We can’t just be against the death penalty when it’s easy

noose

As we hear more and more outrageous stories about wrongly convicted people spending decades in prison, support for the death penalty weakens. According to The Innocence Project, 341 prisoners have been exonerated through DNA evidence in the last 25 years. And these are the ones who are lucky enough to have an organization with resources to investigate their cases. Continue reading “We can’t just be against the death penalty when it’s easy”

The danger of courting white swing voters

voting

It must be pretty sweet to be a white swing voter. Political campaigns blow millions of dollars catering to your every whim. Politicians ask what you think before they step out on a major policy program, despite the fact that your views aren’t representative of the majority of Americans. The changing demographics of this country mean it’s well past time to stop obsessing over a shrinking population that’s out of sync with the right direction for this country. Continuing to cater to those voters can have dire consequences, in politics and more importantly in policies that deeply impact people’s lives. Continue reading “The danger of courting white swing voters”

Kalief Browder, Timothy Tyrone Foster and the failures of the criminal justice system

Kalief Browder, 1993-2015
Kalief Browder, 1993-2015

This week, Kalief Browder’s all too brief life came to an end when he committed suicide. If I had greater faith in this country’s position as a moral bastion, I wouldn’t be able to believe his tragic story. Kalief, just 22 when he died, was held in jail for three years without trial starting at the age of 16 for stealing a backpack, a charge he vigorously denied. He suffered in jail all that time partly because his family could not afford bail, and after all that his case was dismissed. He spent about two of those years in solitary confinement, a practice that most reasonable people recognize as torture. The conditions he faced were reprehensible:  Continue reading “Kalief Browder, Timothy Tyrone Foster and the failures of the criminal justice system”

Talk about the people, not just the politics

prison-reform

Despite the fact that we’re more than a year away from the 2016 presidential election, we’re already getting inundated with horse race coverage. For candidates and likely candidates, every single moved is parsed for political impact. Every policy statement is assessed for what it signals about a candidates’ intentions or desire to woo a particular demographic.

When Hillary Clinton made a statement about criminal justice reform, a couple of Washington Post columnists attacked her for committing political suicide (apparently confronting a glaring reality turns you into Michael Dukakis). Radley Balko responded by tearing apart their claims that this is not a politically viable position, but then gets to the heart of the matter:  Continue reading “Talk about the people, not just the politics”

The police department’s margarita machine is on you

The tragic fates of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others have increased scrutiny of horrendous police practices. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took advantage of this spotlight to turn their invaluable form of comedic long-form journalism to the practice of civil asset forfeiture.

The New Yorker featured an essential piece on the practice and people who are affected by this flagrant abuse of power last year. Dara Lind at Vox offers a helpful overview of the practice. On what police departments are doing with the money:

In its ongoing investigation of civil asset forfeiture, the Washington Post analyzed several years of reports from state and local law enforcement to determine what they’d done with the money the federal government had returned to them. They found that the most common use of asset funds was for “communications and computers,” with “building and improvements” coming in second. But even “communications and computers” was dwarfed by the amount of money that police marked as “other” — 44 percent of the money that police got back from the federal government went to “other.”

The Post investigation noticed some particularly frivolous spending, like a $600 coffeemaker or $225 for the face-painting services of Sparkles the Clown. But at least the money spent on Sparkles went to community outreach, which is generally cops’ lowest priority when it comes to asset money. Less than 1 percent of all federally returned money went to community outreach — five times less money than any other category.

The above video is well worth your sixteen minutes, running the gamut from the ridiculous justifications police offer for running off with people’s money and possessions, to systems that incentivizing robbing innocent people of their stuff, to the near impossibility of regaining the stolen property. And yes, I would totally watch Law and Order: Civil Forfeiture Unit. 

 

 

What we must remember after Ferguson

photo via slate.com
photo via slate.com

Every time there is a tragedy like the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we are reminded of the many lessons our society has sadly failed to learn. It’s wrenching to watch yet another family grieve a young person who paid the ultimate price thanks to racism and institutional failure. As we fight for justice for Michael Brown and others, we must also highlight the lessons that will help our country prevent these tragedies in the future.  Continue reading “What we must remember after Ferguson”

A win in the fight against private prisons

Corrections-Corporation-of-America
photo from veteransnewsnow.com

If you’re paying attention to criminal justice policy in the US, you’ve been bombarded with daunting statistics. One in one hundred adult Americans is behind bars. The US has the largest prison population per capita in the world (12 times Japan’s, 17 times Iceland’s). While there are signs that politicians are coming to terms with some aspects of this problem, there is still a paralyzing fear of being portrayed as “soft on crime” that makes ambitious policy change challenging.

Layered on top of that is a disturbing new development: injecting a profit motive into the prison industry. Powerful corporations are lobbying to keep more people in prison longer, and even “liberal” politicians are throwing money at them.

These challenges make a new victory in taking on the private prison industry even more exciting. Continue reading “A win in the fight against private prisons”

4 fundamental rights that are hard to come by if you’re poor

photo via thinkprogress.org
photo via thinkprogress.org

Americans like to think of our country as a land of opportunity where every man, woman and child has a shot at success. With hard work and dedication, anyone can make it.

The growing income gap belies the idealistic rhetoric. There are many straightforward ways in which low-income people struggle–if you aren’t making enough money, feeding and housing your family can be difficult to impossible. But beyond meeting these basic needs, there are also fundamental rights we as Americans like to think are income blind. The reality is quite different.

Continue reading “4 fundamental rights that are hard to come by if you’re poor”

There should be life after prison

map of felony disenfranchisement laws from the ACLU
map of felony disenfranchisement laws from the ACLU

Senate Democrats in tight races are running as fast as they can from Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposal to return voting rights to ex-felons:

Attorney General Eric Holder’s call to restore voting rights to felons after they’ve served their time in prison has split Senate Democrats.

Liberal Democrats who are not facing tough re-elections this year say it’s the right thing to do, but vulnerable incumbents are steering clear of the proposal.

Holder has become increasingly outspoken recently. This week he declared that state attorneys general are not obligated to defend laws that are discriminatory.

Political experts say barring ex-felons from voting impacts African Americans disproportionately.

It’s embarrassing and sad that this is even controversial. But your ability to exercise your right to vote as an ex-felon is vastly different depending on where you live. In some states, felons lose their voting rights for life. I am proud that my home state is one of only two that allow felons to vote while in prison.

Continue reading “There should be life after prison”

Incarcerating people of color more profitable for private companies

graphic by Chris Petrella and Josh Begley
graphic by Chris Petrella and Josh Begley

Thanks to the failed war on drugs, we are already what David Simon has dubbed “the jailingest country on the planet.” Decades of tough-on-crime posting have created an environment in which few politicians are bold enough to challenge the status quo. Politicians eager to fill their campaign coffers now have yet another reason to perpetuate and exacerbate a fundamentally flawed system as private prison companies use their influence to increase the profitability of mass incarceration.

The millions of dollars private prison companies spend to influence lawmakers is not surprisingly resulting in more poor policy. Think Progress covered a report on these activities a few years ago:

According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

The impact that the private prison industry has had is hard to deny. In Arizona, 30 of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored the state’s controversial immigration law that would undoubtedly put more immigrants behind bars received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists or companies. Private prison businesses been involved in lobbying efforts related to a bill in Florida that would require privatizing all of the prisons in South Florida and have been heavily involved in appropriations bills on the federal level.

That same year saw a scandal in which a Pennsylvania judge was passing down draconian sentences to children because he was receiving kickbacks to send them to private youth detention centers.

Now a new study shows that the profit motive results in people of color making up an even larger share of inmates in private prisons. Why? They’re cheaper. 

Why would African American and Latino prisoners be cheaper to incarcerate than whites? Because older prisoners are significantly more expensive than younger ones. “Based on historical sentencing patterns, if you are a prisoner today, and you are over 50 years old, there is a greater likelihood that you are white,” Petrella explained to BillMoyers.com. “If you are under 50 years old — particularly if you’re closer to 30 years old — you’re more likely to be a person of color.” He cited a 2012 report by the ACLU which found that it costs $34,135 per year to house a non-geriatric prisoner, compared with $68,270 for a prisoner age 50 or older.

The war on drugs has swept so many people of color into the prison system in recent years that they make up a much higher portion of the younger prisoners. Private prison companies find ways to write parameters into their contracts so the burden of caring for older, more expensive, and more likely white prisoners stays with the states.

Chris Petrella, who conducted the study, emphasizes a lesson that must be applied to a whole range of racial justice issues in an age when people want to claim a post-racial society:

“One of the reasons I think the study’s important is that it continues to show how laws — and even contractual stipulations — that are, on the surface, race-neutral, continue to have a disproportionate and negative impact on communities of color.”