Roxbury native Andrea James was honored Thursday by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization for her work to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.
James, a mother of four who still lives in Boston, founded Families for Justice As Healing and The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls more than five years ago. But her advocacy started long before her incarceration in 2009, when she was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison for illegally misusing funds as a real estate lawyer.
As a youth worker she helped gang-related teens find a better way. Then she became a defense attorney, adding real estate work to her resume during the housing boom. When the market crashed, she turned herself in for mail and wire fraud.
Having worked in criminal justice for decades, James thought she knew what life in prison would be like. She did not, and her next career of advocacy to reform criminal justice policies began, this one born from first-hand knowledge.
In honoring James with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington, D.C., the organization on its website said it was recognizing her “indispensable work to equip currently and formerly incarcerated women and men to be at the frontlines of reform efforts in the United States to end the racial and socioeconomic inequality perpetuated by the criminal justice system.”
Lois Ahrens, who sits on the council with James, said this week’s trip to the nation’s capital was as much about organizing as it was about recognition. Hundreds of women who are serving life sentences in federal prison because of sentencing guidelines imposed at the height of the so-called war on drugs are eligible for clemency by President Obama, said Ahrens, who is the only founding member of the organization not to have been incarcerated.
“This is the moment. Everybody feels the urgency,” she said. “Once he leaves office, that moment is closed.”
Also recognized in Washington, D.C., was Glenn E. Martin, who founded JustLeadershipUSA, which is dedicated to cutting the prison population in half by 2030. There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, and nearly 11 million people cycle through jail every year, according to the organization.
The RFK Human Rights Award recognizes those fighting oppression in the nonviolent pursuit of human rights. James and Martin join 47 other award recipients from 29 countries since 1984.Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.