Getting to Know Jolene Forman

Getting to Know Jolene Forman

November 30, 2021

The Just Trust is a grantmaking organization that is 100% dedicated to criminal justice reform. We’re also two organizations–The Just Trust and The Just Trust for Action–and together, these organizations are working to grow the pool of 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 resources available to advocates, organizers, and trailblazers who are leading the fight for a more dignified, humane, and frankly, much smaller engine of justice in this country. Importantly, we’re also a team of people. We bring a diversity of personal and professional experience to the work—we’re grantmakers, storytellers, and policy experts. We have teammates who are formerly incarcerated, who have immediate family or friends who have been to prison or jail, and who have been victims of crime. We all care deeply about this work.

In this series, we’ll get to know a bit more about The Just Trust team, and why they show up here each and every day.

Jolene Forman
Jolene Forman, Chief Program Officer

Jolene is the head of grantmaking at The Just Trust. She’s spent her entire career in the justice reform space—from the early days working at a syringe exchange and running a jail reentry program, to earning her J.D. and serving in numerous high-level legal and policy roles at advocacy organizations and philanthropies across the country. She brings her expertise in law and policy and her deep compassion together to serve as The Just Trust’s chief program officer.

What’s your “why” for doing this work?
I have countless reasons for doing this work. In my late adolescence, I saw some of my closest childhood friends develop substance use disorders. To better understand their experience, I began working at a syringe exchange and studying mass incarceration. It soon became clear that the justice system is racially unequal and fails to make communities safer, so I wanted to make change. I started by volunteering with and ultimately becoming the founding director of a reentry program for people exiting jail. But I became frustrated by the way the system churned people in and out and failed to offer them support services. I wanted to help make systemic change, so I went to grad school and law school with a focus on criminal justice advocacy and policy reform. I then worked to reform our criminal justice and drug laws.

Through that work, I saw how much more money is invested annually in maintaining the status quo rather than in making change. I wanted to help move more money into the reform movement to help level the playing field in the fight to end mass criminalization and incarceration. I am thrilled to be at The Just Trust because I now have the opportunity to move significant resources to the justice reform field and to help sustain the advocacy infrastructure of the tireless organizations working to transform our criminal laws in states across the country.

At The Just Trust, we think policy change is just as important as culture change. Can you talk a little bit about the role philanthropy can play in the complex work of changing laws?
Philanthropy has the very humble but important role of helping sustain the criminal justice reform field so that advocates have the support and resources they need to advance change. We believe that the strongest way to shrink the system is through an integrated advocacy approach. This means that we support an ecosystem of organizations working on advocacy, organizing, policy reform, communications, narrative change, and justice alternatives from a variety of perspectives. All of these pieces must fit together to change hearts and minds (and ultimately laws) so that fewer people are harmed by the justice system and communities are safer. As a philanthropy, we help power many of these organizations so that they can work collaboratively to reform criminal policies in states across the country for years to come.

You have a strong background in drug policy. Why does decriminalization of drug-related crimes matter so much to the idea of “shrinking the system,” and how do you think about this in terms of racial equity?
Drug decriminalization directly shrinks the system by reducing the number of people who are arrested, convicted, held pretrial, and sentenced to jail or prison for drug possession (and potentially other minor drug offenses). One-in-five people incarcerated in the U.S.—nearly half a million people—are in jail or prison for a drug crime. Police arrest approximately 1M people annually for drug possession alone. As we are already seeing in Oregon, drug decriminalization dramatically reduces the amount of contact that people who use drugs have with the criminal justice system. Importantly, drug decriminalization can eradicate racial inequities in drug arrests and convictions. In most U.S. jurisdictions, Black and Latinx people are disproportionately more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white people despite statistically similar rates of use. Because decriminalization reduces the number of law enforcement interactions with people who use drugs by over 90%, this dramatically reduces the number of BIPOC people who come in contact with the justice system. Finally, drug decriminalization laws don’t simply decriminalize drug use, they provide people who use drugs access to treatment, harm reduction, peer support, and housing services that have been demonstrated to better prevent and treat substance use disorder than arrest and incarceration. So, they actually work to improve public safety by providing an alternative, public-health based approach to addressing substance use.

What’s the hardest part of your job, and what is the most exciting part?
The hardest part of my job is having a finite amount of money to give out. There are so many amazing organizations doing important work to shrink the footprint of the system, further alternatives to address harm, uphold human dignity and grace for those impacted by the justice system, and center safety and prevention in jurisdictions across the country. Yet, we can’t fund them all. In addition, we are up against a justice system that is resourced on an entirely different scale. So we have to be super smart and strategic about how we make our investments to ensure that the money that we are stewarding goes as far as possible to sustain the criminal justice reform movement and improve people’s lives.

The most exciting part of my job is supporting incredible advocacy organizations and leaders—particularly directly impacted leaders—who are working tirelessly to change our criminal laws and improve the quality of life of individuals, their families, and communities.

What's ahead?
I’m most looking forward to working closely with advocacy partners in the field to support their work to continue advancing criminal justice reforms and testing new alternatives to our justice system across the country. What truly motivates me is getting into the field and meeting with the inspirational leaders and organizations we fund. Now that COVID rates are going down and travel is opening up again, I am hopeful I’ll be able to get some facetime with our grantee partners.

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?
I’m reading Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. I’m watching Sex Education on Netflix, it’s my guilty pleasure. I’ve also been listening to an embarrassing number of kids’ songs since I am a new mother, but I try to balance that with a steady stream of news podcasts, audio books, and the jazz, rock, and reggae music my husband often plays on vinyl in our living room.