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Clockwise - Ethan Nadelmann, Susan Burton, Tony Denison, Maxine Waters, Cedric Daniels, Michelle Alexander

What happens when you combine the efforts of a few dedicated activists, a few Hollywood stars, the likes of Michelle Alexander, Ethan Nadelmann and Susan Burton, with some great documentaries on the beautiful campus of Loyola Marymount University? You get an overwhelmingly successful, first ever of its kind, film festival dedicated to putting a spotlight on the American justice system.

The Justice on Trial Film Festival was the brainchild of Susan Burton, founder and director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project (ANWOL), a non-profit that provides essential support to formerly incarcerated women who are released from prison, often with nothing more than their few possessions in a cardboard box. Given the challenges they face just trying to secure housing and food, these women would almost certainly return to prison without the kind of support ANWOL provides.

Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project after she personally experienced the revolving door of recidivism, a by-product of America's prison industrial complex. Her downward spiral began after the tragic death of her five-year-old son, who was hit by a speeding police car. In the depths of depression, Ms. Burton sought comfort through drugs, which led to drug addiction and ultimately repeated bouts of incarceration.

Eventually, she found an organization that helped her to transition from prison back into society. Susan vowed that if she could help women in the same way that she was helped, she would. Fifteen years ago she established A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

Today, with a list of honors a mile long, ANWOL has become a recognized model for reducing recidivism and lessening the economic drain incarceration exacts on society while at the same time increasing public safety.

The festival was organized to raise awareness and raise funds that will be used to further the mission of A New Way of Life. Several organizations collaborated with ANWOL to put on the festival which was hosted by Loyola Marymount University as part of their Bellarmine Forum: Justice Not Jails, The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence, All of Us or None, and LA Progressive worked with ANWOL to organize the event while other organizations served as sponsors.

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Hollywood luminaries, elected officials and other notables attended the festival to show their support and lend a hand. Tony Denison of TNT's Major Crimes conducted a talk following the showing of a film entitled, "Crimes of Police". Later in the evening during the lively keynote address, Denison posed a question that key note speaker Michelle Alexander punted to Congressional Representative Maxine Waters, who was seated in the first row. In classic form, Rep. Waters took the mic and gave the audience some insight into the many ways that she and other members of the African American Caucus have been fighting to combat the growth of the prison system.

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Cedric Daniels of HBO's The Wire, LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Reverend James Lawson, who continues to work in the Civil Rights Movement, were among the notables that attended the event.

Ironically, during the same week of the festival, Governor Jerry Brown announced that he had committed the State of California to a $28.5 million contract with the for-profit private prison corporation CCA. CCA – one of the largest prison profiteers in the country – stands to increase their revenue by tens of millions all on the taxpayers backs.

Michelle Alexander, noted author of the acclaimed The New Jim Crow, delivered the keynote address at the conclusion of the film festival's first day. Asserting that the War on Drugs has resulted in the creation of a caste system in America where people labeled “felons” are forever locked out – unable to fully participate in American society – Alexander said, “Our country's economic infrastructure is now deeply dependent on the revenue derived from mass incarceration. From prison construction companies to private prison corporations, so many are benefiting economically that unraveling this mass prison industrial complex is going to take more than a little tweaking here and there – this is going to take nothing short of a mass movement.”

Those attending the festival had an opportunity to see several films including the acclaimed, Broken on All Sides and The House I Live In. Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance delivered a riveting talk, titled “Taking Drugs Out of the Criminal Justice System." Described by Rolling Stone as “the point man” for drug policy reform efforts, Nadelmann is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding proponents of drug policy reform in the United States and abroad.

sharon kyle

Sharon Kyle

Publisher, LA Progressive

Monday, 21 October 2013