By Quintin Williams, Campaign Manager for Research and Policy, Heartland Alliance
Recently, Research and Policy and READI Chicago staff had the opportunity to attend The 3rd Annual Smart On Crime Innovations Conference, an annual conference that brings together researchers, advocates, activists, government officials, funders, people with lived experience in the criminal justice system, and others to focus on innovations in criminal justice policy.
While at the conference, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel about the need to dismantle the permanent punishments that face people with criminal records – otherwise known as “collateral consequences.” One of the biggest points that I wanted to reinforce was that people with lived experience must be actively involved in the fight for reform. Their voices have been crucial to the success we’ve achieved working as part of the Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois (RROCI), a coalition led by people with criminal records, community organizers, lawyers, and policy specialists who advocate for real criminal justice reform. Previous reform efforts have often made people with records the objects of policy rather than the architects. However, at Heartland Alliance, we are committed to working in a way that puts the power of sketching solutions into the hands of those closest to the problem. This commitment has allowed us to make some great strides in the fight for justice reform and now, it has brought us to the precipice of a bold new plan to not just chip away at permanent punishments but remove a broad list of collateral consequences.
And while I had the opportunity to lift up the importance of truly incorporating impacted people, I had the privilege of learning a few things from the conference as well, including the importance of framing and language in the movement, the need to ground any efforts in a human rights approach, and also the need for bipartisan support for reform. This movement for change can only be successful if we focus on relationship building and bringing people along, so it is critical that we have those on both sides of the aisle supporting people with records, those who suffer under the weight of collateral consequences.
This conference created an environment to discuss ideas, explore critical tensions, and imagine a world where individuals are not defined by their experience with the criminal legal system. It was an informative, communal, and hopeful event that reflected the deep desire of people from around the country to create a future that is humane and just. Our leadership within the movement is a deep reflection of our focus to achieve equity and opportunity for all.