A Community Based Approach to Criminal Justice Reform

Feb 5, 2018 | Crime and Legal-Related, Features, Philanthropy Journal

Since their founding in 2007, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice has become a leading voice in the South seeking with justice within communities, particularly on issues where race, class, and politics intersect.

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Dustin Chicurel-Bayard

When Andrea Hudson was stopped by a police officer in 2013, she did not know that her life was going to change forever. Arrested, she found herself in the Durham County Jail with a bail that she could not afford. She stayed in jail for sixty-one days without being convicted of a crime, simply because she could not afford her bail. Access to money was her only barrier to freedom.

Unfortunately, what happened to Andrea is commonplace. She soon learned that the negative repercussions of having contact with the criminal justice system are not limited to those with criminal convictions. Once in court, every charge against her was dropped. However, Andrea later realized these charges remained on her record. The collateral consequences of her arrest damaged her ability to find housing and employment.

Andrea Hudson

Andrea was encouraged to attend a Clean Slate Clinic, a program created by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) that provides criminal record relief for community members by processing expungement applications. Skeptical, Andrea waited through a presentation before she was able to see a lawyer. Ultimately, Andrea’s record was expunged and the community empowerment program motivated her to become active and organizing with other people who faced the collateral consequences of having a criminal record.

The community empowerment session encourages Clean Slate clients to discuss the consequences they face due to a criminal record. It doesn’t take long for people to observe that while these problems are serious, they aren’t alone. There are others whose prior contact with the criminal justice system has left a lasting impact. Establishing a community is one of the points of the Clean Slate clinic. People who have been pushed to the margins suddenly find themselves embraced and supported by others who face many of the same struggles.

This organizing and fostering partnerships is key to SCSJ’s community lawyering model that has helped the organization achieve great successes in North Carolina and throughout the South.

Multi-pronged approach to criminal justice reform

While the Clean Slate clinic has a direct impact on its participants and their families, SCSJ’s criminal justice team works to transform entire communities. SCSJ combines the skills of lawyers, community organizers, researchers, and communication specialists to address a wide range of criminal justice reforms.

The Youth Justice Project of SCSJ works to promote equity in schools and end the school-to-prison pipeline in multiple ways. The project examines school suspension and discipline data to uncover patterns of discriminatory discipline in schools.  Often times, administrators are not aware of these troubling practices in their systems. Along with the data, the Youth Justice Project also develops and promotes ideas for creating more equitable opportunities for students of color. When schools fail to act, they pursue other options on behalf of students that include filing civil rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, as was true in places like in Wake County, NC, and Lee County, FL.

SCSJ uses data technology in other ways to inform the public and to hold institutions accountable in a diverse world. The Open Data Policing project compiles publicly available data about traffic stops and searches in North Carolina, Maryland, and Illinois. Through its data visualization tools, the site allows anyone to search patterns in police stops and searches by department and by officer. As with the education sphere, tracking patterns of discrimination in different communities has led to policy changes that have helped curb racial profiling. On policy reforms like requiring written consent to search a vehicle or deprioritizing pulling over vehicles for a broken taillight, cities in Durham, Fayetteville, and Asheville have improved their protocols for traffic stops and searches.

Why here? Why now?

A 2016 Clean Slate Clinic with SCSJ attorneys, law school interns, and community organizers.

Since SCSJ’s founding in 2007, SCSJ has become a leading voice in the South seeking with justice within communities, particularly on issues where race, class, and politics intersect. Challenging entrenched discrimination using a racial equity lens requires the group’s attention to the history and events that have created many of the policies that limit opportunity. SCSJ is constantly seeking new ways to challenge the norms and practices of institutions that have locked in inequality in communities for generations.

With an ambitious new effort launching in 2018, SCSJ hopes to challenge the inequitable system that jailed Andrea Hudson for two months without being convicted of any crime. SCSJ’s Bail Fund will provide a self-supporting means to prevent citizens from disruptions to their lives due to an interaction with law enforcement. The fund will assist selected community members with a cash bail requirement of $2,000 or less. 

After their court appearances, the bail is returned to the fund for use in future cases. The Fund is a lifeline for people whose temporary detainment might otherwise destroy their ability to earn a living or keep a home.

The long range goal of dismantling the money bail system is a major structural change that will not happen overnight. However, prompting systemic change has been the business of SCSJ for more than 10 years now. And in the meanwhile, the bail fund helps assure that citizens are not denied opportunity as they wait for justice. In line with our community lawyering model, it’s only fitting that Andrea Hudson be one who manages SCSJ’s bail fund. She is currently raising the money needed to get the project up and running.

Dustin Chicurel-Bayard serves as the communications director for SCSJ. Dustin works to identify communications opportunities to advance all of SCSJ’s core issues.

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