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Sentenced for Life

March on Annapolis Draws Parallels between Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Reform

Jefferson Jackson Steele
EQUAL UNDER THE LAW: (From left) Kimberly Haven and Tara Andrews say the struggle for ex-offenders’ rights is the next frontier of the civil rights movement.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 1/12/2005

Last Summer, 43-year-old Montgomery County resident Kimberly Haven was awake at 2 a.m., channel surfing, when she tuned in to an episode of The Cosby Show. Haven watched as the Huxtable family listened to excerpts from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech and brainstormed a dream of her own—a world in which ex-offenders released by the criminal justice system would receive rights equal to those of individuals who have never run afoul of the law.

Haven is an ex-offender who owned her own event-planning business before being incarcerated in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup in 1998. She served three years in prison for writing bad checks, and although she has turned her life around, like thousands of other former inmates across the state, she says that she faces major obstacles that make it difficult for her to reintegrate into society. For example, ex-offenders like Haven have difficulty finding jobs and may be barred completely from working in certain fields, such as health care and public schools. Ex-offenders who have faced drug convictions may be banned from receiving welfare benefits, and ex-felons in Maryland and many other states do not have the right to vote.

Today Haven, now a campaign coordinator for the nonprofit advocacy group Maryland Justice Coalition, has been out of prison for three years, but she has not given up on a promise she made when she was released: to raise awareness about the ex-offender population—a growing group in Maryland, 95 percent of whom return to their communities after release after they have done their time in jail.

To make good on that promise, she has taken the lead in organizing the Justice Monday march on Annapolis on Jan. 17—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—to draw a parallel between the growing movement to give ex-offenders equal rights to that of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Just as laws prevented African-Americans and other people of color from voting, working, and living where they wanted, prisoners’ rights advocates say today’s laws similarly restrict those released from prison.

“In the ’60s people were fighting for equal opportunity in terms of employment, education, and housing,” says Tara Andrews, executive director of the Maryland Justice Coalition. “And in a large sense, 40 years later, and in terms of the impact of the criminal justice system, we are still fighting for the same things on behalf of ex-offenders. And the majority of these ex-offenders are African-Americans.”

According to a report from the Justice Policy Institute, released last year, African-Americans in Maryland are being “funneled into prisons at alarming rates that are not wholly explained by differences in actual crime. A substantial portion of those sent to prison in Maryland are being incarcerated for nonviolent and drug offenses.”

“In the state of Maryland, African-Americans are 28 percent of Maryland’s general population but are 76 percent of the prison population,” Andrews says. “And 90 percent of those [are] serving time for a drug offense.”

Andrews calls the criminal justice system “a callous behemoth that is racist and classist.” Which is why the Maryland Justice Coalition chose Martin Luther King Jr. Day to hold its march. “You cannot advance the cause of civil rights and not put the criminal justice system at the forefront,” she says.

During her time in jail, Haven says she witnessed some of the disparities herself. She saw more women of color in the prison than white women. She says that prison offered few self-improvement opportunities; access to parenting classes, job training, and counseling, for example, was very limited. As a result, she says, women released from prisons in Maryland do not have the proper skills to get back on their feet in the outside world.

Haven worked with the Maryland Justice Coalition for the six months to organize the Justice Monday effort, in which she says “families, communities of color and women, ex-offenders, and victims of crime would walk shoulder-to-shoulder” to demand reform of the state’s criminal justice system. Some of the things the marchers will be calling for include treatment, rather than incarceration, of drug-addicted offenders; restoration of voting rights to ex-offenders; repeal of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws; improvement of the juvenile-justice system; and better programs to help ex-offenders transition seamlessly into society.

The goal of the event is to “demonstrate to other members of the public, and more specifically to lawmakers, that these issues matter to families in Maryland,” Andrews says.

Close to 20 organizations from across the state, including prisoners’ rights groups, churches, and community organizations, will take part in the march, and organizers expect to draw about 2,500 people.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to call attention to these issues,” Haven says. “People may not want to hear the story of the ex-offender, because it’s not popular, it’s not pretty, it’s not sexy. But neither was anything that happened 40 years ago when Martin Luther King marched for civil rights.”

Conservative and tough-on-crime groups take issue with the attempt to equate the problems prisoners face with those faced by black Americans in the ’60s.

“Throughout history . . . many subgroups have tried to attach their social movements with the civil-rights movement,” says David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. “And I think this comparison is unfair to the civil-rights movement.”

Muhlhausen says that those who land in prisons have forfeited their rights. He points out that some rights, such as the right to vote, can be earned back by those who truly deserve them.

“For exceptional cases, we should have the means—and Maryland does—for felons to regain their voting rights,” he says. “But the process should not be automatic. The felons must demonstrate that they have been reformed.”

Muhlhausen acknowledges, however, that the transition back into the community can be difficult, and that and more needs to be done to help ex-offenders become productive, active citizens again.

“One of the problems that ex-prisoners are faced with is that they are dumped back into society with too little oversight,” he says. “To improve the criminal justice system, the state of Maryland should offer more supervision of these offenders. Assistance should be given to offenders in finding jobs.”

Andrews points out that it’s “not hard to get a criminal record,” however, and that the U.S. Census for 2000 reported that one-third of Americans 18 and older had a criminal record—often for frivolous or petty infractions.

“If you’re standing someplace where police don’t think you should be they will do a sweep of a corner, and if they don’t find anything on you they will arrest you for loitering,” she says. “In these types of cases, people may plead guilty to a crime to get a quicker release without realizing the consequences of that plea. . . . Government should not be in the business and society should not be in the practice of punishing that person forever.”

State Del. Salima Siler Marriott (D-Baltimore City), who during her legislative career has introduced many criminal-justice reform bills before the House of Delegates, says drug addiction and strict drug laws have resulted in the overincarceration of African-Americans. As a result, she says, African-American communities in Maryland are increasingly destabilized. In 2003, Marriott introduced four bills designed to decrease the state’s incarcerated population and study the prison system.

African-Americans “are not the majority of the substance abusers in society or the [majority of] violators of substance-abuse laws,” Marriott says. “We just wind up incarcerated disproportionately.”

State Del. Neil Quinter (D-Howard County) is more conservative in his views on criminal justice reform. For example, he says mandatory-minimum sentences are appropriate in some cases, and that drug treatment cannot always be handed out in lieu of jail. But he does believe that there should be some reward—such as expungement of nuisance crimes from an individual’s record—for those who have proven to be reformed.

“[Some] people . . . think that we should take everybody and lock them up and throw away the key,” Quinter says. “But I think people can turn their lives around, and that we should maximize the opportunity for them to do so.”

Haven agrees. Since her release, she says, she has proven that she can give back to society—now she wants society to give one more thing back to her.

“I pay taxes, go to work every day, and support the government,” she says. “I’ve been home for three years, and I want the right to vote back. It’s an important part of being successfully re-engaged in society.”

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