The Jewett Center for Community Partnerships and the Center for Prison Education sponsored a discussion panel on the 2020 elections, grassroots organizing, and criminal justice reform on Wednesday, Feb. 26. Led by local organizers and moderated by Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Studies Jesse Nasta, the panel offered activists and the public a space to discuss effective avenues for civic and political engagement.

Despite their differences in age and experience, the panelists share a commitment to criminal justice reform. Their respective occupations mirrored this commitment: Each panelist engaged with a different approach to advocacy to influence structural change and restorative justice.

Two panelists, Dedric “Beloved” Hammond and Reverend Maurice Winley, both take preventative and relationship-based approaches to advocacy. Hammond is the Cure Violence Specialist and Site Supervisor of the Credible Messenger Program of Harlem. His means of engaging with social justice is largely personal. After his own set of near-death encounters with gangs and subsequent incarceration, he leveraged his oratorical skills to mentor at-risk youth on the consequences of gang involvement. Winley is the Executive Director of Living Redemption Youth Opportunity Hub, where he works with American criminal justice systems, communities, and individuals to break the cycle of incarceration. The Hub, which has been in operation for 18 months, prioritizes an integrative, relationship-oriented approach to rehabilitation.

“Our mission is simple: saving lives and healing communities one relationship at a time,” Winley said. “We really believe that the relational dysfunctions are the cause for crime and relationships are the cure.”

The three other panelists aim to influence politics through community mobilization. James Jeter ’16, alumnus of the Center for Prison Education and Co-Director of Full Citizens Coalition to Unlock the Vote focuses on restoring voting rights to people affected by felony disenfranchisement laws. Jeter’s own experience with disenfranchisement influenced his outlook on advocacy.

 “I come to this work simply because I can’t vote, and it’s what, amongst other things, has led me to understand the impact of civic engagement,” Jeter said. 

Lorenzo Jones and Katelin Penner ’22 also tackle policy through community organization. As the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, Jones has a rich history mentoring community leaders, organizing communities, and consulting criminal justice and drug policy reform organizers. Penner aims to mobilize young people through electoral and political organizing as manager of the youth-led organization Our Progressive Future. The University’s E2020 Fund sponsored Penner to work on this initiative.

Nasta opened the discussion by asking about the greatest successes and failures the panelists had faced in their work. The panelists expressed their frustrations about a general lack of access to politics while highlighting the benefits of mutual collaboration between coordinators, politicians, and affected communities.

Penner gave the example of the recent roll back of bail laws by New York’s District 35 Democratic Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, as a case study of the difficulties faced by Our Progressive Future. The new bail laws, passed less than two months ago, eliminated pre-trial detention, a move Penner believes is both moral and effective in reducing crime as it keeps parents at home with children who would otherwise need alternative care. Stewart-Cousin’s rollbacks on these laws bring the whole principle of innocence, on which our judiciary system ostensibly rests, into doubt.   

“You’re supposed to be presumed innocent before proven guilty, and the entire concept of pre-trial detention goes so aggressively against that,” Penner said.

Many of the youth involved in Penner’s organization are directly impacted by these laws, but Penner believes their demands go largely unacknowledged.

“Getting leaders to take our voices seriously and listen to why and how these laws will affect our lives intimately has been a challenge,” Penner said. “I don’t think that people want to necessarily listen to young people and people especially don’t want to listen to young people that are the most grossly impacted by these measures.”

Hammond also pointed to widespread apathy in America’s legal and political systems as a challenge in his line of work. After working with impoverished and crime-ridden communities, Hammond noted that politicians do little to keep youth out of the streets outside the institution of strict penal measures. Rather than targeting housing inequality, these measures put people who have nowhere to go behind bars.

“We have so many places to put items. We have places to put diamonds, we have places to put expensive cars, but we don’t have places to put expensive lives,” Hammond said.

Jeter argues that the political arena needs to be more accessible and that organization and community involvement are the most effective ways to ensure voices are represented fairly.

“All citizenship really is, is the right to vote, and as a black man, I recognize that my say is most important in local government,” Jeter said. 

Winley noted that there is a disconnect between the legal organizations that push for policy and community organizations that are affected by these policies. The inaccessible structure of the system exacerbates the problem.  

“The system is dysfunctional,” Winley said. “It is bureaucratic, there is no renovation, it is very flat and paternalistic. That’s a challenge when you are trying to do groundbreaking work.” 

The panelists also commented on the importance of the upcoming local elections in influencing policy in favor of criminal justice reform. Jeter argued that local elections are important as a means through which communities can regain political power. 

“We need more value and principle-based voting, where it is based on our platform,” Jeter said.

Drawing from her experience organizing campaigns, Penner said that local elections are important because they remedy the divide between people who are on the ground and in office. She believes that a new, important development is the increase in public defenders running for office.

“Public defenders have worked with people who have been in the system and understand what that system looks like on the other side,” Penner said. 

Penner highlighted the importance of district attorney elections to create meaningful reform. 

“If we are looking at only what we consider to be minor crimes, this is not just something that we fight for because we feel empathy for the people who have committed these crimes,” Penner said.  “If that’s the case, we are not going to get anywhere in making true reform in our criminal justice system. It needs to be deeper, and the people who wield the most power are district attorneys.” 

At the conclusion of the panel, Winley argued in favor of a widespread movement to combat political illiteracy.

“What most people think is common knowledge is far from the mind of those who it matters the most to, in the local communities,” Winley said. “Combating illiteracy—that’s civics.”

Steph Dukich can be reached at sdukich@wesleyan.edu.

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