State policy advocates and organizers continue to challenge mass incarceration. Efforts are underway to expand voting rights, recalibrate life prison terms, and counter efforts to enhance penalties. State-based advocates continue the day to day work to scale back the nation’s incarceration rate in support of alternatives to incarceration.
Unlocking the vote
Advocates in several states are working to expand voting rights to persons with felony convictions. Floridians for a Fair Democracy is anchoring a ballot measure to expand voting rights to persons post-sentence; exceptions include persons convicted of murder and sex offenses; justice-involved residents must also pay fines, fees, and restitution. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice organized an effort in support of allowing voting for persons in prison and under community supervision; similar initiatives are underway in California and Massachusetts. At the local level, organizers are leading jail voter registration efforts. Legislation in Illinois would allow the Cook County (Chicago) jail to be a polling site. A voter registration drive was held in the Los Angeles County jail earlier this year. Organizers in other counties are planning to host jail voter registration drives too.
Challenging Extreme Sentences
Long prison terms are common in the United States, distinguishing the country from other western democracies; organizers are challenging these extreme sentences. The Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative organized a lobby day and film screening to educate lawmakers about the problems with parole. Maryland is one of only three states where the governor has to sign-off on parole recommendations for persons sentenced to life prison terms. A bipartisan team of former governors – Parris Glendenning and Bob Ehrlich – emerged in support of this reform. This national conversation bridges efforts across states. California’s A New Way of Life Reentry leveraged media advocacy to highlight the circumstances of an elder incarcerated in Alabama on drug trafficking charges. Ms. Geneva Cooley, now age 71, was sentenced to 999 years in prison at age 59.
Promoting Alternatives to Incarceration
This year several states are considering punitive measures to increase prison terms and reclassify misdemeanors as felony offenses. State groups challenging mass incarceration are countering regressive measures that undermine recent changes. Kentucky lawmakers advanced legislation to increase offenses categorized as violent and thus restricting parole eligibility, enhance gang recruitment offenses, and expand the statutory gang definition. The regressive measure animated opposition from a broad coalition including churches, civil rights organizations, and medical practitioners. In Maryland, youth advocates are countering efforts to enhance penalties for serious offenses by promoting community-based alternatives.
Delaware governor signed legislation that removes licensing barriers for certain criminal convictions.
Idaho lawmakers advanced legislation to scale back mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses.
Nebraska legislators considered legislation that triggers a presumption of release for parole-eligible prisoners when the correctional system is more than 140% of capacity.
Washington’s governor signed fair chance legislation that delays questions of criminal history for applicants seeking private or public sector employment.
Washington DC officials considered legislation requiring notification of the right to vote to persons with a felony conviction history.
South Carolina groups rallied at the state capitol in support of reducing lengthy prison terms.