The Just Trust is 100% dedicated to scaling, aligning, and deploying resources to advance criminal justice reform. Importantly, we’re also a team of people. We bring a diversity of personal and professional experience to the work—we’re grantmakers, strategists, storytellers, and policy experts. We have teammates who are system impacted, who have been victims of crime, and who 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.
James Gore, Senior Program Officer
What’s your “why” for doing this work?
I have spent the majority of my career working in philanthropy with the goal of impacting wicked systemic problems that prevent our society from realizing its full potential. Most of that work has been focused in North Carolina in areas like community economic development, immigration reform, and racial equity. However, I found that opportunities for significant change in these areas were being hampered by a rise in political polarization. In criminal justice reform though, I increasingly found unlikely allies across the political spectrum who were passionate about systemic change and were willing to work cooperatively despite differences. This felt unique, and like a major opportunity to make change.
Personally, I was also deeply touched by a friend who experienced a mental health crisis that led to his incarceration and involvement with the justice system. It was horrible, but he was fortunate. He had a community of friends, family, and colleagues that helped him navigate the system to find physical freedom. But even now that he’s home, the mental and reputational stigma is still with him and will undoubtedly impact his future trajectory. I wanted to be a part of something bigger to help address the challenges that he and millions of other people face.
Your work at The Just Trust focuses on the State-by-State campaign. Can you talk about why the organization is so focused on state level advocacy?
Working in North Carolina, I have seen the impact that a robust, scrappy, and committed advocacy infrastructure can make in addressing structural problems. Likewise, I have seen national groups parachute into a community for a season or a campaign and then exit, leaving much of the homegrown advocacy infrastructure in worse shape. This is not The Just Trust’s approach. We are working to flip that dynamic by investing in the state advocacy infrastructure that understands the dynamics of the political system and have identified ways to affect change. By investing deeply in an ecosystem of organizations, we are attempting to support the work of people in a region of our country that only receives national attention for the challenges they have rather than opportunities.
You oversee grantmaking in some very challenging places for reform. Can you share a bright spot?
Mental health and substance use disorder are driving factors of incarceration in many states. In 2022, a new law went into effect in Kentucky to create a pilot program to divert people experiencing mental health and substance use challenges to behavioral health programs. People who successfully complete the program will have their charges conditionally dismissed. While the project launched in 10 counties over a four year period, there is hope this model may create a path to reduce our society’s dependence on the carceral system for people with mental health and substance use disorders and instead help them access appropriate and evidence-based community services.
What are 1 or 2 of the most important grantmaking principles that you are working to instill?
Oftentimes, the paperwork and minutia of the grant application process inhibits organizations from expressing their work effectively. I am trying to be a true partner to our grantees, by shifting the burden away from organizations to our program staff to ease the application process for grantees. We are trying to both simplify and demystify the process to help organizations focus on their core work rather than spending precious time trying to appease a funder.
What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?
Currently, I am reading Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt by Phoebe Zerwick. Darryl was wrongfully convicted in 1985 and despite his credible claims of innocence, he spent 19 years in prison. I met Darryl when I first started working on criminal justice reform. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2016 due in part, to the trauma he experienced for much of his life in prison. As for television, my current guilty pleasure is Abbot Elementary. Both my parents and my wife were teachers and I so relate to the stories they tell about teachers and administrators they encountered.