This time of year offers advocacy organizations an opportunity to determine policy goals and strengthen the infrastructure necessary to advance reform remedies. Many organizations are in research mode, determining what officials approved in other states and assessing the viability of working towards similar goals in their own jurisdictions. Prior to the start of session many state organizers are convening coalition meetings, discussing points of consensus, and identifying champions for policy goals.
Budget Remedies to Address Mass Incarceration
Leveraging savings often shapes organizing narratives to address mass incarceration. Campaign goals advanced by Californians United for a Responsible Budget and Decarcerate PA offer a framework for prioritizing savings associated with reducing prison populations towards social services like quality education and health care.
In recent years two states – California and Massachusetts – advanced statutory remedies to reallocate savings achieved from prison reforms towards budget priorities outside of the correctional system. California stakeholders included the remedy in the Proposition 47 reform where certain felony offenses were reclassified as misdemeanors authorizing the early release of an estimated 10,000 incarcerated persons. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office projects an annual state savings between $100 million and $200 million beginning in 2016-17 due to reduced prison population and other factors. The ballot measure offered guidance that savings be used towards policy priorities like truancy and dropout prevention and quality health services to reduce recidivism.
In the current legislative session, Massachusetts lawmakers are advancing a comprehensive measure, the Justice Reinvestment Act, which would repeal mandatory minimums for some drug offenses and reduce some non-violent felonies — such as shoplifting of less than $250 — to misdemeanors, similar to California’s Proposition 47. Just as salient, the measure directs projected savings towards a trust fund to resource job training initiatives, support quality education, and expand capacity for drug treatment programs in high incarceration communities.
Early Start: Legislative Pre-filing
State advocates organizing around statutory remedies to address mass incarceration may be in a position to work with a legislative champion to pre-file reform measures. Forty-six state legislatures are set to meet in 2016 and deliberate on a range of measures including proposals that impact state prison systems.
According to CQ State Track, 44 states permit policymakers to pre-file bills before the start of the legislative session. Organizing around pre-filing periods offers advocates an opportunity to sharpen messaging in support of policy goals, cultivate relationships with elected officials, and determine tactics necessary to advance reforms.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL), 20 state legislatures require committees to hear pre-filed bills, and 12 allow committees to vote on them. These pre-session committee reviews offer an important opportunity for advocacy groups with limited capacity to influence legislation because they require fewer points of engagement with a smaller target list of state lawmakers. Advocates can see here to determine pre-filing deadlines state-by-state.
Social Networking for Reform
The South Carolina state group, Hearts for Inmates, uses a private Facebook group to connect family members and impacted persons interested in supporting legislative remedies to address mass incarceration. The group communicates via the page to advance strategic advocacy, organize advocacy trainings, and coordinate meetings with legislative targets.
Using social networking platforms like Twitter helps grassroots advocates build a sense of community. In addition to sharing legislative strategy, you can see invitations to upcoming events, updates on expanding grassroots coalitions, and the occasional photo from a rally. Grassroots coalitions with limited resources and organizational infrastructure may find these online tools helpful in addressing administrative capacity. Other grassroots organizations using social media platforms in similar ways include the Texas Inmates Family Association and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.
- Oklahoma: Correctional officials approved a change that will allow persons sentenced for serious offenses who are required to serve 85 percent of their sentence to acquire good-time credits throughout incarceration, not just after the 85 percent mark.
- Michigan: The House of Representatives passed a measure authorizing a “presumptive parole” standard in which the state Parole Board would release incarcerated persons sentenced to a lengthy term of years evaluated to be a low risk to public safety. The Michigan Department of Corrections estimated the law change could reduce the prison population by 3,000 beds saving the state $80 million a year in incarceration costs after ten years.
- New York: The New York City Bar Association released a report, titled “Mass Incarceration: Seizing the Moment for Reform,” that offers several recommendations for changing sentencing laws and other policies on the state and federal levels, including repealing or reducing mandatory minimum terms and providing sentencing alternatives to prison.
Tips? Feedback? Email Nicole D. Porter, Director of Advocacy, at firstname.lastname@example.org.