Memphis' Rep. Akbari on how progressives make change in a red state

Representative for Memphis’ 91st district, Raumesh Akbari, says that progress and hope lay in common interests, such as criminal justice reform, between those on both sides of the aisle.
Democratic representatives in Nashville face an uphill battle in a state dominated by Republican lawmakers. However, Representative for Memphis’ 91st district, Raumesh Akbari, says that progress and hope lay in common interests, such as criminal justice reform, between those on both sides of the aisle.
 
For the past three years Akbari has been the 91st district’s representative, an area that encompasses most of South Memphis and a sliver of Midtown.
 
At the state level, she campaigns for criminal justice reform and education, a cause that she believes finds eager audience among her Republican peers.
 
Both parties are changing their tune and aligning to treat criminal justice reform and drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. For decades, the path to progress seemed to lie in privatizing prisons and having stricter criminal justice laws that increased incarceration.
 
“I think it was a response to high crime rates but now, fortunately, people look back and realize they were wrong and that we have not lowered the crime rate in any way and are costing the state a tremendous amount of money.
 
As bleeding heart liberal, I say, ‘Well, also you’re tearing up the community. You’re tearing up families and taking away hope of people ever getting their life on track if you brand them as a felon.’ But, I’ll take whatever reason they’re motivated by, as long as we can agree that (criminal justice reform) is the end result.”
 
She says that lawmakers have realized that very expensive policies of long, strict sentences have not been successful while draining a significant amount of the state budget. Likewise, with a growing heroin epidemic nationwide and the widespread abuse of prescription pain pills, drug use is no longer perceived as just an urban problem.
 
Akbari admits that there are many important criminal justice issues that cannot be addressed on the state level. She calls Just City’s $10 million lawsuit on behalf of citizens kept for days in the Shelby County Jail, even after bail was posted, a “necessary” move.
 
“Sometimes you have to use litigation to make change,” she said. “Shelby County has implemented this new system and spent millions of dollars on it to make things better. But, unfortunately, it’s not working and we cannot have people suffering and being unjustly incarcerated because of it,” she said.
 
She added that people often let injustice continue among those in the criminal justice system because they blame the inmates themselves for getting arrested. However, many of these inmates being held unjustly are for non-violent offenses like driving with a suspended license or not paying traffic tickets.
 
“People shouldn’t be unjustly held no matter what they have done. Not to mention the fact that it is costing taxpayers money,” she said.
 
Last year, the threshold for a theft felony in Tennessee was raised from $500 to $1,000. Akbari does not think the bar is high enough but sees these incremental steps as a positive sign for more progressive policies.
 
This year, she predicts the state’s criminal justice focus will be on shortening sentences for low-level drug crimes, especially for drug laws surrounding marijuana. Last year, a Republican introduced a bill for the legalization of medicinal marijuana for the first time after years of Democrats bringing it forth, Akbari said.
 
She suggests building on the interest in marijuana decriminalization ordinances in Memphis and Nashville by starting a pilot program in the two cities for a statewide rollout replacing harsh sentences for low-level drug crimes with fines or decriminalization. While such ordinances were recently approved in the urban centers of Nashville and Memphis, Akbari will work to convince her Republican colleagues that drug reform is needed in the state’s rural and suburban areas.
 
As well as reducing sentences for drug charges and lowering the felony threshold, Akbari believes it is crucial to lower the expungement fee so that formerly incarcerated people can have a fresh start.
 
Rep. Akbari admits she is “scared, but also hopeful” about the rapidly-changing political landscape under the new administration.
 
She specifically is concerned about a Department of Justice led by Jeff Sessions and an officially nonexistent democratic party in Shelby County. She also points out that many of her Republican colleagues support Donald Trump and she fears that they will be empowered by his “platform of hate.”
 
“People are embracing the alt-right as if it’s a popular thing to do,” she said. “Yet, I’m hopeful because people who have never been engaged in politics are wondering ‘What can I do?’ Lawyers are volunteering to help immigrants. People are volunteering to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. Despite hate and darkness, I see glimmers of light.”

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer. A Memphian since matriculating at Rhodes College in 2008, she has also been a contributor for the Choose901 blog. 
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