5 Criminal Justice and Reentry Documentaries You MUST See

This week, Root & Rebound’s Spring Law Clerk Chandra Peterson reviews five must-watch criminal justice/reentry related documentaries. Be Informed and Take Action! What’s better than snuggling up on your couch with some popcorn and a great criminal justice documentary? Probably … Continue reading

6 Million Americans Without a Voice

From the NY Times Editorial Board, February 11, 2014:

“The right to vote is the foundation of any democracy, yet nearly six million Americans are denied that right, in many cases for life, because they have been convicted of a crime. Some states disenfranchise more than 7 percentof their adult citizens.

In an unflinching speech before a civil rights conference Tuesday morning, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. described this shameful aspect of our justice system for what it is: a “profoundly outdated” practice that is unjust and counterproductive.

State laws that disenfranchise people who have served their time “defy the principles — of accountability and rehabilitation — that guide our criminal justice policies,” Mr. Holder said in urging state lawmakers to repeal them. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

Felon disenfranchisement laws lie at the intersection of two issues on which Mr. Holder has become increasingly outspoken: criminal justice reform and voting rights. While he has no direct authority to change state laws, the weight of his words can help pave a path for legislative action in both Congress and statehouses around the country.

In recent years, many states have made it easier to regain the right to vote after a conviction, either through legislation or by executive action. But a handful of states, particularly in the South, continue to be guided by the ghosts of the post-Civil War era, when disenfranchisement laws were aimed at newly freed blacks. The brunt of today’s laws that prohibit felons from voting still falls disproportionately on minorities, who make up more than one-third of those affected. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, more than one in five African-Americans cannot vote because of a conviction.

Despite some progress, the United States remains an extreme outlier in allowing lifetime voting bans. Most industrialized nations allow all nonincarcerated people to vote, and many even allow voting in prison.

Adding insult to injury, felon disenfranchisement laws — which are explicitly permitted by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution — are devoid of both logic and supporting evidence. They undermine the citizenship of people who have paid their debt to society, and possibly at a cost to public safety. As Mr. Holder pointed out, a study by a parole commission in Florida found that formerly incarcerated people banned from voting were three times as likely to re-offend as those who were allowed to vote.

Mass disenfranchisement also has serious political consequences. According to a 2002 study, disenfranchisement laws may have determined the outcome of seven Senate races — and thus control of the Senate throughout the 1990s — and a presidential election. While George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000, more than 800,000 Floridians with criminal records were barred from voting.

Regardless of which party might benefit most at the polls, repealing felon disenfranchisement laws is in the interest of upholding American ideals. And it has increasing bipartisan support; Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, Republicans who have promoted criminal-justice reform on a larger scale, are also pushing to scale back or end these laws. Even after someone has completed a sentence, Senator Paul said in September, “the punishment and stigma continues for the rest of their life, harming their families and hampering their ability to re-enter society.”

Mr. Paul is wise to focus on the importance of re-entry, since 95 percent of incarcerated people are eventually released. The restoration of the right to vote should be automatic, as soon as a person is released from prison. There is no good reason to keep punishing people who have served their time by denying them the most fundamental democratic right.”

Thank you, NY Times Editorial Board, for arguing against the injustice of continued punishment and disenfranchisement of people who have served their time, and the ways that our laws prevent returning citizens from reintegrating into their communities and becoming an engaged part of civil society.

–The R&R Team

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