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Breaking Chains: Navigating the Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Written by: Robert "Nadir" Johnson


Nadir and his wife LuLu started South Carolina for Restorative Justice and work together to create solutions to the problems they experience first hand.


November 14, 2023

Advocating for change in the criminal Justice system to address structural issues such as sentencing reform, prison conditions, mass incarceration and recidivism has been a difficult and divisive area to produce favorable outcomes. For this reason, many criminal justice reform advocates lose steam in their pursuit of change for lack of organizational experience, minimum financial and public support, and contending with the legislature’s constant refusal to adopt logical solutions. Being aware of the challenges that come with this work can prepare advocates to be more methodical, and hence effective in achieving the desired results.

All advocates are not the same on account of the knowledge, experience, and their connection to the movement. For less seasoned advocates who have yet to connect themselves with a larger, more resourced organization, the above challenges can seem insurmountable. While the most organized and veteran advocates are not immune to such challenges, more time in the field along with a strong support network helps them weather the storm.

The makeup of advocacy organizations includes different levels of advocates in their relationship, roles, and responsibilities.

Advocates who have incarcerated loved ones, have real-time input on the current state of prisons, the conditions and environment, often experiencing the residual effects of incarceration. They have concerns for the safety, well-being and mistreatment of their loved ones by prison staff. They have a direct channel of communication through letters and phone calls. Although some people serving time choose not to reveal the details of traumatic experiences they deal with on a daily basis, others go to great lengths to inform their loved ones exactly what they are experiencing and how it is affecting their ability to cope. It is through these reports that loved ones of the incarcerated take it upon themselves to address the issues that are causing grief and unnecessary hardship for their loved one. An example of such relaying information from the inside stirring people to act on their loved one's behalf was the spread of the coronavirus in the prisons. Hearing the details of negligence and the cover up of departmental malfeasance, while people suffered, some even losing their lives, family members of the incarcerated began to demand answers.

Formerly incarcerated advocates have intimate knowledge of the system having been directly impacted. They also know the struggles that come with returning to society and regaining the trust of the community. Their insight and experience with the system, the collateral consequences from their incarceration, and how it weighs in with recidivism rates prove to be invaluable when assessing reform solutions for re-entry. Formerly incarcerated advocates often find themselves fighting a battle on two fronts. One, seeking to bring the change in the operation of prisons and sentencing laws and the other a fight for regaining a right to fully participate in society, free of the stigma of their past crimes. Both families of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated advocates, have motivation that brings them to the field of advocacy with passion and commitment that is often left unrewarded, leading to frustration and exhaustion.

Within criminal justice reform advocacy organizations, there are a number of different roles to fulfill in order to be effective in their work and remain mission focused. A brief look into some of these roles can give us some perspective on the internal dynamics of grassroots organizations and in turn come to appreciate their significance. Understanding these roles, they're functionality and their necessity can better aid us in pinpointing the challenges to the effectiveness of such roles and ultimately an organization's impact in bringing about change.

The Challengers

They are those who are boots on the ground, bringing awareness to issues of injustice and negligence that take place on the inside of the pre-trial process, jails and correctional facilities. Most of the people in this role are either directly impacted and experience the injustice and mistreatment first hand ( incarcerated people, family members and loved ones etc.) or are made privy to institutional negligence through communications from justice impacted people seeking their assistance. In most cases, challengers are keen to seek matters of malfeasance set right through being a voice for those who are often taken advantage of by the system. They advocate for change and redress of grievances through less conspicuous ways such as phone zaps, and emails to more attention grabbing tactics such as protest and rallies to put a public light on the injustices.

Educators/Facilitators

They help to create and provide programs that assist in training advocates to effectively organize around issues and also provide viable solutions. There are also those in this role that develop and facilitate programs that help with healthy adjustment to incarceration and reentry. Giving justice-impacted people the tools for overcoming the psychological effects of incarceration prepares them for society and holds just as much value as empowering them to challenge issues of systemic failures. It's important that the educator's approach and objectives be balanced to ensure that their advocacy doesn't become grievance centered without the elements of self-reflection and self-accountability. A solely grievance driven mindset will be remiss to look at his or her own need of reflection and focus more on exposing and reforming the system. This approach isolates the advocate from working with the broader community to create a path of understanding and empathy for incarcerated people.

Justice Evolved

They are advocates who are legislative and policy savvy and whose primary area of focus is speaking on behalf of the incarcerated by preparing and proposing practical reforms. The term "justice evolved" indicates their experience and knowledge with the legal process and procedures along with having knowledge of how to operate within them to gain ground on the legislative landscape. Such expertise and acquired skills include researching case law, interpreting state, and federal statutes, identifying legislative intent, familiarity with state representatives, their positions in committees, the districts they represent, and their political leanings in regard to the issues on which advocates plan to campaign. They have a detailed understanding of the assembly rules and process of getting a bill proposed and passed through each house. This intimate knowledge Is usually obtained by this breed of advocates sheer determination and diligent effort dedicated to that side of the work in addition to an unrelenting desire to learn the law and be empowered through its civil application.

Behind-the-Scene-Operators

These individuals are also known as the technicians and strategists. They are instrumental to the logistical aspects of the organization's capacity to spread its message, rally support, raise funds and organize events. They are committed to tasks such as designing websites, collecting data, grant writing, scheduling meetings and assessing the overall impact in the organization's area of advocacy. They are highly skilled in the use of technological tools, social media platforms, marketing strategies and organizational management. They keep everyone organized and have the ability to assess needs to increase or downsize projects between mission-critical and mission supportive objectives

The coordination of all the above roles and responsibilities are vital to accomplishing effective advocacy that is consistent, impactful and continues to build steam as the organization achieves its short, mid to long term goals in a steady pace. The need for networking and advocacy training with other effective orgs is essential to building community support and collaborative effort around issues looking to be reformed. In understanding this, the most important aspect of advocacy is a genuine love for seeing justice raised above all forms of oppression and for society to be governed by an uncompromising conscience to uphold, not just the laws of the land, but the natural laws safeguarding human dignity.

All those who have been adversely impacted and cast aside by the system as though their lives don't matter and are made to feel powerless in their situation can get connected to the groups who are striving in their cause. So don't lose hope and be empowered by every day we're given to improve our condition and regain our priceless freedom.


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