State coalitions challenging life imprisonment include a range of voices like persons formerly serving life prison terms, faith leaders, and restorative justice practitioners. Crime survivors are also key allies in scaling back life imprisonment. Victim led advocacy represents a range of perspectives. Activists working to end life imprisonment can effectively mobilize coalitions’ wide-ranging experiences including those harmed by crime.
Family Centered Advocacy
Mothers of murdered African American men are leading violence reduction efforts in Philadelphia, Minneapolis and other cities. Mary Johnson-Roy founded From Death to Life more than ten years ago after she met with the man convicted of killing her son. The mothers of murder victims from high incarceration communities have a unique perspective given their own experiences with high rates of imprisonment and collateral impacts. In many high incarceration communities victimization overlaps with justice involvement. The mothers of murder victims may have direct experience supporting a loved one through incarceration and reentry. Their lived experiences help articulate the harm crime does to communities that experience multiple levels of structural disadvantage and the policies that failed to keep their loved ones safe. Leadership from these violence prevention efforts help shape advocacy campaigns to support reforms.
Evidence shows that many persons sentenced to life imprisonment experienced violence prior to their crime of conviction. Although it does not excuse their crimes, most people sentenced to life imprisonment were failed by a system that offered no interventions prior to their underlying crime of conviction. The Lives of Juvenile Lifers study found that 79% reported witnessing violence in their homes prior to incarceration while more than half (54.1%) witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods. Advocates often find it helpful to connect narratives of people directly impacted with data that evidences broader structural issues.
Public Support for Alternatives
State advocates find opinion surveys to be helpful in educating lawmakers about alternatives to incarceration for violent offenses. According to Crime Survivors Speak: The First-Ever National Survey of Victims’ Views on Safety and Justice, seven in 10 victims prefer that prosecutors focus on solving neighborhood problems and stopping repeat crimes through rehabilitation, even if it means fewer convictions and prison sentences. The survey highlights crime survivor perspectives on other public safety priorities such as expanding mental health services.
- Florida – Senators adopted a new rule authorizing Florida State University to assess the “racial and ethnic” ramifications of key criminal justice bills.
- Maryland – Officials are considering expanding eligibility for “geriatric parole” to about 265 persons older than 60 who are suffering from illness or other complications of aging.
- Missouri – Governor Mike Parson signed several criminal justice reform measures into law including a change modifying mandatory time served requirements for qualifying offenses.
- Oregon – Governor Kate Brown signed juvenile justice reform into law that establishes new standards for when youth sentenced to serious offenss are eligible for release.
- Texas – House lawmakers launched a bipartisan criminal justice reform caucus to address the state’s high incarceration rate.