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State Advocacy News: Grassroots Actions to Challenge Mass Incarceration

May 01, 2018
Coalitions in Maryland, Mississippi, and Kentucky mobilized to counter regressive sentencing measures by promoting solutions addressing underlying causes of crime.

Grassroots coalitions in Maryland, Mississippi, and Kentucky mobilized to counter regressive sentencing measures by promoting solutions addressing underlying causes of crime. Diverse stakeholder alliances included civil rights leaders, criminal justice reform champions, student activists, and faith leaders. Organizing campaigns prioritized diverse tactics including communications and grassroots actions to support alternatives to incarceration like employment programs and youth leadership initiatives.


State advocates organized in response to Gov. Larry Hogan’s 2018 crime bills. The governor anchored regressive legislation as a response to increases in crime. At the end of the session, none of the governor’s backed bills were adopted, but certain elements were amended into SB 101 and SB 1137. SB 101 was amended to include a ten-year mandatory minimum for defendants convicted of a second violent offense and eliminates parole eligibility for defendants with prior violent convictions. An amendment to SB 1137 expanded the existing volume dealer law to include fentanyl. Opposition to the crime bills included a coordinated effort to fund evidence-based crime prevention solutions to reduce retaliatory violence. Youth advocates launched the “ReThink” Baltimore campaign to respond to concerns of violent youth crime and shape the conversation on proven crime reduction strategies.


Groups succeeded in opposing gang enhancement legislation. The Legislative Black Caucus along with the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the ACLU of Mississippi defeated SB 2868 and HB 541. Groups encouraged practitioners to implement current gang enforcement authority rather than adopt new statutory penalties for gang recruitment and expand the definition of a gang. The National Juvenile Justice Network supported state coalitions by developing a toolkit that included state-by-state gang definitions, citations to evidence-based gang prevention efforts, and talking points.


Community leaders worked to oppose gang enhancement legislation. The legislation expanded the “violent offender” category requiring 85% time-served before parole eligibility even if the underlying crime involves no violence, and enhances penalties when the underlying crime involves gang activity. The bill expanded the “criminal gang” definition to include three or more people who share a name or live in the same geographic location or wear a color when at least two members have been involved in a “pattern” of criminal activity as determined by law enforcement.

Advocacy partners included faith and civil rights leaders, students, and medical practitioners. Advocates organized a petition, placed several opinion editorials offering solutions to gang violence, and organized student actions. State advocates cited Mississippi research that found only African American residents were prosecuted under that state’s gang law since 2010. Despite passage of the regressive measure, advocates organized 30 state senators to vote no on the legislation.

Kentucky Students oppose gang enhancement bill

Kentucky high school students organize action to oppose gang bill

Other News:

Colorado – Legislation would pre-register persons on parole so they are automatically registered to vote following completion of their parole supervision.

Indiana – Governor signed legislation to eliminate the federal food stamp ban for persons convicted of felony drug offenses.

Louisiana – Advanced legislation expanding geriatric parole for persons serving life sentences that have reached the age of 50 and served 30 years of their sentence.

Oklahoma – The governor signed several bills addressing sentencing practices. One bill – SB 689 – authorizes sentence modification for persons serving life without parole after serving 10 years.

Nebraska – Policymakers enacted an early release requirement due to prison overcrowding. State prisons must be at no more than 140% of design capacity by 2020 or the Parole Board is required to implement accelerated release for eligible persons until the system is at or below 125% capacity.

Massachusetts – Governor signed two measures enacting various criminal justice policy changes including eliminating mandatory minimums for certain low-level drug offenses.

Michigan – Lawmakers are considering closing an unspecified prison facility.

New York – Governor signed executive order partially pardoning 35,000 persons on parole in order to reinstate their voting rights.

South Carolina – Advocates organized a rally in support of sentencing reform to retroactively scale back time served requirement from 85-percent to 65-percent for eligible offenses.

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