition to bailing out Black mamas so they could be with their families, we provided 90 days of wraparound services and resources to ensure holistic support for the mamas in four Maryland counties. We were able to increase our support to provide stable housing and other necessities based on the success of the prior year.
6. 2019: “Got Out the Vote” for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals
Despite their voting rights being restored in 2015, many individuals with felony records were not aware of their right to vote. That changed through our “Get Out The Vote” campaign with the Expand the Ballot, Expand the Vote coalition. We went into neighborhoods, parole offices, and probation offices to register people to vote and educate them about voting. We also went behind the walls of correctional facilities. The coalition created a website and social media campaign, conducted press conferences, and hosted podcasts to make sure the community was informed of their voting rights.
7. 2020: Our Executive Director served on an Economic Justice panel in Annapolis
Nicole Hanson served as a panelist alongside Maryland legislators and leaders on the “Economic Justice for Women” panel during The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead legislative event. The panel was moderated by Caryn York, chief executive officer for the Job Opportunities Task Force and Board President of OFJ. Nicole’s expertise was valuable during the segment that focused on the bills requiring the state to open a pre-release center for women, during which she educated the audience on the lack of access to stability and security for Black women after incarceration.
8. 2020/2021: Ensured voting access for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals
Despite the passage of the 2015 voting rights bill, tens of thousands of Marylanders who were incarcerated, held in local jails, and on probation did not have access to the ballot. Out For Justice became a co-leader of the “Expand the Ballot, Expand the Vote” Coalition to ensure the rights of disenfranchised voters. The coalition advised the State Board of Elections about jail and prison protocols for voting assisted in creating and distributing voting packets for incarcerated individuals and developed requirements for the State Board of Elections to provide data. The coalition also led advocacy efforts for the successful passage of the “Value My Vote” bill, the most comprehensive voting reform bill in decades, which outlined requirements and accountability measures for the state to fulfill its obligations to ensure access to voting for disenfranchised individuals.
9. 2021: Secured funding for Maryland’s first-ever Women’s Pre-Release Center
In 2020, the Maryland Legislature enacted a bill requiring the state to operate a pre-release center for women, largely in part due to OFJ’s relentless advocacy. However, the state did not take steps to fund the center. So in 2021, OFJ and the Women’s Pre-Release Equity Coalition persuaded lawmakers to restrict $150,000 in FY23 operating funds and pre-approve $2 million in FY24 capital funds for the center. While we are proud of this milestone, the center will require substantially more investment over the coming years and we will continue to fight for full investment.