Fighting for human rights and a working future for all

By Quintin Williams

“Criminal justice reform” and “reentry” have been buzzwords for advocates and politicians working toward justice for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people (a protected class among other marginalized groups) since the early 2000s. Legislation framed by these terms — the Second Chance Act (with it subsequent reauthorizations), sentencing reform and, most recently, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act — has allocated some resources to support those impacted by the criminal legal system, but we need a major culture shift. On this International Human Rights Day, let’s shift our language to reflect what we’re truly after: dignity, human rights, and a working future.

We need different thinking to address the more than 44,000 “collateral” consequences that prevent people with criminal convictions and arrest records from stable employment that pays a living wage, truly affordable housing and a host of other necessary supports and resources. There are still 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S. There are still 6 million citizens who cannot vote due to a felony conviction. Women have been incarcerated at a rate 50 percent higher than men since the 1980’s. The utilization of private prisons and the profiteering off of the backs of imprisoned people — even in reentry — is alive and well.

All of these lived realities are also shrouded in a cloud of racial disparity, as African Americans feel the greatest weight of the criminal legal system in historic consequence, with the immigrants of the Black diaspora, Native and Latinx people also disproportionately impacted. All of this then begs the question: How can we build momentum that creates real, lasting change for the millions of Americans that have suffered with no relief?

First we must reframe the rights of formerly incarcerated and imprisoned people as human rights. Dignity and human rights must be the guiding light for our policy reforms. A human rights framework acknowledges, among other things, that freedom from poverty is a human right and that all human rights — civil, political, social and cultural — are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. This is the intersectional framework that we need to advance criminal justice beyond the incremental victories that do not get us where we really need to go. We cannot eliminate collateral consequences and create better futures for people without this framework. Until the imprisoned and formerly incarcerated are treated with dignity, as human beings, our efforts are hollow and without substance.

JustLeadershipUSA’s #WORKINGfuture campaign for economic justice, is a breath of fresh air. It has the aspiration and imagination we need at this juncture of our struggle. It is the straight forward, real, in-your-face proclamation that nothing short of dignity will do. #WORKINGfuture recognizes people with records as a protected class of people. The campaign is infused with a deep respect for our sisters and brothers who may have made mistakes, may have been caught up in a web of structural inequality and who may have been dealing with decades of trauma. This campaign says loudly, as Bryan Stevenson so often proclaims, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

At its foundation is the “Bill of Rights for Criminalized Workers,” which is nothing short of urgent. Every campaign across the country should have this as its foundation. As a person with a criminal record who has suffered shame and stigma, the Bill of Rights spoke to me as a profound series of affirmations engendering confidence and a compulsion to act in a way that centers those among us who are most marginalized. The Bill of Rights for Criminalized Workers demands:

  1. The right to dignity.
  2. The right to earn a living wage.
  3. The right to education and access to technology.
  4. The right to real employment opportunity.
  5. The right to a safe workplace.
  6. The right to free speech and collective organizing
  7. The right to affordable and stable housing.
  8. The right to affordable transportation.
  9. The right to affordable childcare.
  10. The right to healing.

For those of you who are not justice involved, I ask you: What kind of world do you want to live in? What does it look like to live in a world that values restoration over retribution? What would it look like for ALL people to be free to realize their potential? I want that world for my brothers and sisters with records. I want that world for my family and my children. I want that world for you and will fight vigorously to help all of us achieve a working future.

Quintin Williams is field building project manager at Heartland Alliance and a 2018 JustLeadershipUSA Leading with Conviction alumnus. The #WORKINGfuture Campaign will launch an educational webinar series in January 2019, stay tuned for more information at justleadershipusa.org/workingfuture.