The New Southern Strategy Coalition works on criminal records reform in the South
“I don’t know why everyone is talking about the New Jim Crow; in the South the old one never went away.” – 2013 New Southern Strategy Coalition conference participant
The New Southern Strategy Coalition is a collaborative network of Southern advocacy groups and their national allies, originally convened in 2011 and dedicated to reducing the negative consequences of a criminal record in the South. Because the South has always been seen as a region resistant to criminal justice reform, many national groups do not have a presence there, and state-based advocacy efforts are generally underfunded and understaffed. The voices of those most affected are missing from southern state capitols, and the region is often left out of the national dialogue altogether.
NSSC addresses these challenges by providing opportunities for southern organizations to network and share information about regional best practices to minimize legal barriers to reentry. The premise is that state-specific reform efforts in the South will be supported and magnified by the Coalition’s collective goals operating across a unified landscape. NSSC holds regional conferences to discuss effective reform strategies, provides training and materials, ensures that the voices of directly affected individuals are included in a meaningful way, and uses web-based and social media tools to leverage reform efforts.
NSSC hopes to lay the foundation for a stronger movement for the reform of reentry policies, both in the South and nationally. While the Coalition recognizes that minimizing interactions with the criminal justice system is the ultimate goal, we have chosen the lens of reentry and collateral consequences as an effective reform tool in a region that has not dealt with its legacy of racism, and which unabashedly declares support for “law and order” policies. Opening the dialogue with efforts to reduce recidivism paves the way for a broader conversation about drug policy and front-end criminal justice reform.
NSSC’s vision is that all people throughout the nation have American citizenship rights to fair and equitable opportunities to thrive and succeed politically, socially and economically. Our mission is to be a diverse, Southern-based catalytic force for change, working with national allies and people directly impacted by the criminal justice system and their families, to remove the barriers they face to full participation in society, using direct services, education, organizing, advocacy, and litigation.
The Need for a Southern Coalition
The Coalition is particularly important for two reasons. First, the South has been ground zero in the build-up of the U.S. prison population. Overall, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but it is the South that has led this growth trend. Nationwide one in 31 adults is behind bars, on probation or on parole, but in Georgia, for example, one in 13 adults is under correctional control.
Second, Southern states tend to have more restrictive barriers to reentry than in other regions, perpetuating a cycle of arrest and recidivism. This was established by the Legal Action Center’s seminal report, After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry. Given the disproportionate effect of these barriers on communities of color, the need for a regional effort becomes clear. Research has shown that a criminal record constitutes more of a barrier to employment for black men than it does for white men as reported by Devah Pager in Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. The last census found 47% of Black Americans live in the 14 states encompassed by the New Southern Strategy Coalition, and recent reports indicate a trend of black migration to the South.
Our experience as southern-based advocates teaches us that reform strategies that work in California or New York are not always effective in Alabama or Mississippi. Also, conservative southern legislators, who dominate our state houses, are generally more interested in what is happening around the region rather than what is happening in other parts of the country.
There are many underfunded and understaffed Southern state and local groups that care about these issues and want to become more involved in advocating for change. Unfortunately, national funders are often reluctant to invest in the South because of the lack of infrastructure and capacity of non-profit and advocacy organizations. (See Grantmakers for Southern Progress.) A goal of the Coalition is to strengthen the capacity of these organizations, and through partnership, produce greater results than each group could accomplish on their own.
Structure and Activities of the Coalition
NSSC is led by a steering committee that consists of several state-based organizations – Georgia Justice Project, The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (North Carolina), South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, LifeLine to Success (Tennessee), and One Voice Mississippi – and two national partners – the National H.I.R.E. Network and the National Employment Law Project. Members have largely donated their time over the last three years to bring the idea of the Coalition to fruition. Beyond the steering committee, NSSC is a loose network of individuals and organizations working on reentry and criminal justice reform. Over 90 individuals, representing over 57 different organizations, have participated in the Coalition by attending one or both of the regional meetings or as presenters on the webinars.
NSSC held regional meetings in 2011 in Atlanta, GA and in 2013 in Durham, NC. In 2014, state meetings were held in Mississippi and Tennessee. The NSSC has also hosted several webinars, with its latest webinar coming up on Wednesday, December 3rd, “Reactions to Ferguson from Arch City Defenders.”
Please join this effort by signing up on the website, www.newsouthernstrategy.org. After joining, you will receive an email with a passcode that will allow you to log into the members section of the website. It may take up to one week to receive the passcode.