March is Women’s History Month, and we’re celebrating by recognizing the women who are making history today by working to impact policy change in various areas where Arnold Ventures works.
Today, we’re highlighting Hillary Blout, the founder and executive director of For The People, an organization that partners with prosecutors to free people serving harsh sentences.
Who She Is
Blout’s experiences growing up during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in Pittsburg, California, a high-crime neighborhood in the Bay Area, propelled her into a career in law. Seeing people she knew murdered or sent to prison spurred early aspirations to become a public defender. “I always thought that I wanted to change the world,” she said. “I set my sights on something that felt a way to kind of pull myself up out of this and survive this environment of poverty and violence.”
But her journey into the criminal justice system took a turn while she was at law school at the University of San Francisco and she was offered an internship in the city’s district attorney office. “I thought that’d be a really great way to see how the enemy operates,” remembered Blout. Kamala Harris, now the vice president of the United States, led the office at the time. Blout’s view of the role of prosecutors changed as she saw Harris focus her efforts on keeping people out of prison through alternatives to incarceration or innovative reentry programs like jobs for individuals convicted of selling drugs.
Blout decided to stay. During her time in the office, she worked to reframe public safety through the lens of creating healthier communities. She thought she would go on to become a career prosecutor until a new opportunity presented itself. A former colleague had been working on Proposition 47, which allowed resentencing for people in prison serving certain low-level offenses such as drug use and petty shoplifting. Buried in litigation work, Blout had previously given little thought to the ripple effects of mass incarceration, but learning more about the reform movement set her on the path to found For the People. By working with prosecutors, the organization would help advocate for the release of people serving overly punitive sentences.
For The People wrote and helped pass Assembly Bill 2942, which authorized California’s district attorneys to reconsider sentences, and then worked with prosecutors to secure releases.
“I’m a former prosecutor, I believe our role is doing something that can improve the justice system,” Blout said. “This should also include making sure people in prison who don’t need to be there are getting out and working to identify and address injustice in our system.”
On Proving People Wrong
Blout has expanded For the People’s work outside of California by working with prosecutors in 10 states who are interested in reviewing old sentences.
“We support any prosecutor who is interested in looking back at cases where the person is currently incarcerated but may have a rehabilitation journey and a redemption story that illustrates that the person could actually be safely released,” she said.
In the early days of For the People, Blout said that skeptics doubted she would ever be able to get support from prosecutors outside of progressive circles. “I feel really proud that I pushed for this when people didn’t believe in it,” she said. “We’ve been able to show that prosecutors, across the progressives and moderates, and Democrats and Republicans, want to do the right thing.”
On What Inspires Her
Since the passage of Assembly Bill 2942, For the People has partnered with more than 15 district attorneys to release more than 100 people from prison. She said she is continuously excited by prosecutors willing to change their old ways of thinking about crime and sentencing, and by the drive of incarcerated people to better their lives — even when locked up. But it’s what people do after being freed that inspires Blout.
She points to people like Troy Dunmore, who was incarcerated 26 years on a 65-years-to-life sentence for robbing a pizza restaurant. Upon his release, Dunmore, whose addiction to drugs contributed to the robbery, became a substance use counselor.
“When people like Mr. Dunmore come home, they could just leave this all behind, but they make choices to commit their lives to improving the lives of others,” said Blout.
We’ve been able to show that prosecutors, across the progressives and moderates, and Democrats and Republicans, want to do the right thing.Hillary Blout founder and executive director of For The People