What Can We Do?

Leonard Pitts is going to begin writing a series of columns to answer the question posed to him by a 55 year-old white woman from Austin, TX who said she was heartsick about the police violence against unarmed African Americans and wanted to know what she could do. He starts by reporting what Rev. Tony Lee said in response.

“Protests,” Lee told me in a telephone interview, “are one way that pushes people’s feet to the fire. Whatever the issue is, it’s brought to the forefront. But…there’s still need for people to do legislative advocacy, dealing with policy, whether it’s from the national to the local, showing people how to be engaged and [affecting] the policies that have such direct impact.”

I thought about that when I read Ari Berman’s column about this:

That’s related specifically to the state of Maryland. To find out where your state stands on felony voting rights, the ACLU has a great map. Go check it out.

But there is something even more basic that needs to be done to empower ex-felons – who happen to be disproportionately black. They need jobs. As I’ve discussed previously, one of the things that is contributing to the historically low labor participation rate is the fact that the era of “get tough on crime” policies and mass incarceration has led to a record number of people with felony convictions who struggle to find meaningful work.

There are two efforts underway to address this issue: (1) Ban the Box is a movement to get employers (either voluntarily or through legislation) to stop asking the question about felony convictions on job applications, (2) the REDEEM ACT would allow people with nonviolent felonies to petition for the sealing of their criminal records.

If you want to know what you can do to ignite the process of change…getting involved in any of these efforts would be a good place to start.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.