Today, formerly incarcerated people will moderate a presidential town hall for the first time, questioning 2020 Democratic candidates about their positions on issues such as mass incarceration and racial bias in policing before an audience of other justice-involved people.
The Justice Votes 2020 Town Hall is being held in Philadelphia at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, the site of a former prison. Developed by Voters Organized to Educate and presented by The Marshall Project, the day-long event will be live-streamed by NowThis News, the exclusive digital partner.
“This historic town hall marks an important step toward centering the voices of those directly impacted by mass incarceration, and in recognizing us as citizens with an equal stake in our political system,” said Lawrence Bartley, director of News Inside, who himself regained his rights as a citizen after being released on parole. “In 2018, a friend asked if my parole officer had informed me of my right to vote. When I responded that she had not, he made a call on my behalf. Hours later, someone from the parole office came to The Marshall Project’s office building and delivered a pardon signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that temporarily restored my right to vote. I was elated and felt like I had taken another step toward complete freedom.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tom Steyer have confirmed their participation in today’s town hall. While many Democratic candidates have made criminal justice reform a part of their platform, supporting policies such as ending cash bail or the federal use of private prisons, only a few agreed to discuss their policy positions with people who have been directly involved in the criminal justice system.
Although criminal justice has received more attention during this campaign than ever before, the formal Democratic debates have largely skirted over many important issues in criminal justice, largely dominated by questions on gun control or the opioid crisis. Democratic candidates expanded on a broader range of topics at a criminal justice forum over the weekend at a historically black college in South Carolina. Today's town hall is the only forum to date that allows people most directly affected by the criminal justice system to highlight issues they believe are the most pressing.
"Those of us who have organized this forum have all been directly impacted by mass incarceration, and intimately know the harm that it causes," said Rev. Vivian Nixon, a member of the Voters Organized advisory board. “We are excited to host this historic forum, in which we will have the chance to draw from our personal experiences to think forward with the candidates about how to move the country ever closer to being a fair and just society.”