Recently, Jarvis Dortch was named the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi. An alumnus of Jackson State University and Mississippi College School of Law, Dortch has worked in private legal practice as well as in policy, advocacy and social justice across the state. Dortch recently spoke with Sun staff writer Nikki Rowell about the goals and the mission of the ACLU and how the organization is working to achieve that despite the challenges of this year.
Tell me about your transition into your new role as Executive Director of the ACLU.
“For me, it’s not that difficult of a transition because most of my work prior to becoming a legislator was in the advocacy world. So, I worked for non-profits and managed programs, like the Mississippi Health Advocacy program. We did a lot of direct service with people in need of assistance with their health insurance, primarily Medicaid and CHIP. So, we directly assisted a lot of low income families.
My passion has always been to work in this type of field. The transition, the difficult part is going to be the more administrative role and being able to manage a successful team. That’s something I’m looking forward to.”
What has it been like moving into this role in the midst of nationwide turmoil in just about every area the ACLU works in, from equal access to criminal justice to voting?
“When you’re in the legislature, you deal with that stuff directly as well. Maybe it is a little more abstract when you’re talking about laws and your reaction to it and the politics that come with it. So, I haven’t been removed from thinking about and looking at those issues.
This new position gives me an opportunity to get more involved and put forward direct solutions. I look at this job as not necessarily something where I’m an adversary to the state of Mississippi or the city of Jackson or any type of law enforcement organization. I want to be a partner with them to address some of these issues that have long standing ramifications on our communities, especially underserved communities in Mississippi and throughout the country.”
Tell me a bit about the work of the ACLU.
“We have a few buckets of work that we are targeting right now. Primarily, at this moment, we are looking at voting rights and making sure people have access to the ballot. One thing that we want to press is that we don’t think people should have to put their health in danger to exercise their right to vote. Criminal justice reform is another issue and something we are going to be working on continuing at the legislature and also with different law enforcement organizations that are more locally based, like sheriffs and district attorneys.
Re-entry is another thing that goes along with criminal justice reform. We want to be a partner with those organizations and see what we can do to assist these people who come out of the prison system don’t fall back into the prison system. Equality is another issue. We want to make sure everyone is treated equally and fairly under the law. I worked in the legislature when HB 1523 was passed. I know we can do a lot to educate folks on why it seems like there is a big difference between the individuals that these laws affect and that we can bridge that difference and realize that someone gaining rights over here does not diminish your rights on the other side. I think that has to be the work that we do. To make real change, we have to do it more personally.”
People all over the country have taken notice of Mississippi’s criminal justice system, specifically conditions in the prison system. What are some ways the ACLU is working toward reform?
“One of the things that we have to do is work with coalitions. We have to partner with all of the various groups that are interested in reducing our prison population. Some of those groups are conservative groups and some are more progressive groups. There are going to prosecutors, sheriffs, lawmakers. We have to figure out a way where we can advance that one goal of reducing the prison population.
The easiest way for us to do that is through the legislature and enact changes that allow prisoners to have more access to parole, basically. Right now, we have a lot of people in prison who don’t have access to parole, which means they have no incentive to change their behavior, get a GED or prepare themselves for a life outside of prison because you’ve basically told them they’re going to be in prison for 30 or 40 years, which is basically life. There is no incentive for them to correct their behavior while in the prison setting. So, there is no incentive not to join a gang or not to riot. We have to change that.
By putting these laws in effect to allow more people up for parole, we have to see that that’s not going to make us less safe. It will save us money, enable us to have a better prison system and allow people to come out of the prison system better positioned for the rest of their lives.”
I know educational opportunities are also a big component of the ACLU’s work. Has coronavirus impacted the organization’s efforts?
“I think we are being impacted like most organizations. We are having to work from home. It makes it difficult to organize. When you’re trying to educate different communities on their rights or build relationships in communities, it’s difficult right now with all of this going through Zoom. It’s a challenge to us. Educating voters on ways they can vote absentee, there were some changes to the law this year. So, all of that, I think a lot of groups are going to be going through that over the next few months, trying to figure out how we can get in front of people and engage them.
One, I don’t want to say bright spot, but you do have that more captive audience, because people are at home and available online and you can reach them through social media or other digital platforms. You have to take advantage of that and make sure we are doubling our efforts to get in front of people.”
What are some ways you all are handling that?
“We’re investing more in technology and trying to up our social media platforms. We’re invested in Zoom, like everyone else is doing. You’re basically going to have to work harder to get in front of people. We have to embrace the technology that’s right in front of us to accomplish our goals. We just have to be nimble and work hard at it.”
In the wake of more deaths of unarmed Black people, from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor, while these did not happen here in Mississippi, we are seeing a growing support for law enforcement reform and protesting all over the state. Has this momentum aided in the efforts of the ACLU as far as its mission to reach equality for all and equal access?
“Yeah, and I think that goes back to your question before about how we are able to get in front of folks and continue our education activity. There are more people that are involved and in tune to what’s going on in our country today. There are people who want to find ways to get involved even though the coronavirus is going on and prohibiting a lot of stuff. We have to be able to tap into that and make sure we are a resource to people that are looking for ways to protest or do even more than just making comments on Facebook and Twitter.
We have to provide those platforms because we have those resources here in our office. This is a time where we have to be nimble and take advantage of occasions where there are people who want to be active. They’re looking for ways to be active. We have to be an organization that’s able to harness that and make sure it’s done in a responsible way and an effective way.”
Could you speak to some of those resources that are available to those who want to get involved, what would be the most effective way to get involved and how the ACLU helps with that?
“Yes, we have an advocacy team that works on several different issues from criminal justice reform to imigration rights to trans rights and equality generally. People can contact our office or go to our website and can contact us. We are going to be upping our presence on social media so people can contact us regularly. If you want to get involved in criminal justice reform, we need to hear your stories and we need to hear the stories of your family members and how they’re affected.
We need to form a strategy for getting those voices before our legislature in January and make sure those voices are carried to the capitol. That is going to be one of our long-term strategies to make sure that we’re able to help those individuals who don’t really know the process necessarily or may not know who their legislators are or may not know who they need to talk to. We need to educate them on those issues and make sure we can provide them that guide to being their own advocate.”
As it is an election year, and as coronavirus cases continue to increase, there seem to be some concerns about what this will mean for the general election in November. Will the ACLU be monitoring how the election is handled and educating people on how to vote absentee?
“Yes. Even before I came on board, the office was working on our absentee ballot strategy. There have been changes to the absentee balloting law in this past legislative session. What we want to do is get clarification on who all can vote absentee under this pandemic.
Right now, if you’re over 65 you don’t need an excuse to vote absentee, we know that. But, now the question is whether or not you can vote absentee because the state is under some type of emergency order. We’re asking people to social distance and stay six feet apart and not gather in groups of more than 10. That seems to us to apply to voting, because you’re going to have lines of folks going to be in the same building, same office space, trying to vote. That should enable a lot more people to vote absentee, and we hope that’s what the attorney general sees in the law. That’s what we are going to be following and monitoring over the next few days.”
What does your day-to-day look like in this role?
“My first week was challenging because I actually did come down with COVID-19 at the capitol during the final days of the session. So, I was working from home and trying to overcome this virus. A lot of this, right now, is getting up to speed on some administrative stuff and working with our team to continue doing the great work that they’re doing and figuring out ways that we can amplify that and expand on what we’re doing. A lot of it is me having to learn and read and go through a lot to get up to speed, as we are a local affiliate but we have national offices with 50 offices across the country.”
Do you have any personal goals for your time as executive director of the ACLU?
“For me, and this is one thing I told the board when I was hired, I want to be known for having a great staff. I want to make sure they have everything that they need to do the work that we want to do. My goal is just to have an impact on policy and the culture in this state, where we can be viewed as a partner and not necessarily an adversary. Whether it is local law enforcement or the state or the city of Jackson, we think we can build those partnerships in the state of Mississippi.”