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Now’s The Time: Communities United for Action, Power & Justice

By: 
Dan Horowitz de Garcia
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    In Georgia there are 400,000 people in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole, and 600,000 people on the state prison visitation lists. This gives the criminal justice reform movement a potential base of 1,000,000 constituents. Even a small fraction of this number is enough to turn a distant dream of reform into an inevitable reality. Today, for the first time in many years, budget realities, policy expertise, and grassroots organizing has made Georgia a prime candidate for real change.

Communities United for Action, Power & Justice is a coalition where all those working on criminal justice can expand analysis, think strategically, and build power. At the center of the coalition’s work are those most affected by the criminal justice system; the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, their family members, and survivors. Built around this center is the experience of policy experts, service providers, legal experts, and others. Working together the group is able to confront decision makers from all perspectives with solid alternatives.

Georgia imprisons more adults per capita than any other state in the US, and also has the fastest-growing prison population in the country. In Georgia, 1 in 15 people are under some form of Correctional supervision, more than twice the national average of 1 in 32. At the same time, the prison boom has generated a vast constituency with the potential to push the reform so desperately needed. The beast born by so-called “Tough on Crime” policies has been growing. And because of that, today the beast is vulnerable.

Parole and sentencing

The key to killing the beast is reforming parole and sentencing. Tax dollars need to be spent on human needs, and to do that we need to pull people out of the system from the front end as well as the back end.

In Georgia, bad policy decisions on both parole and sentencing made a decade ago have also created an opportunity to push reform. In the late 1990s, the Georgia Pardons and Parole Board enacted an administrative policy that requires inmates convicted of certain offenses to serve 90% of their sentences before being eligible for parole. Because of this rule Georgia inmates may receive prison sentences of the same length as the national average, but they serve more time than inmates in other states. This not only has a devastating affect on families, it also devastates the state’s budget. According to one estimate, Georgia spends more than $300 million per year on enforcing the 90% rule.

The infrastructure of Communities United is based on the proven experience of past coalitions like the Up & Out of Poverty NOW! Campaign. This 25-year-old effort has fought and won campaigns on welfare reform, childcare, minimum wage raises, and other economic justice issues. Up & Out is based on the premise that poor people organized into a political force have the power to end poverty. The network organizes groups of poor people to confront decision makers at all levels not in symbolic action but with the demand that decisions affecting poor people cannot be made without the input of poor people.

At times this has meant marching on a welfare office demanding the case managers distribute information on childcare programs. At other times it has meant occupying the governor’s office and pasting pictures of poor children on the wall. But it has also meant a simple press conference of welfare recipients asking why the governor hasn’t released millions of dollars in state funds earmarked for transportation subsidies. None of these actions were done symbolically, they were all strategic actions done to pressure decision makers. Of course, they didn’t all result in the correct decision, but they did develop the leadership skills poor people and increase the strength of the network.

Up & Out of Poverty is successful because it recognizes that poor people are the center of the movement. Communities United is also based on the premise that although those most affected may not have specific expertise in a field, they are the experts of their own lives and of what the impact of a system will be.

Communities United plans to extend this practice into the criminal justice arena. The daily realities of currently/formerly incarcerated people, their families, and survivors are the foundation, but to this we add the knowledge and expertise of those who interact with the criminal justice system in other ways. In addition, the strong link between Up & Out and Communities United will enable the integration of expertise from others either directly affected by poverty or working in other areas of the safety net. For the first time, Georgia will be able to pull together a grassroots base with expertise from many disciplines all for the purpose of winning key victories for criminal justice reform.

Operation Open Book

The first campaign of Communities United is Operation Open Book, the effort to remove Georgia’s state secret status on parole files. This demand is the foundation for the bigger reform effort since it isn’t possible to hold the Pardon and Parole Board accountable without access to information. State secret status means that the Board doesn’t have to publicly justify its decisions or even explain the process used to make those decisions. By gaining access to information we will tear down the wall of secrecy within the Parole Board. We will then push forward with a broader program of reform.

Beginning in October 2004, Communities United will begin the first of three coalition-building phases. These phases are aimed at growing the base of grassroots, legal and policy experts as well as creating the infrastructure in which these representatives can work. In phase 1 organizations and individuals are recruited into the coalition. Although the idea is to connect people for the long haul, a specific demand provides an entry point into the relationship. Think of it as building the table where we all hope to eventually sit. Any organization that believes parole information should be released should come and help with the construction.

Phase two concentrates on pushing forward with Operation Open Book, solidifying the coalition, and beginning the strategic planning process for larger reform. Here the table is built and we sit together to plan for the future.

Finally, phase three is the launch of the larger effort to reform the parole system. We leave the table and raise hell. The processes we created are used to direct the campaign and evaluate actions. The table is not thrown away, it remains a useful tool.

The 2004 election proves how important the South as a region is to the nation. The Electoral College was created to give the South dominance of the political system. If we want to change this country, we have to change the South. If communities affected by prisons see themselves as united in experience and joined in common demands, they can effectively influence the debate around prison sentences, parole, and community reintegration. Families of incarcerated people, together with policy experts, service providers, and legal experts can change the climate of Georgia around criminal justice. And when Georgia changes, so will the South and the nation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Horowitz de Garcia is an organizer with Communities United. For the last 15 years he has worked in the Southeast as a community, environmental and labor organizer as well as a popular educator, anti-racism facilitator, and human rights educator.