The Smart Justice Think Tank: A Coalition of Higher Education Champions and Directly Impacted Leaders

California’s post-secondary institutions, along with higher education leaders, policy experts, and directly impacted leaders, can play an essential role in tackling the unique challenges that prevent incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students from beginning or continuing their education during and after incarceration.


smart justice think tank

This blog post was published on

The inaugural Smart Justice Fellow at the Michelson 20MM Foundation, in collaboration with Root & Rebound, is convening the Smart Justice Think Tank (SJTT), a coalition of higher education champions and directly impacted leaders in California. The SJTT will develop a guiding framework to inform a common agenda for scholars, advocates, practitioners, legislators, and re-entry organizations in post-secondary higher education in prison and on-campus programs.

The guiding principles will provide recommendations to safeguard California’s incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students’ unique needs as they succeed in their academic goals and ultimately reach their career aspirations. The principles will take the form of a Smart Justice Pledge, which will be critical to protecting and supporting the success of currently and formerly incarcerated students in California. The Pledge will outline a set of guiding, non-negotiable principles identified by members of the SJTT as essential for justice-involved students in their higher education journeys.

Members of the SJTT include:

  • Nohealani Casperson, Rising Scholars Network at Cypress College

  • Audrey Dow, Campaign for College Opportunity

  • Peter Fulks, Cerro Coso Community College

  • Steven Green, Project Rebound at California State University, Fullerton

  • Joe Louis Hernandez, Rising Scholars Network at Mt. San Antonio College

  • Tyee Griffith, Claremont Colleges

  • Martin Leyva, Project Rebound at California State University, San Marcos

  • Taffany Lim, Center for Engagement, Service and Public Good at California State University, Los Angeles

  • Kevin McCarthy, Berkeley Underground Scholars

  • Danny Murillo, Michelson 20MM Foundation

  • Wil Del Pilar, Education Trust

  • Romarilyn Ralston, Executive Director, College and Community Fellowship

  • Keramet Reiter, University of California, Irvine, LIFTED

  • Gabe J. Rosales, Underground Scholars at University of California Irvine

  • Rebecca Silbert, Rising Scholars Network, Foundation for California Community Colleges

  • Gail Yen, Root and Rebound

  • Azadeh Zohrabi JD, Berkeley Underground Scholars

Together, the cross-sector stakeholders will develop the Smart Justice Pledge for higher education in prison and on-campus support programs, re-entry organizations, stakeholders, and system impacted students to follow. Additionally, by centering students and experts with lived experience, the stakeholders will develop research and evidence-based recommendations to promote systemic change at the local, regional, and statewide levels. The goal is to position post-secondary education as a solution for investing in and transforming currently and formerly incarcerated students’ lives while also setting higher education solutions to reform our country’s punitive legal system.

The SJTT will use our collective voice to lead public conversations encouraging higher education solutions, reducing the reliance on jails and prisons, and forging brighter, more prosperous futures for justice-involved scholars. By including students and experts with lived experience, the SJTT will establish a forward-thinking, aspirational agenda to engage research and evidence-based recommendations through a progressive educational lens informed by data and best practices in the field.

The SJTT will engage California Community Colleges, California State Universities, Universities of California Chancellor’s Offices, the Michelson Center for Public Policy, and community-based social justice organizations to support policy ideas for amending California’s education and penal codes that reflect the principles of the Pledge. Finally, the SJTT will educate the public and stakeholders on the positive impacts of investing in post-secondary education in prison, on-campus support programs for formerly incarcerated students, and pathways to economic success.

To stay updated about the activities of the Smart Justice Think Tank and the development of the Smart Justice Pledge, please join our mailing list here.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

Jan 6, 2022 | 20 Million Minds, News