Criminal Justice Reform

In 2018, residents of Florida voted to re-enfranchise people who were formerly incarcerated and had felony convictions on their record. In Florida this impacted an estimated 1.4 million returning citizens. Amendment 4, also known as the “Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative” passed with 64.55% of the vote. In Louisiana the reform targeted the front end of sentencing. In 2018, the state passed Amendment 2, the “Unanimous Jury Verdict for Felony Trials Amendment” with 64.35% of the vote. Prior to the passage of Amendment 2, Louisiana was one of two states that permitted non-unanimous jury convictions. The amendment to the state constitution now requires unanimous jury convictions for felony trials, whereas previously only 10 out of 12 jurors had to find someone guilty for them to be convicted.

Following the leadership of directly impacted people leads to meaningful wins - The people who led these fights were personally impacted by the criminal justice system and developed strategies that centered others who were system-impacted. This created new organizing models and possibilities, garnered a broad spectrum of support, and mobilized millions of people in Florida and hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana.

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Takeaways for Innovations in Power-Building and Following Directly Impacted People’s Leadership

  • Building Transformative Power

    The campaigns in Florida and Louisiana demonstrate how much power can be built when power-building is the explicit goal.

  • Tailored Micro-Targeting Can be More Effective than Messaging that Appeals to White Swing Voters

    While many pollsters and communications consultants have a practice of focusing messaging on swing voters who tend to be white middle-aged women, these case studies show that bipartisan framing that is hyper-focused on not triggering white people may alienate BIPOC voters.

  • Innovative Strategies can Reach Unlikely and Infrequent Voters

    New strategies to bring the issues to new populations also proved to be effective in Florida and Louisiana.

  • Building Power by Strengthening Capacity

    Where traditional civic engagement is measuring the outcomes of elections as a test of power, these organizations are building power.

  • Elections are One Tool in a Larger Strategy to Overhaul Systems

    For many organizations, elections and electoral fights are one tool in a larger strategy to overhaul systems for liberation.

  • Consultants and donors will be accountable to the same set of values that exist in the community.

    The challenges that emerged between some of the consultants and funders who supported these campaigns teach us the value of connecting with people with ties to the local communities and following their leadership.

  • Campaigns Continue to be Carried by Black and Brown Women

    While Black men were the impetus and driving force for Florida’s Amendment 4 and Louisiana’s Amendment 2 campaign, Black and Brown women were responsible for much of the work.

“We're all fighting for freedom together collectively, and when we have issues that we can all come together on, something beautiful happens… We collectively restructured our constitution that was rooted in white supremacy." - Nia Weeks

Power-building assessment

The campaigns in Florida and Louisiana demonstrate how much power can be built when power-building is the explicit goal. These campaigns pulled off victories that many never believed could happen, and they did it by following the leadership of people who were closest to the issues and building out grassroots campaigns that prioritized long-term vision, adopted innovative strategies, and led to a mass mobilization of new voters.

  1. Newly activated individuals


    Many people were activated as organizers in both campaigns. For instance, more than 8,000 people volunteered for the Amendment 4 campaign in Florida.

  2. New voters or communities participating in electoral politics


    Respondents in Louisiana described how even the conservative parishes and cities that they organized in, such as Shreveport, voted in support of Amendment 2, and Amendment 4 received more than 5 million votes in Florida.

  3. New organizations/programs


    In Florida, Desmond formally incorporated the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition as an organization and turned it into an organization of returning citizens rather than an organization of organizations; now it has more than 7,000 members, 20+ chapters, an email list of 10,000–15,000, and a database of more than 1 million returning citizens. Itohan Ighodaro also founded Hard Knocks Strategies, and the Dream Defenders added a fellowship program that paid 50 young people to engage in electoral organizing in Florida. In Louisiana, the Unanimous Juries Campaign helped organizations like Citizen SHE United get on their feet and build power and credibility.

  4. New networks, coalitions or organizing relationships


    In Florida, Ighodaro built out a statewide grassroots organizing coalition of 200 organizations. In Louisiana, the campaign formalized relationships with local groups that already had strong ground games, such as New Ground Strategies, Citizen SHE, the Jeremiah Group, a group of faith leaders, the Neighborhood Partnership Network, the Southwest Louisiana Community Coalition, Step Up Louisiana, Women with a Vision, and VAYLA.

  5. New funders


    Respondents described seeing money like they had never seen before flooding into their states as these campaigns got underway.

  6. New audience or increased attention


    Both the Amendment 4 campaign and the Unanimous Juries Campaign gained national and inter-state attention. One example of this in Louisiana was John Legend offering to record a robocall to encourage voters to support the Unanimous Juries Campaign.

  7. New access to decision making


    People who were system-impacted and Black women were the primary decision-makers in spaces that they had previously been excluded from in both states. Desmond Meade and Norris Henderson were able to set the agenda and strategy for their respective campaigns and Black women like Itohan Ighodaro (FL) and Ashley Shelton (LA) were seen as trusted leaders capable of making big decisions and leading successful campaigns.

  8. New positional power for communities that have been traditionally marginalized


    Meade and Henderson are now nationally recognized as leaders in this work.

  1. New frameworks or narratives in explaining an issue


    In Louisiana, organizers candidly had conversations about Jim Crow laws, anti-Black racism, and their own experiences of incarceration. In Florida, organizers effectively broadened the conversation about who stood to benefit from restoring the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions.

  2. New organizing models, strategies or tactics


    In Louisiana, VOTE created a new model that formed a base of people who were incarcerated or formerly incarcerated and mobilized their networks. In Florida, young organizers formed the Statewide Alignment Group (now Florida for All) and emphasized meeting their constituents where they were by ensuring that organizers were representative of their constituents and could share information in their languages. Both campaigns also built statewide power by creating distributed hubs that connected cities and rural areas.

  3. Expanding know-how to new groups around ballot initiative or other civic engagement processes


    Both campaigns led trainings for organizers that prepared groups to continue the fights past these specific campaigns, for example Sheena Rolle’s work with Faith in Action in Florida and VOTE’s work in Louisiana.

  4. Community has autonomy and agency throughout the campaign


    In Louisiana, VOTE and the Power Coalition asserted their authority and made decisions based on what they believed was best for their communities, despite the direction of consultants on the project. In Florida, funders pressured local organizations to partner with specific consultants, but community leaders still acted with their own discretion, showing that they did have some agency.

  5. Community knowledge is respected in the process


    Both campaigns were born out of community knowledge and the recognition that people closest to the pain are also closest to the solutions. Some outside consultants tried to stifle community leadership in both fights, however, ultimately Henderson and Meade’s visions and commitments to centering people who were directly impacted shaped the campaigns.

  6. Campaigns are accountable to community members


    Many of the organizations involved in Louisiana’s fight for unanimous juries have deep roots in Black communities, which necessitates a certain level of accountability. Similarly, in Florida, leadership of community members from across geographies, faiths, and walks of life indicates that this was grounded in community interests. However, neither of the campaigns talked about forming community advisory boards or other structures that would formalize accountability to community members.

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