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Special Project

Special Project
From the 13th Annual Shorty Awards

The Formerly Incarcerated Fighting for Criminal Justice Reform

Entered in Social Activism

About this entry

Second chances are not easy to come by; especially for the 70 million people who have had to interact with America’s punishment-first criminal justice system. The current approach to criminal justice in the United States often exacerbates problems it would hope to alleviate. Instead of helping to rehabilitate people commit crimes, the system throws barriers in the way of individuals who want to give back to their community and return to a normal life. But a bevy of advocates across the country are working to build a better criminal justice system, one that favors rehabilitation over punishment and provides individuals a real opportunity for a second chance.  

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) turned to Freethink to unpack the nuanced, and what can be emotionally charged, topic of criminal justice reform. CZI wanted not only to educate viewers on the topic, but to encourage the belief that individuals who commit crimes are capable of change and transformation.

Why does this entry deserve to win?

An incarceration-first approach doesn’t address the reasons individuals commit crimes, nor does it allow them to change, grow, and learn how to better participate in society. Freethink designed a campaign to bookend Second Chances Month, a national effort to challenge stigmas, change laws, and provide new opportunities for formerly incarcerated people to rebuild their lives.

The campaign included two videos: the first spotlighting formerly incarcerated people leading the charge for criminal justice reform, and the second video spotlighted the restorative justice movement as led by the victims of criminals. This way, we would illustrate the different stakeholders and unique solutions working in tandem for a better society. 

This submission is the first video, demonstrating the power of social activism by the people who arguably have the most to resent society for, but are dedicating their resources to fix society. The Smart Justice Advocates is an all-volunteer team of formerly incarcerated people is leading the charge for criminal justice reform in a state with the third-highest incarceration rate in the world. These are the same people who have had to fight for their second chance through a complicated and strenuous process. By featuring the very people who are using their second chance to help fight for others who have been directly impacted by the system, we were able to convey power of personal transformation and reaffirm the value formerly incarcerated individuals bring to society. 

Custom and robust distribution was planned to make sure this content would be seen and shared by CZI's priority audiences. A 12-person publishing team optimized SEO tactics, tested social media copy, series art, cut-downs and clips across social media, partner publications, newsletters, and online communities-- constantly fine-tuning promotional strategies until success was met. 


This video broke the 1 million view mark in less than eight weeks, with 248,000 being completed views, which means on a video that is four minutes long- an impressive completion rate for a long-form content in an attention economy, and beating Freethink's own averages. On Youtube alone, the completion rate was 45%-- meaning nearly one out of every two viewers was watching the video from beginning to end. 

More importantly, these viewers were from CZI priority states of Kentucky and Florida (states with large populations of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people). The video did particularly well with conservative audiences, and drove thoughtful conversations that was more than twice the average rate of Freethink videos. 

Beyond views, the value of this video was demonstrated in the measurably shifted perceptions of those who watched the video. Compared to a control group who did not watch the video, viewers reported a 23% increase in believing formerly incarcerated voices are informative in reforming sentencing and fines, and 17% increase in believing that people who commit serious crimes should have a second chance.

This ability to perceptively change minds on a charged topic like criminal justice proves the power of Freethink storytelling when applied to social activism, and shows the promise of building public momentum into policy chance and positive societal change. 


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