The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
In recent weeks, the crisis of police killing Black people has, again, escalated to a boiling point. These stolen lives are part of a long cycle of lawlessness against Black people — one causing outpourings of grief across the nation. Our nation’s spending priorities are totally skewed: Lawmakers spend billions to maintain mass criminalization and incarceration while neglecting social supports and services that communities need. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has been evaluating the best ways for us to mobilize our networks to respond to this moment appropriately. Actions we have taken so far include: requesting a full investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sean Reed and Ahmaud Arbery, and calling on DOJ to pursue a pattern or practice investigation into the Police Departments; urging the Mayor and Police Chief of Minneapolis to ensure that the constitutional rights and safety of protestors are maintained during demonstrations; and calling on congressional leadership to swiftly rectify the legacy of white supremacy and anti-black racism that has led to police violence against Black people across our country alongside nearly 450 other civil rights organizations. Our approach requires public safety to shift away from exclusive investments in criminalization and policing, and toward investments in economic opportunity, education, health care, and other public benefits. In Vision for Justice: 2020 and Beyond, we outline how we make communities safer and more prosperous when we stop using criminal “justice” policy as social policy.
Prison Policy Initiative
This month the Prison Policy Initiative has focused our research and advocacy efforts on pushing state prisons to release more people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our analysis of recent jail and prison population data shows that the typical prison system has reduced its population by only 5%, even as many local jails have cut their populations by 30% or more. Obvious candidates for release should include people already approved for parole, but we found that thousands of people who have been approved are still behind bars as they wait to participate in prison programming (often for drug or alcohol treatment). This programming is inaccessible during normal times, and right now is indefinitely suspended in most states due to the pandemic. Finally, as the pandemic threatens to turn prison sentences into death sentences, many incarcerated people are seeking compassionate release—and fragile, ailing elders are another group of obvious candidates for release. Unfortunately, as we detail in an illustrated briefing, compassionate release is not a transparent or linear process, and was never designed to release large numbers of people. If they wish to avoid huge outbreaks of COVID-19, state prison systems must quickly adapt their policies and practices to reduce incarcerated populations much more efficiently.
Court Watch NOLA
This week, Court Watch NOLA published its 2019 Annual Report, a comprehensive review of the criminal courts in Orleans Parish. The report shines a light on many issues, not the least of which are the disproportionate treatment of Black New Orleanians in our courts in the areas of victim rights, constitutional rights, and forced pleas. Last year, when DA Cannizzaro sought to incarcerate a crime victim for failure to testify, 100% of those incarcerated were Black. For more, you can read our report here.
Dignity and Power Now
On May 28th, Dignity and Power Now held its first webinar discussing the roles that grassroots and nonprofit organizations play during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 70 community members registered to hear more from DPN’s Managing Director, Dr. Lamia El Sadek, about implementing self-care policies for staff members and creating emergency funds for community members experiencing the effects of COVID-19. DPN will host monthly webinars to connect with organizations to share policies, thought-provoking ideas, and best practices within the nonprofit sector. The next webinar will be held on June 30th at NOON, focusing on Transformative Leadership and Compassionate Organizations. To register, visit: bit.ly/DPNLeadership. DPN’s Emergency Relief Fund, connecting community members to essential supplies during the pandemic, has helped over 7,000 community members since its inception on April 1st. DPN will continue to provide essential needs that include pantry items, face masks, diapers, baby wipes, cleaning supplies, while funding lasts.
A New Way of Life
Last fall, A New Way of Life visited Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), a women's jail in LA County, with a group that included Natalie Portman and members of America Ferrera's Harness organization. There we met Shekia, a woman who had already lived out a lifetime of trauma, starting with the murders of both of her parents by the time she was six. Shekia had been involved in a car accident that put her in a wheelchair, claimed the life of one daughter, and grievously injured another. She was being held in jail awaiting trial for the child's death. There wasn't a dry eye in the room when Shekia told us her story. Since then, A New Way of Life has stayed in touch with Shekia, trying to determine how best to help her. As part of a Mother's Day bailout initiated by Essie Justice Group, Shekia is now out of jail and living in one of A New Way of Life's safe homes, away from the crowded jail cells of CRDF, where COVID-19 has already sickened multiple women and correctional officers. Now Shekia has to learn to walk again and is in need of physical therapy, but she is settling into ANWOL well. To read more about A New Way of Life's Mother's Day protest at CRDF, click here.
Last month, Ashlee George, Associate Director, was featured in a video from Common Justice describing her story of trying to seek medical care during the pandemic. Unfortunately, as many people of color have experienced during this time, she was denied medical care, despite having symptoms. We applaud Ashlee’s bravery in sharing her story publicly. We’re also deeply grateful to Common Justice for collecting and sharing stories of survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic. sujatha baliga, Director of the Restorative Justice Project, testified by video for the California Penal Code Revision Committee back in April about community-based, pre-charge restorative justice. Our Restorative Justice Project team continues to adapt our training and technical assistance to support our partners in building restorative justice diversion programs within the public health guidelines. We look forward to facilitating virtual trainings starting next month. Internally, Impact Justice is taking steps to support the well-being of Black folks at our organization in light of the current uprisings.
Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP)
This month, FJP focused our efforts on promoting racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, as well as continued advocacy for incarcerated populations vulnerable to COVID-19. Recognizing the need for elected prosecutors to engage and act in this critical moment, FJP issued a joint statement from 45 elected prosecutors condemning the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and committing to detailed and bold policing and criminal justice reforms that prioritize fairness, racial equity, and community wellbeing. In addressing the dire issue of the spread of COVID-19 behind bars, FJP coordinated two amicus briefs--the first advocating for the release of incarcerated individuals from Elkton Federal Prison in Ohio and the second calling for a moratorium on transfers of detained immigrants to detention centers in California. FJP also released a new issue brief examining the role prosecutors can play in mitigating this public health crisis, both immediately and in the long-term. Finally, FJP produced a video lifting up the voices of elected prosecutors discussing the human toll of COVID-19 and the responsibility of DAs to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by quickly and effectively depopulating prisons and jails.
Alliance for Safety and Justice
We are so grateful for the leadership of all the phenomenal OP grantees, especially at this time. Thank you for all you are doing to advance racial justice and safety. We send love to those who have lost loved ones over the past several weeks. Whether it is the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, police violence, racist vigilantism or other forms of violence, our communities are being severely harmed. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are the latest unbearable deaths. We are grateful for the national outcry and continue to be firm in our resolve to replace mass incarceration with shared safety. In that spirit, we’re excited to share that our first-ever virtual National #TimeDone Day held on May 30th was an unprecedented success. Joined by more than 9,000 people across multiple platforms, #TimeDone Day called for the removal of the thousands of unnecessary barriers placed on people living with convictions at the state and federal level. And, we announced All Hands on Deck - a new initiative that will provide support to small businesses locked out of federal stimulus money because an owner has a past conviction and increase the number of businesses working with our anchor partner, Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation. The event also featured performances by Wyclef Jean and DJ Cassidy; statements by artists G-Eazy, Jackie Cruz, P-Lo; and support from elected officials such as California Governor Gavin Newsom and legislators from California, Michigan and Pennsylvania. You can view the full event at this link.
On June 4th members from TAJ and Grassroots Leadership spoke during the Austin City Council hearing which resulted in an unanimously vote in favor of Items 40 and 49, replenishing the RISE fund to include an additional $12 million for direct financial assistance to disproportionately impacted Austin residents. The move comes after rising pressure from community advocates and members to replenish the RISE fund but fell short of the demands from community organizations asking for at least $70 million for direct financial assistance. The new resolution only allocates $12 million for direct assistance to people facing financial hardship. This week, more than 1,400 Austin residents signed a petition to Austin City Council calling for the City Manager to allocate at least $70 million into the RISE fund.
American Conservative Union Foundation (ACU)
As states emerge from lockdowns and work to restart their economy, a major focus in state legislatures has turned to addressing budget shortfalls. Tennessee is no different. Approaching a shortfall of nearly $1 billion this year, leaders in the Volunteer state turned to smart-on-crime reforms to begin chipping away. Alongside bipartisan partners on the ground, ACU worked with conservative legislators and the Governor’s office to make the case for “Drug Free School Zone” reform. Originally intended to punish individuals peddling drugs to kids at schools with enhanced penalties, the broad scope of the law has ended up sending many casual users and addicts to prison for extended periods of time, sometimes longer than individuals who commit serious violent crimes. By reducing the size of this “zone” and allowing for increased judicial discretion, this would allow for resources to be used more efficiently, saving the state millions of dollars annually, while ensuring treatment was available for those in need. After sending a letter to House and Senate Judiciary members in support of the reforms, we were glad to see this legislation pass the Senate Judiciary committee unanimously, and look forward to it moving through the full chamber soon.
Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CfJJ)
Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CfJJ) continues to advocate for ending the automatic prosecution of older teenagers as adults. COVID-19 has evolved the policies and procedures of the youth-serving courts and state agencies. CfJJ is using our platform to serve as a key resource for youth, parents, providers and advocates during these challenging times. Perhaps most significantly, CfJJ has hosted stakeholder sessions to put the various state responses in context. The content of these sessions, titled “Youth Justice in a Pandemic” can be accessed here. The COVID-19 pandemic has also shed light on the public health case for Raising the Age, especially the diametrically opposing responses from the adult system and the juvenile system, which in Massachusetts is a human service rather than public safety agency. The Commonwealth's juvenile system has reduced the number of youth in secure settings through decades of reform, allowing it to respond more nimbly to the pandemic. As of May 2020, there were 229 youth held in secure juvenile facilities statewide. CfJJ submitted testimony in support of decarceration legislation and contrasted how the two legal systems are treating youth during this pandemic. Finally, with the national focus on racial inequities, fueled by the state sponsored killing of George Floyd, CfJJ is highlighting the racism in our political and legal system, including publishing this statement calling out the system players who have actively, and behind the scenes, thwarted efforts on racial equity and transparency in Massachusetts. We are also using this moment to build up a comprehensive action plan on racial equity and police accountability as a priority area for the 63 organizational member MA Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition which CfJJ convenes.
Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD)
HEARD hosted a webinar in American Sign Language on “Mass Incarceration, COVID-19 and Deaf/Disabled People” which included formerly incarcerated deaf community members and stories from currently incarcerated deaf people living through COVID-19. The webinar had English and Spanish interpretation. Video linked here.