As we confront a national reckoning over policing and justice reform, many people are asking, “How do we come together as a country?”
The answer starts with empathy.
Empathy is what has been missing in this country for too long. It gives us the fortitude to hear about other people’s pain without rushing to judge or diminish it. It allows us, instead, to transform common pain into common purpose.
The very idea of achieving empathy may feel insurmountable, but we can find inspiration from formerly incarcerated people who have been most harmed by our criminal legal system, and are now leading the charge to transform it.
Leaders like Ruby Welch, Karen Dickson-Morrison and Pamela Winn have a lot to teach us.
Ruby Welch served seven years behind bars, but today is a powerhouse advocate who helped pass a law to protect incarcerated women in deep-red Arkansas. The legislation places a permanent ban on the shackling of women during pregnancy and child labor.
By turning her pain into power, Ruby has led with empathy to build coalitions and transform justice in her home state.
Karen Dickson-Morrison’s empathy for a friend and countless others sentenced under draconian laws has motivated her to speak up for people behind bars.
For Karen, empathy helps amplify the stories of those suffering from incarceration.
Pamela Winn lives in Georgia, a state that is as purple as it comes, and turned her story of a federal sentence into a career in advocacy that led her all the way to the White House and helped to pass the bipartisan federal legislation known as the First Step Act. While incarcerated, Pamela lived through tragedy that no one should live through: a miscarriage of her baby while pregnant behind bars.
The treatment she endured inspired her to mobilize women throughout the country to fight for safer conditions of confinement and dignity for all incarcerated women.
These are just a few of the people at the forefront of the movement for criminal justice reform, one of the only truly bipartisan issues in our politics today. Our over-reliance on incarceration was driven by both parties, and today people in both parties are working on solutions.
Oklahoma, which is as conservative as it gets, once had the highest incarceration rate in the country. While at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), I worked with a bipartisan coalition that elevated directly impacted people, passed a historic ballot initiative, and worked with the new Republican governor to pass legislation to reduce jail and prison numbers multiple years in a row.
Governors and state legislatures from both parties across the country have advanced reforms that have kept people out of jail, brought people home from prison, and improved horrific prison conditions.
Now, a new administration and Congress, which inherit a nation with fresh scars of division and injustice, have the opportunity to bring fairness and justice to our legal system.
President Joe Biden campaigned on a number of criminal justice reforms, and U.S. Senators have already introduced bipartisan legislation that would continue to reduce the number of people in our federal prison system.
But in politics we need more than good ideas; we need to move the way people feel, and the path to get there is empathy.
Our ability to connect with one another, see ourselves in the experiences of strangers, and recognize the dignity in everyone that gets us to a place of understanding rather than fear, hate, and punishment. To see who will lead the way, look no further than the largest national day of action for criminal justice reform: The Day of Empathy, an annual event inaugurated by Dream Corps Justice, which took place on March 2.
Across the country, formerly incarcerated leaders joined stakeholders from every part of the system: members of law enforcement, victims of crime, advocates for reform, Democrats, Republicans, and grassroots activists.
It was not only inspiring — but a little bit astonishing — to watch these different groups come together. You could sense the potential for change.
All the participants had their own values and motivations. Conservatives with libertarian values might be motivated by concerns about costs and a belief in redemption. A passion for social justice and a desire to end systematic racism often spurs progressives.
What bound everyone was a basic sense of empathy.
If justice reform advocates and law enforcement — victims and the formerly incarcerated — can learn to listen to each other and unite around solutions, then so can every American.
Empathy is where we need to start. That will build common ground for finding solutions that actually change lives. Formerly incarcerated leaders have shown us the way.