In honor of Mother’s Day, The Sentencing Project is proud to celebrate the contributions of five leading advocates who are prioritizing the issues confronting women and girls in the criminal justice system.
Kemba Smith is the founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation, which provides resources to people impacted by the criminal justice system and educates the public on substance use disorder, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and other topics that address the root causes of crime.
“My experiences have caused me to advocate tirelessly towards reform of conspiracy drug laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and felony disenfranchisement for the many women that I left behind in prison. I was fortunate in the fact that I had a job, lived with my parents and I was reunited with my son. The reality is that some women are not as fortunate as me.
Barriers for women coming home from prison include housing, getting a job and reuniting and providing for children. I remember when I was trying to rent an apartment but was told that because of my felony there was a 99% chance that my application would be denied even though my sentence had been commuted by President Clinton. When reuniting with children there are challenges because in our absence our children have gone through an array of pain and emotions so it is important to nurture those relationships and to even seek counseling.”
Andrea James is the Executive Director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. The National Council works to end incarceration of women and girls by providing a membership platform of technical support, complex coalition building, and comprehensive resources that assist local initiatives in promoting criminal justice reform.
“As both a criminal defense attorney and formerly incarcerated woman, I know firsthand that the criminal legal policies of this country have very little to do with addressing crime, and everything to do with the oppression of black people. Women of color in particular, leave incarceration and return to their communities with little support and resources, and often struggle to reunite with children. Many went to prison due to choices they made based on poverty, and now they are in a deeper state of poverty as a result of that incarceration.
While the dialogue around #MeToo is encouraging, the movement for gender equality has not yet reached incarcerated women. We have been working to end the barbaric prison policy that allows the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women during labor and delivery. The practice originated with the violent and inhumane treatment of the bodies of black women during slavery and the policy now affects everyone.”
Dawn Harrington is the Executive Director of Free Hearts, an organization that provides support, education and advocacy for families impacted by incarceration in Tennessee.
“I work on these issues because, as a formerly incarcerated woman, with many formerly incarcerated friends and family members, I see first-hand how the laws negatively impact real lives, real families, and real communities. This is why it is so important for directly impacted people to be centered in the conversation around criminal justice reform. I can’t vote. I have problems renting an apartment. My master’s degree means nothing when I apply for a job. I clearly see the many ways that government has overstepped its boundaries to criminalize, marginalize, disempower, and silence millions of people without an opportunity for redemption. Despite all of these barriers, I still believe in this country, in this democracy, and in the power of the people to make change for the better. I do this work because I believe that one day we will truly be the country that we pledge to be.”
Lauren Johnson is the Criminal Justice Outreach Coordinator with the ACLU of Texas.
“My life experiences have influenced my advocacy. I gave birth to my first son while I was incarcerated and if it hadn’t been for an aunt stepping in to take him while I was gone I would have lost him. Women coming home are under immense pressure to reunite their families at the same time that they are taking on all of the challenges that come with reentry, without the supports that are more widely available to men. We can’t continue to do the same things when we see that result is creating intergenerational harm. It is time to do things differently, to stop equating justice with punishment and heal our communities. I know that we are all capable of being more than the best or worst thing that we have ever done.”
Teresa Hodge is the founder of R3 Score, a web and mobile tool that helps increase employment opportunities for people with an arrest and/or conviction record.
“I advocate for women behind bars by thinking of their wants and needs and working to create something that will improve their lives. Most women who experience incarceration are heads of households, have already experienced some form of trauma; many have children, and have to deal with the challenge of being away from those they love. Removal from your family, community, and children is re-traumatizing and compounds reentry’s obstacles. The women I met inside were smart and kind. I promised myself I would never forget what I witnessed and strive to give voice and life to mine and others’ experience every day.”