Criminal justice reformers lobby for ‘second chances’ for formerly incarcerated people
Rev. William J. Barber II (right) and Dennis Gaddy (left) on the lawn outside the state Legislative Building, call on attendees at Second Chance Lobby Day to advocate with lawmakers for criminal justice reform and voting rights. (Photo: Kelan Lyons)
Ten years ago, Dennis Gaddy stood beside the Rev. William J. Barber II at the state Legislative Building to protest a conservative General Assembly’s agenda that they believed threatened voting rights and funding for education and social services.
On Tuesday, the men once again stood beside one another outside the Legislative Building and urged the crowd before them to press on. Days earlier, the North Carolina Supreme Court had issued three rulings dealing critical blows to their causes, siding with Republican legislators on cases involving voter ID, gerrymandering and felony disenfranchisement.
“All that did was stir me up,” said Gaddy, the lead plaintiff in a case decided by the Supreme Court last week that disenfranchised more than 50,000 people on supervision as part of a felony conviction. “We’re ready to really fight and let them know that we ain’t quitting.”
Barber and Gaddy were among a small group that warmed up the crowd for this year’s Second Chance Lobby Day, an initiative that seeks to convince legislators to pass bills that would help people trying to put their lives together after serving their time in prison.
Barber framed the Supreme Court decisions as a reaction to their victories in the Moral Monday movement that began a decade prior. “This is them trying to take back what we already won,” Barber said, telling the crowd that the fight is far from over. “We need a full-out resurrection in the streets, at the ballot box and in the courts.”
And so they gathered at the General Assembly, bused in from Asheville and New Bern, Charlotte and Pitt County, Wilmington and Greensboro, to, as Barber said, “force people to see the faces of those who they are disenfranchising.”
Many were members of the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, a coalition of people with criminal records, their family members, community leaders, congregations and service providers from across the state. They spent the day talking to policymakers, urging them to support multiple bills:
- House Bill 888 would end the practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license for unpaid fines and fees or for missed court dates.
- Senate Bill 565 would reinstate automatic expungement of criminal charges that were dismissed or resulted in a “not guilty” verdict.
- Senate Bill 104 would establish that law enforcement mugshots are confidential and not public records.
- Senate Bill 730 would make people with felony drug convictions eligible for SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — after they are released from incarceration, so long as they complete a drug treatment program.
- House Bill 668 would create a group to study the costs and benefits of ending North Carolina’s “drug tax.” It requires people to place stamps obtained from the Department of Revenue on certain illicit substances like moonshine or cannabis. (If a person is found in possession of one of the substances and it doesn’t have a stamp on it, DOR can charge back taxes, penalties and interest, hence the “Drug Tax” moniker.)
- Senate Bill 583 would require officials to study the barriers people with criminal records face when trying to obtain housing.
- House Bill 708 would prevent disenfranchised people from being charged with felonies for registering to vote or casting a ballot unless they did so intentionally, with knowledge that their citizenship rights hadn’t been restored.
- House Bill 636 would abolish many fines and fees faced by people ensnared in the criminal justice system.
- Senate Bill 339 would eliminate driver’s license suspensions imposed for certain crimes.
- House Bill 836 would give indigent people leaving prisons money for food, clothes, housing and transportation.
Some of the bills have Republican support and sponsors, a key to their survival in the GOP-dominated legislature.
The Second Chance Alliance wasn’t just pushing policy changes. They were advocating for a full-on paradigm shift, Kristie Puckett-Williams, a civil rights organizer, told the crowd.
“For too long, the system has been focused solely on punishment, rather than restoration, redemption, or recovery,” Puckett-Williams said. “The result has been a system that has destroyed families and communities rather than healing them.”
Criminal records can burden people for years after they have done their time, Puckett-Williams said, preventing them from finding a job or securing housing. Truly transformative change, she added, would ensure people who commit crimes have access to education, health care, substance abuse treatment, job training and mental health care.
“We need to stop viewing ourselves as criminals and start viewing ourselves as human beings who have made mistakes,” she said. “We want to see policies that prioritize people over punishment. We want policies that make it easier for people to return to their lives after a mistake. And we want to see policies that support second chances for all.”
Those in attendance were lobbying a General Assembly broadly unsupportive of their causes. Puckett-Williams pointed out that those in the Second Chance Alliance really only have one branch of government to rely on: the executive, occupied by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
“That branch has been disempowered, effectively,” Puckett-Williams said, referring to the Republican supermajority in the legislature and the “extremist” Supreme Court, which is currently comprised of five Republican and two Democratic members.
But she said there was still hope, “a real opportunity for us to dismantle and disorganize what they have organized against us.” One crucial step: changing the narrative about the people involved in the criminal legal system.
“You are a full citizen,” Puckett-Williams said, “whether they recognize it or not.”
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