Photography by Mike Kane

Equal Voice News

Criminal Justice in America

Bet on Cities and States for Reform

September 6, 2017

Paul Nyhan
By Paul Nyhan
Storytelling and Partnership Manager

Over the last decade local and grassroots movements have slowly worked to transform how the nation thinks about criminal justice, moving that thinking, and sometimes policies, away from the worst excesses of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Martha Shearer understands the War on Drugs because she was one of its casualties. In the 1990s, Shearer spent five years in federal prison for possession of roughly 2 grams of crack cocaine, convicted under a mandatory minimum sentence, she said.

After Shearer left prison, she wanted to change a criminal justice system she had just seen crush, instead of rehabilitate, too many people’s lives. So once she returned home to this city she went back to school, earning an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and then embarking on a doctorate.

As a newly minted social worker, she began to see how grassroots changes in cities and statewide could reform the nation’s criminal justice system.

She joined campaigns that restored food stamps and welfare benefits to people with felony drug convictions, which had been denied under state statutes even though both provided some stability to families, and another campaign this year that restored the right to vote for many formerly incarcerated residents.

Shearer’s work on local and state reforms over the last decade has been part of a grassroots movement that is slowly transforming how the nation thinks about criminal justice, moving that thinking, and sometimes policies, away from the worst excesses of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. After peaking in 2009, the number of people in federal and state prisons in the U.S. has dropped nearly 5 percent, according to The Sentencing Project.

“I just look at my life and look at the things I was able to accomplish. I think that same opportunity is there for other people if they would change the way they accept people…once they return home” from prison, Shearer, 54, a community organizer at Greater Birmingham Ministries, said.

criminal justice reform

Martha Shearer facilitates a food drive at Greater Birmingham Ministries, where she works full time, in Birmingham, Alabama, in February 2017. Photo by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News

Now, as the Trump administration threatens to resume the War on Drugs, with harsher federal sentencing and a renewed commitment to private prisons, grassroots work for state and local changes may be the best hope for criminal justice reform in America in the coming years.

Far from the Trump White House, state legislators are debating bail reform in California. San Antonio, Texas is the latest city to make it easier for those with convictions to apply for municipal jobs. Louisiana is reforming sentencing, parole and the juvenile justice system. Illinois is adding new protections for youth charged with certain crimes.

Taken alone, these local steps may appear small. Banning a single box indicating a criminal history on job applications in one city will hardly revolutionize criminal justice.

But taken together, all of these policies can begin to change courts, bail, and even prisons, regardless of what happens federally. When San Antonio banned the criminal-history box it was only the latest in a long line, as this change spread from San Francisco around the nation.

More importantly, local policy changes create models that can spread to other cities, counties and states. These models, in turn, can generate momentum and ideas for Democrats and Republicans – improving punishment and rehabilitation can be bipartisan work in many communities – during the next few years.

Around the country, policymakers from both parties already are leading reform efforts, including:

  • The New Orleans City Council voted to get rid of bail for many non-violent and minor municipal offenses, after a campaign by the New Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), which includes the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
  • Also in New Orleans this year, judges, public defenders and community groups created a clinic where roughly 1,300 people went before a judge and worked to have fines and fees waived, cases closed, warrants lifted, and driver’s licenses restored, according to the Center.
  • Earlier this year, Louisiana – known as the incarceration capital of the world – enacted 10 bills that will reform sentencing, parole, probation and fines, with the goal of reducing its prison population, according to the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
  • The Illinois state House and Senate passed legislation designed to get rid of booking stations in schools, according to the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations. Gov. Bruce Rauner approved the legislation in August.
  • Last year, grassroots advocates won new protections for youth charged with serious crimes in Illinois, including greater access to lawyers and video recordings of some interrogations while they are in custody.
  • Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has led a sustained campaign to reform his state’s prison system into one more focused on rehabilitation and successful re-entry, reducing solitary confinement and making other changes, The Atlantic reports in its special project, “The Presence of Justice: Beyond the age of mass incarceration.”

“What I have hope for is that there are so many people who have been engaged in reforms at the local level and state level…it would take a mighty, mighty effort to derail all of these reform efforts,” said Tshaka Barrows, executive director of The W. Haywood Burns Institute, which works with communities nationwide to eliminate racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. “The opportunities are enormous.”

Progress in Red and Blue

Despite tough-on-crime rhetoric flowing from President Donald Trump’s administration, even red states packed with his supporters – such as Martha Shearer’s home state of Alabama, where Trump won 63 percent of the vote – are embracing criminal justice reforms.

Two years ago, Alabama’s Republican-dominated state Legislature passed sweeping sentencing and prison reforms. The reforms reduced the penalty for simple drug possession, which meant fewer people were incarcerated, improved post-incarceration supervision and encouraged alternatives to prison through drug and mental health courts, according to Carol Gundlach, a policy analyst at the Alabama-based Arise Citizens’ Policy Project.

Together, these moves have begun easing chronic crowding inside the state’s prisons.

At the same time, Alabama began easing the transition from prison to the outside world by restoring access to food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – commonly known as welfare – for people with felony drug convictions. Then earlier this year, Alabama restored the right to vote to thousands of residents by changing restrictions on people with felony convictions casting ballots.

criminal justice reform

Carol Gundlach

“Changes we have seen in Alabama have been Republican led,” Gundlach said. Criminal justice reform is “an initiative that really has brought the left and the right together.”

Heading into next year’s legislative session, Gundlach hopes this bipartisan momentum will carry a statewide bill that would remove the criminal-history box from applications for state jobs to the governor’s desk.

“It’s all basically on grassroots (leadership). Because without it, I don’t think we would have got as far as we had,” Martha Shearer said.

Alabama’s prisons and courts need a lot more help, Gundlach added, but “we have taken some good and important first steps.”

Local Reforms Feed Bigger Impacts

On the other side of the country, California is taking even bigger steps.

Three years after voters passed Proposition 47, a pioneering reform that reclassified some felony drug offenses as misdemeanors and allowed thousands to have old charges reduced, state legislators are tackling other parts of the court system.


“There are so many people who have been engaged in reforms at the local level and state level…it would take a mighty, mighty effort to derail all of these reform efforts.“
Tshaka Barrows of The W. Haywood Burns Institute in Oakland, California

This year, they are debating legislation that would reduce reliance on bail and work to eliminate racial disparities in that system, according to Zachary Norris, executive director of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Legislators are also considering The Rise Act, which would limit the practice of tacking on an extra three years to a felony drug conviction when an individual has a prior drug conviction.

Both ideas are moving. The Rise Act is headed for a vote on the Assembly floor in September. In August, California Gov. Jerry Brown gave bail reform a major boost when he said he will work with key sponsors of the measure and others this fall to craft a workable plan.

There has been opposition, though. The Assembly already rejected a bail reform bill, The Mercury News reported. The proposal also has been criticized for its costs, challenges in implementation and approach to crime, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Supporters counter that the legislation is a step toward a new approach to criminal justice.

Trump “is aiming to jump-start the failed War on Drugs and restart and ramp it up further…At the same time here in California we are trying to roll it back,” Ella Baker Center’s Norris said. “There is hope at the local level of putting forward a new vision of community safety that is not grounded in punishment and prison, but is grounded in restorative justice and economic opportunity.”

Dig a little deeper in California and you find these statewide bills are fed by local streams. Nearly two years ago, Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors approved bail reforms that presaged the bills in the state Legislature.

Today, those reforms are keeping more people out of jail while they await trial in that county, and saving the local government money, according to Silicon Valley De-Bug, which with its director, Raj Jayadev, helped lead the grassroots campaign for the changes.

Often, reform begins on an even smaller scale – like a single neighborhood in Asbury Park, New Jersey. In a handful of city blocks in this city on the Jersey Shore, too many young men and women were cycling in and out of juvenile detention for probation violations.

The W. Haywood Burns Institute worked with local agencies to figure out why, analyzing data and connecting with the community. Together, they hired men and women, who had been through the same juvenile justice system, as community coaches to work with youth who were landing back in detention.

Results were dramatic. In this one neighborhood, from 2009 to 2012, the number of young men and women of color sent back to detention for violating probation each month dropped to 6 from 31, according to a case study.

Since then, this data-driven approach has spread to other parts of the country. Today in California, for example, Ventura County is using the same model to develop solutions to reduce the number of children in detention, according to Barrows.

“There are all of these kinds of minutiae: inner workings, at the local level you can really dig your hands into for meaningful reform,” Barrows said.

Together, these inner workings of city, county and statewide reforms are continuing to fuel a grassroots movement that has been growing for a decade. Yet, in a sense, the movement remains near the starting line, with a long road ahead to reach advocates’ desired reforms.

criminal justice reform

Tshaka Barrows

But, with the Trump administration signaling a return to the War on Drugs and the rise in mass incarceration that would mean, these local reforms are more vital than ever.

They could drive changes in criminal justice in America, regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.

“It’s tough to quantify the breakdown of progress toward reform, but if you could, I suspect it would be heavily skewed toward the states, since the most significant federal reform proposals (such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act) died in the last Congress and haven’t yet been renewed,” Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in an email.

“Contrast that with the states, where conservative governors have led very successful reform efforts.”

Hope for Change in Alabama

Here in Alabama, Martha Shearer continues to work toward changing this state’s criminal justice system. Now, she is focusing on banning the box for felony convictions from state job applications, something the city of Birmingham has already done. When she started working on the Birmingham campaign, she was told it would “never happen.”

Not only did it happen in Birmingham, known as “The Magic City,” the Senate passed a statewide version this year, and she is optimistic the Legislature will move it next year.

As for Trump and the threat of a new War on Drugs, “I have been so busy doing other things. I just really have not paid attention to him,” Shearer said.


Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News.  He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. He has covered social policy for more than 20 years. This is a special report and part of the “Making It in Trump’s America” coverage. All original and contracted Equal Voice News content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

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Criminal Justice in America