Thursday, September 2, 2010

Making a Difference: Profiling Sarah Catharine Walker and the Second Chance Coalition

 I have never had the privileged of meeting Sarah Catharine Walker in person, but technology has afforded me the opportunity to converse with her at length. I first caught wind of Sarah while researching some best practices, regarding prison reentry and a project she had worked on appeared in my google search results. I reached out to Sarah to find out more about what she was doing and she quickly responded, letting me know that she was working on a new project called the MN Second Chance Coalition. I explained to her that I wanted to stay informed as to what she was doing in Minnesota, thus began the emails. For the next year or so I received tons of emails from Sarah updating me on the progress that the MN Second Chance Coalition had been making in the struggle for ex-offender rights. It was clear that she was a dedicated revolutionary and she has continued to prove time and time again that she will not stop until her vision of reentry in Minnesota is realized. Recently the Second Chance Coalition received a very prestigious advocacy award. We at the Urban Politico thought it was the perfect opportunity to talk with Sarah and share some of her insights with our readers. Do not let Sarah's good looks fool you, she is a very insightful, intelligent woman, who will dig in the trenches today and throw on the ball gown tonight. We implore you to join in the discussion with Sarah and post any additional questions or comments you have in the comments section.

First why don’t you discuss how the Second Chance Coalition came about and how you got involved with this movement?

In late summer of 2007 a group of non-profit leaders and reentry practitioners met to discuss the possibility of raising awareness throughout the state regarding the challenges facing individuals with criminal records. Organizations committed to reform agreed to host the first-ever lobbying day with the express focus of bringing ex-offenders to the capitol and raising awareness of the too often invisible struggles faced by those with criminal records. The first “Second Chance Day on the Hill” was held February 13, 2008. The coalition applied for a small grant to help fund these efforts and with just $5,000 was able to bring over five-hundred people to the capitol.

In 2007, a consortium led by non-profit leaders, justice system advocates and affected individuals came together to request support in raising statewide and national attention to increase awareness regarding the barriers facing individuals with criminal records and highlight the importance of second chances. Since 2007 this group leaders, advocates, and affected individuals have continued to meet and press forward with policy reform. Few other issues are as politically volatile and controversial as those surrounding individuals who have committed crimes and have been incarcerated. For many years, discussion of justice reform quickly devolved into the dichotomized “tough on crime” “soft on crime” debate in which negated the possibility for pragmatic policy solutions.

While the first “Second Chance Day on the Hill” was successful in mobilizing a large number of individuals to attend there were few tangible results to herald. However, many community members and non-profit leaders encouraged the informal coalition to host another “Second Chance Day on the Hill” the following year. The lead organizers of the group met and agreed to move forward with planning for 2009. The coalition members all agreed that they wanted to ensure that the organizing efforts were more strategic and that the efforts were about more than just a single day. This year Second Chance Day on the Hill was held on February 11, 2009.

Noted academic William Gamson writes, “Powerless groups have special kinds of strategic problems. They cannot call on existing resources and must create their own based on mass support. Or, if supporting population is not sufficient, they must find ways of bringing allies to their cause.” The Minnesota Second Chance Coalition is one effort to support and develop the marginalized voice of ex-offenders while creating new and unexpected allies.

During the past two years the efforts of the Second Chance Coalition have demonstrated the potential of moving beyond traditional organizational and issue silos. The Second Chance Coalition successfully helped create bridges to non-traditional allies including, but not limited to: rural and urban communities, Juvenile Justice Advocate and Criminal Justice advocates, youth serving/advocating organizations and adult serving/advocating organizations, small non-profits and large national non-profits, community based organizations and “systems” based organization, religious and secular organization, organizations with seemingly different issue focuses and among organizations traditional vying for legislative support.

Over the past decade non-profit and advocacy organizations have grown increasingly professionalized. The professionalization of the non-profit/advocacy community has contributed to the stability of many organizations. However, structure and professionalization also creates rigidity and inflexibility. The Second Chance Coalition made a conscious decision to remain ad hoc. The temptation to formalize and institutionalize the Second Chance work in one organization was strong. However, it was agreed that much of our success lay in the fact that the work and the Second Chance movement could not be tied to any one organization. Not institutionalizing the work or formalizing the committee structure laid a foundation for inclusiveness and broad participation. Non-profit organizations who could just as easily be competing for declining public dollars were working together toward common goals.

One of the factors to which the Second Chance Coalition attributes success is the emergence of a new, youthful and energetic leadership. These emerging leaders have successfully collaborated while limiting organizational and individual power-struggles allowing an increased sense of individual and organizational efficacy.

This emerging leadership has entered their respective issue areas and their organizations with limited organizational and institutional history. While maintaining organizational and institutional histories is critical to the long-term success of organizations, the less entrenched perspectives of emerging leaders may create an opportunity to move beyond traditional partnerships and collaborative silos. Non-profit leaders and activists, like all individuals, have a tendency to work where they feel comfortable. Strong enduring collegial relationships are critical avenues of support within the non-profit and activist communities however, the safety of continuously partnering with the “usual suspects” risks stagnation and may limit create policy and organizing. Organizations remained focused on the need for policy reform that would universally benefit the clients we individually advocate for and serve.

During a period of a great economic angst and resource scarcity a myriad of non-profit agencies committed the work of promoting the Second Chance Initiative. Each organization and individual contributed in a meaningful manner. Some organizations were experiencing budget cuts and staff lay-offs. Other organizations faced completely uncertain futures. Nevertheless, all of the participating organizations did contribute. No organization was excluded based on an inability to make a financial commitment.

It is a difficult time in this period of dwindling budgets and resources in the non-profit sector. Despite this, the diverse partnering agencies and individuals of the Second Chance Coalition have all been more than eager to contribute their time, resources, and talents to the cause. It has been amazing to see the level of ‘die-hard’ dedication that the coalition members possess, and the commitment by all to continue broadening partnership and building momentum with these efforts is ultimately what is making work.

The Second Chance Coalition’s entire budget was approximately $5,000. With the small amount of money raised the Second Chance Coalition held a lobbying day with an estimated 500-700 participants, provided free buttons and t-shirts, hosted a website, held meetings twice a month, printed marketing materials for six legislative literature drops and maintained high quality design and marketing. To accomplish all of this required commitments of time and resources. In addition, it required leveraging individual and organizational relationships that no one organization could have managed alone. For example, Rebuild Resources, a social enterprise that works with individuals in the recovery and re-entry process made provided T-shirts and Buttons at cost. Rebuild Resources, members of the coalition, believed the work of the coalition was in line with their mission and made a generous in-kind donation.

Did your upbringing or circumstances in your life play a role in your decision to get involved in helping to fight the prison industrial complex?

Certainly we are all shaped by our experiences. I was born in Zambia and came to the United States when I was 4 years old. My father was black and my mother white. We moved to the Chicago area. In many ways my experience was not much different than other bi-racial children. The sad reality is that there are few African Americans who don’t know a family member or close friend who is involved in the justice system. When I speak at a historically black church and I ask the question, “how many of you have a family member or know someone who has been to prison?” the entire audience raises their hand. This is a problem. From an early age I never had any doubt that I wanted to address racial and class inequality. While at Carleton College I was taking an African American History course. We were reading a piece by the sociologist Orlando Patterson. Patterson offered a definition of slavery. He define slavery as 1. Natal Alienation 2. Violent subordination and 3. General dishonorment. I wrote a paper criticizing the definition on the basis of it being too broad and arguing that it was inadequate because the definition would include the expanding prison population. From that moment forward I never looked back and have spent my entire professional life working on issues of justice reform.

When I mention prison industrial complex to most people, they look at me like some weird, conspiracy theorist. What does this term mean to you?

Personally, while I am sympathetic the Prison Industrial Complex concept I have not found it useful in a legislative advocacy. The term industrial complex is over-used and lacks clear definition. When a concept is too inclusive or amorphous it makes it difficult to attack specific issues. When I work with college interns I frequently hear the term Prison Industrial Complex, Non-Profit Industrial Complex, the Social Service Industrial Complex and the Military Industrial Complex. I think the term industrial complex offers too easy an out for advocates. It makes the work seem daunting and impossible. How does one take on the industrial complex. Perhaps more importantly, for me, the concept of the prison industrial complex is really a question of resource allocation. Where do we allocate our resources? In social support programs or in our justice system? We need to shift the conversation to focus on resource allocation that prioritize outcomes that support individuals, their families and the communities where they live. Our policies should support the outcomes we desire: public safety, reduced recidivism, healthy communities and families, and more efficient use of our resources. Our current policies often work against the public interest by creating a system of “perpetual punishment.” In truth, in MN, the coalition has worked to develop and establish partners in public safety. Increasingly with diminishing budgets and increased research on what is actually effective many law enforcement professionals and corrections professional would also like to see reduced barriers.

Talk a little bit about the political/social/economic landscape in MN, in the context of the work your doing with prison reentry.

MN has one of the smallest prison populations, but one of the largest numbers of individuals on probation or parole. MN ranks 4th highest in the nation for the number of individuals on probation or parole (supervised release in MN). 152,319 Minnesotans (1 in 26 adults) are currently under correctional control in Minnesota, giving Minnesota the 8th highest rate in the country. In 1982 only 1 in 98 Minnesotans was under correctional control.

Despite its history of progressiveness, MN has some the highest rates of racial disparity in both the juvenile and criminal justice system. Minorities comprise over 40% of annual felony convictions in Minnesota, but only about 12% of the general population. In MN one in five African American men of voting age are disenfranchised in a given election period. In addition, in our two largest counties, Hennepin and Ramsey, approximately 85% of the youth in detention are youth of color the vast majority African American. However, while the racial disparities are staggering and unacceptable MN is unique in that the majority of individuals who are under supervision are still Caucasian and often from socioeconomically disadvantaged rural communities. This requires ensuring that our work does not eclusively focus on the urban minority population. Progress towards justice reform in MN requires creating links between the urban and rural and addressing some of the specific needs and barriers related to rural reentry and supervision. As a result, the coalition goes to communities outside the metro are to host forums and meet with leaders in those communities. For too long urban and rural communities have been seen as working in opposition, thereby undermining larger progress. The coalition works with many partners in greater MN.

Criminal records are available to employers for a person’s lifetime. The courts have almost completely eliminated judges’ ability to expunge criminal records. No Minnesota law limits private employer use of criminal records.

In your opinion, what is the biggest problem with the criminal justice system and what would it take to solve it?

In my opinion the fundamental problem with the criminal justices system is that it has become the nexus of social inequality. The criminal justice system has become the last resort for failure of our institutions – of our institutions of health, education and economic development. As long as we continue to allow the criminal justice system to become our solution of last result the motivation to address the root problems are obscured by the politics of the justice system.

Currently in America there are more blacks in prison then in college. Is this a problem that requires legislation, more policing, stronger families etc? How do we bring these staggering statistics down?

The Second Chance Coalition held community meetings to establish our guiding principles. We support reforms that:
1. End punishment upon completion of sentence
2. Regulate availability of criminal records
3. Diagnose and treat mental health and chemical addiction
4. Include impact of collateral sanctions in plea agreements
5. Limit incarcerations impact on children and families
6. Increase access to employment
7. Secure detention should be a last resort for youth
In 2011 the MN Second Chance Coalition will advocate for the following legislative changes:

2011 Legislative Policy Agenda - Juvenile

Limit access to juvenile records.

While most people believe that juvenile records are and should be private and very limited in their long-term impact, current law creates a number of situations where juvenile records are public and/or limit the ability of the child to be employed in certain fields for many years or even the rest of their lives, unnecessarily inhibiting access to opportunities for personal and social growth for thousands of our youngest citizens. Minnesota law should be amended in the following ways:

1. Reduce Public Records for 16 and 17 Year-Olds

Currently, court proceedings for 16 and 17 year-olds charged with any felony level offense are public and the resulting records are public, even if the charges are later dismissed or reduced.

This provision should be changed to limit public hearings to 16 and 17 year-olds charged with a felony level offense that is serious and violent enough to justify a public hearing, or a provision should be created to limit access to the records if a felony level adjudication or conviction does not result from the proceedings.

2. Standardize and Limit Peace Officer Private Juvenile Record Release.

Although the BCA and the courts are restricted from releasing private juvenile records in response to informed consent requests, there are no such limitations on the release of peace officer juvenile records. The release of these records through informed consent to prospective employers and landlords can have major negative impacts on young people. Some law enforcement currently release private juvenile records with informed consent and some do not, resulting in inconsistent and unfair treatment for young people across the state.

The proposed legislative change should not attempt to modify the release of juvenile records for background checks required by statute or inter-agency governmental access to juvenile records for those who “need to know.” It would simply make private juvenile peace officer records comport with other juvenile records law, prohibiting release with informed consent to private employers and landlords.

3. Allow Set Asides for Permanent Bars Based on Juvenile Records.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) Background Studies Act includes permanent disqualification for individuals with certain serious criminal histories, without any opportunity for a set-aside or waiver of the disqualification. This bar does not make a distinction between individuals who were adults or those who were juveniles at the time of the disqualifying offense. A juvenile record should not have the same collateral consequences as an adult record.

This problem should be addressed by allowing DHS to grant a set-aside or variance if the Commissioner of DHS determines that the applicant, after they reach 21 years of age, has provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that they no longer pose a risk of harm and they engaged in the conduct while they were under age 18, unless they were convicted of a crime following certification to district court.

4. Clarify Juvenile Records Sealing

Minnesota’s criminal expungement statute (Chapter 609A) does not have any provision for the sealing of juvenile records other than when the juvenile was certified to adult court. There is a juvenile records expungement statute, Minn. Stat. § 260B.198, that states “...the court may expunge the adjudication of delinquency at any time that it deems advisable.” But it offers an inadequate remedy for sealing juvenile records because it provides no guidance to petitioners, judges, and attorneys regarding guidelines and procedures. There is confusion and ambiguity in the law about whether judges have the authority to seal executive branch records when sealing a juvenile record so many judges rely on their interpretation of the limited inherent authority of the court and will only seal court records.

Expungement law should provide those with a juvenile record the opportunity to overcome barriers created by the record and give them adequate access to opportunities for personal and social growth.

Limit sexual offender registration for juveniles.

Current juvenile sex offender law does not adequately account for the differences between juveniles and adults and often results in the unnecessary stigmatizing of juvenile offenders for the rest of their lives. Juvenile offenders do not present the same risks as adults who commit sex crimes, particularly when the charges are based solely on a difference in age. Requiring registration and tracking for these cases overly burdens resources that are needed for the most serious offenders. Minnesota law should:

1. Give judges and prosecutors discretion to require registration for juveniles when appropriate.

There are cases in which judges should have the discretion to determine at sentencing whether a juvenile adjudicated/convicted of a sex offense should be required to register and, if so, the duration of the registration and any conditions of registration. Such determination should be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the specific facts and circumstances of the case and the juvenile. Juvenile court judges and prosecutors should be trusted to evaluate the case, including the needs of the victim and the risk to public safety.

Additionally, reducing the severity level for juvenile criminal sexual conduct in some consensual situations may be another appropriate route to safely increase future opportunities for the juvenile offender.

2. Limit the application of the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA, or “Adam Walsh Act”) to juveniles

Minnesota is not yet in compliance with SORNA and may be required to come into compliance to receive federal funding. The Legislature should not bring Minnesota into compliance if doing so requires juvenile sex offenders to be treated the same as adult offenders.

SORNA does not account for the differences between juveniles and adults, and, even with recent proposed changes, will often result in the unnecessary stigmatizing of many juvenile offenders for the rest of their lives. SORNA’s mandatory registration requirements establish a blanket approach that fails to acknowledge research that demonstrates clear differences between adults and juveniles who engage in such behaviors, and who, in many cases, do not present the same risks as adults who commit sex crimes, particularly when the charges are based solely on a difference in age.

Require racial impact statements for new criminal justice legislation.

The racial disparities that currently exist in our criminal justice system may have been prevented if legislators had the data that is already available to understand the racial impact the legislation might have. Racial Impact Statements provide a tool in creating fair laws and policies that prevent unwarranted racial disparity. Legislation requiring the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to prepare Racial Impact Statements and expand the scope of data that is collected offers a systematized unbiased and evidence‐based process to decrease racial disparity in Minnesota’s criminal justice system.

The Second Chance Coalition recently won a very prestigious award. Can you tell us more about this honor and how it all came about?

MN has one of largest non-profit communities in the United States. The MN Council of Non-Profits was founded in 1987 to meet the increasing needs of nonprofits. MCN is the statewide association with more than 2,000 non-profit sector members. Each year the MCN awards non-profit mission awards. This year MCN awarded the MN Second Chance Coalition the Mission award for advocacy. After being nominated and screened by the MCN board of directors the 2,000 members vote on the award. It is a huge honor to be nominated and selected by your peers and colleagues. This is also significant for two other reason. The award demonstrates an increasing awareness the expansion of the criminal justice system and ongoing barriers faced by individuals with criminal records is critical to creating healthy communities. It is also an acknowledgement that these issues are touching all areas of social support and social service agencies. The second reason it is a significant accomplishment is because these efforts were truly done in collaboration. The coalition has operated with little financial resources and has relied heavily on in-kind donations from partners and supporters. Finally, the award is significant because it recognizes the critical role of the non-profit community in advocacy work. Especially where the justice system is involved, individuals often have limited access to traditional means of political participation. If the non-profits who have committed to serving this population do not advocate on their behalf their voice is further marginalized.

What is in the future for the Second Chance Coalition and how can interested individuals get involved?

If anyone is interested in learning more about the MN Second Chance Coalition they should visit our website We are also very active on facebook!/group.php?gid=67676923312&ref=ts .
The success of the last three years and the passing of “Ban the Box” has increased interest and enthusiasm about the Coalition. The coalition is committed to remaining informal and inclusive but, has developed its own website. Our recent success has increased the number of coalition partners and we are excited about continuing and expanding our work. While our work will remain focused at the MN State level we hope to use our collective voice to influence both local jurisdictions and federal policy makers.
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