6 States With Criminal Justice Reform Wins to Celebrate

In Oregon, incarcerated women stay connected with their children through special visitations and virtual parent-teacher conferences.
Oregon Prisons.jpg

Photo by patanasak / iStock.

This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.

Arkansas

When Zack Hudson was released from Arkansas’ Cummins Unit prison in 2011, he was determined to never go back. This was his second stint, and experience told him it wouldn’t be easy. “When you’re released from prison and put on parole, you’re not really given an instruction manual,” says Hudson. “You’re rushed through it so fast—your orientation—there’s a lot of small things that can trip you up.”

Arkansas leads the nation’s incarceration rate growth, and nearly half of the state’s prison population is incarcerated for violating parole or probation. What’s more, the state saw a 17.7 percent growth in its prison population when it strengthened its parole laws.

Hudson credits his success with his parole to the support of his family, but after witnessing his friends encounter similar hurdles, he knew he had to do something to help. He teamed up with four friends—also former convicts—to form a support group that would make the transition easier for Arkansas’ more than 21,000 parolees. “We want to show them the things we learned the hard way,” says Hudson.

Together, they founded HOPE (Helping Our People Excel), a weekly meeting that draws 35 to 40 people to a local church in Little Rock. Members share their struggles, offer job leads, and receive basic items like shampoo and clothes. They also talk about change: what they need to succeed and what parole policies make that difficult.

In April, members of HOPE joined forces with other grassroots groups to testify before the Arkansas Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force about flaws in the parole system.

The first victory: winning the right to congregate. HOPE petitioned the Department of Corrections to eliminate a rule that prevents felons from hanging out with each other. Eventually, HOPE was classified as a therapeutic group and can now officially help members overcome the obstacles to completing parole. —Araz Hachadourian

Indiana

In 2007, four undergraduates from DePauw University showed up at the Indiana Senate to oppose a bill that would expand the state’s “drug-free zone” law to include bus stops and schools. Such policies have been adopted around the country since the 1970s, imposing harsher penalties on dealers doing business where children are present.

Though the premise made sense on paper, the law’s potential impacts in the college’s hometown of Indianapolis became a class project. When the students mapped out the proposed expansion in relation to Black and Latino neighborhoods, they found that Indianapolis would become a superzone: Virtually anywhere drugs were sold in the city fell within it, penalizing offenders with decades-long prison sentences.

In Indiana, a Black man was 18 times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges than a White man.

Nonviolent offenders—particularly people of color—were already disproportionately affected by sentencing laws. The students found that in Indiana, a Black man was 18 times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges than a White man, even though their rates of drug use are roughly the same. In Indianapolis, where 35 percent of the population is Black, harsher sentences would only exacerbate the disparity.

Kelsey Kauffman, the students’ professor, recalls a contentious meeting: “It turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight between the Democrats and Republicans.”

The bill was later defeated in the Indiana House of Representatives.

Similar bills were proposed in the years to come. By 2013, lawmakers had scaled back the size of the zones from a radius of 1,000 feet to 500 feet, making Indiana one of the most progressive states in the nation when it comes to drug-free zoning. —Araz Hachadourian

Maryland

From the races for state office to the presidency, the stakes for last year’s elections were monumental. And thanks to the efforts of advocates and policymakers, 40,000 more Marylanders were allowed to cast ballots.

When Gov. Larry Hogan in February vetoed a law that would restore voting rights to people who’ve been released from prison and are serving additional terms of parole or probation, Unlock the Vote swung into action.

Some 25 groups focusing on issues of restorative justice and poverty make up the coalition, which lobbied state legislators to override the veto. The law expands voting rights to tens of thousands of ex-offenders, a group that is disproportionately African American and Latino.

“People with prior convictions who vote are much less likely to return to prison,” said Nicole Porter, The Sentencing Project’s director of advocacy. —Jaime Alfaro

New Jersey

Bryant Ali has been a pastor in Newark for the past 22 years.

And the entire time, he said, “I’ve been on the front line fighting against violence and racism.”

But never in his history of activism has he seen a development like this—an effort by the city to bring greater accountability to the police.

Never in his history of activism has he seen a development like this.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice published a report showing the Newark Police Department regularly engaged in policing practices that infringed on civil rights. For those in the community, the report found what everyone on the ground already knew. “Now it’s finally coming to light,” said Ali.

Since the 1960s, activists, community leaders, and residents had been pushing for more police accountability, said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. The report confirmed a long history of excessive force, unwarranted stops and arrests, and other discriminatory police actions.

New Jersey chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, along with the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and other grassroots and religious organizations, lobbied for a new civilian complaint review board, which advocates say establishes greater oversight of the police by citizens.

Of the board’s 11 members, six are nominated by civil rights organizations, helping to ensure the board represents Newark’s population. The board has the authority to subpoena officers and issue mandatory discipline in misconduct cases. Taken together, these components make Newark’s panel unique.

Keesha Eure, chair of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, credits Mayor Ras Baraka. He used executive authority to pass the bill creating the board.

“The board needs to [consist of] people from the community. People who don’t have any ties to city government and have the best interest of the community in mind,” said Eure.

And earlier this year, Ali was named a member of the civilian review board. —Jaime Alfaro

Virginia

Eunice Haigler has put nine grandchildren through the school system of Spotsylvania County, about 60 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. In the old days, she’d get a call from the principal’s office when they misbehaved. The administration knew that “if you call Grandma, that’s it—and they wouldn’t see that behavior again,” she said.

Referring children to law enforcement increases the odds of future incarceration.

But by the time her grandson reached middle school, Haigler knew things had changed. His school was patrolled by “resource officers”—police who work in schools to protect against threats, but also to discipline kids. Tearing a leaf off a plant became a property destruction charge; refusing to take off a hoodie when asked became a disorderly conduct charge. Eventually, her grandson ended up in court.

“We’re not talking about kids who are bringing a knife to school,” said Haigler. “It is making little criminals out of our children.”

Virginia leads the nation in sending students—especially minority and special needs kids—to court. According to U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia refers students to law enforcement at nearly three times the national rate. Thousands of complaints are filed against children and teens each year. In the Spotsylvania school district, Black children receive 36 percent of out-of-school suspensions, though they make up only 18.3 percent of the student population. Referring children to law enforcement increases the odds of future incarceration.

Haigler, a volunteer with Virginia Organizing (VO), a grassroots organization, started knocking on doors with her fellow members, meeting parent after parent who shared concerns about policing children. Together, they made it a larger focus of VO.

Today, Haigler is proud of the headway they’ve made in Spotsylvania, including dialogue with the district’s superintendent on the issue’s significance. Virginia Organizing is pushing for an agreement between county schools and police departments that will better define—and limit—the disciplinary roles of officers.

Ladelle McWhorter, a VO board member, said building these relationships is a remarkable achievement—accomplished by people like Haigler: “It really originated with parents.” —Christa Hillstrom

Oregon

When Kendra Wright was incarcerated for drug-related offenses at Oregon’s only women’s prison, her then-6-year-old daughter, Selene, was placed in the care of Wright’s grandparents. Prohibited from speaking to Selene, Wright cherished what little contact she had: Wright’s grandmother would call her while Selene was in the same room. “It was the only way I could hear her little voice,” Wright said. 

But in 2013, Wright was accepted to the Family Preservation Project (FPP), an initiative then run by the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) designed to break intergenerational cycles of incarceration, poverty, and addiction by helping imprisoned mothers maintain relationships with their children. More than 75 percent of incarcerated women in Oregon are mothers, and many of their children are at risk of suffering the same traumas they did.

Since 2010, the FPP has helped dozens of women stay connected with their children through special visitations where families can cuddle, paint, and read together; and by encouraging women to invest in children’s education through virtual parent-teacher conferences. Women also attend daily classes and weekly counseling sessions to help them process their experiences and plan for life outside. “Before these women can even think of themselves as mothers, there’s so much work to be done in restoring their own humanity,” said program director Jessica Katz.

When the DOC decided to cut the program’s funding in 2014, Katz, along with past and present participants, launched a letter-writing campaign to local legislators to save it. They succeeded. Today, it’s operated by the YWCA of Greater Portland with state funding.

Selene, now 11, is a much happier child than the girl Wright, now out of prison, remembers five years ago. Without FPP, Wright believes, Selene would have grown up feeling hurt and abandoned: “I don’t think she would have blossomed into the wonderful, amazing young lady she’s becoming.” —Christa Hillstrom