A conversation with Connie Rice on mass incarceration

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

Constance L. “Connie” Rice is a member of California Forward’s Leadership Council. Rice is most well-known as a dedicated civil rights lawyer that has successfully filed multiple class action civil rights cases on issues ranging from discrimination to police misconduct. Additionally, Rice serves as co-director of the Advancement Project, a group whose Urban Peace program is dedicated to changing Los Angeles’ law enforcement strategies while professionalizing the field of gang intervention, a mission for which Rice was a recent recipient of the John W. Gardner Leadership Award. Rice recently sat down with California Forward to discuss the award as well as her perspective on violence prevention and mass incarceration.

What does the Gardner award mean to you?

First I didn’t understand what the award was. When I found out who he was and how he was such a deep believer in giving back to civic life and making democracy work for everyone, I understood what an honor it was. It’s a significant award. When you look at the people that have won, I’m very humbled.

You are being honored for your work in violence prevention. To the layperson or to the average citizen, how would you describe violence prevention and why should this be important to Californians?

There are places in our cities and elsewhere where children can’t walk to school safely, can’t play in the park because there are gangs or too much gunfire. It’s public violence that deprives children of their first civil right, which is the right to be safe. Our mission is to find public policies and carry them out, policies that are capable of making a neighborhood safe enough for children to learn and thrive. It means you need to become an expert in gangs, how they work, how to get them to stop being violent. It’s a matter of working with families and institutions to create a safety net.

In your acceptance speech you mentioned that the Advancement Project is “not your grandmother’s civil rights group.” What did you mean by this?

The Advancement Project is very databased – we’re not membership based. We’re not affiliated with churches. It’s not the traditional African American civil rights group. We’re dedicated to finishing what Martin Luther King, Jr. started is the way I like to put it. We just do it in a way that’s not like what my grandmother’s NAACP did.

The topic of mass incarceration also came up during your acceptance speech. Do you agree with the Millennial that recently approached you that compared mass incarceration with Jim Crow?

Mass incarceration is part of a new Jim Crow system. Definitely.

In the last ten years do you think American society has moved forward or backward in terms of mass incarceration?

I think it’s beginning to receive some attention. You’re starting to see some conservative groups talk about the reducing the number of people going to prison. Public conversation is definitely going in the right direction. You sounded like you were off your medication when you talked about it 10 years ago. There’s a huge interest. People make a lot of money [off the system]. Poor towns out in the hinter lands in little California and elsewhere, half the employment is connected to prisons. You have to unwind it in a way that also makes sure that people are left whole. You don’t want to leave Chino without any jobs.

Do policies like New York City’s stop-and-frisk feed into the mass incarceration complex – are they a step backward in terms of the ideals of the Advancement Project? How do we prevent that?

Follow the constitution. Stop and frisk is unconstitutional. You have to have probable cause. People weren’t even doing anything. It’s kind of a preemptive policing that says that we’re going to institute a level of fear so that the population will anticipate police activity. It’s completely illegal. So to fix it you just need constitutional policing.

What guidance or advice would you give to Millennials for how they should approach living in a society of mass incarceration?

Be aware. Most people I talk to live in their own world and are attached to their gadgets and they have no idea how people in their city live. They have no idea how poor people in their city live. They have no idea why politicians pay no attention to poverty. I think if middle class and upper middle class people don’t care about poor people, we’re going to have poverty in this country forever. Children are floundering. If middle class citizens don’t demand that these problems be solved, then they never will be solved. 


Matthew Grant Anson

All stories by: Matthew Grant Anson