A leader in the movement to reform our criminal justice system, Sarah Walker ’99 helps ex-offenders succeed outside prison walls.
It’s a Monday night in October at a comedy club in uptown Minneapolis. Sarah Walker ’99 is center stage, but she’s not cracking jokes—she’s the featured expert at the club’s weekly Theater of Public Policy. She smiles frequently to punctuate her rapid-fire rundown of the evening’s topic: mandatory minimum prison sentences, a by-product of decades of America’s “tough on crime” laws, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses.
As Walker speaks, five earnest young actors in light blue shirts scribble notes. When she’s done, they take the stage to present clever improv skits on Walker’s serious subjects—expungements, downward departures, felony voting rights. The audience of 20 or so policy wonks, including John Harrington, formerly chief of police for the city of St. Paul and currently chief of Metro Transit police, chuckles appreciatively. Whether it’s this funky club, a League of Women Voters meeting in outstate Minnesota, or a conference in Venezuela, “there is no place Sarah won’t go if she thinks she can move her issue along,” says Harrington.
Sarah Catherine Walker
City: St. Paul
Birthplace: Chikankata, Luapula, Zambia; moved to the United States at age four; grew up in Chicago and Houston
Education: BA, African/African American studies and political science, Carleton, 1999; three years of doctoral studies in political science, currently completing doctorate in sociology, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities
Stress relief: “I love to buy art. If I have free time or go on a trip, I like to look at art all day long.” Favorites include Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, whose work she was introduced to when he spoke at Carleton while she was a student.
Words to live by: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”—Eugene V. Debs, American labor leader and three-time Socialist party candidate for U.S. president. Cited by Walker when she appeared on Minnesota Public Radio’s The Daily Circuit program, November 2013.
This prodigious energy has made Walker a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, both in her home state of Minnesota and beyond. The multifaceted movement’s primary goal is to limit the impact of incarceration and criminal records on individuals’ future access to education, housing, and employment. “Without any doubt, this is the biggest social issue of our time,” says Walker. “We place into our prison systems people who have been failed by education, mental health, welfare, and social support systems. It’s ineffective and costly, and it disproportionately impacts people of color and people of lower means.”
Walker credits a Carleton class in African American history with helping define her life’s work. Since then, she has relentlessly pursued her mission to reform the U.S. criminal justice system from a variety of angles: as cofounder and leader of two advocacy groups, the Second Chance Coalition and the Coalition for Impartial Justice; by working directly with ex-offenders; through full-time lobbying; and through her graduate studies in political science and sociology at the University of Minnesota.
Born in Zambia to a Zambian father and an American mother, Walker spent most of her childhood in Texas. She chose to attend Carleton because it was “liberal and unpretentious.” She planned to be a doctor, but after participating in a Carleton summer math and science program for students of color before starting her freshman year, she realized that working in a lab was not for her. Instead, she opted for a double major in African American studies and political science.
Like many an idealistic Carleton student, “I had these wild ideas about how I wanted to change racial, class, and social inequalities,” says Walker. When she read Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study in an African American history class taught by Harry Williams, the Laird Bell Professor of History, those inchoate notions found a focus.
The book’s author, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, “defined slavery as three things,” Walker recalls, “natal alienation, violent domination, and general dishonorment—very academic!” In response, she wrote a paper challenging Patterson’s definition as inadequate. She realized it was so broad that it could also encompass the modern-day prison population—and with that insight, everything clicked. “From that moment on, I was monomaniacally obsessed,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work for criminal justice reform.”
It’s an issue that affects an increasing number of Americans. From the 1930s to the 1970s, incarceration levels in the United States grew at a steady rate. Then came tough-on-crime drug laws, requiring mandatory prison time. Incarceration numbers exploded, rising from about 270,000 in the 1970s to 2.4 million individuals currently residing in local, state, and federal prisons and jails. An additional 7 million Americans are on parole or probation. Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population are of African descent, and 20 percent are of Hispanic descent.
After graduating from Carleton, Walker worked for a few years in New York City before returning to Minnesota for graduate study. While still in her 20s, she suffered the loss of both her parents, her father first, in 2001. Four years later, her dying mother was hospitalized in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Walker had the harrowing experience of having to move her mother to Houston, where she died.
During this tumultuous period, she drew support from the relationships she had maintained with her Carleton mentors: Harry Williams and political science professor Richard Keiser. She also was feeling disillusioned with her graduate studies in political science. Ultimately, Williams recalls, she decided to “put into practice her acute theoretical understanding of the racially coded problem of prisoners and incarceration.”
In 2008 Walker began a five-year stint as chief operating officer for the St. Paul–based nonprofit 180 Degrees, where she worked directly with adults and juveniles who were transitioning from the corrections system to the outside world. The late Bruce McManus ’56, retired warden of the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater, was on the nonprofit’s board of directors. “He would joke with me that we were the ‘weird Carls’ who wanted to work with prisoners,” she laughs.
The previous year, Walker had founded the Second Chance Coalition, which now comprises 60 justice reform organizations. The coalition advocates for laws and policies that allow for ex-offenders to become productive members of their communities. Its first big event—the now-annual Second Chance Day on the Hill—was held in February 2008 and brought more than 500 ex-offenders to rally for their cause at the Minnesota State Capitol. A recent example of the coalition’s continued lobbying success occurred in January 2014, when Minnesota became the third state in the nation to extend its public sector “ban-the-box law” to apply to private employers. Ban-the-box laws prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history on initial job applications. (Employers may ask about criminal records during the interview process or upon a conditional offer of employment.)
The need for ban-the-box laws is an example of how politicians and policy makers fail to anticipate or appreciate the “collateral consequences” of mass incarceration, says Walker. A vicious cycle can occur when ex-offenders, ordered by probation officers to find work and housing, are unsuccessful because background checks have revealed their criminal records.
These laws are but one item on the agenda of a growing bipartisan movement, made up of an unexpected alliance of social justice liberals and small-government/libertarian conservatives. The groups are united by concerns over the fairness of prison sentences and the expense, which averages $31,000 annually per inmate at all levels of prison (local, state, national). Politicians are now catching on to what Walker has been savvy to from the beginning: hurling a “soft on crime” charge is outmoded. “I work hard to make this a bipartisan issue because of the long-standing stigma around advocating around criminal justice.”
Expungement—permanently sealing criminal records for low-level offenders, many of whom have never spent time in prison—is also on the agenda. The lingering negative effects of these records on an ex-offender’s future is particularly problematic in the Internet era, when background checks and mug shots are easily and instantly accessible. “We think we are punishing just the offenders,” Walker says, “but by depriving them of the means to make a living, we are also punishing their family, their community, and the larger socioeconomic environment.”
Last year, Walker left 180 Degrees to become a full-time lobbyist. “I thought I could be more effective if I spent all day, every day at the State Capitol during the legislative session,” Walker says. “Also, one of the fundamental problems with issues that affect people of color is that there are almost no people of color lobbying on behalf of these issues.”
She met her current employer, Todd Hill, founder and president of Hill Capitol Strategies, through their mutual work with the Coalition for Impartial Justice. This nonpartisan coalition of some 30 business, labor, and religious groups aims to change how judges are selected in Minnesota. The coalition’s goal is a Minnesota constitutional ballot question that would replace elections for judges with what they believe is a more fair system, including merit selection and public performance evaluations of judges, among other reforms. “In states where there are contested and partisan judicial elections, the number-one tactic used in campaign ads is to use racialized images while accusing someone of being soft on crime,” Walker says. “And that makes it harder to change the conversation about criminal justice reform to rational public policy.”
Here Walker can parlay the experience with ballot initiatives she gained in 2012 as a board member and public spokesperson for Minnesotans United for All Families, which mounted the first successful campaign to defeat a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. (Momentum from the amendment’s defeat led to legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota last year.)
Professors Williams and Keiser each count Walker among their most memorable and accomplished students, particularly, says Keiser, “in terms of how her major and the work that she did in her classes directly laid the groundwork for what she is doing now.”
Keiser also notes that Walker often returns to Carleton to speak with current students. “Every time she comes to campus, she works to diminish the barriers between someone like her, who graduated years ago and has significant achievements, and current students, who may feel unsure,” says Keiser. “She wants to reduce that divide and convince students that she is still like them and they can easily be like her.”
“Her career path is worthy of emulation,” adds Williams. “I’d like to see more cheering on campus for service to the disadvantaged as an articulated goal for our students.”
Walker calls the criminal justice system “the nexus of social inequalities.” As such, there is more to do. She has focused her sights on felony voter rights or, as she prefers to call it, civil rights restoration. “One in five African American men are disenfranchised on Election Day in this state,” Walker says. “I have been working on this since I was 20, and I will not stop lobbying until all people in Minnesota can vote, regardless of whether or not they are on probation.”
Lying beneath Walker’s encyclopedic knowledge of these issues and her prodigious debating skills, “is a very soft heart that feels for people who have been pushed to the margins,” says John Harrington. “That is what keeps her up at night. No matter how much she has done, until everyone’s rights have been brought to the forefront and made correct, she will never be satisfied.”