Due to their efforts in seeking to bring change to the criminal justice system, the following individuals are the winners of the Second Chance Trailblazers Award for 2019:

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Activism

Hannah Cox

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a network of conservatives and libertarians who are elevating the problems with capital punishment in states across the country. She is also a Newsmax Insider where she writes about the failings of the criminal justice system at her column, Life and Liberty.

Prior to this role, Hannah served as the Director of Outreach at the Beacon Center of Tennessee – a free market think tank that works to dismantle government barriers through both legislation and public interest litigation. She has also spent time working as a Policy Advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and as the Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association.

She holds a BBA from Belmont University, and spent the first five years of her career in the music industry of Nashville before changing directions and heading into politics. She has spent her career championing those without a voice and working to protect the individual from government infringement.

Q: How do you describe your political philosophy? 

A: Stringent proponent of a limited government, rabid free-marketers, and avid defender of the individual.

Q: Why does criminal justice reform matter to you?  

A: Our country was founded upon the notion that individuals have inalienable rights that must be guarded from an always overreaching government. Our system was intended to function in a manner that gave the defendant a fighting chance against a powerful opponent, but in reality it has never operated in this manner. Instead, Americans are at a severe disadvantage in this system and due to that we see many wrongful convictions, unjust sentences, and lives ruined in the process. To me, this policy matter is the biggest threat to individual liberty in our country and I cannot sit idly by.

Q: Are you optimistic that further reforms will happen? why?  

A: Very much so. I think the age of information has allowed Americans to see behind the curtain of the justice system in a way those not affected by it directly never have been before. We're becoming aware of the error, fallibility, and outright corruption often present in these cases and people are demanding change. I don't see any end in sight to that.

Q: What CJR related issue should more people start to focus on?   

A: Obviously I'm going to say the death penalty. Of all the problems in the justice system, this one is the most egregious because it takes human life. But aside from that, I also think we need to focus more on violence. So much reform has centered around reentry and workforce development, which is great, but you don't really make a dent in the problem without addressing violence and those who have committed harm. We have to create and better fund programs that actually work to deter violence in the first place, and modify our system to address underlying causes of criminality so that even those who have committed harm can find restoration and make restitution. 

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Media

Molly Davis

Molly is a policy analyst specializing in criminal justice reform at Libertas Institute, a Utah think tank. She is a writer for Young Voices Advocates and the recipient of their 2019 award for excellence in advocacy. She is also a contributor to The Federalist. Molly's writing has been featured in various news outlets including The Hill, Wired, Orange County Register, Washington Examiner, and more. She graduated magna cum laude with a BA in political science and communication studies from Rocky Mountain College. In her free time, you'll find her exploring or skiing in the beautiful Wasatch Mountains. 

Q: How do you describe your political philosophy?

A: I prioritize individual autonomy as the foundation of a free society. I see this foundation leading to a naturally ordered, peaceful society that decreases unnecessary human suffering. By protecting and building off this foundation we create a more balanced power structure to promote human progress and innovation.

Q: Why does criminal justice reform matter to you?

A: The ideal world is one in which people are able to live without unnecessary government invasion in their private lives. But state legislatures steadily move  away from this principle by continuing to criminalize peaceful behavior. The criminal establishment uses it's unfettered power to ruin people's lives by arresting them, throwing them in jail, and placing a label on them that inhibits their ability to succeed after they've completed their sentence. For low level offenders, this common practice often does more harm than good. A good criminal justice system must prioritize the accountability of those who have committed harm to others while offering rehabilitation for all convicted offenders. But the current system focuses instead on punishment. For all these problems and more, I'm passionate about reform.

Q: Are you optimistic that further reforms will happen? why?

A: I'm absolutely optimistic about future criminal justice reforms because in the past few years, people have utilized social and news media to expose the rampant problems in the system. Their outrage often sparks change that spreads from state to state. An example of this is reform of the cash bail system, which started to gain traction in New Jersey and Washington DC and has now spread to New Mexico, Utah, and more. Through the spread of personal stories and online data, people saw that it is a system tilted heavily in favor of the wealthy who can afford to buy their way out of pretrial incarceration. Thousands of presumably innocent people are unnecessarily locked up with little chance of release without the funds to pay their bail amounts. This has happened for years, but thanks to our web-connected world, impactful reforms grow in popularity across the country.

Q: What CJR related issue should more people start to focus on? 

A: Many states are trying to move away from jail sentences for non-violent lower-level offenders. Instead, they give them probation which sounds great in theory, but often results in recidivism due to poor program construction. If a probation participant slips up with a couple of technical violations, they may be sent straight back to jail. This process creates a revolving door from community supervision to incarceration, which isn't good for anyone. If probation and parole are the alternatives to incarceration, then they need to be reformed to set up people for success.

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Legislation

Michael Rulli

Ohio State Senator Michael Rulli is serving his first term in the Ohio Senate, representing the 33rd Senate District, which includes all of Columbiana and Mahoning counties.

Mahoning Valley has been his family’s home and place of business for generations. As Director of Operations for the 100-year old Rulli Bros. Markets, Senator Rulli understands the challenges faced by small businesses and the role they play in the vitality of our communities. He has also served as chairman of a highly effective business development group in Salem.

He recently sponsored SB 160, which would provide mechanism and make it easier to expunge old criminal convictions in most cases.

He's also been recognized by The Better Business Bureau, receiving the organization’s 2017 Torch Award. The Regional Chamber also honored him with the 2017 Small Businessman of the Year award.

Senator Rulli is a graduate of Poland Seminary High School, the Naval Sea Cadets, and Emerson College. He and his wife Kelly live in Salem, Ohio with their two children.

Q: How do you describe your political philosophy?

A: Freedom first. Government is supposed to protect life, liberty, and property. I want to get the government out of our lives and focused on its limited purpose, which isn’t to manage our lives.

Q: Why does criminal justice reform matter to you?

A: People deserve a second chance, plain and simple. Everyone makes mistakes and one mistake should not define an individuals life.

Q: Are you optimistic that further reforms will happen? why? 

A: Absolutely. Public opinion is moving in our direction, so much more attention is being paid to criminal justice now than just a few years ago. A lot of people have had the misconception that criminal justice reform is about releasing violent criminals onto the streets. Criminal justice reform is about giving people who made simple mistakes a second chance at a productive and fulfilling life. The First Step Act was a great step in the right direction. I think that encouraged a lot of people who may have been opposed before to re-evaluate their position on justice issues. There’s a lot of potential to make even bigger steps to make our system better and more fair in the coming years.

Q: What CJR related issue should more people start to focus on? 

A: Reintegration and fairer sentencing are both incredibly important but an often overlooked element of criminal justice reform is helping people who are reformed and back into society move forward in their lives. I wrote a bill to lower the time threshold for people convicted of certain crimes to seek an expungement. This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s about giving people the chance to advance their lives with dignity.

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Business

Brandon E. Chrostowski

Brandon Edwin Chrostowski founded in 2007 EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a free 6-month culinary arts program in Cleveland, Ohio that caters to men and women recently released from prison. In 2013, EDWINS Restaurant, featuring classic French cuisine and 50 formerly incarcerated students, opened to rave reviews and has been changing lives ever since.

Hailed as a national model for re-entry, the institute, under Brandon’s zealous guidance and advocacy has gone on to graduate over 250 students, placing them in jobs all over Northeast Ohio while Brandon himself has been electrifying audiences nationwide with his story of redemption, his philosophy of second chances and his mission to give voice to the voiceless. In the process, Brandon Chrostowski has earned dozens of awards, including CNN Heroes, Crain’s 40 under 40 and The Richard C. Cornuelle Award from the Manhattan Institute for Social Entrepreneurship and became the subject of the Academy Award nominated documentary film, “Knife Skills”. He’s been chronicled by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Steve Harvey Show, TD Jakes, CNN, NBC, ABC, NPR, Food Network and more.

His lectures have inspired, awakened, motivated and thrilled university and corporate audiences alike, while garnering more than a few emotionally rousing standing ovations. Presently, Brandon Chrostowski continues to work tirelessly towards the mission of providing everyone, regardless of their past, a fair and equal future. In addition to student housing and the life skills campus that have become safe havens for program enrollees and alumni, Brandon has opened EDWINS Butcher Shop and Training Center, with a bakery coming in the near future. Brandon has invested his money, heart, time and soul into erasing the stigma attached to returning citizens. His reward? Watching his students become future leaders in the hospitality industry.

Q: How do you describe your political philosophy?

A: My political philosophy is strict independence.  I support those who advocate for the underserved, especially those men and women returning to our community from incarceration.  EDWINS, as an restaurant, institute and non-profit is strictly non-partisan.

Q: Why does criminal justice reform matter to you?

A: Criminal justice reform is the most important issue in America that no one is talking about.  It matters that the levers of our judicial system work in a fair and equitable fashion, without regard to race, socioeconomic status or any of the other factors that might see traditionally disadvantaged people being overcharged and/or oversentenced.

Q: Are you optimistic that further reforms will happen? why? 

A: I’m cautiously optimistic that positive change will occur.  The reason for my optimism is that here in Ohio, EDWINS has been at the forefront on the movement advocating for equal justice and the rehumanization of our returning citizens.  To that end, Senator Rob Portman has been a strong ally of ours as well as the current administration, which not only invited me to the White House but also, sent Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to EDWINS in order for her to observe our model first-hand.  We have a long way to go, but I have faith that the country that put man on the moon can resolve the issue of how to treat its citizens in a more humane fashion. 

Q: What CJR related issue should more people start to focus on? 

A: I don’t think that there is one specific issue for us to focus on, rather we should approach the entire process of who we arrest, if the bail offered is fair, if the sentencing is fair, what programs are made available to those who are incarcerated and how we treat these men and women once they are released into the community at large.  We need to look at the issues surrounding incarceration holistically.  The example I would give is that of a patient with a bad heart.  A good doctor would not only address the illness itself but the symptoms which led to the condition of concern.  This is how we should think about reforming our criminal justice system.  Our focus needs to broaden exponentially.

Nominations for the Second Chance Trailblazers Award will be reopened in summer 2020. Get your submissions ready!