In March, Memphis Rep. Raumesh Akbari found herself traveling to the state capitol in Nashville to present a bill to a House subcommittee. This wouldn’t be too unusual. except this time, the Democrat lawmaker was traveling with a group of high school students.
The Soulsville Charter School students had helped the young legislator draft a bill aimed at helping people convicted of certain nonviolent crimes clear their records and start over with a clean slate. The bill, which would have reduced the state’s expungement fee, managed to attract bipartisan support before getting voted down. Yet with or without students in tow, Akbari has promised to continue the fight for its passage next year.
Akbari was elected in 2013 to fill the Tennessee House of Representatives seat held by Memphis icon Lois DeBerry. Educator and civil rights activist Deberry had represented District 91 for over 40 years, up until her death. Deberry had been the second African-American woman to be elected to the General Assembly and the first woman to be named speaker pro tempore in the state House. Akbari was 29 when she entered office, representing a district burdened by poverty, troubled schools and a broken relationship with the criminal justice system.
“It all goes hand in hand,” Akbari said.
Through her three years in office, the Memphis native has affected change in the district where she spent most of her time in the city, and where much of her mother’s side of the family grew up. In her first year in office she got four bills passed, followed by six bills in her second year, and then eight bills this year.
“This year was the best as far as getting out some criminal justice legislation,” she said. “Last year I got a lot of economic development and education legislation. And in the first year I got some education and some environment legislation out.”
For her efforts the National Juvenile Justice Network and Just City will award Akbari the 2016 “Reformer Award” for Leadership in Juvenile Justice Reform for “spearheading bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation that will benefit all of Tennessee’s citizens.”
In the past year Akbari worked on several bills that passed including one that grants statutory authority for pretrial or judicial diversion of juveniles, one that requires the Department of Children’s Services to issue an annual report on the effectiveness of juvenile court probation departments, one that helps ex-offenders gain certain licenses (such as bartender, land surveyor and barber) without waiting periods and other restrictions, and one that requires all schools on the state priority list to be ranked by order of success overall, and by each county.
In the spring of last year, Akbari helped bring about a policy change that protected improving low performing schools from being taken over by the state’s Achievement School District.
Again with bipartisan support, Akbari’s bill would prevent a school from being added to the ASD by letting its try its own turnaround first. Ten schools (seven in Memphis, three in Nashville) ended up not being taken over by the state as a result.
When asked about things that she would still like to reform, Akbari said, “I would like to continue the discussion on reevaluating how we look at criminal justice and sentencing. When I read the book Just Mercy (by Bryan Stevenson) and especially when you’re looking at incarceration rates and how people get a part of the system that they’re never able to get out of, I think that we still need to look at having smarter, not stronger punishments when it comes to offenders. And also most important to me is really addressing reentry, making sure that once people actually get out they can get a job, they can get transportation, they can get a stable place to live so that they don’t get back into the system. And then also looking at adverse childhood experiences to see exactly how we handle juveniles and if we need to look at things differently so that we can make sure that these kids never get into the system. Unfortunately people look at children as if they are adults and the punishment is too severe.”
In the future, Akbari said that she would like to address the school to prison pipeline at its source by crafting policy to reduce the disproportionate rate of black school suspensions in the state.
Elle Perry is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Memphis, Tenn. She previously served as Coordinator of The Teen Appeal, which was the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program. She is a two-time graduate of the University of Memphis Edward J. Meeman School of Journalism.