From Thief to Criminal Justice Advocate

Kim McGill

Kim McGill, WPI Fellow

By Rose Larsen, Intern

You might think it ironic that one of the members of the Women’s Policy Institute’s Criminal Justice team first gained experience as an organizer by being a thief.

“I got a bunch of kids to draw and color environmental posters:  a dead polar bear with her cubs crying, a polluted city skyline with factories spewing smoke,  and then I sold them door-to-door and told people the money was going to the Sierra Club,” said Kim McGill, a 2011-2012 Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) Fellow.

Kim was eventually caught by her mother, forced to return the money and made to apologize to the victims of her crime. This childhood experience with crime and punishment seems to have sparked something in her that has now turned into a lifelong passion for improving the criminal justice system.

Kim’s prison reform work

An organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition, Kim has had a chance to work on a variety of issues related to the corrections system, criminal justice and prison reform.

This past year, she was able to develop her skills in public policy and legislation by taking part in WPI as one of five members on the Criminal Justice team. The team fought to bring a media presence back inside the prison system through AB 1270, a bill that aims to repeal a ban on in-person interviews with prisoners. (Read a blog post about AB 1270.)

“I was really amazed that we were able to work on something that still mattered, that represented a significant step forward,” Kim said about the bill.

Prison reform hits close to home for Kim, and not just because of her short stint as a juvenile scam-artist.

“I witnessed the impact of policing, incarceration and violence in my home, in my family, and in the communities where I grew up in LA and the South Bronx,” she said.

Feeling that she and her friends were treated like criminals all through high school, she got inspired to organize her neighborhood to get the police out of the neighborhood playground so that the local community would have control of the space.

WPI demystified Sacramento

The Women’s Policy Institute has helped to demystify Sacramento for Kim and the other WPI fellows.

“We weren’t practicing how to pass legislation – we were working to actually write it and push it forward from start to finish,” Kim said. “The only way to really know how to swim is to jump in, and WPI threw us into the deep end during Olympic trials.”

WPI was also a unique opportunity for Kim because of the people she worked with. “For the first time, I saw a public policy effort informed by the people representing the communities that were most impacted.”

In fact, several of her fellow team members had direct experience with the prison system – they included a woman who was formerly incarcerated and a mother whose child was murdered. “This added a lot of expertise, passion and perspective,” Kim added.

“Mass incarceration, criminalization and deportation are the civil and human rights issues for all generations that came up after 1980,” she said.

Ultimately, the experience served as a wonderful opportunity for learning and growth, especially for someone as passionate as Kim is about criminal justice. With the skills and experience she gained through WPI, Kim will continue to devote her life to fighting for a prison system that should, as she puts it, “bring peace to youth, families and communities.”

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