CEO Daniel Forkkio heads the campaign to attain dignity for individuals and end extreme sentencing and mass incarceration
It’s no secret that Black and Brown people are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison system, but Represent Justice aims to build awareness to correct this imbalance.
According to its website, the organization is focused on “reimagining the justice system and creating a real demand for change.” To meet that objective, Represent Justice has launched a strategic plan to engage audiences by telling the dramatic stories of impacted people.
A relatively young group, Represent Justice was initially formed in 2019 as a campaign inspired by the life and legacy of Bryan Stevenson. A talented and dedicated attorney, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative to defend wrongly condemned and poor people trapped in the criminal justice system.
The movie, “Just Mercy,” chronicled Stevenson’s successful effort to free Walter McMillan from a death sentence for a murder that he didn’t commit. The receptive audience response to the film inspired the creation of Represent Justice to further enlighten the American public.
As CEO Daniel Forkkio explained, “‘Just Mercy’ was our first very first film campaign and storytelling initiative and it’s been incredible. What we’ve seen [is] the public’s awareness and willingness to talk and think differently about the justice system coupled with the public’s readiness to understand that justice isn’t just about innocence and that the system has some serious flaws that needs to be addressed.”
However, Forkkio and Represent Justice intend to go beyond just addressing the flaws to actually encouraging the implementation of the necessary adjustments to result in a vastly improved criminal justice system. To reach that point, the group has developed a range of programs as well as enlisted the support of ambassadors who not only offer lived experience, but also can share compelling accounts of surviving the prison life and thriving despite being formerly incarcerated.
“We’re equipping those who’ve been impacted with the skills, resources, visibility and capacity to tell their own stories, and really help connect and correct the narrative around the justice system and to bring dignity to those who’ve been impacted by the system,” said Forkkio.
“What we’re trying to undo is decades and decades of harmful myths about the effect of our prison system. Between 1990 and 2005, we actually built a prison in this country once every 10 days and those prison systems were disproportionately filled with people who are from low-income and minority communities.
“And so, it created all of these false narratives about good and bad and the super predator myth. We are now trying to really look at the drivers of incarceration and look at the power of people’s redemption, as individuals,” he noted. “[We want to] look at the resources that communities really need to decrease the prison population.”
In addition to reimagining the U.S. prison system, Represent Justice’s goals include ending dehumanizing practices and languages towards incarcerated individuals and instead emphasizing hope and opportunity. The organization is also advocating for the lessened prison sentences and a decrease in so-called enhancements such as trying juveniles as adults and life without parole.
Other goals are heightening the accountability of prosecutors, judges and elected officials; reducing disparities and over-criminalization of communities based on race, gender, class and citizenship; and raising the profile, voice and support of neighborhoods that are negatively impacted by the legal system.
“My belief is that when the community that is most impacted receives the resources or platform that they need to talk about what safety looks like, what health and wellness looks like, and what the alternatives to this system of mass incarceration look like to them, then we can’t go wrong,” insisted Forkkio.
“A lot of the work that we’re doing with our ambassadors is meant to just empower them because they are the experts. They are the folks that know the solutions and they are the folks that understand the narratives and the trends. They have the lived experiences,” he said.
Represent Justice ambassadors reflect the U.S. population, encompassing a range of ethnicities, ages, genders, abilities and faith. As reflected in the organization’s website, every member of the team can impart their personal story of “incarceration, hope and redemption while leading the fight to create a fair justice system.” Ambassadors are available for virtual presentations as well by emailing [email protected].
Another area that Represent Justice highlights is Policy Research and Advocacy, which promotes backing for federal and state legislation to change the justice system. Under their Storytelling and Public Engagement Program, multimedia projects and events are held to acquaint influencers, prominent figures and sports organizations with formerly incarcerated individuals for conversation and leisure activities.
For example, the Milwaukee Bucks players and coaches along with state elected officials joined Represent Justice for a roundtable conversation and basketball game with currently incarcerated people as part of Represent Justice’s Play for Justice initiative. Also, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings are some of the other NBA teams that have participated in the campaign.
Looking towards the future, Forkkio said, “In the next five years, I want Represent Justice to be the cultural and narrative destination for learning and becoming proximate to the harm of the prison system in the U.S. as well as the solutions for the system.
“I want Represent Justice to be a platform where people who did not consider themselves to be advocates, or who are completely distanced from the issues of mass incarceration learn to understand and to take immediate action within their communities, with their legislators and within their families to transform the narrative and the culture of the system,” he stressed.
“We want to be a destination for proximity, a destination for action, and a platform for the voices of those who have been most impacted,” added Forkkio.
“We invite the public to visit our website and our [social media] channels and get more informed about our work!”
To learn more, visit representjustice.org or follow #RepresentJustice on all social media platforms.