Prison Fellowship's staff, justice advocates, and justice ambassadors continue to work to make a difference.
Every January, lawmakers gather to do the work of creating law. Prison Fellowship staff, Justice Ambassadors, and grassroots advocates come alongside them to be a voice for justice that restores in states across the nation. Having reached the mid-year point when many state legislatures have ended their work, we have an opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved together.
When the Sooner State convened its 2022 legislative session, Prison Fellowship set its sights on increasing economic opportunity for Oklahomans with a criminal record, ensuring just processes, and modernizing the state’s sentencing code.
Inspired by a deep conviction in the dignity of work, Prison Fellowship played a leading role in moving forward legislation to reduce unnecessary, government-imposed barriers to employment in the realm of occupational licensing—a requirement that individuals be approved by a state board before working in professions ranging from cosmetology to nursing. Most notably, this legislation would entitle each applicant to an individual review of their criminal history and their ability to safely work in an occupation; prohibit review of certain older offenses when a person has lived crime-free for several years; and expand transparency to ensure applicants are treated fairly.
Throughout the legislative process, grassroots advocates met with their lawmakers, made phone calls, and sent more than 2,500 letters in support of SB1691. Those diligent efforts resulted in this important bill being signed into law, making Oklahoma a national leader in fair licensing processes for applicants with a criminal record.
Currently, Oklahoma allows some individuals to “expunge” or seal certain criminal records—meaning that those records are not available to the public. HB 33616 streamlined the expungement process for already eligible Oklahomans while retaining key public safety guardrails. Prison Fellowship was proud to support this legislation and to see it signed into law.
SB 1646 would have created a more orderly and proportional felony sentencing structure. Though the House of Representatives chose not to advance this bill following Senate passage, we will continue working toward punishments that fit the crime in Oklahoma.
To the east, in the Old Dominion, Prison Fellowship partnered with champions in the General Assembly, Justice Ambassadors, and grassroots advocates to support voting rights restoration and more effective processes within the Commonwealth’s occupational licensing system.
Civil Rights Restoration
The General Assembly considered an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia that would restore voting rights to people when they leave prison. Prison Fellowship lifted up this message through direct lobbying and lawmaker education, with our grassroots activists sending more than 1,500 letters of support to the General Assembly and engaging in a week of virtual lobbying. While we saw an increase in bipartisan support for voting rights restoration, the amendment was not ultimately successful. In 2023, we will continue advocating for the civic rights of those who have moved on from incarceration.
As in Oklahoma, Prison Fellowship spearheaded legislation to improve the occupational licensing application and review practices for Virginians with a criminal record.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Prison Fellowship staff and advocates mobilized against harmful legislation that would remove key rehabilitation incentives for people behind bars, while simultaneously pushing for fairness and transparency in state sentencing laws.
Prison Fellowship opposed HB 2656, which would eliminate or limit parole and sentencing reduction credits—tools that foster life change among prisoners by encouraging behavioral change and program participation. Justice advocates sent nearly 2,000 letters to lawmakers on the topic, while faith leaders and Prison Fellowship staff made the case for promoting change behind bars.
When it came to proving the value of rehabilitation in Tennessee prisons, Justice Ambassadors like Lindsay Holloway led the way. Lindsay generously shared her story of redemption with lawmakers, newspapers, and television outlets, highlighting how parole and earned time credits contribute to the success of the women she now serves in reentry ministry.
This multipronged campaign helped to prompt important changes to this harmful bill that ultimately decreased its scope and severity. We will continue to educate lawmakers about the critical role robust access to parole and earned time credits play in facilitating safe prisons, reducing recidivism, and equipping men and women behind bars for good citizenship.
Transparency in Sentencing
Prison Fellowship strongly supported HB 2183, the Transparency in Sentencing for Victims Act. This bill ensures that defendants, communities, and victims of crime are informed at sentencing about the minimum term a defendant must serve before becoming eligible for early release.
In 2021, Tennessee’s General Assembly changed its sentencing guidance for certain drug offenses. This year’s bill, HB 1449, built on that 2021 reform by allowing prisoners who were sentenced under the old law to petition for a new sentencing hearing under the current law. Prison Fellowship for pushed for passage of this legislation, and we are thrilled that Tennessee lawmakers and Gov. Lee recognize that fair punishment should not depend on your sentencing date.
Prison Fellowship staff and grassroots advocates in Michigan spent the winter and spring of 2022 building support for a package of pretrial justice reforms alongside faith leaders and legislative champions. Michigan’s legislative session will continue through the end of 2022, and we will continue to engage lawmakers on pretrial justice policies that advance pretrial liberty, justice, and public safety.
This legislation directs courts to base pretrial decisions on public safety and flight risk, encourages more cautious use of money bail and jail before trial, and expands the use of nonmonetary release conditions that allow defendants to responsibly await their court date with their families.
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