#BanTheBox: Take Action for Federal Fair-Chance Hiring!

Fair-Chance-Federal-NELP-TW

Join the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights today for a National Day of Action calling on President Obama to give people with records a fair chance to work at federal agencies and contractors.

Here’s how to help:

  • Sign this letter to President Obama urging his administration to ‘Ban the Box’ on federal job applications and to adopt other fair chance hiring reforms for all job seekers, including those with records!
  • Send a tweet to President Obama (@POTUS)
    • It’s time for the U.S. to adopt a federal #FairChance hiring policy! Tell @POTUS to #BantheBox pic.twitter.com/73sQk8oixo
    • @POTUS can help open up employment opportunities for qualified job-seekers with records #BanTheBox #FairChance pic.twitter.com/73sQk8oixo
    • #FairChance reforms restore hope & opportunity to qualified job-seekers with an arrest or conviction record. @POTUS, it’s time to #BanTheBox

Nationwide, over 100 cities and counties have adopted what is widely known as “ban the box” so that employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a conviction record. These initiatives provide applicants a fair chance by removing the conviction history question on the job application and delaying the background check inquiry until later in the hiring.

17 states and over 100 cities and counties have taken steps to remove barriers to employment for qualified workers with records. Six states, the District of Columbia, and eleven cities and counties extend their fair chance hiring policies to local private employers. It’s time for President Obama to take executive action on federal fair chance hiring.

Here’s the bottom line: Fair chance hiring policies should extend to federal contractors and agents. Formerly incarcerated people deserve equitable opportunities to success.


“Ban the box” initiatives help individuals, families, and local communities by reducing the stigma attached to having a criminal record. These policies are based on fairness, inclusion, and community improvement. Citizens going through the reentry process face myriad barriers to their access to housing, social services, education, and employment. Fair chance hiring policies help alleviate boundaries to formerly incarcerated people’s success.

Stable and secure employment is critical if we hope to give meaningful second chances to people coming home from prison and jail. Formerly incarcerated people should not be denied the ability to succeed. The federal government has the opportunity to send a message that people in the reentry process are valuable—and valued—members of society.

Pick 6 (5/1/15)

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Hello friends. Happy May Day (a.k.a. International Workers’ Day). We’re back with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) Freddie Gray death ruled homicide; officers charged (CNN)

“Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told reporters Friday that her office’s investigation, coupled with a medical examiner’s determination that Freddie Gray’s death was a homicide, led her to determine there is probable cause to file criminal charges. Six police officers have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray.”

1a.) Rioting rocks Baltimore: Hogan declares emergency, activates Guard (Washington Post)

“Violence swept through pockets of a low-income section of West Baltimore on Monday afternoon as scores of rioters heaved bottles and rocks at riot-gear-clad police, set police cars on fire, and looted a pharmacy, a mall and other businesses. At least 15 officers were injured. Images of the violence were broadcast nationwide just hours after Freddie Gray was eulogized at his funeral, and Gray’s family and clergy members called for calm. Gray died of an injury he suffered while in police custody. The rioting did not appear to stem from any organized protests over Gray’s death.”

2.) Baltimore Been Burning (Ebony)

“Referring to protestors as “thugs” who are “destroying the city in a senseless way” speaks to the inability of so many of us to really do the emotional and intellectual labor of getting past the good/bad binary, and recognizing how hurt and righteously indignant our people really are. If the sight of a burning drugstore can do so much to change the perception of people who claimed to be “down for the cause” beforehand, then one can be pretty sure you haven’t done that work. If your assumption is that anyone who riots or destroys property is a “thug” and on the same plane as a violent police officer who’d beat someone ultimately to death for no other reason but “he ran from me,” then you’re still missing a few things here…If the events of the last 400 years have not left you with, at the absolute least, a sense of “it’s not right, but I understand” as it relates to the utter despair that leads one to go into the streets with destruction on their mind, then you may want to reconsider the levels to which you actually understand what is taking place in Baltimore and beyond…This is not a case for riots, but acknowledgment that they aren’t the work of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, but an SOS call. The question is, are we willing to listen? We should, because our people have finally changed their mind.”

3.) Since 2011, Baltimore has lost or settled more than 100 cases related to police brutality (Vox)

“Since 2011, Baltimore has lost or settled more than 100 cases relate to police brutality…Baltimore has paid out more than $5.7 million in jury awards and settlements, and and spent $5.8 million more on outside law firms.” (Related: Undue Force)

4.) Activist: Baltimore shows poverty costs (Charlotte Observer)

“Attorney Bryan Stevenson brought his campaign against racial injustice to Charlotte on Wednesday night, saying the eruption of violence in Baltimore this week should be understood as a “health crisis” involving poor inner-city black youths who have grown up surrounded by violence, deprived of opportunity and menaced by police.They’re left, he said, with symptoms of hyper-vigilance and hopelessness that suggest post-traumatic stress disorder. “If you’re a young kid growing up in West Baltimore, you are going to be threatened and harassed by police throughout your life,” he said. “We’re so focused on a burning store or a burning car that we’re not looking at the lives that have been burning in pain and anguish for years.”

5.) Nonviolence as Compliance (The Atlantic)

In a thought-provoking piece, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”

6.) Toward a ‘New Broken Windows Theory’ (The Nation)

“Whenever there is an uprising in an American city, as we’ve seen in Baltimore over the past few days in response to the police-involved death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, there always emerges a chorus of elected officials, pundits, and other public figures that forcefully condemn “violent protests.” They offer their unconditional support for “legitimate” or “peaceful” protests, but describe those who break windows and set fires as thugs, criminals, or animals. And eventually someone invokes the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement, reminding us that nonviolence brought down Jim Crow segregation and won voting rights. There’s something that needs to be cleared up: the civil-rights movement was not successful because the quiet dignity of nonviolent protests appealed to the morality of the white public. Nonviolent direct action, a staple employed by many organizations during the civil-rights movement, was and is a much more sophisticated tactic. Organizers found success when nonviolent protests were able to provoke white violence, either by ordinary citizens or police, and images of that brutality were transmitted across the country and the rest of the world. The pictures of bloodied bodies standing in nonviolent defiance of the law horrified people at home and proved embarrassing for the country in a global context. So anyone who calls for protestors to remain “peaceful,” like the civil-rights activists of old, must answer this question: What actions should be taken when America refuses to be ashamed? Images of black death are proliferating beyond our capacity to tell each story, yet there remains no tipping point in sight—no moment when white people in America will say, “Enough.” And no amount of international outrage diminishes the US’s reputation to the point of challenging its status as a hegemonic superpower.”

+1) Today Alabama officially observes Confederate Memorial Day: Shame on us (al.com)

“[Monday April 27th was] Confederate Memorial Day across Alabama and Mississippi…Georgia observed the holiday Sunday. It’s an officially recognized holiday in all three states and throughout much of the old confederacy. And shame on us that it is. Some 150 years after the South’s bloody effort to break apart the union in order to maintain an economic system dependent on slavery was defeated, why are we still officially honoring those who engaged in treason against our nation? Please spare us the “they-didn’t-fight-to-defend-slavery” bull. History teaches us that the South was fully aware of why it fought and why so many of its white sons joined to defend a way of life no matter if they had slaves or not, no matter how poor they may have been. Most white southern men who fought knew one thing about their region: no matter their status, they knew they were better than any black. And that would remain the case in the new Confederate States of America. Alabama and Georgia today – and other southern states at other dates – will spend millions of dollars paying state employees who will have
the day off. It’s offensive.”

Video of the week) Gangs call for calm in Baltimore (Baltimore Sun)

“Amid mounting unrest in Baltimore, an unexpected alliance—members of the Bloods and Crips—emerged yesterday to call for protection of local residents. At an event in a local church shown in a Baltimore Sun video, a man named Charles, who said he was a member of the Crips, wrapped his arm around a self-described Bloods member named Jamal to call for an end to riots over the death of Freddie Gray. “We not here for nobody to get hurt,” Charles told the Sun reporter. “We don’t want nobody to get hurt. All that about the police getting hurt by certain gangs, that’s false. We not here for that. We here to protect our community, and that’s it. We don’t want no trouble. We’re doing this because we don’t want trouble.”

Audio of the week) Crime Pays (This American Life)

“Reporter Joe Richman visits a program in Richmond, CA that is trying a controversial method of reducing gun violence in their city: paying criminals to not commit crimes. Sounds crazy, but the even crazier part is…it works. To figure out how, Joe speaks to guys participating in the program, and to Sam Vaugn, a man whose job it is to monitor the criminals’ progress and keep them on track.”

Report of the week) Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice (Brennan Center for Justice)

“Mass incarceration. In recent years it’s become clear that the size of America’s prison population is unsustainable – and isn’t needed to protect public safety. In this remarkable bipartisan collaboration, the country’s most prominent public figures and experts join together to propose ideas for change. In these original essays, many authors speak out for the first time on the issue…From using federal funding to bolster police best practices to allowing for the release of low-level offenders while they wait for trial, from eliminating prison for low-level drug crimes to increasing drug and mental health treatment, the ideas in this book pave a way forward. Solutions promises to further the intellectual and political momentum to reform our justice system…In a remarkable cross-ideological effort, this book includes essays by public figures and experts who will play a leading role in the nation’s debate over the coming year. The book contains original essays by Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Cory Booker, Chris Christie, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Cathy L. Lanier, Martin O’Malley, Janet Napolitano, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Bryan Stevenson, Scott Walker, and Jim Webb, among others.”

Image of the week) 

Jim Bourg/Reuters

Quote of the week) “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”- W.E.B. Du Bois

#BlackLivesMatter

Pick 6 (4/24/15)

Views from 6

Hello friends. We’re back again with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) ‘Release cards’ turn inmates and families into profit streams (Al Jazeera America)

“Correctional facilities across the country are increasingly sending former inmates home with their funds returned on pre-paid debit cards, known in the industry as release cards. In addition to adoption by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 17 state prison agencies reported using them…Prison reform advocates like Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative say that their use is even more widespread among the nation’s nearly 3,300 jails. With almost 12 million people admitted to county and city jails each year, these local facilities provide a steady source of cardholders subject to high fees…Unlike consumer debit cards, prison-issued cards are completely unregulated when it comes to the fees that can be charged. The result is high transaction and maintenance fees that bear little relation to the actual costs of the services provided…A review of bids and contracts in several states and counties found ATM withdrawal fees of nearly $3 per transaction. A simple balance inquiry typically incurs a charge of $1.50. Account maintenance fees, deducted even if no transactions are made, can be as much as $2.50 per week. Cardholders who opt to transfer their balances to a bank account can be charged closing fees of $30. These cards are designed to generate income for the private vendors that furnish them…The cost of issuing and managing the cards is paid for solely by the exorbitant fees former inmates must pay, fees that quickly deplete their already meager balances…The vendors aren’t the only ones making a profit from these fees. It’s common practice for these companies to send a cut of the collected fees directly to the prison agencies and jails. These “commissions,” essentially legalized kickbacks, make money transfers and other fee-generating services a reliable profit engine for the corrections agencies themselves.”

2.) 40,000 Maryland Ex-Cons May Soon Get Their Voting Rights Back (Mother Jones)

“A national, bipartisan effort to roll back restrictions on felon voting rights could soon take a big step forward in Maryland. Earlier this month, the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would restore the right to vote to felons immediately after release from prison. Currently, Maryland is one of 20 states that bars felons from voting until they have completed prison time, parole, and probation. The bill currently sits on the desk of Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who has backed criminal justice reform. If enacted, the law would make it easier for 40,000 Maryland residents with past convictions to exercise their voting rights.”

3.) American Outcasts: US Prisons and Modern Day Banishment (The Intercept)

“In ancient times, communities would often rid themselves of convicted criminals and other undesirables through the practice of banishment: casting unwanted people out into the wilderness. The Romans often employed banishment as an alternative to capital punishment, and indeed, considered it a fate nearly as terrible as death. Later, the British Empire liberally employed the punishment of banishment and transportation to colonies such as Australia, while the Soviet Union became known for its use of internal banishment to Siberia. The terms exile, outlaw and outcast all owe their origin to this once widespread practice. As the world grew smaller, banishment, as a practical matter, virtually ceased to exist. Though it still remains on the books in a few Southern states, it is generally thought of as an archaic form of punishment, and one that cannot function effectively in the modern world. Yet the impetus behind banishment — to permanently remove individuals from society, and subject them to a kind of “social death” — flourishes today in the American criminal justice system, where prisons and jails are the settings for a new kind of internal exile…According to the Sentencing Project, nearly 50,000 Americans are currently serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), a punishment that has been called “the other death sentence,” and which, like capital punishment, is unknown in Europe. In excess of 100,000 more are serving life sentences…It is here, and not just in the popular areas of low level drug offenses or other easy reforms, that we must look for true change in our criminal justice system.”

4.) Public defenders: The fast food workers of justice? (The Southern Illinoisan)

“Although applauding the skill and dedication of public defenders, Larry Lauterjung was ready to do about anything else after serving as an assistant public defender for nearly 10 years…He describes being a public defender as a cross between an air-traffic controller and working at a fast-food restaurant. There are a lot of moving parts that have to be dealt with quickly and with people’s lives hanging in the balance. “Other public defenders that I have known, I have seen the toll that the stress takes on them. I have seen some who lasted to the point that they retired and they are some of the strongest people I have ever known in my life,” [Lauterjung says].”

5.) New York City Just Outlawed Running Credit Checks on Job Applicants (Truthout)

 New York’s City Council just voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the common practice of letting employers prejudge people based on their credit history—passing an unprecedented ban against employers use of workers’ credit background data…The rationale behind the ban is simple: it’s unfair and useless to use a person’s credit history, which is often inaccurate or misleading, when assessing their job qualifications…[A] negative credit record is associated with many of the disadvantages of being poor, jobless, not white, or in poor health—and not with how trustworthy you are or how well you write computer code or repair a car. But since employers can generally pull up credit data…this information can easily be misinterpreted or manipulated. By providing convenient proxies for race and class, data can become a tool to simultaneously affirm and perpetuate negative stereotypes of workers based on arbitrary factors…”It’s a huge civil rights issue along racial lines, but it’s also a huge privacy issue,” [Sarah Ludwig of the New Economic Project] says. “Because if you are applying for a job, why should your prospective employer know that you lost your house…or that you broke up with your spouse and that created financial distress.” Of the new ban, Ludwig states,  “It’s a strong law…and it’s going to cover most New Yorkers [and] most jobs by far and away. It’s a real civil rights victory.”

6.) Justice Department opens probe into death of Freddie Gray (Baltimore Sun)

“The Department of Justice has been monitoring the developments in Baltimore, Md., regarding the death of Freddie Gray,” spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement. “Based on preliminary information, the Department of Justice has officially opened this matter and is gathering information to determine whether any prosecutable civil rights violation occurred.” (Related: The Mysterious Death of Freddie Gray)

+1) Confederate History Month: An embarrassing Abomination (Huffington Post)

“Seven state governments have designated April as Confederate History Month. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia all participate in this misguided paean to a troubling past…Southerners today seem incapable of understanding that the South started and then lost a war that nearly destroyed the United States. The South lost decisively. The rebel cause was unjust, immoral and treasonous. The economic justification was unseemly; the actions were treasonous. There is no part of the Confederate cause of which to be proud. There is no moral high ground here…Now is a good time to close this chapter of hypocrisy and inconsistency. A southern loyalist cannot be a patriot; the two ideals are mutually incompatible. You cannot simultaneously love the United States and love the idea of dissolving the bond between states that constitute the country.”

Report of the week) Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California (Drug Policy Alliance)

“Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California is a multi-year, comprehensive look at asset forfeiture abuses in California that reveals the troubling extent to which law enforcement agencies have violated state and federal law. Civil asset forfeiture law allows the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property – even from citizens never charged with or convicted of a crime.

Graphic of the week) FBI admits flaws in hair analysis over decades (Washington Post)

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000. Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence. The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

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(courtesy of the Washington Post)

Extra graphic of the week) 1.5 Million Black Men Are Missing (New York Times)

“In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing. They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars. Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million, according to anUpshot analysis. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men…African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.”

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(courtesy of the New York Times)

Pick 6 (4/17/15)

Views from 6

Hi friends. Again it is Friday, so again it is time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome any and all thoughts or feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) John Legend Launches Campaign to End Mass Incarceration (AP)

From the AP: “John Legend has launched a campaign to end mass incarceration. The Grammy-winning singer announced the multiyear initiative, FREE AMERICA, on Monday…”We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend said in an interview. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration…I’m just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively.”

2.) Are you running for President? Please answer these questions about the criminal justice system. (Washington Post)

Thus far, Hilary Clinton (D), Ted Cruz (R), Marco Rubio (R), and Rand Paul (R) have announced their candidacies for President of the United States. Radley Balko, author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” has strung together a “quick and dirty list of [criminal justice related] questions” that he’d like to see 2016 Presidential candidates answer.

3.) Federal Prosecutor Tries a Radical Tactic in the Drug War: Not Throwing People in Prison (Huffington Post)

“[South Carolina’s top] U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles is testing out a novel approach to dealing with drug-related crime, one that aims to clean up the streets by looking beyond mass arrests and incarceration…If the program’s success continues in South Carolina, it could become a model for law enforcement across the country…Nettles’ plan is surprisingly straightforward. First, federal and local prosecutors identify local drug dealers with the help of the police, probation officers and community members. Next, they build criminal cases against them by reviewing records for outstanding warrants and conducting undercover drug buys. In most cases, arresting all the dealers would be the next order of business, but Nettles has a different idea. While high-level dealers are still arrested and prosecuted, some low-level offenders are given another option. For them, Nettles stages something of an intervention. Together with the police, family members, religious leaders and other members of the community, prosecutors present the dealers with the evidence against them and give them a choice: Face the prospect of prison or participate in the pilot project. The program, officially known as the Drug Market Intervention Initiative, helps the dealers find legitimate jobs and offers them help with drug treatment, education and transportation. The hope is that it provides them with the support and the motivation they need to turn their lives around.”

4.) Driver’s License Suspension Create Cycle of Debt (New York Times)

“The last time Kenneth Seay lost his job, at an industrial bakery that offered health insurance and Christmas bonuses, it was because he had been thrown in jail for legal issues stemming from a revoked driver’s license. Same with the three jobs before that. In fact, Mr. Seay said, when it comes to gainful employment, it is not his criminal record that is holding him back — he did time for dealing drugs — but the $4,509.22 in fines, court costs and reinstatement fees he must pay to recover his license. Mr. Seay’s inability to pay those costs has trapped him in a cycle that thousands of other low-income Tennesseans are struggling to escape. Going through the legal system, even for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, can be expensive, with fines, public defender fees, probation fees and other costs running into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Many people cannot pay. As a result, some states have begun suspending driver’s licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, from misdemeanors like marijuana possession to felonies in which court costs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. In Tennessee, almost 90,000 driver’s licenses have been suspended since its law was enacted in 2011…Many defendants are forced to choose between paying court debt or essentials like utility bills and child support. Mr. Seay said his tax refund this year went toward child support debt accumulated during his time in prison and periods of unemployment. For even low-level offenders, debt can make a valid license unattainable…In Tennessee, judges have the discretion to waive court fees and fines for indigent defendants, but they do not have to, and some routinely refuse. Judges also have wide discretion over how much time to allow defendants to pay traffic tickets before suspending a license.”

5.) The Legal Right to Videotape Police Isn’t Actually All that Clear (City Lab)

From The Atlantic’s City Lab: “Last Saturday, a Dominican immigrant named Feidin Santana used his phone to record video of North Charleston police officer Michael Slager firing his gun eight times and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running away. Slager has been charged with murder. Santana, who is being celebrated as a hero, has since said that he was terrified and thought about erasing the video. He had reason to be afraid. What if police had assaulted or arrested Santana, or destroyed his phone?…[T]he truth is that courts have not uniformly recognized that a right to record police actually exists. Though the U.S. Department of Justice has expressed its support for the right to record, only four federal appeals courts have ruled that such a right exists; others have either not ruled at all or narrowly ruled that no right had been “clearly established.” Until a right to record police is in fact clearly established, some officers will continue to act against bystanders who record them with impunity.” (Related: California Senate seeks to clarify right to video police conduct)

6.) D.C. Council rejects Corizon Health contract after lobbying battle (Washington Post)

Last month, R&R Legal Fellow Dominik Taylor blogged about the deadly consequences of for-profit prison healthcare. Dominik specifically mentioned Corizon Health’s failings in Alabama and in Alameda County, California. Our last Pick this week is an update on Corizon Health and the movement to improve healthcare for incarcerated people. From the Washington Post: “The D.C. Council on Tuesday rejected a controversial health-care contract proposed for the city’s jail after weeks of fierce arguments and heavy lobbying by supporters and opponents. The council’s 6-to-5 vote against a $66 million proposal by Corizon Health marked a high-profile defeat for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had supported the contract….Contract opponents cast the decision as a victory for inmate care and a rejection of a company mired in legal troubles in other states, including several high-profile wrongful-death lawsuits. David Grosso (I) said that if getting the best possible care for the city’s inmates is the objective, then “contracting with a for-profit, scandal-prone company is not the way for us to get there.” 

Report of the week) Stop and Frisk in Chicago (ACLU of Illinois)

From the executive summary of our report of the week: “Chicago has failed to train, supervise and monitor law enforcement in minority communities for decades, resulting in a failure to ensure that officers’ use of stop and frisk is lawful. This report contains troubling signs that the Chicago Police Department has a current practice of unlawfully using stop and frisk: Although officers are required to write down the reason for stops, in nearly half of the stops we reviewed, officers either gave an unlawful reason for the stop or failed to provide enough information to justify the stop. Stop and frisk is disproportionately concentrated in the black community. Black Chicagoans were subjected to 72% of all stops, yet constitute just 32% of the city’s population. And, even in majority white police districts, minorities were stopped disproportionately to the number of minority people living in those districts. Chicago stops a shocking number of people. Last summer, there were more than 250,000 stops that did not lead to an arrest. Comparing stops to population, Chicagoans were stopped more than four times as often as New Yorkers at the height of New York City’s stop and frisk practice. In the face of a systemic abuse of this law enforcement practice, Chicago refuses to keep adequate data about its officers’ stops…This failure to record data makes it impossible for police supervisors, or the public, to identify bad practices and make policy changes to address them.”

Extra of the week) Letter from Birmingham Jail (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

52 years ago this week (4/16/1963) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.The letter defends his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. King declares that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws, and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. King famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Related: What if MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Had Been a Facebook Post?)

Take a few moments this weekend to read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Or if your prefer, here is audio of King reading the letter. Enjoy. #BlackLivesMatter

Pick 6 (4/10/15)

Views from 6

Hello friends. We’re back with our weekly feature–Pick 6. Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) South Carolina Officer is Charged With Murder of Walter Scott (New York Times)

“A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away. The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because the man [Walter Scott] had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening…[T]he video, which was taken by a bystander and provided to The New York Times by the Scott family’s lawyer, presents a different account [than Officer Slager’s]. The video begins in the vacant lot, apparently moments after Officer Slager fired his Taser. Wires, which carry the electrical current from the stun gun, appear to be extending from Mr. Scott’s body as the two men tussle and Mr. Scott turns to run. Something — it is not clear whether it is the stun gun — is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men, and Officer Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots. The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.”

2.) Felons barred from constructing Apple’s campus (San Francisco Chronicle)

“Apple is known for being secretive and picky about who works on its popular devices, but now, union officials say, that thinking also applies to the construction workers pouring the concrete for the tech giant’s new offices. Several construction workers who were hired to build the exterior of Apple’s new campus in Cupertino were ordered to leave the site in January due to prior felony convictions, several union officials and workers told The Chronicle. The ban is unusual for construction work, a field in which employers typically do not perform criminal background checks…For work on the Apple site, anyone with a felony conviction or facing felony charges “does not meet owner standards,” according to documents from construction companies acquired by The Chronicle…Banning felons could bring about legal ramifications for Apple, said Lisa Klerman, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “If they are just disqualifying people with felony convictions with no connection to the job, they could be challenged legally,” Klerman said. People who have served prison or jail time, or have a felony conviction on their record, are 20 percent less likely to find work, compared with people in the same demographic who don’t have criminal records…There are at least 12 million people in the United States in this category…“When people get an opportunity to get a job and make a living, their likelihood of returning to crime goes down dramatically,” said John Schmitt, a senior economist with the [Center for Economic and Policy Research]. “There is a strong association with people not finding a job and people ending up back behind bars.”

3.) Sprinklers Out, Still Homeless (Truthout)

“In my own town of Berkeley, just across the bay from San Francisco, the city council, rallied by our Downtown Business Association, is working to pass a set of ordinances that would prohibit sleeping on public sidewalks, asking for spare change, using blankets and setting down belongings in our downtown area. In a city with significantly more homeless people than shelter beds available, this amounts to criminalizing behaviors that people engage in to survive…As more and more wealthy tech workers move to San Francisco, people are being forced from their communities, from their cities, to places they can afford. For those who can no longer afford rent, this means moving into a car or onto the street. For those on the streets, gentrification means intensified policing and a rising threat of incarceration. UC Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Center recently reported a dramatic increase in “anti­-vagrancy” laws that further criminalize the already marginalized homeless population, pushing people into jails, out of sight and out of mind. San Francisco is currently pushing to build a new jail in the city – I guess to provide housing for people displaced by these measures.” (related: Five Reasons Why San Francisco Needs to Use Public Lands for Public Benefit, Not Luxury Housing)

4.) Judge: Parts of state’s sex offender law unconstitutional (Detroit Free Press)

“Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry law is so vague that parts of it are unconstitutional, including the requirement that offenders stay at least 1,000 feet from schools, a federal judge has ruled. U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland, in a 72 page ruling, struck down several reporting requirements of the 1994 law, which has been amended several times by state lawmakers to make requirements stricter. And he struck down several other requirements, including a mandate that offenders report in person new e-mail and instant messaging addresses and notify authorities of all telephone numbers “routinely used by the individual.” The vagueness of the law “leaves law enforcement without adequate guidance to enforce the law and leaves registrants of ordinary intelligence unable to determine when the reporting requirements are triggered,” Cleland wrote in his ruling.”

5.) Unfair gang laws in California discriminate (The Muslim Observer)

San Jose native and Public Defender Sajid A Khan writes, “In 1988, the state of California passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act in order to “seek the eradication of criminal activity by street gangs.” In enacting the STEP Act, the legislature declared that California was in “a state of crisis” caused by “violent street gangs whose members threaten, terrorize, and commit a multitude of crimes against the peaceful citizens of their neighborhoods” and sought to impose increased penalties on suspected street gang activity. In doing so, our lawmakers sanctioned stereotyping. In my practice handling gang cases, it has become abundantly clear that If someone looks a certain way, has certain tattoos, was raised in a certain neighborhood, and hangs out with certain people, law enforcement and school administrators will brand them as gang members…Yet, because of these factors that are usually beyond their control, my clients are labeled and demonized as gang members from a young age, a tag that they rarely can ever shake or remove. This stereotyping preys primarily upon impoverished minority males, namely young blacks and Latinos. In San Jose, my hometown, police commonly create field identification (FI) cards and place Latino youth in gang databases merely because of where they live, who their family members are, what colors they might been seen wearing, because they have a childhood nickname or because they are seen congregating on a street corner with friends. Once an individual is placed in a gang database or has a set of FI cards, there’s no way out. His friends are also likely to find themselves in the database because of their association with a “known” gang member.  A house of gang cards with a foundation built upon baseless stereotyping. Surely, there are some crimes that are gang motivated and should be prosecuted accordingly.  However, for every one of those, there are countless other prosecutions that are not based on actual gang related evidence and instead grounded in assumptions and prejudice.  Black and Latino young men are not all gang members, nor is every crime they commit gang related.”

6.) Exonerees are failed twice by the justice system (Los Angeles Times)

In an opinion piece for the LA Times, Scott Martelle writes, “Anthony Ray Hinton, a 58-year-old former warehouse worker, walked out of an Alabama prison late last week nearly 30 years after being sentenced to death for two murders he didn’t commit…”They took something from him that they don’t have the power to give back, but I think that they ought to, one, to initiate anything they can do to pay for some of the outrageous injustice this case creates. But I think if there’s really going to be any kind of meaningful response to this, not only should he be compensated, but people should be held accountable. People should apologize. People should do some soul-searching. We should create some procedures that mandate that when there is evidence that suggests the person is wrongly convicted, that that evidence has to be reviewed,” [stated Hinton’s attorney, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative]…Only five states provide exonerees with mental health services or medical treatment — and, after years of substandard care, many former inmates have health problems. Only four offer job-placement assistance. So first the lives are ruined, and then once the error is corrected, the wrongfully convicted generally are just pushed back out into society, without a way to make a living, and without support from other than family or nonprofits. The injustice committed in our names is compounded, and often without proper compensation by the parties – police, prosecutors and witnesses – who stole years from the lives of the innocent, and left them, in many cases, ill-equipped to deal with a much faster paced society than the one from which they were plucked 10, 30, 30 or more years ago. In the end, we, as a society, fail.” (related: Talking to the man who just got exonerated after 30 years on death row)

Report of the week: The Process and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons In the Criminal Justice System (The Urban Institute)

“Mentally ill offenders possess a unique set of circumstances and needs. However, all too often, they cycle through the criminal justice system without appropriate care to address their mental health. Their recurring involvement in the criminal justice system is a pressing concern. This report provides a national landscape on the processing and treatment of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system. It also highlights challenges involved in the reintegration of mentally ill offenders into society, the diversity of policies and protocols in state statutes to address such challenges, and promising criminal justice interventions for mentally ill offenders.”

Audio of the week: Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)

Tuesday April 7th would have been legendary singer Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday. Take a few minutes out of your weekend to listen to “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s most famous song. Holiday first sang and performed “Strange Fruit” in 1939. “Strange Fruit” originated as a poem written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. In Yahoo News Reverend Shawn Amos writes, “Holiday should live forever as a reminder of what is best about America, and the magical music it has given the world. It is the music of freedom and defiance. It is the music of comfort and change. It is the music of revolution and the soundtrack of protest.” Read more here.

Info-graphic of the week: Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California (Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area)

“In California, a driver who commits offenses as minor as driving without a seatbelt or littering faces a $490 fine, according to a new report…Worse, if the driver, who may not be able to afford to pay such a fine, does not pay it off quickly enough or fails to appear in court, the consequence is a suspended license – a consequence that prevents them from driving to work to earn the money they need to pay off their fine. The result is a Catch-22, where the only way to raise the money to gain back their license to drive is to drive without a license and risk even more fines for doing so.” Read the full report here. And check out the accompanying infographic here.

Pick 6 (4/3/15)

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Hi friends. Friday=time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) Sixteen states have more people in prison cells than college dorms (The Grio)

David A. Love of The Grio writes, “As was reported in MetricMaps, there are 16 states where there are more bodies filling up the prisons than there are students living in college dormitories.  What is truly fascinating, maybe even disturbing, is that nearly all of these 16 states are located in the South, the bottom portion of the country…Let than sink in for a minute.  More people behind bars than in the dorms. What could it be about the South that would explain this?  Could it be a tradition of slavery, racial violence and Jim Crow segregation, a legacy of criminalizing and dehumanizing people and of just not treating folks very well?…It is no accident that the states which imprison the most – including the Deep South — are among the poorest and find themselves at the bottom of the barrel in terms of life expectancy, health standards and education. After all, Dixie has a great deal of experience with depriving people of educational opportunity when it forbade blacks to read and write, in favor of imprisoning them against their will on slave plantations. In addition, the Slave Codes created a police state that criminalized black people and singled them out for punishment. And the era of Jim Crow segregation only continued the racial oppression and the forced labor and imprisonment, even up until the present day.”

Corrections vs. College

2.) Woman who killed man she said abused her can’t escape felony past (Washington Post)

Fredrick Kunkle of the Washington Post reports, “Shari L. Thomas went to prison more than 25 years ago for killing the man who she said had abused her as a child. She used her time there to remake herself, becoming the first woman in Virginia to obtain a college degree behind bars. She earned a master’s degree in biotechnology after her release. She has kept her record clean since, managing research laboratories for major hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. In the past few years, perhaps because of the nation’s abiding fear of crime, its litigiousness, or the Internet’s ease at churning up background information that may not have surfaced before, Thomas has been rejected or terminated from several high-paying jobs. She had been making $150,000 six years ago. Now she is on food stamps…She could lose her Cecil County, Md., home. “I came home and got my
master’s degree,” said Thomas, 50. “I’d been working 18 years with no problem. When is enough enough?… And yet even now, her criminal record has the power to reach through time, upending her life…“I just feel like the punishment never ends,” 

3.) California’s Death Row has just about run out of room (KCRW-Los Angeles)

Darrell Satzman reports, “More than 750 inmates in California have been condemned to death. But no one in this state has been executed in nearly a decade – and with new inmates arriving every month, Death Row has just about run out of space. Gov. Jerry Brown is asking the Legislature for more than $3 million to open 100 new cells for condemned men at San Quentin Prison. The request is included in Brown’s $113 billion budget proposal…There are currently 731 men and 20 women on Death Row in California. Almost all of the men are at San Quentin, while the women are housed at a prison in Chowchilla.”

4.) Poverty Shrinks Brains from Birth (Scientific American)

According to new studies conducted by a team led by neuroscientists Kimberly Noble from Columbia University in New York City and Elizabeth Sowell from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, California, The stress of growing up poor can hurt a child’s brain development starting before birth, research suggests—and even very small differences in income can have major effects on the brain. Researchers have long suspected that children’s behavior and cognitive abilities are linked to their socioeconomic status, particularly for those who are very poor. The reasons have never been clear, although stressful home environments, poor nutrition, exposure to industrial chemicals such as lead and lack of access to good education are often cited as possible factors…Still, the researchers are hopeful that the impacts could be reversible through interventions such as providing better child care and nutrition. Research in humans and in other animals suggests that is the case: a study in Mexico, for instance, showed that supplementing poor families’ income improved their children’s cognitive and language skills within 18 months. “It’s important for the message not to be that if you’re poor your brain is smaller and will be smaller forever,” Sowell says.”

5.) The rise of the working poor and the non-working rich (Baltimore Sun)

In an opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, Robert Reich writes, “Many believe that poor people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy…In reality, a large and growing share of the nation’s poor work full time — sometimes 60 or more hours a week — yet still don’t earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. It’s also commonly believed, especially among Republicans, that the rich deserve their wealth because they work harder than others. In reality, a large and growing portion of the super-rich have never broken a sweat. Their wealth has been handed to them. The rise of these two groups — the working poor and non-working rich — is relatively new. Both are challenging the core American assumptions that people are paid what they’re worth, and work is justly rewarded. Six of today’s 10 wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. The Walmart heirs alone have more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined…Americans who became enormously wealthy over the last three decades are now busily transferring that wealth to their children and grandchildren. The nation is on the cusp of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in history. A study by the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy projects a total of $59 trillion passed down to heirs between 2007 and 2061. As the French economist Thomas Piketty reminds us, this is the kind of dynastic wealth that’s kept Europe’s aristocracy going for centuries. It’s about to become the major source of income for a new American aristocracy…That widening inequality — combined with the increasing numbers of people who work full time but are still impoverished and of others who have never worked and are fabulously wealthy — is undermining the moral foundations of American capitalism.”

6.) The poor are treated like criminals everywhere, even at the grocery store (Washington Post)

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Jeanine Grant Lister writes, “Anger toward those living below the poverty line seems to only be increasing. Maine and Missouri have proposed bills limiting residents’ food choices if they use SNAP. Missouri House Bill 813 would bar the state’s 930,000 food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy cookies, chips, soda, energy drinks, steak and seafood. (The legislature also implemented mandatory drug testing for TANF applicants in 2011.) If the bill becomes law, a Missourian can’t buy a can of tuna with an EBT card. Tortilla chips to go with salsa? Nope. Flank steak — tough, stringy and the only cut of beef I can afford — is off limits, too. Who are these people, and what makes them think that what we eat is their business? And given that the average food stamp allotment in my state in 2013 came out to just $1.41 per person per meal, I wonder if they understand that recipients couldn’t buy lobster if they wanted to. In America today, being poor is tantamount to a criminal offense, one that costs you a number of rights and untold dignities, including, apparently, the ability to determine what foods you can put on the dinner table. It’s as if middle-class and wealthy Americans think poor people live under the poverty line by choice, as if a sensible person would choose to subsist on so little. We’re barely getting by. Don’t tell us what to buy at the grocery store.”

+1) Does barbaric Georgia prison cell photo depict an American Abu Ghraib? (Christian Science Monitor)

Patrik Jonsson reports, “A shocking prison photo of inmates taken at a Georgia correctional facility could intensify a halting effort in the United States to alleviate poor prison conditions that can lead to unchecked barbarism likened to an American Abu Ghraib. The picture from Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., shows three young and shirtless African-American male prisoners. One of them is pointing at the camera as though holding a gun, another is holding a makeshift leash, and the third, an 18-year-old, is on his knees, his left eye closed from a beating, and the leash lashed around his neck…“I think this picture can go a long way toward galvanizing a discussion about what prisons are for – particularly, does anybody believe that these men are deterred by prison?” says Jonathan Simon, a University of California, Berkeley law professor and author of “Mass Incarceration on Trial.” “You have to ask yourself: If the basic story that we tell ourselves is that it’s all about laws and sending people to prison because they violated laws and harmed other people, how can we possibly justify sending them to a place where that is happening to them?” Professor Simon says.”

+2) Obama Commutes 22 Drug Sentences, Instantly Doubling The Number of Commutations He’s Issued (Huffington Post)

“President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 22 individuals on Tuesday, more than doubling the number of commutations he has issued in the six-plus years he’s been in office. The men and women granted the reprieves had been imprisoned under an “outdated sentencing regime,” the administration concluded. Eight of the 22 inmates had been sentenced to life imprisonment and would have died behind bars. “Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement shared in advance with The Huffington Post. “Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.” The president sent a letter to each of the commutation recipients encouraging them to take advantage of their post-prison opportunity. An administration official said that this was the first time Obama has sent such letters during his presidency.”

Infographic of the WeekEconomic Benefits of Closing Academic Achievement Gaps (Center for American Progress)

From the Center for American Progress come this compelling infographic that, “demonstrate[s] the benefits of closing the achievement gap.  Despite the fact that 50.3 percent of students in public K-12 classrooms across America are children of color, black and Hispanic children are still far more likely than non-Hispanic white children to grow up in poverty. And on average, children of color score lower on math and science tests than their non-Hispanic white peers. These two trends are not coincidence; families’ financial security affects children’s ability to reach their academic potential. These children are the future of our workforce, and we need to ensure that they are equipped with the skills our future economy needs.”

Pick 6 (3/27/15)

Views from 6

Hi friends. It’s Friday. And Friday=time for our weekly Pick 6! Our Pick 6 consists of 6 informative, insightful reentry & criminal justice-related news articles and commentaries that we’ve been following throughout the week. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so don’t be shy!

1.) Haunted by the Past: A Criminal Record Shouldn’t Ruin a Career (The Atlantic)

“Too many applicants, particularly people of color, are being denied jobs based on background checks that are irrelevant or even inaccurate,” argue Sarah Crowley and Alex Bender of the Berkeley, California-based East Bay Community Law Center. “Does it even make sense for employers to give criminal background checks such a central role in the hiring process? Even if private and fingerprint-based background checks are presumed to be 100 percent accurate [which they aren’t even close to being], employers should still think hard about what conclusions to draw from an applicant’s criminal history. The reason is straightforward: Background checks are both over-inclusive and under-inclusive in flagging applicants as a hiring risk . . . In the words of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” In the rush to screen out a few dangerous individuals, companies might be unfairly slamming the door on millions of hardworking people who are qualified and deserve access to job opportunities.”

2.) Too Old to Commit Crime (The Marshall Project)

According to criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon, “Lots of people, as they age, they are no longer a risk. We are keeping people in prison who are physically unable to represent a threat to anybody.” In fact, as Dana Goldstein of The Marshall Project writes, “Homicide and drug-arrest rates peak at age 19, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while arrest rates for forcible rape peak at 18. Some crimes, such as vandalism, crest even earlier, at age 16, while arrest rates for forgery, fraud and embezzlement peak in the early 20s. For most of the crimes the F.B.I. tracks, more than half of all offenders will be arrested by the time they are 30 . . . Neuroscience suggests that the parts of the brain that govern risk and reward are not fully developed until age 25, after which lawbreaking drops off.” These sorts of statistics have led Mark Mauer of The Sentencing Project and many other sentencing reform advocates to a simple, unescapable conclusion–“a sentence that outlasts an offender’s desire or ability to break the law is a drain on taxpayers, with little upside in protecting public safety or improving an inmate’s chances for success after release.”

3.) Flint city councilman convicted of 1991 homicide says murderer registry would be ‘discrimination’ (MLive)

As Michigan legislators weigh whether or not to create a “murderer registry” (similar to sex offender registries), Flint City councilperson Wantwaz Davis argues that a murderer registry would serve as a form of discrimination against people who have already paid the price for their crimes. Davis knows firsthand about the societal stigma that being an ex-offender has. Davis served 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in 1991. He was paroled in 2010 and he was elected to Flint’s city council in 2013 (he fully disclosed his conviction to voters). A murderer registry would allow anyone to search for the current address of any person convicted of a homicide in Michigan, while also allowing anyone to search for ex-offenders by geographic area. Davis argues that a murderer registry is counterproductive, as it will stigmatize ex-offenders, leaving them with “something that hangs over [their] heads,” preventing them form having a “second chance” opportunity to assimilate and become productive, “law-abiding citizens.”

4.) Mississippi Goddam: Lynching of Otis Byrd Adds To State’s 21st Century List (Voice of Detroit)

Last week, 54 year old African American Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree, dead, with a white sheet tied around his neck. The FBI and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are currently investigating whether Byrd’s death was a homicide or a suicide. Byrd is the fourth African American man found dead, hanging from a tree in Mississippi since 2000. The U.S. Department of Justice ruled the three previous cases to be suicides. But as Diane Bukowski of The Voice of Detroit, an independent newspaper, notes, “The likelihood of Black men committing suicide in the U.S. is extremely low. From 1999 through 2013, 70 percent of suicides were committed by white males, with only 5 percent by Black males, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control.” The Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative recently reported that from 1877-1950, 576 African Americans were lynched in Mississippi. Byrd was found hanging 500 feet from his house in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Port Gibson is 90% black and has a high poverty rate. According to a 2002 piece by the New York Times, Port Gibson also has “an entrenched population of whites, many of whom are related and have some historical connection to cotton.” While it is currently unknown whether Byrd was lynched or committed suicide, it is important to note that America (especially in places like Mississippi) has a long, complicated history full of violent lynchings and racially-motivated terrorism. For this reason, it is important to take note whenever an African American man is found hanging from a tree. You can read more about Byrd’s death here. And here is a December 2014 story about a 17 year old African American boy who was found dead, hanging from a tree in North Carolina, possibly due to his relationship with an older white woman.

5.) Cory Booker and Newt Gingrich Want to Redefine What Is Considered a “Violent” Crime (Slate)

On Thursday, Cory Booker (D-NJ) and New Gingrich spoke at a Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (co-sponsored by the ACLU and Koch Industries). Their point was simple: “Unless policymakers who have championed leniency toward nonviolent offenders start thinking about violent offenders as well, the country will not be able to achieve any significant reduction in the prison population.” Which leads us to our last Pick this week . . .

6.) What would you decide in these cases if you were on Alabama’s parole board? (al.com)

Our last news item this week, isn’t actually a news item. It’s an interactive quiz that allows you to read about ten recent cases that have come before the Alabama Parole Board. Given the facts of each of these cases, which of these ten people would you parole? Take the quiz to see if your decision aligns with that of the Alabama Parole Board. When deciding who to parole, don’t forget to take into consideration this week’s second pick, Too Old to Commit Crime, and our fifth pick, Cory Booker and Newt Gingrich Want to Redefine What Is Considered a “Violent” Crime.

Video of the Week) A Conversation with President Obama and The Wire Creator David Simon (The White House)

President Barack Obama and David Simon, the creator of HBO’s The Wire, recently sat down to talk honestly about the challenges law enforcement face and the consequences communities bear from the war on drugs. Check out this 12 minute video of their conversation.

Major Federal Reforms Focus on Reentry Support

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A few months ago we wrote about an exciting shift in political momentum away from mass incarceration when President Obama commuted the drug sentences for eight individuals in federal prison. In 2014, it seems that Congress and the Federal Government are going one step further – by offering their support for reentry and for people returning to society.

This support could not come soon enough. For decades, the number of people in federal and California prisons and jails has swelled, as people in power have focused on passing tougher sentencing laws. Today, one in every 31 adults is under some form of correctional control. Now, as part of what the New York Times described as “the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation,” Congress is considering a bipartisan bill aimed at stemming the tide of incarceration by helping more prisoners make the transition back into society.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act highlights Congress’ newfound enthusiasm for the reentry process. As a non-profit focused on ensuring that people successfully transition from prison to community life, we at Root & Rebound are delighted by the bill’s focus on reentry.  On this blog we have often discussed the need to view reentry as a long-term process – one that must start on day one of an individual‘s incarceration. The bill goes some way in acknowledging this need. It would allow low-risk prisoners to earn credit for early release by participating in education, job training and drug treatment programs. For many people in prison, this training and support could make the difference between returning to prison and successful reentry into society. 

In another exciting development, Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the Bureau of Prisons will impose new requirements on halfway houses that serve people in reentry. The new reforms include standardized treatment for people with mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as new permission for cell phone use, and transportation, so that people living in halfway houses  can seek out job opportunities more easily. This reform acknowledges returning citizens are first and foremost human beings with material, social, and emotional needs – not only the need for employment and healthcare, but also the need to communicate freely with their loved ones.

Both The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act and the Bureau of Prisons’ new requirements on Federal Halfway Houses reinforce the Federal Government’s commitment to helping people who are in prison transition back into society, which is heartening to witness. These important reforms mark an exciting time in our nation’s history as we turn away from draconian sentencing laws to a much-needed focus on rehabilitation. They go some way in addressing the big question – As over 95% of people in prison will be released, what processes can we put in place to ensure their successful reentry?

As reentry takes center stage in our political dialogue on criminal justice, join Root & Rebound in supporting these reforms and addressing the challenges of reentry in our local community!

Spreading the News: Justice Dept. Starts Quest for Federal Prisoners to Be Freed

HUGE NEWS TODAY FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE! See article below, and If you know of any federal prisoners convicted of low-level drug offense, please encourage them to apply for clemency. Here is the Department of Justice’s website on how to apply for federal clemency: http://www.justice.gov/pardon/pardon_instructions.htm.

Today’s article from the NY Times:

Justice Dept. Starts Quest for Inmates to Be Freed By MATT APUZZO JAN. 30, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department wants low-level drug criminals who were sentenced under tough laws from the days of the crack epidemic to ask the president for early release from prison.

In an unprecedented move, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole asked defense lawyers on Thursday to help the government locate prisoners and encourage them to apply for clemency. The clemency drive is part of the Obama administration’s effort to undo a disparity that flooded the nation’s prison system and disproportionately affected black men.

Offenses involving crack, which was more commonly used in black communities, carried more severe penalties than crimes involving powder cocaine, which was usually favored by affluent white users. In some cases, crack crimes resulted in a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity.

Congress reduced that disparity in 2010. In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who received sentences under the old rules.

“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Mr. Cole said at a New York State Bar Association event. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

Congress is considering a bill that would make the new sentencing guidelines retroactive, which could make up to 12,000 prisoners eligible for reduced sentences.

That bill would have a quicker, more organized effect than the nationwide push for clemency applications. But lawyers and civil rights advocates see the Justice Department move as an example of Mr. Obama using executive authority to advance policy goals, something he pledged during his State of the Union speech this week.

“They’re setting the stage for executive action if Congress doesn’t act,” said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington.

Prison officials will also spread the word among inmates that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders might be eligible to apply for clemency.

About 30,000 inmates — roughly 15 percent of the prison population — were serving crack sentences at the end of 2011, according to federal data.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the prison system accounted for 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, which strained the department’s ability to conduct its other law enforcement missions.

By asking defense lawyers to solicit names for clemency consideration, the Justice Department is setting up a crush of applications to its pardon unit, which already faces a backlog and receives thousands of new requests each year.

“I’m all for addressing the inequities of crack cocaine sentences,” said Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “The best solution is the legislative solution.”

There was strong support in both political parties for changing the sentencing rules in 2010, but the question of whether to apply them to people already in prison was more contentious.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on Thursday that would allow prisoners who were sentenced under the old rules to ask judges to let them out of prison early. The bill would also reduce some mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion in setting prison terms.

The fate of that bill is not clear. It has supporters in both parties, but some in law enforcement have criticized its approach to mandatory sentences.

This week, a group representing Justice Department prosecutors — Mr. Holder’s subordinates — sent him a letter raising concerns about the Senate bill.

“Mandatory minimum sentences are a critical tool in persuading defendants to cooperate, thereby enabling law enforcement to dismantle large drug organizations and violent gangs,” the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys wrote.

Sentencing Reform from Washington

Photo credit: Richard T. Bryant/WGBH for The New York Times. Pictured above: Clarence Aaron, among the eight to be freed, was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a 1993 drug deal when he was 22.

Photo credit: Richard T. Bryant/WGBH for The New York Times. Pictured above:
Clarence Aaron, among the eight to be freed under President Obama’s sentence commutation, was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a 1993 drug deal when he was 22.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the need for a sea change in sentencing laws after a 15-year-old boy, Traivon, was sentenced to six life sentences without the possibility of parole in prison in Virginia for his participation in an armed robbery. Draconian sentencing laws and mandatory minimum sentences have frequently been cited as one of the major sources for America’s modern-day problem with mass incarceration—a fatal combination of “tough-on-crime” policies and extreme racial bias and prejudice in the criminal justice system.

But yesterday, amazingly, the pendulum in Washington swung farther away from mass incarceration. President Obama commuted the drug sentences for eight individuals in federal prison—two of whom were serving sentences of 15 years or more and six of whom were serving life sentences—for crack cocaine-related offenses. Most of these individuals will be released from prison in the next 120 days.

These eight individuals were sentenced to long prison terms when the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine (more popular among African American users) and powder cocaine (more popular among affluent White users) was 100:1. You did not misread. A person would receive a sentence 100 times longer for a crack cocaine-related offense than a person with a powder cocaine offense. While crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, this unbelievably unfair disparity in sentencing sent thousands of African Americans into prison, a regime that ballooned our prison population by 800%. According to a report from the ACLU, “under the 100:1 regime, African Americans served virtually as much time in prison for non-violent drug offenses as whites did for violent offenses.”

In 2010, Congress made one of its first bipartisan breakthroughs on this problem with passage of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA). The FSA reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. While 18:1 is still unfair and has an impact on the racial makeup of our prisons, it was a huge bipartisan victory to begin changing the political tide on this issue. All eight of the people whose sentences were commuted yesterday would already be out of prison under the newer drug sentencing laws.

At a time like this, Root & Rebound feels incredibly proud to have President Obama as the leader of our Nation, with a political team that supports criminal justice reform at his wings. Since mass incarceration has been a policy and practice sewn by people in power, it can certainly be unwound by those people, as well. We must continue to believe that major shifts like the one that took place yesterday in Washington can and will continue to happen if we show our support.

Also at a time like this, we  take pause as a nonprofit that hopes to serve as a reentry center to our Bay Area community. Out of federal prisons and particularly out of California prisons and jails, more and more people are coming home. Most people in politics now recognize that mass incarceration is a huge problem in our country—expensive, a waste of human and financial capital, and the product of extreme racial bias in our criminal laws and enforcement of those laws. But as more people get out, what will we put in place to support their reentry? Over the past few months and into the New Year, Root & Rebound is devoted to answering that question in our local community. We hope that a sea change to reform our draconian sentencing laws will be coupled with genuine support for reentry and for people returning to the outside.

This is the time. Join us!

—The R & R Team