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Quaker Witness at the State Capitol

An article by Tom Ewell from Western Friend, June 2010 A room full of fifty Friends is gathered in the Olympia Friends Meetinghouse listening to a state legislator explain the complexities of offering prison reform measures to the Washington State legislature. Friends from various parts of the state have gathered for the second annual Quaker Lobby Day, an opportunity for Washington Friends to hear about the various challenges to the state prison system and how we might use legislation to address the needs. After worship, speakers, and a briefing on how to conduct a good lobby visit, the Friends fan out over the state capital to meet their legislators and their staff face-to-face and offer a Friends’ perspective on prison reform, peace and economic issues, and environmental concerns. The gathering is sponsored by the Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy (FCWPP, or within Friends circles, “Fickwhip”). Our ten-year-old organization is an effort to provide Friends in Washington the opportunity to allow our Quaker voice to be heard and amplifi ed through our group efforts. The Quaker witness in Olympia is all the more important because it is unique. Only a handful of advocacy groups focus on criminal justice reform, and fewer still do so primarily from a commitment to compassion and justice for prisoners. Over the years, we have found our voice ever more welcomed and respected by legislators as we work to replace the “tough on crime” attitude of the past with the “smart justice” approach that we believe must define the future. When I speak to a group of Quakers about prisons and the criminal justice system, I often begin by asking how many in the group have known someone in prison, visited a prison or jail, or served time themselves. I am no longer surprised that most of the folks in the group have had some direct contact with prisons, and often there is someone who has been in jail. Born out of our history of imprisonment for acts of conscience, concern about prison reform is a badge of honor that Quakers have carried over our 350-year history. Because we have a testimony that reminds us that there is that of God in each and everyone of us, we are encouraged to identify with those who have been imprisoned and often forgotten. FCWPP provides Washington Friends and other supporters the opportunity to continue this testimony on prison reform. Over the past ten years we have established an effective presence in the halls of our state government in Olympia, earning recognition and respect from colleague organizations and legislators. But in many ways our work has just begun. The costly and largely dysfunctional criminal justice system we now have is not sustainable. Like other states, Washington faces a recordbreaking budget deficit. The sudden need to slash expenditures has finally focused legislators’ attention on the amount of money we’re spending on our prison system and whether it’s really necessary to keep so many people incarcerated. It has become obvious that we can’t afford to keep more than 18,000 people in prison at an average cost of $31,000 per year, along with some 42,000 on community supervision. As a result, during the past two years certain types of expensive community supervision were ended, and there are efforts to look at across-the-board cuts in sentence lengths, reconsideration of low-level “three strikes” repeat offender cases, release for prisoners who do not present a threat to the community, reexamining our drug laws, and closing down certain prison facilities. There are unprecedented opportunities to advocate for substantive changes in the next few years. In short, a window of opportunity that has been shut tight for three decades has opened up as a result of the budget deficit. And FCWPP is now well positioned to take full advantage of it, thanks to the groundwork we’ve done in past years in building relationships with legislators, the Department of Corrections, prisoners and their families, and with our loyal Quaker supporters. To support this work we have an activist list of some 200 Friends throughout the state who are willing to contact their state representatives about criminal justice, global climate change, economic injustice, and peace issues such as counter recruitment. Our Steering Committee meets twice a year at Quarterly Meeting and once just before the legislative session to conduct our overall business, and the rest of the year our Executive Committee is responsible for the day-to-day work. Our Legislative Committee is key to overseeing our legislative work and issues ourActivist Alerts that call for lobbying responses. On a modest budget of less than $20,000, raised entirely from constituent support, we are alsoable to hire a part-time lobbyist. Just recently I read the incredible story of Norway’s second largest prison, Halden, which opened in April with a capacity of 252 inmates. It embodies the guiding principles of Norway’s penal system: repressive prisons do not work, and treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. Although Halden houses drug dealers, murderers and rapists, the prison’s governor says, “We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.” As a result, only 20% of Norway’s prisoners end up back in jail within two years of release, much lower than in the US and many other countries. (For the complete article, see the May 10, 2010, issue of Time magazine.) We do not need to assume that the U.S. will continue to have the highest number of prisoners in the world, with some of the longest sentences, in overcrowded and despairing circumstances. But to create the needed change we must support organized, informed and inspired leadership able to pursue this longterm effort. And in many ways this is the mission of FCWPP in Washington State. Specifically, we have participated in multi-year efforts to pass reentry legislation for persons leaving prison and legislation to restore the right to vote to the approximately 167,000 ex-prisoners in Washington State – not easy achievements. The floor debate on voting rights was the most contentious of the 2009 legislative session. And even after that bill was enacted, the work is still not done. We are monitoring the language on registration forms and ballot envelopes to make it clear to ex-prisoners that they can vote. We are currently also seeking sentencing reform to reduce the overall prison population, which on a national basis has approximately quadrupled since the 1970s; drug policy reform, especially the decriminalization and regulation of marijuana; and pilot programs to institute restorative justice in multiple jurisdictions in an effort to create deep systemic changes. In 2009 a bill we supported was passed to promote super-efficient, low-energy-use buildings. This past year Friends in Walla Walla were able to win a tax increase to support public transit. This past legislative session, we focused on economic issues, helping attain budget compromises that restored the safety net for the most vulnerable members of society. We continue to call for the introduction of a progressive income tax, because Washington’s tax structure is one of the most regressive in the nation. With this in mind, FCWPP has fully endorsed Initiative 1098, which would tax high-income earners, reduce business and property taxes, and direct increased revenues to education and health. After three years our current lobbyist has resigned to assume a full-time position to develop a statewide prison education network, and we are currently seeking a new part-time lobbyist (See the information posted on the home page).   Tom Ewell is the clerk of Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy. He is part of the Whidbey Island Worship Group in Washington.  
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