Meet The Maria Leavey Tribute Award Finalists Peter Wagner

Bill Scher

The five finalists for the Sixth Annual Maria Leavey Tribute Award have been announced, honoring the person in the progressive movement whose behind-the-scenes work and selfless service has made an invaluable contribution to social justice. The public is invited to vote for their favorite, and the winner will be announced at the June 18-20 Take Back the American Dream conference — click here to register. We’ll be introducing you to the five finalists on the blog over the course of the next several days, but you can read about them all, and vote, by clicking here.

Peter Wagner
Prison Policy Initiative

Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative built the national movement to keep the prison industrial complex from exercising undue influence on the political process. He exposed an ancient Census Bureau rule that allowed pro-prison legislators to bar people in prison from voting and then claim their political clout. It’s called prison-based gerrymandering. It violates the constitutional guarantee of “one-person-one-vote” and resembles the three-fifths clause of the Constitution that gave the South extra representation for their slaves.

Peter demonstrated that the problem was real, and then he changed the frame to build a bipartisan urban and rural movement where almost everyone benefits from ending prison-based gerrymandering. Today, four states have outlawed the practice of prison-based gerrymandering and the Census Bureau is starting to take notice.

Working for much of the decade without formal funding or institutional support, Peter built the movement from the ground up. He used his blog on the PrisonersoftheCensus.org website to develop the movement’s consensus around messaging and the necessary federal, state and local solutions. He seized the imagination of the press, of criminal justice reformers, and good government groups and over a decade built one of the major civil rights victories of the past decade.

Peter deserves credit for having the vision to see how mass incarceration was diluting our right to vote, and for having both the skills and the drive to build a successful movement for change.

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