Inside MCF

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

November 22, 2017

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.”

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