Amid heightened public scrutiny over the social effects of incarceration, more than 500 former inmates and family members gathered in Oakland this weekend to set a nationwide agenda for reform spanning policing, drug laws and a slew of concerns about life after release.
In a hotel ballroom packed with attendees from 35 states, familiar civil rights issues—among them housing, employment, education and voting rights—coalesced with emerging efforts to curtail racial profiling by law enforcement, adapt to changing marijuana policies and end court practices of sending otherwise law-abiding citizens to jail for failing to pay fines.
Who better to take the lead on lobbying policymakers for change on those issues than the people who have experienced them firsthand? That’s the logic of Glenn Martin, founder of New York advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA, which aims to cut the U.S. prison population of more than two million in half by 2030.
“People who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Martin, who said he had served six years in New York State prison. “We’re not the labels that have been put on us by the system.”
The conference, which kicked off the same day as an unprecedented prison labor strike spanning 24 states, marked a milestone for a new generation of criminal justice activism. The Oakland event was the first time a coalition of reform groups assembled a nationwide meeting to coordinate existing efforts in New York, the Southeastern U.S., California and elsewhere.
Already the advocates involved with lobbying for the formerly incarcerated and their families have seen some success. In the Bay Area, San Francisco-based All of Us or None has pressured the Oakland Police Department into changing some policies related to the use of gang injunctions and gang member databases, which the group says lead to racial profiling.
On the national stage, following trips to the White House by Martin and others, a recently-formed Department of Justice “Interagency Reentry Council” last month released an inaugural analysis that pointed to incarceration patterns that hit some groups particularly hard. One in nine African American children has a parent in jail, for instance, which the report said can lead to lifelong instability.
“All too often, returning citizens face enormous barriers that persist long after they have paid their debts to society,” Attorney General Lorreta Lynch wrote in the report. “With over 600,000 people released from federal and state prisons every year, how we treat reentering individuals is a question with far-reaching implications for all of us.”
One question in particular that event organizers hope to help settle is how those in jail for drug offenses could be affected by ballot measures in California and elsewhere to legalize marijuana. Though President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of several dozen marijuana offenders, over 12 percent of the nearly 95,000 federal inmates convicted of drug offenses relate to marijuana, 2015 federal data shows.
The groups would also like to see efforts continue to remove felony conviction disclosures from housing and employment applications. In recent months, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has released multiple memos stating that landlords are not required to bar most convicts from housing, but how that federal guidance translates at the local level varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
All of Us or None executive director Dorsey Nunn, a leading force in organizing the conference, drew a string of standing ovations for his remarks on the personal toll of incarceration. Wearing a black and gold t-shirt emblazoned with a raised fist under his tailored suit, Nunn preached the power of translating disenfranchisement into advocacy.
“Nobody ever asks you what you need. Nobody ever asks you what you want,” he said. “If we want civil rights, we’re going to have to fight for them.”
Though the event in Oakland was the first to bring the cross-country coalition together in person, the group has been building an organizing base through regional events. The goal is to mobilize as many as possible of the 70 million people that have either been incarcerated or seen a family member incarcerated.
As of 2014, there were more than 2.2 million people in U.S. jails and prisons, plus another 3.7 million on probation or parole, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
California’s current 112,000-plus prison inmates mark a decline after well-publicized overcrowding and hunger strikes, but several speakers pointed to troubling demographic trends. Latinos still make up 42 percent of inmates and African Americans account for 29 percent of prisoners, the Public Policy Institute of California notes.
Still, several speakers were careful to note that policy advocacy must also be accompanied by more systemic shifts.
“We have used our penal system in this country to deal with social ills,” said Karol Mason, Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. “We need to fund mental health. We need to fund alcohol treatment. We need to invest in our young people.”