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As people of faith, we know that our country’s legacy of racism, violence, and economic exploitation runs counter to what is prescribed in our most sacred texts. Sadly, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world is also one of the most violent and punitive. With the highest incarceration rate in the world and one of the highest gun murder rates of any economically developed nation, we find ourselves in a moral crisis—a crisis which disproportionately impacts the poor and communities of color.
With over 118 million people attending weekly services in over 350,000 congregations across the United States, we believe that a social justice revival within our faith institutions would transform our nation’s hearts and minds, and ultimately, the policies and practices that perpetuate these evils. With hundreds of congregations as well as countless leaders and movement partners throughout the country, the LIVE FREE Campaign is working to end the scourges of gun violence, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of Black and Brown bodies that tears at the soul of our society.
Road to Success
We have found that the road to ending gun violence and mass incarceration runs directly through cities and counties. While we attempt to influence federal and state policies whenever possible, our primary focus is on ensuring that sheriffs, prosecutors, police chiefs, mayors, city council members, and county commissioners are held accountable as allies, and not obstacles, to criminal justice reform. We judge our efforts based on two key metrics:
- Reduction of shootings and gun homicides
- Reduction of people incarcerated in county jails
To both support and hold local governments accountable for results, community organizers and faith and lay leaders use our LIVE FREE County Scorecards to assess county effectiveness in key areas: violence reduction; police accountability; school climate; protection of immigrant families; diversion programs for low-level offenses; elimination of private profiteering; responsible prosecution; jail fees and fines; and effective re-entry programs.
Then, using our Body-Ballot-Buck Framework, we support congregations throughout the country as they put their faith into action.
LIVE FREE congregations embrace the notion of their institutional body as a base for building moral power and a movement for racial and economic justice. Specific tactics include:
- Hosting Sabbath events where clergy and congregations preach, pray, and fast in ways that connect their faith tradition to the pressing social issues of the day;
- hosting community events (e.g., panels, candidate forums, trainings, phone banking, among others);
- participating in local actions and mobilizing efforts (lending a moral voice to public events and rallies, participating in meetings with public officials, joining and initiating boycotts and divestment actions); and
- Leading and participating in non-violent civil disobedience and protest.
LIVE FREE congregations mobilize voters—particularly low-propensity voters—to influence policies, practices, and programs that have a direct impact on our most vulnerable communities. LIVE FREE pays particular attention to local election cycles, which often have the biggest impact on issues of safety, incarceration, and criminal justice. To help educate the public, the LIVE FREE campaign produces reports and sample legislation that exemplify the types of policies and programs that will help to decriminalize people of color.
LIVE FREE congregations use their financial resources to invest in programs and initiatives that build better access to jobs, entrepreneurship, and the alleviation of poverty and discrimination. They also divest resources from companies and programs that discriminate against vulnerable communities or help to perpetuate racial and economic injustice throughout our society.
- In 2017, Google announced its philanthropic arm would grant LIVE FREE and the Community Justice Reform Coalition (CJRC) $2 million to promote effective gun violence reduction models in at least 10 target cities including Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Oakland, San Bernardino, Stockton, Sacramento, Miami, Orlando, and Birmingham. Our NYT Op-Ed describes the success of the proven strategies we are working to scale up throughout the country.
- LIVE FREE has begun publishing County Scorecards, which evaluate the public safety and criminal justice policies of local governments. Organizers and local leaders use these scorecards to build community awareness and hold prosecutors, sheriffs, mayors, city councils, and other locally elected officials accountable for enacting policies and practices that help reduce violence and incarceration.
- LIVE FREE is partnering with the Faith in Action Fund and other movement partners to engage low-propensity voters who are critical to shifting electoral power and prioritizing the needs of poor and marginalized people in our country. One example is our long-standing partnership with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an organization led by formerly incarcerated individuals who are leading the fight to restore the voting rights of over 1.6 million Floridians with prior felony convictions. This effort exemplifies one of LIVE FREE’s core principles, which is that those who are closest to the pain have the most to teach us about how to bring about liberation for all.
‘I’m Not a Whole American’
Despite paying his dues to society and to his country, Luis Gonzalez still does not live free. Luis spent 11 years in prison on drug-related charges, but 21 years after he was released, his voting rights have still not been restored. “I served my country and I served time. Now I want to vote,” he said.
Luis said he had a lot of unanswered questions in prison, such as could he be a model father, mentor, employee, husband, boyfriend, law-abiding citizen and a taxpayer.
“I went to prison with my head held high. I felt guilty. I was ashamed of myself,” he said. “[But] I used prison to better myself. I got certified in different areas. I went to school and I did everything I could to change myself. I knew there were issues, and I vowed never to come back again.”
More than anything, Luis wanted to be the person he was before drugs and alcohol took over his life. So he took the steps necessary to become drug- and alcohol-free, and prepared for a new beginning. Despite his efforts and despite having a unique insight into the types of policies and practices that could help others turn their lives around, Gonzalez is still barred from voting in Florida and, like 1.6 million other Floridians, might never be allowed to vote again.
It’s a myth that people with felony convictions can fully pay their debt to society, he said, “because when you get out, you have other little penalties … like your loss of civil rights.” In addition to voting rights, those convicted of a felony often face legalized discrimination in housing, employment, and educational opportunities, which make their return to prison all the more certain. “Where did that come from, and why does that exist?”
Luis noted that he didn’t lose his citizenship when he went to prison. “I’m American-born. I’m a U.S. Marine. I committed a felony,” he said. What purpose is served by banning him and others like him from voting, he wonders. “For me, it almost makes me feel like I’m not a whole American.”