Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velasquez was incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit and has since devoted his life to changing the criminal justice system. He became a teaching fellow with the Center for Justice and the JIE Initiative and taught on-site classes to incarcerated people.
Over the weekend, he participated in a forum with President Joe Biden hosted by NowThis.
Biden Discusses Criminal Legal Reform With Person Who Was Formerly Incarcerated
JJ Velazquez spent 23 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Throughout his incarceration, Velazquez maintained his innocence. After years of media attention to his case and the work of lawyers at the Innocence Project, he was granted clemency in 2021 and now works to reform the system from the outside.
As a participant in NowThis’ Presidential Forum with President Joe Biden, Velazquez spoke directly to Biden about his incarceration experience and his ongoing advocacy after his release.
“The system is not designed to rehabilitate. I know. And what I’ve learned from my time in prison is that there are a lot of good people who made bad choices when they were too young to really understand the scope of what life consists of,” he said.
Biden outlined the changes his administration has made in the criminal legal system during his time in office, like increasing access to education in federal prisons. Recently, Biden also pardoned approx 6,500 individuals who were convicted of “simple possession” of cannabis on the federal level.
But, for Velazquez, such actions are not going far enough. “People have to be able to secure employment and housing, because the sad reality is the majority of individuals who are released into society can actually get their hands on a gun or some drugs before they can secure employment or housing,” he said.
Velazquez further stated that during his two decades in the New York state prison system, individuals with addiction weren’t eligible for treatment until they were within two years until their release, meaning many people that are incarcerated could be in prison for decades without help. “That should be addressed the minute you come through the door,” he told Biden.
Velazquez also thinks people with long sentences should be given more opportunities for parole. “I’m talking about what I’ve seen generally for 10 years — when a person does at least 10 years, there is a drastic change in that individual,” he said, adding that too often parole boards are given “boiler-plate letters” by prosecutors, without consideration for whom the parole-eligible person has become today.
At the end of their exchange, Biden responded to Velazquez with claims that his administration had addressed Velazquez’s concerns at the federal prison level. But at state prisons, like where Velazquez served his time, Biden admitted he’s unable to make sweeping changes and has tried to incentivize states to reform their systems by wielding federal funds.