Reading Roundup: Criminal Justice Making Headlines

This image is part of photographer Amy Elkins' project "Parting Words." It portrays Franklin Alix, who was executed in Texas on March 30, 2010 at age 34.

This image is part of photographer Amy Elkins’ project “Parting Words.” It portrays Franklin Alix, a man on Texas’ death row who was executed on March 30, 2010 at age 34.

Here at Root & Rebound, we could not be happier to see criminal justice reform and reentry issues making top national headlines. We feel it is important to share the writing and work of others in this field. Please check out some of the amazing things happening around our country—in art, politics, and journalism—all centered on fixing our broken criminal justice system and the barriers that face people coming out.

California-based photographer Amy Elkins has launched an incredible and haunting online visual archive of the more than 500 people on Texas’ death row who have been executed since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976. These portraits overlap executed individuals’ mug shots with their last words as provided on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Web page. On the Department’s “Executed Offenders” page, members of the public can scroll through the names, ages, prison IDs, race, convictions and last statements of the people in prison sent to death, in chronological order. At the time Elkins stumbled upon the website, it listed 440 men and women. Today, it lists 510.

Kristof’s op-ed in the New York Times this weeks describes how jails and prisons have become “de facto mental health hospitals,” calling this “inhumane” and “deluded.” Root & Rebound agrees. Many people struggling with mental illness and disorders have nowhere to go, can’t afford medicine outside of jail or prison, and are arrested and criminalized for behaviors and acts that often flow from their mental illness. When people facing mental health challenges are released, we do not have a social or legal system built up to support them; instead we funnel money back to incarceration instead of dealing with the problem from a fiscally and socially responsible services-based standpoint.

Last month, Root & Rebound shared the exciting news that the deputy attorney general, James Cole, of the Department of Justice, was searching for suitable candidates for clemency, specifically people with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses who are serving “life or near-life” sentences that are considered excessive under current law. (R&R has also written about excessive sentencing laws here and here.) In tandem with changes to federal drug sentencing laws, we applaud the Justice Department’s renewed interest in the President’s clemency powers, “designed so that the President could commute unjust sentences or pardon deserving petitioners who had served their time.” These signals from the federal government are important–there is new recognition that our system of incarceration in this country is seriously flawed and that mercy for people behind bars and people coming out of incarceration is a concept deserving of our country’s attention.

At Root & Rebound, we are working hard to create useful information on reentry to be shared with the public, with practitioners and advocates, and with people living behind bars. So to learn that the incredible talent of Bill Keller, a columnist at The New York Times and its former executive editor, is building and directing The Marshall Project, a nonprofit startup journalism and news source dedicated entirely to issues of criminal justice, is nothing short of fantastic!! In addition to Keller’s talent, the Marshall Project has a projected budget of $5 million a year, paying for a staff of about 30. Keller said the site would include “strong original journalism” as well as an “aggregation of interesting research and interesting voices, including voices from inside prison.” It is intended to be, he said, “a bit of a wake-up call to a public that has gotten a little numbed to the scandal that our criminal justice system is.” We are so excited for this upcoming project to take flight and to see the great resources going into criminal justice reform and news. Maybe one day, R&R and The Marshall Project can collaborate!

During a speech at a criminal justice reform symposium hosted by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center, Attorney General Eric Holder called laws taking away the right to vote from people with felony records “unnecessary and unjust” and rooted in “centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”  Such laws disenfranchise millions of Americans, disproportionately impacting Black and Latino men. Voter disenfranchisement laws are one of the many political tools used to keep people locked out of society after coming out of prison. We believe that all people, including those with felony convictions, deserve to have a voice in the political process and are extremely proud to see Attorney General Holder acknowledging this on a public platform.

Happy reading! Please free to share other interesting news stories on reentry and criminal justice as well as your comments and feedback with us below….

—The R&R Team

Slavery in America & Modern Day Racial Injustice

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Enslaved African children taken aboard HMS Daphne, November 1868. (The National Archives of the UK: ref. FO 84/1310 (b).) Photo from EJI’s Report: “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade.”

This year, Equal Justice Initiative — a non-profit based in Montgomery, Alabama — put out an impressive report entitled “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade.”  Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a world-renowned organization that provides legal assistance to the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, children prosecuted as adults in the criminal justice system, and communities marginalized by bias, discrimination, or poverty. We appreciate that EJI spent time putting together such a comprehensive and informative report on slavery in America and on reflecting on our past. While some might ask, “Why look back?,” we believe that in order to change our current state of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement, we must understand where our thoughts, beliefs, and laws come from, and how we developed as a nation. As EJI says in its report,

“Slavery in America traumatized and devastated millions of people. It created narratives about racial difference that still persist today. It also fostered bigotry and racial discrimination from which we have yet to fully recover. In learning more about slavery, we can learn more about ourselves, our past, and hopefully, our future. By strengthening our understanding of racial history, we can create a different, healthier discourse about race in America that can lead to new and more effective solutions.”

We cannot talk constructively about criminal justice reform, reentry, and progress toward social justice without first reflecting honestly on our nation’s past. There is no doubt that the United States, which incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation — with an increase in its jail and prison population from 200,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years — disproportionately incarcerates people of color. Nearly one out of every three American black men in their twenties is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or otherwise under criminal justice control. Black men are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

So we encourage you to reflect on our past, no matter how much we might want to look away, and to think about how America’s Era of Slavery — which lasted more than 200 years and ended only 150 years ago with the Emancipation Proclamation — lives on today in the ways we criminalize, incarcerate, and punish, both inside and outside of prison walls.

For further reading, see EJI’s incredible interactive timeline, “A History of Racial Injustice: The Timeline.” Also check out EJI’s page on “Race and Poverty” and a great scholarly article written by Executive Director Bryan Stevenson on “Confronting Mass Imprisonment and Restoring Fairness to Collateral Review of Criminal Cases.

–The R&R Team

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

Wanted: A Sea Change in Sentencing Laws

A recent criminal case in Virginia has received a lot of press—as it should—because of the harsh sentencing of a 15-year-old boy, Travion Blount, who received six life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole for participating in an armed robbery. Travion’s sentence to six life sentences (118 years) without the possibility of parole is a death sentence behind bars. His only chance of leaving prison is through geriatric release at age 60, an unlikely possibility. No one would argue that this wasn’t a serious crime. No one would argue that a 15-year-old that points a gun at teenagers at a party shouldn’t be punished. But what happens next is up to us.

Sentencing laws are written by people… most of whom have law degrees. Those laws can be encouraged or discouraged by the general public. Here is one opportunity among many to sound off. Should Travion—a 15-year-old boy who committed a serious crime die behind bars?

Slowly but surely, our society is realizing that these extreme sentences do not reduce crime; instead they create mass incarceration of people of color in our country, lead to serious overcrowding in prison and jail, and waste precious lives and millions in resources on keeping people locked up. We have a long way to go in terms of creating a sea change around this issue, and making sure that people everywhere in this country are free from extremely harsh sentences. While some states have changed their harsh sentencing laws, people in this country suffer from “geographical justice,” meaning that where you do the crime defines your time.

Virginia is one of 11 states that still imposes life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles with non-homicide convictions. So two 15-year-olds with the same profile, the same crime, and the same circumstances will be treated and sentenced completely differently by the courts, depending on whether they live in California or Virginia. Is that justice?

At Root & Rebound, we believe in second chances, and we believe that every person should be treated as an individual, with the courts, the board of parole hearings, and other criminal justice bodies looking at their specific life circumstances and character. We take issue with living in a society where anyone is left to die behind bars, no matter their age or conviction. We believe that every life should be valued, and that the solution is not to lock the door, turn our backs, and throw away the key. The solution is to look in the mirror to examine what we, as a society, are doing wrong, and how we are failing our young people, our communities of color, and our citizens with disabilities and mental illness. To realize that we, as a Nation, have a public health epidemic—of violence. To take responsibility for some piece of every crime.

In talking and working with formerly incarcerated people, we spend a significant amount of time with individuals who have committed all types of crimes. Some that sound and are much more serious than Travion’s. We also see these same individuals, when given the chance, become active members in their communities, whether those communities are in jail or prison, or in their neighborhoods when they return to outside life.

Many of our formerly incarcerated colleagues (just a small number of whom we have featured on the blog here and here) take on more unpaid work in a year than most of us could ever imagine. They volunteer their time to support others reentering; they speak to community groups, universities, policymakers, and on various panels hoping to spread messages of hope and change the image of “who is a criminal.” They understand the problem of draconian sentencing laws and mass incarceration in our country from the inside out. They see other options for dealing with social problems. They collaborate with service providers like ours to get as much legal and social support to people leaving prison as possible. They help others give back just as they have. Not only are these individuals totally safe to live free and outside of prison, they are real assets to society, using their own experiences to make our world a much better and more compassionate place in which to live. And part of the reason why we started this blog was to highlight these incredible community members, and let their work and their lives tell the stories of redemption and second chances, and to change the minds and open the hearts of people who come across our blog.

The ACLU has published a report on people with life sentences without the possibility of parole—all who committed nonviolent offenses. The report shares a range of stories—a woman who carried drugs for her abusive boyfriend, a man who stole tools from a tool shed. All of these people were sentenced to die behind bars. To read more about Travion Blount and the devastating outcome in his case, visit the ACLU’s report here.

We hope after reading about Travion’s story and life without the possibility of parole, our readers will reflect on the ways we can change these laws and support the individuals and families affected by them. We welcome comments below. Please share your thoughts and join the dialogue.

—The R & R Team