Giving a fair chance to those many would just as soon forget – felons and others in the criminal justice system – is Sarah Walker’s cause.
Her work began with taking Minnesota to task for having one of the nation’s worst records with regard to African-American men. One in five in Minnesota is not allowed to vote, according to Walker, due to incarceration, parole or probation.
The Carleton College graduate’s activism continued with an examination of the unique experiences of women and girls in the criminal justice system.
“In the last few years, the women’s and girls’ populations have dramatically increased in the criminal justice system,” she said, noting a 500 percent increase. “The problem is that the services have not kept up with [the growth].”
The increase in females in prison is – as is the case with males – largely due to drug offenses and mandatory minimum sentences related to such crimes, Walker said. Women are sometimes indirectly pulled into the criminal justice system because they are in relationships with men involved in the drug trade, and they find themselves caught up in the events surrounding the arrests of these men, she said.
“The increase of women in prison is part of a larger national trend of over-incarceration and mass incarceration,” she said.
Not all felons serve hard time – some serve only probation – but females in and out of prison suffer the same disenfranchisement as male prisoners, such as stigmatization in finding employment and housing, as well as losing voting rights while serving probation or parole, Walker said.
However, females have unique challenges and experiences that go largely unrecognized by the male-dominated criminal justice system, she said.
Unlike males, the overwhelming majority of females in both the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems have been victims of domestic violence and related physical and sexual trauma, Walker said.
Because of this trauma, Walker created a list of recommendations for how to treat females in the juvenile justice system that was adopted by the International Police Association. She also connected women who were leaving the system with employment opportunities and launched a capital campaign to build a shelter for girls needing a residence after release. And she helped change conditions at one institution to be more sensitive to African-American females’ hair texture.
Recommendations to the Police Association included gentler and less grope-like pat-downs for girls and women, especially given the overwhelming preponderance of survivors of sexual violence.
“The important thing is to not create another traumatizing experience and to create a safe space,” she said. “We need girls to want to speak to police officers.”
Walker’s advocacy career in criminal justice disparities began after she wrote a college paper comparing the system to slavery.
“The criminal justice system has come to represent the nexus of all of our institutional failures,” she said. “If you have not received adequate education, adequate mental health services, you face racial discrimination — all of those cumulative disparities come together in the criminal justice system.”
Walker’s sensitivity to the pronounced racial disparities in the criminal justice system also spring from her unusual upbringing. She was born in Zambia to an African father and a Caucasian mother. She grew up in a racially segregated area of Chicago. She witnessed Hurricane Katrina firsthand with her mother, who died during that 2005 tragedy while being treated for cancer in New Orleans.
“When I came back [to Minnesota] after being in Hurricane Katrina with my mother, I felt extraordinarily conflicted because of being confronted with that amount of human suffering and tragedy,” she said.
The experience inspired Walker like none before, crystallizing her commitment to the path of advocacy around criminal justice and, specifically, race.
In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, about 80 percent or more of females in the juvenile justice system are girls of color, Walker said, despite a large majority Caucasian juvenile population.
Among Walker’s big successes have been working with others to ban both public and private employers’ job application questions regarding criminal records.
Walker is hopeful for passage of a “children of incarcerated parents bill of rights.” This legislation, if passed, would allow children to have more physical contact with their imprisoned mothers and would also support comfortable delivery rooms for prisoners giving birth.
Additionally, Walker seeks to support female prisoners and their children by allowing them to spend formative months together – an attachment period that child psychology supports, she said. Related initiatives include allowing imprisoned mothers to have their midwife or doula as well as their significant other present during birth.
“We want to make sure that we are looking at policies that will support” children and families, Walker said.
She also is passionate about restoring voting rights to those with felony convictions. State laws that prohibit voting by prisoners or those on probation or parole mean approximately 70,000 Minnesotans do not vote in a given year, Walker said. “We know quite a bit about political participation, that it is passed on and is a learned behavior and has to be reinforced. People usually learn to vote by going to the ballot box and watching; often this is watching mothers vote,” she said.
“To me, that is the biggest travesty about Minnesota disenfranchising 70,000 people each year. The majority have never been to prison … they are serving probation,” Walker said.
Walker’s currently a lobbyist at Hill Capitol Strategies, but she still co-chairs the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, which she founded. Prior to that, she was the chief operating officer of 180 Degrees, which serves juveniles and adults who have juvenile or criminal justice involvement. Since 2009, she has been the volunteer president of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, which is working for a constitutional amendment that will ensure an impartial and accountable judiciary by stopping money from influencing judicial selection. She serves on the board of organizations from the African Development Center to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Walker credits much of her community-oriented spirit to her parents. The two, both deceased, would bring young Walker to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“They instilled a huge sense of giving back to the community,” she said. “I do believe when you are aware of things overcome by your parents, it imbues you with a responsibility to give back.”
(Photo courtesy Sarah Walker)