Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged

Fighting to reverse the trend of mass incarceration and correcting sentencing bias and injustices that remain uncorrected in Virginia." -- Lillie Branch-Kennedy, Founder/Executive Director Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised (RIHD)

The Long Road to Change

Aug 21, 2013 | by admin

The Mobile Justice Tour is underway in Virginia.

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A week into its 15-city swing through Virginia, the Mobile Justice Tour (MJT) is gaining momentum with every stop. The ambitious tour is designed to highlight and challenge Virginia policies that create barriers for formerly incarcerated citizens returning to their communities.

The MJT focuses on three key issues: the restoration of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions, removing criminal background checkboxes from employment forms for many city jobs, and the support of programs that engender successful prisoner re-entry into society.

Host organizations for the tour include Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged (RIHD); Bridging the Gap in Virginia; Good Seed, Good Ground; Virginia Organizing; and Advancement Project. The momentum and energy is helping to lay the foundation for wider grassroots efforts in preparation for the 2014 Virginia General Assembly, when organizations spark active public discourse around the idea of “fair and commonsense legislation.”

For a person spending much of her summer shuttling around the commonwealth in an 8-passenger van, tour organizer and Community Restoration Campaign Director, Lillie Branch-Kennedy, is enthusiastic.

“Everywhere we go, people want us to return and follow-up on our activities. We had a great turnout in Harrisonburg, a great audience. There are a lot of people planning on attending in Danville. The rally in Richmond is going to be huge.”

The MJT is an initiative of the Community Restoration Campaign, which is an effort to end mass incarceration and lower recidivism rates in Virginia. Juggling priorities and causes can be difficult while sizing up a bloated prison system that could use a top-to-bottom overhaul, but Branch-Kennedy has worked hard to streamline content and keep focused on a handful of primary issues.

One of those issues is the checkbox found on every municipal employment application in circulation, the one that forces an applicant to answer the question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? The MJT wants to erase that question making ‘city’ jobs a possibility.

“Banning the box would reduce barriers and reduce recidivism for people with criminal histories,” Branch-Kennedy explains. “The felony questionnaire would be deferred until the actual interview and allow the applicant to be evaluated on his or her actual job abilities. It would make the application process much more fair.”

Many former prisoners decades after incarceration are still hindered by their records. Enter Richard Walker, one-time inmate and founder of Bridging the Gap in Virginia, a man that has witnessed unfair penal policies from both inside and outside the system.

“Bridging the Gap in Virginia is a state-wide networking and support group that works with ex-offenders, assisting with their re-acclimation into the community. We focus on resources, employment, housing, and other areas.” Walker needs only one example to crystallize his mission. “I’m working with a man that’s been out of prison for 20 years and is still being denied housing. It doesn’t make sense that a released, productive member of society is being denied that basic right. When does Virginia become a more redemptive state and a less punitive state?”

Another group that has been extremely active with the MJT is Virginia Organizing, a statewide multi-issue group that takes on Goliath injustices with the weapon of unification.

Kathy Woodson at Virginia Organizing says, “Lillie shared the idea of the justice tour and it seemed like a great way to go out into the community rather than having the community come to us. Whatever the issue is–whether it’s healthcare reform, Medicaid expansion, or how budget shortfalls affect students–our job is to get people informed and show them the connections out there. You have to work together; it’s the only way to reach everyone.”

Advancement Project, another MJT tour host, is a multi-racial civil rights organization with a mission to “fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy.”  Since 1993, Advancement Project has fought for automatic rights restoration for citizens returning to their communities after incarceration. After years of struggle and a well-orchestrated grassroots campaign, the effort culminated this summer when Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell announced plans to automatically restore voting rights to state citizens with nonviolent felony convictions. The policy took effect on July 15, 2013.

These types of victories inspire fighters like Lillie Branch-Kennedy. The cross-pollination and collaboration of many small groups can cultivate change and make a difference.
As Lillie says, “You don’t need millions of people to get something done.” Sometimes it’s just 8 people in a van and the friends they make along the way.

The next stops of the tour will be Danville on August 17, Norfolk on August 20, and Alexandria/Fredericksburg on August 27. Follow @va_mjt on Twitter for an updated tour schedule and the latest news.  Learn how to get involved at the Community Restoration Campaign site.

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