More than 200 people gathered in Columbus today to demand changes to state laws relating to criminal justice.
Wearing T-shirts with slogans including "Black Lives Matter" and "Demilitarize the Police," they cheered as speakers called for changes to laws that would help keep poor, young minorities out of prison, increase substance-abuse and mental-health programs, and give released prison inmates a better chance at careers.
The "People First Assembly: Our Lives Matter" meeting was moved from a Downtown church to the nearby Vault banquet center to accommodate more participants. After the 11 a.m. gathering, many attendees marched to the Statehouse for an afternoon of lobbying.
Not only do "returning citizens" deserve a second post-prison chance but allowing them to follow career paths will help their families, boost the economy, improve communities, and decrease crime and recidivism, said Ray Greene Jr. of Akron, a former Ohio inmate who has struggled to find a career in counseling.
"They’re forgotten people, and at the same time they’re still fathers and brothers and sons," said Greene, who spoke at the rally.
The event was sponsored by the Youngstown-based Ohio Organizing Collaborative and United Returning Citizens. It drew activists and organizations from Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and other cities.
In addition to leading the lobbying, organizers offered training that activists can use to work for changes in their home communities.
Among changes being sought are passage of a fair-hiring act to improve access to jobs for people with criminal records; changes in sentencing laws to lower prison populations; priority in the state budget for crime prevention and rehabilitation programs, including substance-abuse and mental-health treatment; an end to zero-tolerance policies in schools; and improved police accountability and trust through training programs, protocol reviews and other measures.
Greene said he spent two years in prison, followed by time in a halfway house, on domestic-violence and drug-trafficking convictions. He is now involved with the Akron Organizing Collaborative and My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which seeks to keep children safe and ensure that they are educated and can find jobs.
Yaacov Delaney of Cincinnati, released from an Illinois prison about a year ago, also addressed the gathering. During the more than 20 years he served for a murder conviction, he earned a paralegal degree and helped other inmates. He often saw men who had been released return to prison. Over and over, they told him that they had trouble finding jobs and housing, he said.
"I’ve seen a lot of poverty and a lot of the impact of poverty," Delaney said. "It seemed to be getting worse. I’d been in prison for 15, 20 years. It wasn’t changing for the better."
Before his release, he started working on a plan to continue working to help "returning citizens" who leave prison and find that they are shut out of careers, housing and other opportunities.
He now works for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center helping those felons find a second chance in life.
"If I want to see it change for the better, I have to do what I can to make it change for the better," he said.