CEO Reflections: Vanessa Kirsch on Baltimore, the Movement for Change and Criminal Justice System Reform

I’m writing in reflection of what has happened in Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, Florida and so many other communities across America. Our thoughts continue to be with the families – from Freddie Gray’s in Baltimore to Brian Moore’s in New York and far too many others – that have been touched by recent tragedy. Their pain is a constant reminder that we can and must do better in addressing the inequality of justice and opportunity in communities across America.

We believe that a moment of unprecedented opportunity has arrived to do just that and unleash America’s true potential. We can see it in disparate pockets of momentum that together add up to something real and potentially transformative. Community organization through #BlackLivesMatter and other channels is growing and helping sustain public awareness and dialogue. Criminal justice system reform has clear bipartisan support at the national and local policy levels, while advocates like John Legend and others are helping bring the issue to the attention of the broader public. New social science and neuroscience research is changing our understanding of root challenges and pointing the way towards new solutions. President Obama announced a new nonprofit phase of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The media is paying more than fleeting attention. Organizations in our network continue to do amazing work to break down barriers to opportunity in America.

All of this is happening at the outset of the 2016 Presidential campaign – when every aspiring candidate will need to take a stand on poverty, inequality and related issues and provide a vision of what they will do to reduce injustice and increase opportunity in America. But momentum itself is not enough.  We must use all the tools at our disposal to raise up new models for change, advocate for high-impact policy solutions and keep the dialogue alive and growing. These core activities make up New Profit’s belief in how transformative change happens, and we are preparing to bring our capabilities to bear for an important new initiative.

Over the last year, as the turmoil has played out in cities across the country and as the debate has gotten louder, it has become clearer to us that reforming the criminal justice system is one of the most powerful steps we can take to change America. Mass incarceration has become an unacceptable norm for our country, with incarceration rates having increased 700% over the last four decades. There are currently more African-American men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.  These trends perpetuate discrimination and injustice and highlight our nation’s need to rise together to forge a better future.

Tulaine Montgomery, Deborah Smolover and Nicole Truhe will lead New Profit's new criminal justice system reform effort.

Tulaine Montgomery, Deborah Smolover and Nicole Truhe will lead New Profit’s new criminal justice system reform effort.

New Profit made an initial investment in criminal justice work through Roca and the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative, and we are in the early stages of launching a new multi-faceted initiative. Tulaine Montgomery, a Partner at New Profit who leads our Pathways Fund, will be spearheading this new initiative with Deborah Smolover, a Managing Partner at New Profit and Executive Director of America Forward, and Nicole Truhe, America Forward’s Government Affairs Director.  Through our conversations with community leaders, social entrepreneurs and our own research we have learned that an initiative that supports a range of organizations and approaches could add value to the growing criminal justice system reform movement. We are committed to collaboration and focused on bringing new resources to the reform movement. Our three-tiered approach will feature:

  • Supporting and scaling innovations in criminal justice reform and violence reduction including place-based activity that impacts outcomes within distinct neighborhoods and regions;
  • Leveraging America Forward to advocate for policy changes that address systemic problems in the current system; and
  • Supporting public dialogue and advancing culture change to mobilize the public around reform in advance of the Presidential election.

Your input is invaluable to us in order to co-create this new emerging initiative. We hope that you will leave a comment below to share your wisdom and ideas as we build this together, or connect with us on TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn. And please stay tuned for additional dialogue sessions we’ll be facilitating on related issues in the near future.

Vanessa Kirsch, Founder and CEO, New Profit
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Producer’s Note: The photos at the top of this post are from the website Proof of Hope, which was launched to highlight positive images from Baltimore in the wake of violence.

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3 Responses to “CEO Reflections: Vanessa Kirsch on Baltimore, the Movement for Change and Criminal Justice System Reform”

  1. Jen Anderson Says

    I appreciate the bigness of this post and of the vision behind it!  With this unstoppable momentum must come solutions big enough to meet their match.  We cannot reverse the cycle of poverty to prison with a small community re-entry program. We cannot provide a life-changing opportunity with a few hours of education inside a violent prison.  We can’t add more money to something that doesn’t work.

    I’m proud to be part of The Reset Foundation, which is demonstrating that an entirely new approach to justice can reverse the cycle, save money, and bring families back together.

  2. Jared Chung Says

    This is excellent. I’m sure that Tulaine, Deborah, and Nicole will do wonderful things to lead this initiative. Specifically on your call for ideas, I do want to share a thought about how important it is that we don’t isolate our reform efforts on just one layer of the criminal justice system. Law enforcement has been a huge part of the challenge, but we can’t forget about the critical roles that DAs play (and the discretion they have), judges, corrections, and more. I was just reading the article in the New Yorker about the DA in Milwaukee and it really highlights this well: 

  3. Carla Javits Says

    It is an enormously valuable commitment for New Profit to put its weight behind the effort to innovate in criminal justice reform and violence reduction, and instigate the public dialogue.  Increasing the employment of people exiting incarceration has been a focus of REDF’s ( work.  The sky-high unemployment rates of those who have been incarcerated is a major driver of the high recidivism rates in the US.  And lack of employment opportunities and continued discrimination in hiring are part of what causes criminal behavior in the first place.  A critical issue is to open the doors to employment for more people both to prevent crime, and to prevent recidivism after people get out and face a job market hostile to those who have been incarcerated.  Advocacy has led to ‘ban the box’ policies in many states, and adoption by many large companies from Target to Walmart.  (  These efforts are meaningful and must be supported.  However, it will take a broader commitment to ensure that those policies result in the increased employment of people exiting incarceration.  In the US, organizations like the Center for Employment Opportunities ( have a strong track record of success in preparing people exiting incarceration for jobs in their social enterprise, and placing them in jobs in local, small businesses.  Companies like Butterball Farms, Cascade Engineering and Advocate Trinity Hospital have all taken it a step farther and created affirmative efforts to hire people exiting incarceration – often in partnership with community-based organizations.  In the UK, a group of eight CEOs of leading companies in the UK that employ people who have been incarcerated wrote a letter to the Financial Times urging other companies to proactively recruit ex-offenders (Marks & Spencer, Virgin Group, National Grid, Compass Group, Pets at Home, Reed, Iceland Foods, Timpson).  Timpson – a private business with over 1,000 shops in the UK offering shoe repairs, key cutting, watch repairs, dry cleaning and photo retail — is the largest employer of ex-offenders in the UK (10% of its workforce).  The results are good — only 25% fail to stay two years.  And they are expanding training within and outside of the prisons to do even more.  New Profit has a chance to change hearts and minds, innovate, and drive business practices that open the doors to employment – reducing crime, and incarceration rates.  Kudos on the new strategy.

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