Through its Criminal Justice Initiative, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) tackles racial discrimination at the legal and policy levels to eliminate obstacles facing those with criminal records as they attempt to re-enter the mainstream of society. The crisis that stems from criminal convictions, especially the devastating collateral consequences, is now being called the New Jim Crow, echoing one of the most painful chapters in US history. SCSJ is well-positioned to address this crisis.
Video below: Daryl Atkinson Accepts White House ‘Champions of Change’ award for Reentry and Employment
After years of working to provide second chances for formerly convicted and incarcerated individuals, SCSJ’s Daryl Atkinson was honored with a White House Champions of Change award in June 2014. Below is Daryl’s acceptance speech. (Daryl’s speech starts around 1:15.)
Criminal Justice in the South
Over the last 30 years, the US has experienced an explosion in the number of people who have come in contact with the criminal justice system: about 1.6 million people are currently in prison; 4 million are on probation; and nearly 65 million have a criminal record. In the South, the prison population has grown faster than in any other region. Criminal justice is therefore a critically important issue–particularly so for communities of color.
Collateral consequences of a criminal conviction are formidable—often insurmountable–barriers to successful reentry. They include disenfranchisement; denial of public employment and benefits; loss of professional licenses; and deportation. Southern states have more legal barriers to successful reentry than other regions of the country. (According to a report by the Legal Action Center, which ranked all 50 states from best to worst based on the number of legal obstacles faced by people attempting to renter society, most of the southern states were ranked in the worst category, meaning they had the greatest number of roadblocks to reentry.)
The entrenched criminal justice system is in urgent need of reform. The machinery of mass incarceration must be dismantled by mitigating racial disparities, lowering recidivism rates, advocating for progressive reentry policies, and changing current drug policies. Below, Daryl Atkinson discusses the phenomenon of mass incarceration on HuffPostLive with Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow.”
The SCSJ Approach
Movements like Occupy Wall Street demonstrate that power still lies in the hands of the people. SCSJ takes a “bottom up” rather than “top down” approach. Affected individuals and their communities are directly empowered because it is the people most intimately affected by the oppression who lead.
SCSJ believes in coalition-building; it participates, for example, in the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, a growing statewide coalition of advocacy organizations, service providers, faith-based organizations, and community leaders dedicated to the successful reintegration of people with criminal records. (SCSJ is one of the founding organizations in the NC Second Chance Alliance.) SCSJ is also active in the New Southern Strategy Coalition, a group of advocates and reformers representing 14 Southern states working to reduce the collateral consequences for those with criminal records.
SCSJ’s Criminal Justice Initiative employs four strategies to achieve systemic change:
1. Community education and organizing: SCSJ organizes and educates directly affected communities on promising strategies aimed at changing the laws, policies, and informal practices that lead to mass incarceration and prevent successful reintegration into society through–
- Leadership development of directly affected individuals so they can advocate for reform
- Community presentations to citizens about racial disparities and the impact of collateral consequences
- Direct input from directly affected individuals
2. Public policy advocacy: SCSJ provides technical assistance on the following advocacy campaigns:
- Local and statewide “ban the box” campaigns
- Commission on racial and ethnic disparities
- Uniform Collateral Consequence of Conviction Act (UCCCA)
- Drug policy reform
3. Direct legal services: SCSJ provides direct legal services and referrals (in the NC Triangle area) in—
- Expungement of criminal records and obtaining certificates of relief
- Driver’s license restoration
- Securing/restoring occupational licensing
4. Impact litigation: SCSJ is currently seeking seminal test cases in—
- Racial profiling and discrimination
- Violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act
- Criminal record-based employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
In our short history we have contributed to several key victories:
- Certificate of Relief Successful advocacy for the “Certificate of Relief” Bill in the North Carolina General Assembly, which created a judicial remedy to remove the collateral consequences of a conviction. Potential impact: 38,000 of the 105,000 people currently on probation in the State.
- Ban the Box SCSJ helped Durham Southside, a neighborhood ravaged by North Carolina’s deleterious drug policies, initiate a “ban the box” campaign that led to the City as well as the County of Durham removing questions about criminal records from employment applications. That campaign has become a model for reform in communities across the state and is gaining momentum as one jurisdiction after another explores implementation.
- Launch of National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC) Website In September, 2012, SCSJ’s attorney, Daryl V. Atkinson, was a featured speaker at the launch of the NICCC website hosted by the National Institute of Justice and ABA’s Criminal Justice Section. This website is a resource that will make publically available, free of charge, each jurisdiction’s laws and rules imposing collateral consequences, thereby giving a full picture of the penalties associated with a person’s criminal justice involvement. Atkinson described North Carolina’s experience with developing the Collateral Consequence Assessment Tool (C-CAT), a forerunner and model for the NIJ/ABA project. Atkinson was the only speaker representing a group that directly serves individuals and communities impacted by collateral consequences. The meeting was held in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy making the opening remarks.