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SPLC seeks social justice at the state house

There’s no doubt the eyes of the nation remain fixed on Washington, D.C., as a new president and Congress begin their work. Our country is facing critically important issues that must be addressed: racial injustice, voting rights and the pandemic to name a few. The Southern Poverty Law Center and its lobbying arm, the SPLC Action Fund, will be working to ensure these issues are addressed by the Biden administration and Congress.

However, we cannot ignore that state government plays a critical role – and frequently the primary role – in addressing such issues. At the state level, legislators have the power to institute reforms with an immediate and far-reaching effect for communities. That’s why the SPLC is advocating for strong, progressive reform in five Deep South legislatures where we have offices: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Our state agenda for the 2021 legislative sessions reflects some of the same key issues facing our nation, a reminder of the importance of activism at the state level:

  • In these five states, we are part of coalitions advocating for pandemic unemployment and health benefits, and desperately needed protections against evictions.
     
  • We’re also promoting an array of measures to protect voting rights and expand ballot access in these states, including advocating against modern-day poll taxes and other obstacles blocking people with felony convictions from voting. And in this post-Census year, we’re opposing discriminatory redistricting and reapportionment of legislative maps that will impact elections and, ultimately, public policy for the next decade.
     
  • We will continue our work to remove Confederate monuments and symbols that frequently occupy public spaces and that celebrate the legacy of white supremacy within our public institutions.

As always, the SPLC is poised to oppose a host of regressive measures that targeting the LGBTQ community and voting access, criminalize the First Amendment right to peacefully protest, or divert desperately needed public school funding to private schools that are not bound by the same national standards for instruction.

Here’s a closer look at a few key priorities for each of these states:

Alabama

Due process for students and equal rights for youth

Alabama is the only state in the Southeast where students and parents do not have a right to a notice and a hearing before the student is suspended or expelled from school – disciplinary actions with the potential to push a youth into the school-to-prison pipeline. Alabama’s failure to ensure students and families due process results in wildly different disciplinary practices across the state’s 138 school districts. We support requiring schools to notify a parent or guardian and to conduct a fair hearing before a student is forced out of school. We are also dedicated to protecting the rights of LGBTQ students and their families, which means we oppose efforts to restrict the rights of LGBTQ youth.

Decarceration and criminal justice reform

It’s no secret that Alabama’s prison system is in crisis. The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a lawsuit after issuing two scathing letters detailing systemic failure, including shocking violence by correctional officers, sexual abuse and grossly inadequate medical and mental health care – findings highlighted in previous federal court opinions as well. The SPLC is working with coalition partners to promote sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration. And we’re continuing work to address strict obstacles to parole and significant parole hearing backlogs.

Florida

Voting rights 

In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, the largest act of enfranchisement in the nation in almost 50 years. However, lawmakers subsequently passed a law requiring returning citizens to first pay off any remaining court debt, forcing an overwhelming majority of Florida residents with previous felony convictions who registered to vote to sit out the 2020 general election. The situation exemplifies the suppressive tactics facing voters in the Sunshine State. In 2021, we will work to expand early voting opportunities and ballot access for all Floridians, including formerly incarcerated citizens wrongfully prevented from voting by such tactics.

Decarceration and economic justice

Florida has some of the longest prison sentences in the country – and the average sentence length has been increasing. We will work to reform overly harsh laws, promote rehabilitation programs, and address both racial disparities in the criminal justice system and its impact on household wealth and ensuring a living wage for all workers.

Georgia

Voting rights 

Though Georgians voted in record numbers, the 2020 primary and presidential elections exposed critical infrastructure problems and discriminatory and arbitrary obstacles to voting that must be addressed. We must modernize the vote-by-mail system to reduce wait times, mistakes and delays in receiving absentee ballots. Legislators must mandate that Georgia use a reliable in-state contractor to produce and deliver ballots. Reforms should include new requirements that make ballot drop boxes a permanent fixture of the state’s elections and codify accessibility for all voters. And, as we have urged in other states, we must end felony disenfranchisement so that people who pay taxes, work and raise families are not banned from voting because of a past conviction. We benefit when every eligible voter can participate in our democracy.

Vigilante violence and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline

While the tragic killing of Ahmaud Arbery helped lead to enactment of a historic hate crimes law in Georgia, lawmakers must now overhaul the state’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law – originally designed to keep enslaved Black people under control. Lay people are not trained, licensed or equipped to make arrests. Addressing the problems with citizen’s arrest would not affect parts of the Georgia code that allow self-defense.

What’s more, racial justice in Georgia also means ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Students of color face grossly disproportionate discipline, suspension and expulsion rates. As a result, the SPLC will be advocating for additional mental health and special education support services for students – especially Black and Brown youth – and their families.

Louisiana

School safety and discipline

In 2018, the SPLC and its coalition partners successfully advocated for legislation addressing discriminatory discipline practices in schools. As a result, the power of police stationed in Louisiana schools has been limited. This session, we’ll build on that success by promoting police-free schools and investment in counselors, nurses and other professionals to help build positive learning environments. 

Decarceration through sentencing reforms

Louisiana has more people serving life sentences without parole than Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas combined. The SPLC supports reform that would give parole eligibility to certain people who have already served the majority of their sentences. It would also reduce incarceration rates by releasing people who pose little threat to society. What’s more, such reform would release some of the oldest people incarcerated in the state’s prisons, potentially saving the state – and taxpayers – money as the prison system would no longer be responsible for the health care of people who often have expensive health care needs.

Mississippi

Voting rights

In 2020, the SPLC joined more than 20 Mississippi organizations to form Your Vote Matters, a coalition that provided voter education and absentee voter support for thousands of Mississippians. The coalition successfully urged voters to approve Ballot Measure 2, which removed 130-year-old discriminatory barriers for statewide candidates that helped prevent candidates of color from winning statewide office. This year, the SPLC is working to expand ballot box access by allowing online voter registration, permitting students to submit absentee ballot applications through a secure online portal and restoring voting rights to people who have completed their prison sentences.

Decarceration

More than 25 years ago, Mississippi abolished parole for people convicted after June 30, 1995. The state’s prison population more than doubled from 11,049 people to 22,507 by 2008. The prison population was at 18,000 people by mid-2020, which is still unacceptable. We support reform to make parole a reality for thousands of Mississippians. Last year, such legislation made it to the governor’s desk where it was met with a veto. We are optimistic for real change this year.

Fighting for reform during a pandemic

Of course, these legislative sessions will be occurring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which brings additional challenges for our legislative work. While each state’s legislative calendar is unique, one common theme is present this year: The persistent number of COVID-19 cases in our states has sparked protocols restricting public access to the state houses, limiting committee hearings and public testimony and producing a more limited legislative calendar as bills related to pandemic recovery, including changes to state budgets, will take priority and consume a significant portion of the calendars.

These are additional obstacles to our work, which isn’t easy during a typical legislative session. However, we’re ready to undertake this vitally important work.

We know the decisions made in Washington certainly make national headlines and affect lives, but we’ve never forgotten that the decisions made in state houses have the power to enact policies that strip critical protections and deepen racial inequities. Yet they can also usher in transformative change within communities.

That’s why we’ll continue working with community members and allied organizations to defend and advance civil and human rights throughout the Deep South in 2021 and beyond.

The photo at top, taken in front of the State House in Montgomery, Alabama, on Feb. 9, 2006, shows supporters of a bill that would restore voting rights to people who have felony convictions. Credit: AP/Rob Carr.