State Policy Network
How Empower Mississippi built coalitions to spur criminal justice reform in the Magnolia State

The US makes up five percent of the world’s population but has nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. In many ways, this imbalance is a byproduct of the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” reforms starting in the 1990s. Those reforms dramatically reduced parole eligibility and offered states financial incentives to follow suit.

In the intervening decades, America’s prison population exploded as we put more people in prison for more offenses, with longer sentences and less opportunity to earn release. Mississippi was not immune. Today, the state has the second highest incarceration rate in the country. It comes at a high human and fiscal cost. Over the last decade, Mississippi has spent more than $3 billion in corrections, not to mention benefits to affected families. Even with this substantial outlay, Mississippi’s prisons have faced significant scandal with dozens of inmate deaths and a Department of Justice investigation launched by the Trump administration.

Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Ridgeland, Mississippi, has long prioritized criminal justice reform, searching for solutions that reduce the prison population while ensuring public safety. Through storytelling, coalition building, and targeted outreach in their “Second Chances” campaign, Empower Mississippi helped secure parole reform in the Magnolia State. This legislation will safely reduce Mississippi’s prison population, make prisons safe by providing hope and incentive, and cut down on the added taxpayer burden. Let’s take a look at how Empower Mississippi brought meaningful criminal justice reform to the Magnolia State.

Empower Mississippi learns a hard lesson on advancing criminal justice reform

In 2020, Empower led a coalition to address the ongoing prison crisis by reforming its parole system. The goal was to safely reduce the prison population by providing an incentive for individuals in prison to commit to rehabilitation, allowing those who had earned it a second chance, with limited state resources applied to the most dangerous threats. SB 2123 made it through the Mississippi House by a vote count of 78-29 and the Mississippi Senate by a vote count of 28-18 before, unfortunately, the Mississippi Governor vetoed the legislation.

In the aftermath of the veto, Empower Mississippi conducted a post-mortem to determine what went wrong. First and foremost, the policy was not seen as sufficiently conservative—a significant problem in a deep red state like Mississippi. Another real problem from a vote counting standpoint was a late misunderstanding of the policy that generated opposition from a handful of very influential prosecutors and sheriffs. In short, the problem was not the policy, but its framing, who was associated with it, and prevailing inaccuracies about what it did.

Empower Mississippi launches the ‘Second Chances’ campaign

Determined to find success in 2021, Empower Mississippi went back to the drawing board to develop the ‘Second Chances’ campaign. The campaign had several objectives:

Given the reasons the 2020 effort failed and the objectives to right the ship, Empower Mississippi’s target audiences were:

The “Second Chances” campaign takes off

Almost immediately after the veto, Empower Mississippi began releasing content making the conservative case for reform in opinion editorials and radio and television interviews. In the summer of 2020, Empower launched a ‘thank you’ effort that incorporated both direct mail and digital advertisement in the districts of their policy champions. This effort was aimed at ensuring that existing policy champions remained vocal policy champions moving forward.

Shortly thereafter, Empower worked with those same champions to begin holding legislative hearings on the state’s prison system and arranged speakers including Brett Tolman, recently named Executive Director of Right on Crime, David Safavian from American Conservative Union, and then-Senator Cam Ward from Alabama, who has since been named the Director of the Bureau of Pardons and Parole in Alabama. Both Safavian and Tolman were able to bring outside credibility to the idea that the reforms were consistent with a conservative approach. Ward’s testimony, in particular, was useful in helping legislators to understand what would happen if they were unable to make their own reforms work, since Alabama had already had one expensive consent decree entered and was a few years ahead of Mississippi in a second Department of Justice investigation.

To ensure their message resonated with conservatives, Empower conducted message testing, identifying messages that polled at 80 percent with Republican primary voters. Empower led a broad coalition in rethinking both messages and messengers, with a distinct focus on the center-right voices. Empower’s government affairs team began hosting dinners with groups of Republican senators that had voted in opposition to SB 2123. In total, Empower hosted six such dinners from the fall of 2020 through the close of the 2021 session. For some dinners, Empower brought in activist donors, issue experts, and conservative coalition partners to help make the case.

Empower makes the case for reform to sheriffs and prosecutors across Mississippi

Empower Mississippi also began working with key sheriffs and prosecutors to make sure they understood what the bill did and why it would be helpful to them in the long run. A key part of this effort was winning over Sheriff Brian Bailey, who had been a vocal opponent of SB 2123 and is the sheriff of the governor’s home county. Bailey would eventually communicate both to legislators and to the governor that he supported the 2021 parole reform bill, SB 2795.

As the 2021 session progressed, Empower President Russ Latino participated in conference negotiations between the House and Senate conferees to arrive at the final form of the bill. Empower also organized two coalition letters to the Legislature to encourage lawmakers to adopt the bill. The first letter was from conservative organizations and included Grover Norquist from Americans for Tax Reform, Mark Holden from Stand Together, David Safavian from American Conservative Union, Brett Tolman now the Executive Director of Right on Crime, R Street, Americans for Prosperity and Empower. The second letter, which went out before the conference vote, was from faith leaders and included representatives of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, the Mississippi United Pentecostal Church, Prison Fellowship and Clergy for Prison Reform, among others.

Empower produces several content pieces to reiterate the need for reform

Throughout the process, Empower continued to drive external content. The organization produced five opinion editorials that were published in multiple outlets throughout the state. Additionally, they produced more than 30 related policy pieces on their website, as well as an additional 12 original stories, six “Coffee and Conversation” interviews, and 10 original videos that either served as explainers or as an additional way to tell stories. Throughout, Empower continued to serve as the primary voice in print, radio and television interviews. In total, Empower received 273 criminal justice reform-related media hits during the course of the issue campaign, including 187 parole reform-related mentions. Almost all were positive or neutral. In all of their content and interviews, Empower consistently focused on the conservative nature of the reform, how it would aid in protecting public safety and in the opportunity for redemption for individuals who had earned it.

Empower amplified this content with a paid digital strategy that yielded criminal justice reform-specific impressions of more than 1.1 million, a reach of approximately 569,190, total video plays of 88,116 and total engagement of 23,186. This digital component also contributed significantly to acquisition under our owned-audience strategy, where we have more than doubled the number of email addresses on their list since January of 2021.

Mississippi Legislature passes the Earned Parole Eligibility Act

The end result of these coordinated efforts was that SB 2795, the Earned Parole Eligibility Act, passed the House with 91 votes, an increase of 13 votes over Empower’s 2020 effort, and passed the Senate with 35 votes, an increase of 6 votes over Empower’s 2020 effort. Importantly, the Senate vote included a majority of Republicans and the votes in both chambers represented a veto-proof majority.

Both before and following passage, the Mississippi Governor once again sent some signals that he was considering vetoing the bill. In addition to direct outreach to the governor and his staff, Empower activated three donors, one in-state and two of national prominence, to ask the governor to sign the bill. Additionally, Empower worked with Eddie Spencer, a former prisoner who became a pastor and gave the convocation at the governor’s inauguration, to send a personal letter to the governor asking for his signature. Ultimately, the governor signed the Earned Parole Eligibility Act into law.

In addition to working on the Earned Parole Eligibility Act, Empower used the “Second Chances” campaign apparatus to support two other significant pieces of legislation that were signed into law. The first, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, is legislation that ensures women in custody receive the same level of care in pregnancy as those who are not incarcerated. The second law provides that individuals released from custody are provided a driver’s license so that they can get back to work. This is important since the data show that the number one indicator of whether an individual will recidivate is ability to find and hold a job.

For their success in building a powerful coalition to secure meaningful criminal justice reforms, Empower Mississippi is a finalist for the Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement in the Best Issue Campaign Award category

Organization: State Policy Network