Ways to Win: How a Broad Coalition Passed California’s RISE ACT

Ella Baker Center (EBC) and its many allies won this new law by:

• Building relationships across issue.

• Seizing the right moment.

• Working with those directly affected.

• Investing in the long game.

With 2.2 million people behind bars, the United States is far and away the world’s most voracious jailer, and with Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatening to amp up the largely discredited War on Drugs, even the small gains made in recent years are under assault. That is why the recent passage of California’ RISE Act in is being greeted with celebration.

Before the RISE Act became law, Californians convicted of certain drug offenses routinely saw their sentences doubled or even tripled under a sentencing enhancement that added three years for every previous drug conviction. By undoing this additional penalty, the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act—authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and supported by a broad coalition of business, community, legal and public service groups—is expected to reduce jail overcrowding and free up spending for treatment and community resources.

Even as public opinion is shifting away from the lock-‘em-up mentality of the Drug War era, sentencing laws remain notoriously difficult to repeal. How did the Ella Baker Center (EBC) and a coalition of 200 groups push through this important sentencing reform? MCF spoke with EBC State Field Director Emily Harris about the strategies that worked to make the RISE Act law.

Build relationships across issue. The initial co-sponsors of the RISE Act–EBC, Drug Policy Alliance, and CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget)—were deeply committed to sentencing reform, but they also “did a lot of outreach to build relationships with organizations at the cross-sector of issues,” says Harris. The roster of co-sponsors quickly grew to include the ACLU of California, California Public Defenders Association, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Drug Policy Alliance, Friends Committee on Legislation California, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. By encouraging advocates to see the connection between sentencing enhancements and issues ranging from homelessness to public health to racial justice to poverty itself, RISE Act supporters were ultimately able to build a broad coalition of 200 organizations. These included a wide array of non-traditional allies—groups like APEN, Urban Habitat, Parent Voices, and Causa Justa: Just Cause that include many MCF grantees. Harris says the Bay Area Equal Voice Coalition (BAEVC) was a key resources in this regard. “Our values align, but our missions are different,” she says of the BAEVC membership. “Through BAEVC, we collectively support each other’s work even when it is outside our issue area. That definitely had value for the campaign.”

Seize the moment. Criminal justice reform may be stalled at the federal level, but in California, Governor Jerry Brown has made it clear that reducing the prison population is a top priority. After the state’s voters passed the sweeping sentencing reform measure Prop 47, the legislature followed up with several other reforms aimed at rolling back the excesses of the tough-on-crime years. The RISE Act itself is part of an Equity and Justice package championed by Senators Mitchell and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). The excesses of the Trump Administration are “emboldening California legislators in terms of demonstrating progressive values,” says Harris, “partly as a way to distance themselves from what is happening federally and also because they recognize it’s not going to happen in DC so we’re going to do it ourselves.” Activists are taking advantage of this opening by pushing hard for a roster of criminal justice reform bills that could make California a leader in rolling back the War on Drugs.

Respect and develop the leadership of those most affected. The belief that lasting change must be led by those with the most at stake is central to the MCF ethos, so it is no surprise that it is also a common element of the most successful grantee-led campaigns. What works is not tokenism or one-time testimony but long-term investment in developing leaders with first-hand experience. Harris describes a multi-year “ladder of engagement” that begins with skill-building and moves through ensuring that conversations at every level of the political process are genuinely inclusive. “It’s not people in service of the campaign, it’s the campaign in service of people,” she says. A veteran organizer, Harris notes that the halls of the California capitol are beginning to look different. “I see people who are not traditional lobbyists in the building all the time–people just out of prison, the families and loved ones of people in prison. Legislators and staff are meeting with people and hearing their stories, not just getting a fact sheet.”

Invest in the long game.  “Good policy will only move if we can organize behind it,” Harris says. “When organizing and policy work come together, we have a lot of power.” Building that power, she adds, requires a shift on the part of foundations from one-time campaigns to long-term, flexible investment. “The capacity to organize has shifted because of foundations like MCF that see the whole ecosystem of organizations; that fund and value base-building work even though it doesn’t have the same sexiness” as a one-off campaigns, Harris says. “Long-term general support—that’s what we need to do.”