We’re seeing growing signs that people in the United States are waking up to how broken the criminal justice system is – and joining efforts to reform it!

The excitement amongst many of our friends and partners was palpable at an event Virgin Unite co-hosted in New York along with InMaat Foundation and The David Rockefeller Fund. We came together to celebrate #CUT50 and the leadership of formerly incarcerated women across the US.

Virgin Unite, #CUT50
Van Jones, Topeka Sam, Pamela Winn, Syrita Stele-Martin, and Gale Muhammed at Virgin Unite’s Dignity event in New York

Women like Topeka Sam, Pamela Winn, and Syrita Stele-Martin (pictured above) are among a growing number of leaders who are sharing their personal stories, often both painful and inspiring, to restore dignity to the millions who have lost it in the US criminal justice system.

They are leading united Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaigns across the country, which aim to change the shocking housing conditions and treatment faced by incarcerated women. Their efforts are also helping drive and win some of the most important broader criminal justice reform efforts that are underway.

Virgin Unite, #CUT50
Criminal justice reform leaders Topeka Sam, Ivy Woolf Turk, Syrita Stele-Martin, Gale Muhammed, and Pamela Winn

Among those broader efforts, Topeka and Pamela joined hundreds of formerly incarcerated leaders who canvassed Florida in support of a state ballot campaign that just restored voting rights to 1.6 million people who had been blocked because of their criminal record. The vote overturned a Jim Crow-era law written by white lawmakers in 1868 to keep newly freed slaves from gaining political power. 150 years later, its passage just restored voting rights to 20 percent of voting-age African American Floridians. The state also voted to allow criminal justice reforms to apply retroactively, which could significantly lower the state’s prison population. 

In Louisiana, Syrita’s organisation, Operation Restoration, helped convince voters to overturn another Jim Crow-era practice, allowing non-unanimous juries to convict defendants in felony cases. The overturned law – put in place after African American men won the right to vote, and therefore serve on juries – was designed to make it easier to for white jurors to essentially nullify the votes of the few black Americans that might sit on a jury with them.

Recent victories in Florida and Louisiana aren't the only signs that America is ready to change. Voters in Washington State took a stand against police shootings, changing a law that made it nearly impossible to hold police officers accountable for excessive force. Three states approved marijuana referendums: Michigan legalised it for recreational use, and Missouri and Utah approved it for medical use. Colorado became the first state to overturn a constitutional provision that allowed prison slavery. Similar language in the US Constitution and more than a dozen state constitutions is seen by many as both a symbol and historic driver of extreme racial disparities in the US criminal justice system.

The US midterm elections also marks the renewal of an aggressive push for a federal prison and sentencing reform bill would have a significant impact on the federal system. The latest version of the bill would make it easier for prisoners to re-enter society, bar pregnant women from being shackled, expand good-time credits, mandate that inmates be placed near family, shorten federal three-strike drug penalties from life in prison to 25 years, reduce two-strike drug penalties from 20 years to 15, and allow retroactive sentencing for crack cocaine cases judged under tougher historical laws.

Topeka, Pamela, Syrita, the #CUT50 team, and many others have spent months in and out of Washington, D.C. lobbying for what’s been called the ‘First Step Act’. They secured a victory in the US House of Representatives, support of the US President, and the promise of a vote in the Senate after the midterm elections. Success would mean the first major federal prison and sentencing reform bill passed in decades. 

We’re proud of our support from groups like #CUT50 and leaders like Topeka, Pamela, and Syrita, and we’re just getting started! To learn more about how to get involved in Virgin Unite’s criminal justice reform efforts, don’t hesitate to reach out: joshua.wiese@virginunite.com