Support The Movement: Lower the Damn Rent

11NewOrleansCity-HouseForRentSign-b7360295The Rent is Too Damn High. You heard Jimmy say it when he ran for Governor of New York (representing “The Rent is Too Damn High” party, no less), and it is increasingly true with every passing day. Want to do something to help social justice? Want to be part of sustaining the Movement? Lower the damn rent.

Across the nation, there are plenty of people with resources who care about ‘people-first’ issues. From health care to prisons, they contribute to causes for racial, gender, and economic justice. Like the rest of society, we rely on the hard work of activists and advocates; people who are sometimes making dirt salaries. Some of our activists owe over $200k in student loans, and are toiling away to help our communities- merely hoping that somehow the rent, the loans, and maybe the credit card gets paid.

Community activism works when everyone contributes a little, but there will always be the need for some to contribute a lot. These are the people who keep our organizations afloat. Those that take the most controversial positions, even when on the right side of history, thinly spread the dollars they have around. We try to do too much with too little. The grassroots people often grew up in poverty, were the first in their families to go to college (if they did at all), and never had that extra something for when they took the unpaid internship or a poverty-level first job. No hand-me-down car. No spare $2,000 to move cities. Nothing but a prayer.

Wealthy people, from Boomers to Millennials, are sitting on a stack of property. Parents who provide down payments, grandparents who buy the house outright, and those who found economic success in their own careers. They own property, and many are landlords, because they know that the rent is too damn high. Some families are subsidizing their own son or daughter’s idealism, and that is good. But this collective of advocates will not amount to a Movement- particularly not one led by people directly impacted by the most pressing issues.

For many of us activists, we struggle with housing. Grown people with roommates, individuals in tiny apartments, pushed further and further from where we work. Some parts of society have recognized the need for “artists housing,” which was rooted in artists first squatting (fixing up abandoned buildings, often living without electricity); and then the urban revitalizations often had a sliver of tax breaks for the arts. (I won’t even go into Gentrification here).

Want to help The Movement? Create an activism rent. Don’t turn a profit, even consider taking a loss. You own the building and can sell it at a profit somewhere down the line. But if you’re faring well enough, perhaps you never sell it, perhaps it becomes part of the wealth in your family that might never be in the wealth of an activist’s family. Some of us are facing structural discriminations. Some of us are getting out of prison with nothing at age 30, 40, or 50 years old.

Activists think about the collective, and often we put ourselves last. Build with us, build movement, build family. We have children too, and yet our specific skill sets are best used on behalf of all of us, including you.

Are you a landlord? Do you care about social justice?

Help an activist and Lower the Damn Rent.

Posted in Housing, Movement Building, Reentry | Leave a comment

I can relate with Michelle Carter.

michelle-carter-text-suicide-1496972832.jpgI can relate with Michelle Carter.

Every so often a criminal case emerges in America that turns into the viral thread and the casual conversation, where everyone seems to have an opinion. O.J., Zimmerman, “The Stanford Swimmer,” Amanda Knox, Casey Anthony, Bill Cosby, and all the police officers who are known by the hashtag names of their victims. Michelle Carter is just the latest, and history will likely recall her as “the text girl,” or something like that.

As I listen to the buzz, following her conviction for involuntary manslaughter (and facing up to 20 years in prison), some argue she should not have been convicted at all while others feel she is going to “get off lightly,” no matter what the sentence. People’s perspectives often can be predicted based not on their objective assessments of crime and punishment, but rather on the demographics of the people involved. We know that there are plenty of Americans who will call out for the death penalty in nearly every crime… except full acquittal whenever a police officer kills a young Black male (or female), because that cop “reasonably feared for their life.” We know these opinions are coming because of their long held structural belief system- it blinds all objective reality.

Michelle Carter will take heat, possibly to the end of her days, for something she did at 17; and watchers of the nightly news will likely hold the same views years from now as they do in this very moment. Every time she applies for anything: college, jobs, apartment rentals, even a date- she will be judged. It will linger, and some people will act like it is their personal duty to keep the punishment going, as if they are doing the wave at Fenway Park.

When I was 17, one of my good friends killed himself soon after calling me. We had been hanging out all night drinking and smoking pot, and I forgot he had gone sober months before. We spoke about his ex-girlfriend and I completely overlooked the hole of depression he had fallen into. He called me to talk, but I was on the other line with another friend, and for years I put his death on my own back. Felt like I had killed him. I didn’t need a society of viral judges nipping at my ears. The punishment going on in my head was bad enough.

When I was 19, I killed a man. And 25 years later, I still feel the punishment inside my own head, my own heart, and every time I open my mouth in mixed company. I’ve been out of prison for 12 years, but I have not been let back into society. Nor will I ever be. That is simply a statement, not a plea for mercy. Every application, every move, comes with the re-judging, and I’m not sure people can even restrain their human instincts. And often times, their judgments can be predicted, lacking little, if any, independent discretion.

I can relate with Michelle Carter, but I hope she never has to relate to me. I hope that 25 years from now she is able to find peace with herself, and that she doesn’t feel hunted down by society, always nipping at her ears. She has had three years already to begin processing what went down that particular night of her life, that one night the world would use to define her entire existence. Science, however, tells us that she still has another five years before her mind is fully developed. So by the time she actually is a fully-formed adult, much of her life will be spent in relationship to these actions and this label.

Michelle Carter’s life is more than an intriguing legal scenario, which I can comfortably discuss through the lens of my legal experience and law degree. I’ve resisted, however, all of those ‘Backseat Lawyer’ conversations, despite having served my own time less than 25 miles from the courthouse where she will be sentenced. The judge will do what he will do.

Whatever it is the judge does, appeal or not, and whatever it is she deals with over the next 25 years… like so many young, publicly convicted people: I can relate. There are many of us out here, and all we can do is keep working towards a grounded space from where we can bring positive actions into the world. There may even come a time when she tries to help troubled teenagers from making their own life-altering mistakes, and the irony is that so many people and programs will bar her from providing that help. (This has been my own experience.) But she just needs to do what she can do.

I know so many people who can relate with Michelle Carter. Perhaps if we can build an accessible and supportive social system, we will have fewer teenagers who change their own lives, and other’s lives, forever.

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An overview of Louisiana’s 2017 criminal justice reform bills

10727833-standardIt is widely known that Louisiana is the most incarcerated state in the world. This means massive numbers of families and communities have members struggling with a lifetime punishment. Fortunately, we are in an era of reform and the work of a statewide Justice Reinvestment Task Force is now into the legislative session. From now until June 16th, VOTE will be monitoring and weighing in on 31 separate pieces of legislation.

We categorize them in four areas: Voting Rights & Democracy; Sentencing, Parole & Probation Reforms; Reentry & Life with a Criminal Record; Decriminalization.

Join VOTE’s newsletter to get updates each week, and check back to take action.

See VOTE’s Bill Tracker web page, for updates on hearing dates, locations, and results.

Voting Rights & Democracy:

HB235 would create a question on the Nov. 2018 ballot, asking to change the state constitution language allowing suspension of voting rights for “incarcerated” people. The current phrase, “under order of imprisonment,” creates all the confusion about people living under community supervision and why VOTE filed VOTE v. Louisiana. This proposal needs two-thirds of both the House and Senate to get on the ballot. We are strongly in favor of this moving forward to let the democratic process work and let the people decide.

HB168 simply requires the Dept. of Corrections to report to the Secretary of State when someone is released from supervision. This way the Secretary can automatically restore voting rights without requiring a person to obtain official paperwork from one state agency merely to submit it to another state agency.  This bill is in the House Government Affairs.

HB228 would stop “prison based gerrymandering,” i.e. counting people as residents of the prison they are held inside. This would stem political power from flowing to legislative districts with prisons in them. Most importantly, it would stop the perverse relationship of politicians advocating directly against the interests of people in prison, who have no power to decide their representative.

HB229 would reduce the time people have their voting rights suspended. This proposal will suspend them for three years since the time released from incarceration. People successfully integrated into the community, who are still on parole or probation, will be able to vote. Those who never serve time on a conviction (probation, without any violation) will also be allowed to vote. This compromise is not the universal voting rights sought by VOTE, and others, but it is a significant step.

VOTE OPPOSES HB256 would propose a Nov. 2018 ballot initiative for constitutional amendment that places a 15-year bar on people running for office, or being appointed to office, after the end of their felony sentence (and a 5-year bar after a misdemeanor). This is inherently anti-democracy, as it would keep people from electing the leaders of their choice.

Sentencing, Parole, and Probation Reforms:

SB220 would create a comprehensive and sensible class system for felony crimes. This is a no-brainer for anyone working in the system, no matter how they feel about incarceration. It would amend some thresholds for drug and property crimes to make them more rational.

HB316   would increase time off for good behavior (“Good Time”), and be retroactive for people convicted of lesser crimes. This is a significant step, part of an overall reform movement, but is not far enough. Retroactivity should apply to people serving the longest sentences. Just as lesser crimes generate sentences too long, so do more serious crimes.

SB139 would place a 3-year cap on probation, allow Good Time credit while on community supervision, and expand eligibility to incarceration alternatives. This should alleviate some burden on people who have proven their success. It does not support people in the early portions of their term (when times are toughest), but it will create some incentive. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the supervisor to punish someone for small violations without incarceration. Once that decision is made, people tend to lose any job, housing or possessions they might have accumulated.

HB249  would levy fines and fees upon someone based on their ability to pay. For decades, lawmakers have created one more fee on top of the last, to the point where people’s lives resemble something out of the 19th century. “Ability to Pay” cannot be based on one’s lifetime possibility of ever having a decent job. The pressure of collection, and limitations on normal life (such as drivers licenses) is weighted net placed on poor communities that must be lifted. The Warrant Clinic at VOTE last month was a jubilee, where approximately $2 million of debts were forgiven for hundreds of people. These people were never going to have the money to pay, and yet the courts were never goig to stop issuing warrants and demands.

HB101 and SB 142  would eliminate the death penalty, the most cruel and inhumane punishment. History has shown that many innocent people have been on death row, and some have been executed. The process is costly in every way.

SB221 would amend the Habitual Offender law so low level crimes can’t be used after five years. Too many people are threatened into lengthy sentences by this law, merely due to a series of petty offenses (including offenses they may not have actually done).

SB146 would reduce the cleansing period of old convictions (from 10 years down to 5) regarding the Habitual Offender sentence enhancement. This would NOT apply to crimes of violence (R.S. 14:2(B)) or sex offenses (15:541). This is yet another example of how the already longer punishment for more serious crimes turns into longer secondary punishments after that sentence ends. The other interesting piece of this bill is it allows a judge to consider a sentence “excessive” and provide that a person who receives “Life” under the Habitual Offender statute may be parole eligible after 35 years. Considering that most people facing such a Life sentence will be over 30 years old, this is creating another form of Geriatric Parole. In such a case, a person has already served time on each of the previous convictions, is receiving time on the new conviction, and to add 35 years without parole as an enhancement is not the sort of “reform” that will get Louisiana out from the title of America’s Most Incarcerated.

VOTE OPPOSES SB16  and  HB45 both address the Juvenile Life Without Parole issue. Although slightly different, both bills would (1) treat children’s sentences of 1st and 2nd degree murder as the same, with only two options: Life, with or without parole; (2) Parole eligibility begins at 30 years of incarceration. This inhumane option is out of step with the nation, and unconscionable around the world. First, 1st and 2nd degree murder should have different sentence ranges (2nd Degree should allow for a term of years). Second, parole on Life should begin at 15 years for 1st degree and 10 years for 2nd. Because people’s minds are not fully developed until age 25, this would be an ideal time for the parole board to begin their inquiry and conversation with someone sentenced as a child.

VOTE OPPOSES HB50  would mandate every person on work release wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. These costs are typically passed on to the person in custody, who is also providing a large percentage of their paycheck to the jail. Whereas work release is designed not as a state revenue generator, but as a reentry program, it is counterproductive to add such fees. Furthermore, because eligibility for work release is so narrow already, the state should not be making claims of “dangerousness” about the least serious of situations.

Reentry, and Life with a Criminal Record:

HB177 would stop punishing the children of parents who have drug convictions, and end the ban on federal food stamps for people with drug convictions. Other states have learned how counterproductive this optional ban has been, by further preventing people in need from accessing the very limited supports that do exist.

HB519   would expand on VOTE’s 2014 licensing victory, and the 2016 Ban the Box victory, by allowing for full occupational licensing for people with criminal records. Particularly where such people often must be entrepreneurial in spirit, Louisiana benefits by not holding back those pursuing legal upstanding professions.

HB426  would suspend child support payments during incarceration. No child ever benefitted by having a parent massively in debt, particularly on top of the other fines and fees the courts are typically seeking from someone released from prison.

SB153 would increase the state minimum wage to $8/hour, and create a civil remedy against those employers who violate the law. Many people with convictions, including those who are leaving prison, are working at or near minimum wage. These are grown adults, many who are parents, seeking to build towards a sustainable and upstanding career. Meanwhile, they likely face thousands of dollars in fines and fees, while potentially being released with absolutely no personal belongings. Louisiana needs to provide a floor of support for those working the hardest.

HB61 would require police to issue a summons to people, rather than arrest, for misdemeanors and low-level theft (with a few exceptions). This will reduce the jail population on petty charges. Whatever needs to be sorted out can be done while keeping a job, a home, and/or a family as intact as possible.

SB35 would allow medical marijuana patients to be free from arrest. Currently, an arrestee must go to court and make an affirmative defense that they are a medical patient. This is a waste of resources if a patient can show their certification at the point of police contact.

HB81 would make a presumption of non-monetary bail. This may eliminate the number of people in jail charged with less serious crimes, and/or with little to no prior criminal history. This would allow thousands of people to go back to work, prepare their defense, hold on to their small resources, and save municipalities millions of dollars on needless pretrial detention.

HB409 would ensure that people are not charged with “hate crimes” when resisting arrest. The purpose of Hate Crime legislation is to express intolerance for people who target certain people for their ethnic, racial, religious, or gender identity. This has nothing to do with whether someone is allegedly being defiant when arrested for some other charge.

HB413 would fund the public defender positions at the same rate as the assistant district attorneys. For too long, the 6th Amendment Right to effective assistance of counsel has not been fulfilled. Whereas the prosecution receives more attorneys, along with massive investigative support from the police departments, the “presumption of innocence” is closer to a presumption of guilt. Louisiana needs to meet its responsibilities to its people, and/or consider that it may just be charging too many people with too many crimes.

VOTE OPPOSES HB135 would prohibit all “Sanctuary City” policies, and bar municipalities from deciding their own level of immigration enforcement activity. This bill would allow the federal agency (ICE) to dictate local police policy, and will punish a municipality by revoking all state funding. Around the nation, cities in particular have learned that aggressive immigration officials lead to communities avoiding the police when any crime occurs. This reduces public safety. Furthermore, aggressive arrests leads to lengthy and costly detentions that fracture families. This is an economic drain on that family often losing its primary breadwinner; a drain on the surrounding community attempting to absorb who remains; and a drain on the taxpayers funding the profits of federal detention facility owners, holding thousands of people for months and years on end.

Posted in Education, Legislation, Prison Conditions, prison economics, Reentry, VOTE, Voting Rights | Tagged | Leave a comment

Trump’s Potential Impact on Criminal Justice Reform

trump-with-policeJust like that, America voted for “Change” yet again. Those of us working in the social justice arena, working on our own form of change, are all checking pulses of the people around us, wondering “What does this mean?” The following are some initial thoughts, as someone who has confronted the criminal justice system during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, (and soon-to-be) Trump eras.

The Politics of Outsiderism

People get weary of a leader, and surely Americans have been blaming presidents for the weather ever since George Washington. The political change we just witnessed is, in many ways, not out of the norm. Reagan, Clinton, W., Obama, and Trump all ran as “outsiders” who will change the way we do business in Washington. All of them tapped into the present cultural discord. Even a president’s son managed to portray himself as an Outsider businessman from Texas. Only once in modern electoral history has a political party been able to stay in power beyond an 8-year presidency, and that was by elevating Vice President Bush, against a politician with very uncharismatic Dukakis- and it didn’t last long.

Just like that, it only took 25% of the voting age population to replace the images of their frustrations: Democrats, politicians, and a Black man. Eight years ago, people danced in the streets at the final overthrow of the American leader in the global power grab known as the War on Terror. Not everybody did, of course. But for those who danced, and who also rejoiced in the ultimate symbolism of a Black power trajectory: those people struggled to see any Bush policy that was reversed. Foreign occupations, extraordinary rendition, drone assassinations, domestic surveillance, deportations, the federal drug war, economic policy… these things were actually the status quo.

The Presidency and Criminal Justice Reform

Many Americans forget (or don’t know) that the police, prosecutors, judges, prisons, and laws controlling them are overwhelmingly local. There are infusions of federal money, such as when the Clinton Administration funded police officers in schools, and state prisons that agreed to reduce parole, but ultimately the federal government are followers rather than leaders. They follow the culture and the demands of the amplified people, and react to the media imagery (factual or not) and demagogues who fill the ears, hearts and minds of America. So does the Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court is mentioned, it is generally as though they only made three rulings ever: Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges (gay marriage) and Citizens United (a campaign finance ruling that 99% of Americans never heard of until the commentary afterwards). All of these laws are the status quo, as are many cases that set the floor for police powers to search, arrest and kill. Cases that control prosecutors hiding evidence (Brady) or the right to an attorney (Gideon) that is effective (Strickland) were all flimsy protections at best- yet massive improvements over the previous status quo. Are these issues also in jeopardy each time an overtly fascist President comes to power and may nominate someone who might rip up the principles of equal protection and due process? Perhaps, but Court nominees have proven to be a little harder to predict than advertised, and the status quo holds a lot of weight.

The Trump Administration will likely attempt to eliminate many of the social welfare programs that help keep people from desperately relying on criminal activity to survive. Money “saved” from affordable housing, for example, could then be shifted to prison subsidies (another form of a housing program). This will put him in a bind, however, as the majority of people receiving such support are poor and White. Of course, governments have historically done a masterful job of hurting that demographic and blaming Black and Latino people for it, and in this scenario the paying of poor White people in rural communities to cage the “scary” people of Color from the cities was a huge card to play. Sometimes, however, when you have already seen the movie, know all the dialogue, and know how it ends, you can disrupt that play from the beginning. This was the Clinton strategy. And now all the prisons are built, urban communities are gutted and occupied, and states are paying the bill on both ends. Local Republicans and Democrats have been increasingly seeing the light for about the past 12 years.

The Culture is the Key

Just like that, a wild and violent minority of terrorizers came out of the woodwork, feeling empowered to shout racist epithets to strangers, openly march as racist hate groups, and tear hijabs off of heads. We are indeed at a crossroads. Since the days of slavery and Native American genocide, this country has never elected a national leader who so easily incites violence and so blatantly disrespects the First Amendment. This wave of hate may in fact punch its way out. Fortunately, there is no impending Patriot Act and no part of America that needs invasion. When 9/11 happened, good people were so sucked into the “Us against Them” narrative that they didn’t even pause to question who “them” was. This indicates the fickleness of the masses, or the mob, or the crowd (depending on which leader you are quoting).

Trump will be calling police departments “fantastic” until he is blue in the face. No matter the evidence, he will be the Apologizer-in-Chief and possibly never throwing a single officer under the bus for violating someone’s rights. He will likely say things about how we are too soft, the laws are too weak, and we need to protect our police… all the same things we have heard from him. His entire platform of nationalism depends on the majority support of the two overwhelmingly White armed institutions: police departments and the military.

But will local people be unable to reign in and check the newly-emboldened racists who exist within these institutions? Will local police and prosecutors stand down in the face of a lynching (or similar acts)- as so many did for centuries? It is hard to imagine, particularly after many such District Attorneys were unelected in recent years. In many ways, the law has bent towards equitable justice under the weight of a movement. The era of social media has exposed new things to some people, but it is like suddenly seeing a 300 pound person and thinking they’re overweight- you might not know that person was 500 pounds last year.

As a man who has benefitted so much from foreign and immigrant labor, including his own wife, the prime battleground for racist policies will be on immigration. Families will be broken up, particularly if they are non-White. Racist militias will feel empowered, but may lose power if Trump sends massive federal troops in their stead. Trump also understands how corporations and the wealthy often exploit immigrants in ways they could not with Americans… and yet he will need to build some sort of “wall,” and need Mexico to make some sort of kickback. The double-speak and double-deal should be expected on a regular basis, as this is not unique to Trump. Obama needed to close Guantanamo and pull out of Afghanistan… and people are still waiting on that.

The pitbull that helped propel Trump to power won’t be so easy as a domesticated lap dog. The capitalists and materialists (whether Republicans, Independents, Democrats, and non-voters) are going to want the tension to go away so they can focus on increasing the comforts of their lives and families. Trump will have plenty of pressure to bring peace, and it will not all come from the social justice Movement. Perhaps only a small percentage of that pressure will be from us.

Why Be Partisan?

I realized long ago that states with all Democrats, and states with all Republicans, have the same inequitable criminal justice system that neglects children and adults until they desperately take survival actions. They have the same ruthless penalties for those who lack resources to explain, and those for whom the System employees have no compassion. Some states, and some municipalities, do things a little more or less humanely than the other, but the structures are the same. Neither party was ever promising an end to this cycle of neglect, desperation, punishment, and neglect.

Neither party ever made a commitment to universal suffrage, where every voting age American citizen can, and should, vote. With the billions of dollars spent on elections, they only inspire half of America to bother with it. With a margin of victory so close, they care not that six million people can’t vote: two million in cages, and four million under community supervision. This is not to discount the hard work of some individual politicians, but gains in that arena are still often the result of elected officials bending to the pressure of people who believe in voting rights for all, and overwhelmingly from people who believe that the cycle of neglect, desperation, punishment, and neglect can only be broken by encouraging people back into a unified community.

Both of these parties are in a state of division, blaming, and introspection. It is unclear what way they will go, and which internal cabals will emerge in their next generation. Meanwhile, we can take this opportunity to educate ourselves on the fallibility of leaders, and how close we really can be to internal combustion. The axiom that “people elect the leaders they deserve” feels sadly correct. We have not done enough popular education on racism, xenophobia, and sexism. We have not gotten out of our bubbles.

The Movement Continues

Every organizer and dedicated activist I know has doubled down on their resolve to bring unity, equality, and justice to the world. We knew what we were facing all along, and that certain elements did not simply fade away. The question is not whether a small group of committed individuals will carry the torch to the future of another small group of committed individuals. The question is not whether we can rally together and protect each other. These things will happen. The real question is whether we can articulate an America that captures the imagination of the masses, across race and class. It will not be due to one iconic leader, but we need leaders to inspire and keep us together. It will not be due to the funding of foundations that keep our non-profits afloat, but we need these organizations to serve as our bedrocks of the grassroots. What we need is a wave that includes artists, accountants, lawyers, carpenters, retail workers, coders, mechanics, athletes, children, cooks, and everyone creating a new America, the one that continually feels just beyond our reach. This, we can do.

If we do not increase our coalition of sustainable communities built on love, we may find other things that can happen, as Fela says: “Just like that.”


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Staying on Point: Can one violent crime derail a Movement?

b5f0e3c59b935f1afa61a53904936fae.jpgThere can be little doubt that a cultural rise of Punishment-Politicians led America to be the peculiar mass incarcerator of the world. This has not been confined to one geographic area, nor to only locking up people of Color. It has been a Movement, which is best described as a force larger than the sum of its parts. So, although racism, slavery, Puritanical brimstone, Native American genocide, drug hysteria, capitalist elitism, militant nationalism and genuine safety concerns have all been key elements to building the American prison gulag… it has been successful because these things do not exist in isolation.

Over the past decade, the movement to reform the criminal justice system has taken root. After previous decades of growing individual pieces, they have started to coalesce into something more than themselves. Reformers and revolutionaries have gained traction around jobs, employment, voting rights, wrongful convictions, housing, addiction treatment, mental health treatment, police brutality and pushing back against racism (among other things). It is difficult to enter this arena without finding and building a coalition.

But is this counter-Movement, one based on family, community, love and forgiveness (and for some: saving money)… is it so fragile as to be derailed by one Willie Horton? Are we one news story away from the next Meghan’s Law (creating a national registration and notification system to tag people with sex-crime convictions)? This feeling of fragility is one reason why some advocates fear working with people who have convictions for violent crimes. They will shy away from potential coalition members, or co-workers, who might deal with the labels like “murderer” or “rapist.” Rather than take on the tough debates in a thoughtful manner, they dive into the safe space of the “First time non-violent offender.”

A Movement that can not revolutionize the American approach to punishment is not a Movement at all. Those people who threaten to water down the discussion, to carve out a niche of the “deserving,” are missing some key points. Most importantly, they are disregarding the actual drivers of criminal activity and focusing solely on that one action. They are playing into the trap of the very ideology that got us in this hole: that we can judge someone for life based on one moment in time.

As one of those labeled advocates, I recently found myself in a rare one-on-one conversation on a radio station for 40 minutes. Although my goal was to discuss the systemic issues faced by thousands of families within the listening area, the host could not ignore the listeners who wanted to focus solely on my personal punishment.

Listen for yourself- the interview begins at 1:40.

The grim reality is that many people with a deep understanding of the system, and the specific points of change, gained that knowledge through ten, twenty, even fifty years in prison. Except for the (rarely) gained freedom through a wrongful conviction, most of these people will have a serious conviction. Their stories may or may not have sympathetic sound-bytes, the background to the crime and conviction is most likely not public knowledge. This large group of people accounts for nearly all of the Jailhouse Lawyers assisting people inside prisons, and many of the leaders among incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

True leaders cannot come from outside of a group. A man may be an “inspiring” ally to women, but cannot be a genuine leader of a Women’s Movement (for example). Groups choose their own leaders, who rise from within the group. If a Movement is so fragile as to be derailed by an individual story, then it is not a Movement. If a Movement’s goals are so narrow as to only benefit a sliver of the participants, then it is not a Movement.

For an authentic Movement to replace punishment with prevention, accountability, and restoration: we need to develop inclusive and expansive language. We can not fall into traps. We can not cut off our arms in an attempt to save the body. And we can not let it be led by allies, no matter how much money or connections they bring to the table.

I will continue to engage in the tough conversations, and I don’t need to check my messaging with a focus group or an ad agency. What I’m saying has always been honest and from the heart- blunders, stutters, and all. Win or lose, I remain accountable to the millions of families grappling with this punitive system- to those who have cried in a prison visiting room, or faced automatic rejections of a housing or job application.

Six million of us can not vote. We are denied the basic recognition of citizenship. It is no different than stripping a family member of their last name. America is watered-down and divided in so many ways, yet people bearing the mark of a criminal conviction span every demographic.

A Movement to build healthy communities must include people who are historically discriminated against and oppressed; yet just as importantly, the Movement must include the white working class and people with convictions for violent crimes. The white working class, and white people living in poverty, are not the enemy- nor should they be manipulated (i.e. the Trump campaign) into believing that people of Color and LGBTQ people are their enemy. Furthermore, we need the wisdom of people who have spent a long time within the system, for whatever reason, who have the ideas and energy to propel the change. The broader the Movement, the less fragile it is to a singular flaw or heavy force placed upon it. We must constantly improve our conversational language, and consistently challenge ourselves to move the boundaries outward. Our entire existence may depend on it.

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1st National Conference of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement: Program and Schedule, Sept. 9th-10th, in Oakland

FICPFM Logo jpg

For those attending the FICPFM conference this coming week, check here for the conference program and schedule.

Conference Program

Conference Schedule at a glance

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Registration now open for national movement conference on overturning mass incarceration

FICPFM Logo jpgAt a time when 100 million Americans are trying to move on from their criminal records, hundreds (and possibly thousands) of people will gather in Oakland, California to address their common struggle with an oppressive criminal justice system. The Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement (FICPFM) is made up of the directly impacted families and communities confronting a system of control; a system that has, itself, grown out of control. This two day conference (Sept. 9-10) is the latest of many historical markers in the Civil Rights movement, and represents the courageous individual and collective journeys among every organizer and participant.

The FICPFM is a natural result of mass incarceration, as thousands of people annually enter a criminal justice system that is used as our national program to address substance use, addiction, mental illness, unemployment, conflict resolution, and homelessness. Mass incarceration is a program overwhelming reserved for people from low-income communities, overwhelmingly imposed upon Communities of Color. It is interwoven with our school systems, and provides cradle-to-grave interaction that people of wealth and/or connections can opt out of. After decades of skimming people from our communities, of people returning to those same communities, our efforts to reclaim our lives and seek healthier options for our children, have led to our own national gatherings.

People can register for the conference by clicking this link here. The FICPFM organizers have been raising funds for travel support, for directly impacted people all over the nation to get help attending, and the registration allows for people to request funding (Click Here). With commitments from roughly two dozen states so far, priority will be given for organizational representatives, and the goal of having someone from all 50 states in Oakland.

The first FICPFM gathering came five years ago, in Selma, Alabama. We walked backwards over the Edmund Pettis Bridge to mark a restoration of the historic Civil Rights Movement, a movement that lost its way under the rhetoric of drugs and crime that invested heavily into a gulag of cages to theoretically make community problems go away. Yet the War on America known as the “War on Drugs” most effective result was to destabilize and weaken the same communities that were previously organizing for political power, justice, and equality.

In Watts, California, the FICPFM ratified a 14-Point Platform. Since that time, we have continued to progress through individuals, organizations, and collaborations. In 2016, we see an American culture that has had enough of mass incarceration. These voices come from both political parties and from no party. This frustration is present in rural White America as well as concentrated urban communities of Color. Ultimately, a small group of insulated people have been providing “solutions” for us that they would never provide for their own families. And although 6 million of us can not vote, many millions more can. Our families, friends and allies combine with us for the largest single-issue population in America. An issue that these politicians will strain, yet again, to ignore this election season.

The conference will include workshops and strategy sessions with highly acclaimed advocates from all parts of America. Several special guests are scheduled to attend, so check back on the conference page for updated information as the schedule is modified.

People seeking more information are encouraged to contact the FICPFM here.

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Louisiana to vote on Voting Rights restoration tomorrow

10727833-standardToday Ban the Box, tomorrow Voting Rights. The Louisiana House of Representatives has heard about prisons and prisoners quite a bit in recent years, and now they are also getting an earful about rehabilitation, reentry, recidivism, probation and parole; about people living in the community and facing the policies of exclusion.

Today, the House passed a bill to Ban the Box on state job applications, 53-39, setting an example for the Senate, the Governor, and employers across the state that we need to be more encouraging for people looking for work, especially when work can be hard to find.

Tomorrow, this same chamber will vote on allowing voting rights to our community members trying to assimilate and exercise our most fundamental mark of citizenship: voting. The bill, HB 598, passed out of committee without opposition. VOTE and other advocates made the calls, provided the testimonies, and provided ample reasons for legislators to support the integration of people following convictions, an issue Governor Jon Bel Edwards has agreed is of critical importance.

We need your full support, now, at this critical time we are reducing open discrimination on employment and housing. We need you to make the following calls and emails:

Speaker of the House Taylor Barras
(337) 373-4051

Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger, III (D-91New Orleans)
(504) 556-9970

Governor John Bel Edwards
(225)342-0991 or (844)860-1413

Let these key people and your own representative know that you support voting rights for people living in our community on probation parole, to please use their positions of power to guide the House members to pass HB 598, and send a message every individual in Louisiana is still a member of our families, our communities, and our state. We need to encourage positive behavior, such as voting, and not deny the efforts of people who want to do positive things.

When anyone calls us “Returning Citizens,” correct them. They mean well, but the response is “not yet.” Not until the 70,000 people on Louisiana, some who “returned” from prison while most were processed through the jail, are restored with the most fundamental and basic right of citizenship: voting.

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What This Election Means for Criminal Justice Reform and America’s Rising Three Party System

There is no need to write an ad hominem synopsis to the unprecedented 2016 Presidential election race, so let’s jump right into it. Those of us who have deep involvement on specific political issues can anticipate what this election means. As an astute political observer and experienced criminal justice reformer, it’s time to collect my thoughts.

It is important to recognize that three ideologies are emerging with surging support now that the charades of the Republicans and Democrats are slipping away and we see the realities of what lies beneath. It would not be surprising, considering these three competing political movements, that 2016 is the final year of a two party system that has reigned supreme since the Bull Moose Party split the Republicans a century ago. Unlike previous third party upstarts, what we now see is a rift in both the mainstream parties, and what we see are the Neo-Fascists, Capitalists, and Socialists.

imgID49323485.jpg-pwrt3Neo-Fascists: “Coming Out” with Pride.

The basic elements of fascism is (1) scapegoating a minority group (typically ethnic, racial, or religious) as the source of societal problems, along with (2) xenophobia and nationalism spurring the “Us v. Them” schism, that (3) lays the foundation for “strong” military responses to the domestic and foreign targets. Using a War Economy model, there is a short-term economic boom for those benefitting, but it is unsustainable because (win or lose) the carnage created comes back to haunt. A culture must be created to make it safe to say racist things or come out as gay. American closets are fewer and further between.

Criticizing Donald Trump is very easy to do, and dismissing him as a viable electable leader may be rather simple (considering the strong anti-Trump polling), but the backs and heads Trump stands upon are very real. The sentiment of racism and authoritarianism never left America, and politically it morphed from the blatant segregation battles of the 1970s into the domestic “Tough on Crime” and “End Welfare As We Know It” rhetoric (and resulting policies), while saber-rattling against China and invasions in the Middle East. We have lived in the Orwellian nightmare of endless war, the memory hole, and constant double-speak.

Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all provided a tidy space for neo-fascism while currying votes linked to “enforcement.” The War on Drugs has actually been a war on communities that includes decades long incarceration, ending social supports to surviving family members, putting police in our schools, excluding people from subsidized housing, continuing the cycle of poverty, stripping entire communities of voting rights and blaming the target of the war for their own demise. Whether working as a prison guard, police officer, district attorney, or cheering from the sidelines: the racist fuel for the War on Drugs has been stockpiling the byproducts for years. Meanwhile, white people have been collateral damage for a punitive criminal justice system that has grown exponentially since the end of Jim Crow and reduction in domestic terrorism (such as lynching).

Put simply, if Rosa Parks were to be dragged from the bus in 2016, the Neo-Fascists would be harping (on social media and mainstream outlets alike) that “She should have just sat in the back of the bus like she is supposed to.”

The Neo-Fascists have grown bolder since September 12th, 2001. Assisted by George W. Bush’s cabal, it became clear that many politicians of both parties could do on foreign policy the same that was done on domestic policy. Criminal justice wasn’t debated for decades, and many civil rights “leaders” became comfortable with the simplistic narratives created by the War on Drugs. Modest debates on foreign policy are often shouted down, as opposition to invasions are deemed “un-American” by people in both parties. Obama’s inability to scale back global American military hegemony shows either (a) the lack of Democratic/Republican rift in foreign policy, (b) acknowledgment that Neo-Fascism is too potent a political force, or (c) a combination of both.

Trump is the hater some Americans have been waiting for. His position in political history is very similar to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. A nation has to have enough technological, cultural, and military strength to envision itself as superior to others, to think it can (and should) squash others that stand in the way of the global masters. The Nazis appeared as an irrelevant racist little sideshow, gaining 3% in the elections of 1924 and 1928. Following the Great Depression, the Nazis gained 18% in 1930, becoming the second largest German party. Hitler then ran for president, and two years later the Nazis doubled their support to 37% of the voters.

Trump may not emerge as the genuine leader of the Neo-Fascists if they genuinely rise to power, but he has the charisma and “brand recognition” to consolidate them. The criminal justice policies they would seek will ultimately stay in September 12th mode forever, perpetually striving to get “them.” Like the protagonist in “Memento,” their entire existence is in the attack, the thrill of the chase, the fear rhetoric of the bogeyman- it can never be victorious. More prisons and detention centers. More police and prisons, courts and judges, and contracts for barbed wire, handcuffs, food, and low-grade health services in a world where humans are used for widgets. More desperate releases from prison, oppressive fees, or people living under electronically monitored control. No social safety net. And considering we are already three generations into this debacle, it is a certain recipe to destroy this nation.

90Capitalists: Why solve a problem if you can profit off it?

The Republicans have historically been seen as the party of the wealthy businessmen, and yet their current top businessman (Trump) has all-too-honestly revealed that he has happily supported both the Republicans and the Democrats. As a personal friend of the Clintons, he exemplifies the fluidity of big money between both parties. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with raking in the cash and nothing wrong with hanging your own shingle. The challenges are at a much higher level, in the billion dollar investments and how the government (through our elected leaders) choose to pursue policies and award contracts based on ideology: More bombs? More schools? More prisons? More hospitals? The tax dollar gets spent, sometimes in ways that help common people and sometimes just to make a few people rich.

The criminal justice system and foreign policy are very similar in that some people are motivated by ideology while others are motivated by profit. Corporations, being collectively owned, only incorporate ideology to the extent that it influences their profits or losses. Collectively, various forces create the pressures to push problems or solutions, or create pretty packages for their solutions which actually only extend the problem. Because the capitalists are throughout both parties, primarily motivated by profit over all else, it has become increasingly difficult to figure out the distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. This is often on display when one party takes over the actions of the previous ruler (“The War on Terror” for example) and the criticisms evaporate, replaced by various justifications.

Republican capitalists needed the support of the neo-fascists to create a large political party, while Democrat capitalists needed the support of unions and People of Color to create a competing dominant party. And vice versa. But now, in 2016, we are seeing these rifts laid bare. The Capitalists are likely to seek out the “conservative Democrats” and “moderate Republicans” (essentially, the ruling ideology of the past three decades) and use their finances to continue pushing their global agenda.

The bipartisan capitalist rule, backed by American military domination infused with an unspoken zeitgeist of white Christian global mastery, is fraying by the Socialist surge and the Neo-Fascist embarrassment.

Bernie Sanders

Socialists: Surging by “Feelin’ the Bern”

Unlike the Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader, the Democratic primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, a lifelong civil rights activist and seasoned U.S. Senator, is the first genuine chance for a populist takeover of the Democratic Party since Jesse Jackson. In 1984, Jackson ran third with 3.5 million votes (21%) and carried Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District. In 1988, he ran second with 7 million votes (29%) and won eleven contests despite his typically Republican anti-abortion views and problematic statements about Jews. Sanders has already gained 3 million votes and the primary is not even half over.

“A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,” was the warning to any third party candidate who might try to supplant either of the two parties. Megalomaniac billionaire Ross Perot assured Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, and both parties naturally recognize that a Trump third party candidacy will similarly ensure a Democratic victory. (A cynic might even question if Trump is a mole sent in by the Clintons, seeking to assure the Democrats’ victory; if the GOP sends Cruz-Rubio to the general election, a third party Trump will carry his Neo-Fascist supporters.)

The Socialists, like the Neo-Fascists, use scapegoats as well. For them it is the capitalists, known as Big Banks, Wall Street, Big Agriculture, Big Pharma and the rest. These are sometimes euphemisms, and other times are accurate accusations that these corporate entities are providing essential services with a profit-first delivery system. The socialists believe certain things should have community controls (food, water, forests, energy, health care, basic housing, etc.) while the law of supply and demand is free to dictate our extras.

Socialists within the Democratic Party have recently been asked to overlook policy ideology due to the very genuine desire to advance racial and gender justice. The election of our first Black president came with hope (for the Socialists) that they could have their cake and eat it too: i.e. Elect the first president of Color and also reign in the banks, stop the wars, overhaul the criminal justice system, and launch universal health care for all. In fact, it wasn’t until candidate Obama came forward as the staunch anti-war candidate did he separate himself from Hillary Clinton in the primary. Meanwhile we saw the Big Bank Bailout, continuation of occupations, a fundamentally unchanged mass incarceration system, and a health care system still controlled by profiteers, much in a manner we might have expected from a Republican president. Eight years later and we see Clinton’s rhetoric moving to the Left and maneuvering so not to be out-flanked again, while some in her camp have famously said there is a “special place in Hell” for women who don’t vote for a woman.

What’s Next?

Pressure can make things explode, but also forge diamonds. As testy and divisive as both party’s primaries appear, this is not all bad. Of course the cynic or conspiracy theorist or crass political calculator is awaiting “the next attack” and who emerges on an aircraft carrier or walking out of the dusty rubble wearing an American flag around their neck. A showing of strength in adversity, particularly “violent” strength (which is obviously not the only form of strength), makes for good footage and historically riles up a crowd. The candidate who could exert that strength may depend on their access to power.

Hillary Clinton is closest to the current administration, and a war hawk herself, so it would not be difficult to affiliate with an expected military reaction, be it foreign or domestic. Sanders may call for a reasoned response and, although Republicans will be called on to rally together as one nation under siege- history suggests that it may be difficult for them to support Obama under any circumstances. Thus, Senators Cruz and Rubio may find it difficult to balance their competing interests and responsibilities when so much of your campaign message is anti-Obama (some would argue that this continual disrespect for our President is unpatriotic), and yet much of your message is also about exerting military force against “them.”

Trump would shine during an attack. His supporters include many paramilitary types akin to the Brownshirt thugs of Hitler’s budding political machine. Trump would have a huge microphone calling for all out attack, and calling the rest of the field (including our President) a bunch of “pussies” regardless of how violent the reaction; there is always a next level. The thought of Trump having access to nuclear weapons must send chills down a trillion global spines. And because it is just as impossible to defeat “terror” as it is to defeat “drugs,” there can be no victory. No peace. Not as long as perpetual war exists and there are enemies to fight.

But maybe there will be no “incident.” Perhaps no ‘agent provocateur’ will emerge in a rally and set off a violent disruption that allows the Neo-Fascists to unleash their punitive desires. If America can last long enough to divide into parties of these three dueling ideologies, people could have a clearer sense of who they should support without so much mixed messaging designed to keep people from caring.

Two days ago, New Orleans made national news for the most “sustained disruption” of a Trump rally to date; this following Louisiana’s infamous KKK leader David Duke publicly urging people to support Trump. Considering the recent judicial ruling to tear down the omnipresent monuments of separatist Confederate leaders, surely some are fully prepared for a chance to clash again, with words or otherwise, as has been the case for over two centuries. And although only 3000 New Orleanians actually voted for the Neo-Fascist, Trump garnered significant support in neighboring parishes, as one might expect after, for example, seeing a group of Black Katrina survivors turned back to New Orleans at the gunpoint of law enforcement.

It is unlikely that the Republicans will allow for the rise of the brazen Neo-Fascist Donald Trump, as a Cruz-Rubio or Cruz-Kasich ticket (with the other bowing out through some other political promise) seems to be an easy combination to slow the engine down. But even if Trump loses his primary in an ultimate “landslide” of 60% – 40%, people will be talking about this power shift, and ask how Republicans can maintain support from those who chant “Build the Wall,” and cheer when he talks of torture. The simple math is that they cannot defeat Democrats without this Neo-Fascist base.

Although Trump seems to have leveled off in his upstart campaign, Sanders has surged as time goes on. Unlike Trump, Sanders has not been the bombastic car wreck from which the world cannot turn away. Trump gets free media, as he is America’s ‘Reality TV Show Goes To Washington.’ Democrats are legitimately torn between several issues, and whether an overthrow or a break away, it is conceivable that Socialist power will arise in America similarly to most other Western democracies that have chosen to prioritize the social safety net.

Clinton has won twelve primaries to Sanders’ seven* (including her win in American Samoa), and gained more delegates (16% to 11%, respectively), yet the primary election is less than half over. In any sporting event, a 12-7 score before halftime does not mean much- especially as the state by state battle is practically even. They are raising money and spending in similar totals, although Clinton has extremely more financial support from Super PACs. Interestingly, the case Democrats love to hate, Citizens United, is working decidedly in Clinton’s favor. More troubling to the conservative Democrats and Capitalists is that Sanders is not being put away despite the Clinton support from the past two Democratic presidents and their massive influence of political power, access to wealth, and media messaging.

*Sanders has since won Maine. Considering Iowa and Massachusetts were practically ties, the score looks more like Clinton 10, Sanders 8, Tie 2.

purple-electoral-mapPurple States, Civil Rights, and 21st Century Disenfranchisement

The Clintonian Southern “firewall” (as the Clintons poll well in the South) is in states that the GOP would likely carry in a general election, while Sanders wins in the “Blue” states. Over the past few decades, the “Purple” battleground states have included: Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, along with Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the South. Clinton won Virginia and essentially edged out Sanders in Iowa and Nevada, while Sanders won Minnesota, Iowa, and New Hampshire. And while it is interesting that Clinton still is the front runner to be the Democratic nominee, Sanders repeatedly performs better in polls against various Republican candidates. Some of this is based on which candidates encourage voters to turn out, stay home, or defect to the other side in a three-sided debate that only offers two options.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, essential a re-emergence of the historic American Civil Rights struggle, is born from the ashes of Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Rekhia Boyd, and so many other names who are likely to be remembered as martyrs of this era. It is fitting that #BlackLivesMatter is seemingly everywhere, as is our nation’s surveillance footage and cell phone videos that have directly contradicted official statements when people have been killed by police.

This 21st century ignition of the Civil Rights Movement comes at a time when it is finally considered politically safe to say the police are occupying communities of Color rather than protecting and serving. It comes at a time when it is considered reasonable to question and unveil the political and economic forces at the root of mass incarceration. It comes at a time when rhetoric is checked through the Internet, and truth has a chance of overcoming propaganda. History matters. Past actions matter. Whether one fought the righteous battle or one drove the struggle into the dirt matters.

If candidates and parties want to gain attention of voters impacted by police in schools, over-aggressive enforcement, long prison sentences, massive collateral consequences, institutionalized racism, and extreme limitations put on the social safety net: they can start by advocating for the voting rights of those impacted people. Those rights become communal, and curtailing them has a collective impact. If a candidate is concerned about offending utterers of the slogan, “The South Will Rise Again,” or doesn’t understand the problem of legal enslavement under the constitution (after conviction of a crime), they probably should not have much space in a Civil Rights discussion. At least not as an advocate of those rights.


*In 2016 Maryland overrode a veto and restored citizenship to people on probation and parole.

Over 6 million Americans have no right to vote based on a past criminal conviction. The majority of them are living in the community as parents, workers, and neighbors. This number is growing, and is reflective of the 80 million people with convictions in America… or more people than it takes to win a presidential election. When a candidate’s actions are aligned with (or opposes) the needs and challenges of those people, we may see a massive shift in political power.

It remains to be seen how much impact Bill Clinton’s mass incarceration policies have on this primary or a potential second Clinton presidency. Much of this history is unknown because mass incarceration negatively impacted people with no political power, and pre-Internet at that, during a time when the Reagan Administration rightfully deserved a reputation for instigating mass incarceration as a response to public health and social issues. There were no partisan arguments over building more prisons, and no campaign debates mentioning prisons or formerly incarcerated people at all. Extremely long prison sentences, doled out over decades, cannot be undone with an apology or a modest federal reform bill. Police are still arresting children for fist fights and making them go to court, partially due to the rhetoric (repeated by Hillary Clinton) about needing to stop these young “Superpredators.” A Supreme Court case finally acknowledging the mitigating factors of youth will not replace school police (created under Clinton’s COPS program) with social workers. “Ending Welfare as we know it,” and excluding people from federally subsidized housing while creating as many as 389 various employment barriers for people with criminal records has had a generationally debilitating effect on low income people, particularly communities of Color, and particularly on mothers who are expected to “hold it down” while their family is plucked bare.

Some Capitalists are finding ways to profit off “rehabilitation,” even when a smoke screen operation is as effective as Trump University. Some Libertarians see the encroachment on civil rights in a race-neutral manner, just as many Conservatives can no longer look away as they now understand the vast tentacles of a domestic criminal justice policy based on punishing “them” rather than searching for win-win solutions among our neighbors. Regardless of the way people come to these issues, those leading the solutions should be the most bona fide, rather than the one who only recently realized their own past approaches were wrong. Some of these experienced people will likely have suffered through gauntlets, be they direct victims of crimes or victims of punishments, they typically are from the same over-policed communities.

Whether we get three parties for the future or two parties being nibbled away by competing views of America, the upstart outsider candidates allow us to finally talk about these issues in an honest and open manner.

Posted in Police, Politics, prison economics, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Voting Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2016: The year of voting rights, public defenders, sentencing reform, and Albert Woodfox

Posted in Commentary, Innocence, Legislation, Political Prisoners, Politics, Race, Reentry, Uncategorized, VOTE, Voting Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment