By Hannah Jackson & Rondo Bonilla
October 4, 2023

On paper, our stories might look quite different. We grew up in different places, under different circumstances. But beneath those surface differences, we share a common experience. We are both Gen Zers whose lives have been upended by America’s broken criminal justice system. 

Hannah’s dad was sentenced to prison in Georgia when she was just two months old, for charges stemming from his struggles with drug addiction. Her childhood was impacted by his incarceration and challenges with parole. After he had worked hard to reenter and succeed, he was sent back to prison for a technical violation – what ended up being a minor paperwork mixup led to months of incarceration.

And at just 18 years old, Rondo, despite never being convicted of a crime, found himself incarcerated on Rikers Island, one of the most notorious jails in the country. He spent fifteen months there – an environment filled with violence and trauma. But trauma and violence were a part of his life long before he spent his nights in a jail cell. Rondo couldn’t really remember a time in his life when the world felt like a safe place. 

That’s our criminal justice system – a place where people who are already traumatized by violence have to encounter violence every day – a place where people who struggle with addiction or mental health issues don’t get the support that they need.

What if instead of being an endless cycle of harm and a trapdoor back to prison, our supervision and criminal justice systems actually gave people the support they needed – to find jobs, attain stable housing, and treat their substance abuse or mental health issues?

That’s what we at REFORM Alliance are working toward and why we are rallying fellow members of our generation to take action to transform this system. 

We recognize the awesome power Gen Z possesses, we are a generation of changemakers, and we’re here to help them realize it. 

Despite the cynics who claim that Gen Z isn’t interested in politics, we prove the opposite each and every day. In recent years, young people have led the charge on a host of issues that affect us and our communities. We’ve fought to build the kind of world we want to live in. 

But, according to some polling, criminal justice reform has been less of a priority for Gen Z. 

Until now, that is. 

Alongside our fellow members of the REFORM Alliance Future Shapers Advisory Council, we’re working to usher in a new era of civic participation and activism by young people, specifically aiming to fix our broken criminal justice and supervision systems. 

This week, we are activating events at three college campuses: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Columbia University, and an exceptional group of students at Georgetown University’s Prison Scholars Program in the DC Jail

Our goal is simple. We want to hear directly from those who have been impacted by the system and bring light on the solutions they want to see. 

And we want more Gen Zers to become reformers. In the months to come, we’ll have a lot more opportunities to get engaged.

Here’s something it can be easy to forget:Young people have always been essential to the fight for change in this country.When we look at black-and-white footage of the Civil Rights Movement, the past can feel far from us. But look again at those old clips and you’ll see young faces – determined, hopeful, willing to endure anything to make this country a better place.

Even Dr. King was only 26 years old when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began and he first assumed the mantle of leadership. Think about that. 

We may be young, but we’ve seen firsthand the harm this system can do. We’re not stuck in old ways of thinking; we’re not attached to the way things are. We’re joining forces with our fellow young people and fighting for a better system. We’ve waited long enough. 

The time for action is now. Join us. 

Hannah Jackson and Rondo Bonilla are co-chairs of REFORM Alliance’s Future Shapers Advisory Council – a collective of young content creators using their platforms to raise awareness about the need for change.