Reducing incarceration in smaller cities and rural communities

Vera’s In Our Backyards (IOB) initiative supports organizing, research, and advocacy aimed at reducing mass incarceration in the thousands of communities with the highest rates of incarceration: smaller cities and rural counties. This year, our IOB team continued its work to end mass incarceration and stop the quiet jail boom across small town and rural America by working with communities, policymakers, and system actors at the federal, state, and local levels. This included an expansion of the IOB community grant program, supporting a second cohort of community-based and statewide organizations committed to reducing incarceration, resisting jail expansion, and advancing racial and gender justice in small and rural communities. In 2020, we worked on 18 projects undertaken by a network of 27 community-based organizations across 12 states, partnered with statewide coalitions and partners in three states, and drove change at the federal level. Our work with these partners led to concrete achievements that are making a real difference in smaller and rural communities.

  • In Douglas, Kansas, Vera worked with partners at Justice Matters to build unanimous consensus within the county’s leadership to reverse a $29.6 million jail expansion plan that had been previously rejected by voters. Justice Matters organized an 800-person community assembly and trained more than 60 community leaders to host conversations in their homes, and Vera provided research and support to help illuminate some of the policies driving rising jail incarceration. In September, all four winning commissioner candidates—both Democrats and Republicans—ran on explicit commitments to rescind the jail expansion project and partner with Vera to reduce incarceration.
  • In San Marcos, Texas, our partner organization Mano Amiga found that hundreds of people who were booked into the local jail were eligible under Texas law to instead receive a citation. However, citations were issued in only 20 of those cases, and every single Black person who was eligible was instead booked into the jail. Through a public education campaign supported by both technical assistance and funding from Vera, Mano Amiga helped win historic passage of an ordinance making San Marcos the first city in Texas to compel officers to issue citations in a subset of eligible cases. Mano Amiga and Vera are now monitoring implementation of the ordinance and its impact on racial equity. Other Texas cities have followed suit: Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation, recently passed a similar ordinance.
  • The IOB team worked to advance a federal agenda, including efforts that supported bipartisan introduction of the “The Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act” in October 2020. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by U.S. Representatives David Trone and Kelly Armstrong, would authorize $600 million over five years to support local jail population reduction efforts, with priority given to small cities and rural communities that have high or rising incarceration rates. The legislation includes a directive that local governments work with community-based organizations and justice-impacted people and that strategies include a focus on reducing racial disparities in incarceration. Introduction of the proposed bill came eight months after Vera’s IOB and federal policy teams—in conjunction with U.S. Representatives Alma Adams, Joe Kennedy III, Terri Sewell, and David Trone—hosted a standing room-only briefing on Capitol Hill titled “Rural America’s Hidden Jail Crisis.”

​Growing a SAFE grassroots movement

Vera’s SAFE initiative launched an inaugural round of community grants this year to support a network of 13 grassroots partners, community organizers, and advocates committed to mobilizing and centering immigrant communities.

Vera’s 2020 SAFE community grantees are:

  • Black Alliance for Just Immigration (National/Oakland, California)
  • Asian Prisoner Support Committee (Oakland, California)
  • Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition (Long Beach, California)
  • CASA (Baltimore and Prince George's County, Maryland, and Fairfax, Virginia)
  • Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in The US (Columbus, Ohio)
  • ReleaseMN8 (St. Paul/Ramsey County, Minnesota)
  • Grassroots Leadership (Austin, Travis County, Texas)
  • Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (Denver/Colorado)
  • Alianza NORCO (Fort Collins/Colorado)
  • Casa San Jose, Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP) Collaborative (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
  • Juntos, PAIFUP Collaborative (Philadelphia/Pennsylvania)
  • MILPA Collective, PAIFUP Collaborative (Philadelphia/Pennsylvania)
  • VietLead PAIFUP Collaborative (Philadelphia/Pennsylvania)

In addition to building place-based partnerships across all our program areas, Vera is investing in developing robust institutional capacity for advocacy. In 2020, we established a new Advocacy and Partnerships department that will focus on legislation, policy development, and strategic campaigns to support community-led reform and change—all in close coordination with our community partners, who engage in direct action, organizing, and other strategies.