How We Work

The Center for Justice is nationally respected for engaging formerly incarcerated people in its leadership and decision making and is the locus for a network of local and national partners including formerly incarcerated people, grassroots activists, academics, community organizations, policy-makers and civic leaders. 

We believe that dismantling the system of mass incarceration and criminalization to creating pathways to justice rooted in healing, prevention, accountability and equity requires a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary approach.

CfJ’s work is grounded in two guiding principles:

  • Investing in people impacted by mass incarceration
  • Transcending the punishment paradigm to make communities safer and more just.

Anchored in these principles, our core initiatives focus on six areas of work:


Although the United States comprises only five percent of the world’s population, we have more than twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. Statistical evidence overwhelmingly confirms that a college education reduces recidivism, increases employment opportunities, and strengthens communities.

According to the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections, more than 50% of all incarcerated Manhattanites call Harlem home, which means Columbia University sits in a unique position to confront the mass incarceration crisis through education. 

Emphasis on education has been central to our work. Our initiatives provide college-level courses in prison and for people returning home, as well as arts and media training for youth at Rikers Island and in communities impacted by incarceration. CfJ is recognized as both the hub and catalyst for collaborations throughout the community of currently and formerly incarcerated people, and the local and national community committed to justice. Our unique model of university-community collaboration is already being replicated.


The Center for Justice is at the forefront of criminal justice research, leading gatherings of faculty, research scientists and fellows, graduate students, and community partners in order to share and discuss work in the field of criminal justice. We recognize that alongside delivering important and impactful programming, we have a responsibility to also participate in leading-edge discussions and research that impact our work. We welcome participants from various disciplines and institutions to join us.

Part of our research is conducted out of Columbia University’s Psychology Department, particularly in the Social Relations Lab. Much of its work seeks to illuminate individual and structural pathways through which the stigma associated with carceral identity can adversely affect interpersonal functioning and well-being outcomes in high-stakes domains.  One of the goals of this work is to inform the development of evidence-based interventions that can disrupt stigma in ways that enable flourishing during reentry.


Reforming and transforming our policies is an important part of confronting the mass incarceration crisis. Through our team’s and network’s personal experiences and subject matter expertise, we advocate for policy reform in a number of ways, inviting various stakeholders to participate in the process, including previously justice-involved youth and youth residing in New York City. 

Our work has included advocating for decarceration through and transformation of parole reform; challenging the exclusion from criminal justice reform of people convicted of violent crimes; influencing the NYC City Council to pass the CARE Act, which addresses the care of returning aging people; and helping alter the makeup of the NY State parole board commissioners and parole regulations. Our work has been shared at conferences, published in reports, and documented in a video series.

The success of our multi-stakeholder policy work is in part thanks to the partnerships we have forged with Friends of the Island Academy, Brooklyn Outreach Network, New York City high schools, and city officials from agencies such as the Bronx Borough President Office, Department of Probation, Department of Education, New York City Council, New York City Police Department Community Affairs, Borough District Attorney Offices,Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, and NYC Administration of Child Services.

Leadership Development

The Center for Justice believes that those who have been impacted by incarceration, either through their own incarceration or the incarceration of someone close to them, have a unique and critical perspective to dismantle and transform the current criminal justice system. Since 2009, our leadership development programs have demonstrated that people across various disciplines, ages, and backgrounds can become leaders in the movement to end mass incarceration. We believe in promoting new emerging and established leaders who reflect the backgrounds, experiences, and needs of our communities, and we believe in offering them the tools, resources, and networks to excel. 

Our approach to leadership development merges knowledge building with direct involvement in concrete projects. We are dedicated to working at the grassroots level while leveraging university resources to ensure that impacted people and their communities are empowered with the learning tools and community connections they need to become transformative leaders.

Public Programming

The Center for Justice is committed to offering year-round programs, events, and trainings in an effort to increase awareness and stimulate discussions focused on advancing justice reform, and develop a local and national university and community network engaged in justice reform. Our primary public program, Beyond the Bars Conference, takes place annually in March and features distinguished leaders in the movement to reform the justice system, as well as numerous breakout sessions and workshops to meet and learn from practitioners around the country. Other events center on timely and relevant topics, all of which can be accessed through our events calendar.

Mobilizing Columbia and Other Schools of Higher Education

Over the next two years, the Center for Justice hopes to lead a national initiative to end mass incarceration by bringing together members of academic institutions throughout the country. We hope to learn from existing efforts, including learning about what the Mailman School of Public Health is doing in this area, and to catalyze those not yet engaged to take up the cause. 

To start, in May of 2019, a core group from Columbia met to assess internal efforts, capacities, and resources, and external collaborations toward this effort. A national planning group, represented by academic institutions, community organizations, and government agencies, will convene in October of 2019 to collaborate on developing an agenda for a national conference in Fall 2020. During this time we will also complete and disseminate a report on the landscape, challenges, and successes of university-based initiatives on ending mass incarceration, and offer a roadmap on how universities and colleges around the country may adopt program best practices to replicate effective models.