Grassroots organizing is one of the strategies needed to end life imprisonment. Bringing the power of those directly impacted by long prison terms to the surface makes space for individuals to challenge extreme sentences. Personal perspectives strengthen the movement by giving feedback on the current landscape and elevating root causes contributing to mass incarceration.
All About that Base: Building Support
Organizing issue campaigns to end life imprisonment will be helped by base building state by state. Key strategies start with identifying supporters motivated to end life imprisonment. Working with incarcerated lifers to identify potential supporters offers one opportunity for base building. Groups like California’s Families United to End LWOP started with motivated family members of incarcerated lifers who connected to develop family support and advocate for change. Motivated family members are starting to connect in Ohio and Georgia too.
Grassroots organizing is best done on the individual level, through relationship-building conversations with potential supporters motivated to end life imprisonment. One-on-ones are an organizing tool that help establish relationships through conversation and sharing stories. One-on-ones help identify common interests and connections that make advocacy possible. Engaging advocacy partners requires repeated contacts over a period of time. Each contact should be accompanied by an advocacy “ask” like strategizing on legislation to end life without parole, signing a petition, or contributing one’s story to a campaign story bank.
Sharing Lessons Learned
Following one-on-one meetings to build the campaign base comes the challenge of connecting shared experiences. Organizing information learned in each meeting can develop a strategic narrative that communicates the impact of life imprisonment on directly impacted persons. Organizing narratives help move policymakers and engage new coalition partners. Resources are available to help organizers synthesize narratives for social change.
- Arizona – A bipartisan group of lawmakers met for the first time in the House Ad Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits for Prisoners to address the state’s strict criminal sentencing requirements.
- Delaware – Gov. John Carney signed legislation allowing for occupational licenses for persons with qualifying prior convictions.
- Illinois – Cook County (Chicago) experienced a decline in the number of people sentenced to incarceration following reforms in charging and sentencing practices.
- Florida – To work around a new law that requires individuals with qualifying felony convictions to pay all fines, fees and restitution until they can register to vote, court officials in Miami and Tampa established a rocket docket to modify sentences and approve the conversion of some debts to community service.
- Florida – Legislation was introduced for the 2020 session to decriminalize possession of certain quantities of marijuana.
- Mississippi – Residents rallied against mass incarceration.
- New Mexico – Lawmakers established a bipartisan group to explore criminal justice reforms.
- New York – Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana and authorizing expungement for certain marijuana convictions.
- Rhode Island – Gov. Gina Raimondo issued an executive order establishing a juvenile and criminal justice working group.