The book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander has been a game changer. To social justice, it is what Silent Spring was to the environmental movement and what The Feminine Mystique was to the women’s movement.
In 2013, the Working Group on Racism of Baltimore Yearly Meeting (the Quaker group encompassing parts of four states) proposed a One-Book Project, for members of constituent Quaker meetings to read this book, and for meetings to hold study groups. Many complied. Annapolis Friends invited members of St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, a mostly African American church, to join them for seven sessions of discussion.
Several sessions into the book study, there was an item in the local paper saying that the Anne Arundel delegation to the General Assembly was holding a hearing to learn what county residents hoped the 2014 session would achieve. We signed up and presented a proposal to form a task force to see how the rate of incarceration might be lowered in Maryland. Unknown to us, word had gotten out that we were making that presentation, and a large number of people from the Committee of Concerned Citizens and Maryland C.U.R.E. came to the hearing from Baltimore. They made up about 75% of the audience. This was the beginning of the coalition that now includes criminal justice professionals, people who have been incarcerated, and many others from various parts of Maryland.
Senator Joanne Benson from Prince George’s County contacted us asking to sponsor the bill. Delegate Darren Swain sponsored it in the House of Delegates. We lobbied hard but the bill did not pass. One reason was that General Assembly leaders actively discouraged legislators from supporting legislation involving task forces.
At the end of the session, we hit the ground running, deciding to bypass a task force in 2015 and just put forward seven bills that would propose what we had hoped a task force would accomplish. As the alliance grew, we adopted the name Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR).