In 2013, Friends from Annapolis (Md.) Meeting and members of Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church, a mostly African American church, joined together to read and discuss Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Several sessions into the book study, there was an item in the local paper announcing that the Anne Arundel County Delegation to the General Assembly would be holding a hearing to learn what county residents hoped the 2014 session would achieve. Invigorated by a new understanding of the U.S. prison problem, the book group signed up to present a forward-thinking proposal: the formation of a task force to research ways to lower the rate of incarceration in Maryland. Unknown to them, word had gotten out about their presentation, and a large number of people from the Committee of Concerned Citizens and Maryland CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) came to the hearing from Baltimore. These two groups made up about 75 percent of the audience.
Connections between the groups were made, and overlapping work came together. This meeting served as the beginning of a coalition that now includes criminal justice professionals, people who have been incarcerated, and many others from various parts of Maryland. As the alliance grew, the members adopted the name Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR), now described as a bipartisan, statewide alliance seeking legislative change in corrections policies that are evidence-based, humane, and effective. Over 30 local groups and organizations have endorsed MAJR’s work.
We talked with four Annapolis Friends involved in MAJR—Philip Caroom, Jim Rose, Patience Schenck, and Barbara Thomas—about how to organize a growing alliance, what success looks like at the state level, and advice for Friends wanting to make a difference in other states.
What ended up happening with the task force proposal presented at the hearing?
Following the hearing, Senator Joanne Benson from Prince George’s County contacted us offering to sponsor the bill. Delegate Darren Swain sponsored it in the House of Delegates. We lobbied hard but the bill did not pass. One reason was that General Assembly leaders actively discouraged legislators from supporting legislation involving task forces, given that legislators would be campaigning that summer and fall for re-election. At the end of the session, we hit the ground running, deciding to bypass a task force in 2015 and instead introduce seven bills proposing what we had hoped a task force would accomplish.
More recently, addressing mass incarceration in the United States has become a top priority for many Quakers and other faith communities. Why is it important that Friends get involved in this work now?
Friends have led prison work for years. Believing there is that of God in everyone, we cannot abide injustice. Locally, Annapolis Friends have worked with the Alternatives to Violence Project, and Patapsco Friends have sponsored a worship group in a Maryland prison in recent years. As the problem of mass incarceration began to become evident to us, we searched for the resources that we had among us to address this. This feels like way opening—where our testimonies are able to combine with local resources and a national wave to make a difference. Another reason for Friends to get involved now is that there is currently bipartisan support. Who knows how long that will last?
How is the organization of the alliance structured? How often does the alliance meet and in what form?
We have a Council that meets regularly to guide our work. It is made up of nine active members representing organizations involved in MAJR and our diverse membership (interfaith, racial, and relationship to the criminal justice system). We recruited prominent, bipartisan honorary co-chairs (a former Republican governor and a former Democratic state corrections secretary) to add to our public recognition. Initial board members included a Quaker attorney/lobbyist, a former state Probation Division director, a Quaker judge, and leaders of other nonprofit organizations.
This year, we formed three task teams to focus on specific goals: Legislative Priorities and Initiatives, Communications, and Networking and Education. Through these task teams, individuals who wish to be involved in the ongoing work can find a place for their interests. The task teams meet monthly. MAJR has large, open meetings every month or two (depending on need) in different locations (usually Baltimore, Annapolis, and Prince George’s County) to update and involve those interested in our work.
What does it mean when an individual or organization joins the alliance as a member?
All are welcome. Organizations sign up on our website, and we collaborate with them. They are engaged to help us develop MAJR’s initiatives for the year. If they have initiatives in line with MAJR’s goals, we involve our membership in promoting and supporting those as well. Individual members take part as their interests, experience, time, and gifts lead them. After signing up, members are immediately added to our email list. We currently have over 540 members across the state.
I like this sentence from MAJR’s Group Charter: “Rather than a majority rule approach, we seek a sense of unity about the best way forward for our group.” That sounds like Quaker consensus. How has this approach been working for the group, especially those who weren’t previously familiar with it?
Over the past year, we have transferred leadership from Annapolis Friends Peace and Justice Center to a diverse alliance of partners. In this transition, we have sought to maintain the core of how Friends make decisions. One of our members drew up the charter for us and included consensus in reaching unity as a goal in our work together. Each task team seeks to reach a sense of the group. We arrange chairs in a circle and attempt to ensure that all have a say and are listened to deeply. There has been no voting. The non-Quakers seem to find it a breath of fresh air and keep coming back for more!
What are the successes you’re most proud of since the start of MAJR?
Our biggest success, so far, has involved recruiting leaders of our state legislature to sponsor a 2015 bill creating the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (JRCC). Based on a federal program, this council is charged with making a comprehensive survey of our state’s criminal justice system and seeking evidence-based reforms to reduce our levels of incarceration and to substitute alternatives that will work better to reduce re-offending. They have been assisted by the Pew Research Center.
The JRCC is an arm of the state of Maryland, with not only legislators as members, but also judges, prison officials, and organizations working within the criminal justice system. In October, the JRCC was highlighted in a front page article appearing in the Baltimore Sun.
We are also proud to have worked with other partner organizations to support successful legislation titled Maryland Second Chance Act of 2015 that expands opportunities to shield some ex-offenders’ misdemeanor convictions from public view to improve their chances of finding honest employment.
What is the process of proposing bills in Maryland like? Does someone in the alliance help write them?
We are fortunate to have some MAJR members with legal and criminal justice experience who can prepare rough drafts for legislation. Once a legislator is recruited to sponsor a bill, he or she makes improvements and then submits it to the state legislature’s professional bill drafters to put it into final form.
What are the benefits of working on this issue at the state level?
More people are in state jails and prisons than in federal prisons. Therefore, it is at the state level where changes will make the greatest difference. Also, a citizen has greater access to his or her state representatives than to members of Congress. Annapolis is the capital of Maryland, and so we have easy access to the legislators. We have gotten to know many of them fairly well during the 2014 and 2015 legislative seasons (mid January through mid April). The main focus of our group has been to develop and promote legislation that addresses areas in criminal justice reform that are not being dealt with by other groups or initiatives.
What advice would you give to Friends wanting to start a similar kind of bipartisan alliance in another state?
Find the space which your interests and resources fit. Learn where the gaps are and seek to find the partners who can address those gaps.
Certainly the legislative initiatives are the most critical focus of our organization, and work on refining, explaining, validating, and advocating for these concerns is paramount. One of the essential tools of the organization is our website: ma4jr.org. We use the site to keep everyone informed, not only covering the legislative initiatives, but also promoting our endorsing organizations and collecting facts, statistics, news articles, and research reports.
The email list is used to contact our members when their local representatives need to hear from them on specific issues. Email is also used to send out a monthly newsletter and to inform people of upcoming MAJR meetings. Since we have started using MailChimp (a free email marketing service) to contact our supporters, number of visits to the website has increased substantially. And the newsletters themselves seem to propagate: for every email that is opened, four more are sent on and read by people outside our community.
For those groups and communities wanting to take action on any concern, we cannot overstress the importance of a current website and supporting email campaigns. Financing these essential components should not be a concern: so far the cost to MAJR has been less than $100 per year.