Category: Criminal justice reform

Republicans take the lead on criminal justice reform

By Alan Bean

Politics is behind the cancerous growth of the prison-industrial complex.  Tough on crime rhetoric only works on the stump if it translates into legislation after the election.  Politicians run on their records and everyone had a vested interest in establishing the right kind of record on public safety.  This article in CQ gives the impression that Democrats have long been in support of ending mandatory minimums and introducing lighter sentences.  It would be more accurate to say that some Democrats would have embraced the politics of compassion and common sense had that been an option.  But since the mid-1970s, it hasn’t been an option.

The ship of fools that brought us the prison-industrial complex is beginning to turn.  Big ships don’t turn quickly.  In fact, the federal prison system has been growing in recent years, largely thanks to nasty immigration policies shaped by post 9-11 hysteria.  But Republican politicians are in search of a kinder-gentler face (no one wants to look like the guy in the cartoon), so the reform agenda has a chance.  How far this new mood takes us remains uncertain.  Everything depends on how far and how fast Republican politicians are willing to move.  This is a Nixon Goes to China moment.  Democrats are still too fearful of political backlash to take the real risks reform demands.

An End to the Jailhouse Blues?

By John Gramlich, CQ Staff
May 13, 2013

Congressional Democrats have argued for years that too many low-level drug offenders are locked away in federal prisons and that mandatory-sentencing laws disproportionately harm minorities and tie judges’ hands. Lately, they have been joined in those criticisms by Sen. Rand Paul, a tea-party-backed Republican with White House aspirations. (more…)

A house divided still

By Alan Bean

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled in $34 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, third best behind the new Twilight and James Bond movies.  When I saw the film over the weekend, the audience  applauded as the credits rolled–something you don’t see very often.

The film,  loosely based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, is relentlessly historical.  Lincoln is portrayed as a bucolic Christ figure, but Spielberg stops short of turning The Great Emancipator into a comfortable citizen of the 21st Century.   Constitutional equality applied to Negroes, said Lincoln; that meant abolishing the slave trade in every corner of the Union and little else. (more…)

The Conservative War on Prisons: how an unlikely coalition of evangelicals and libertarians changed the politics of crime

By Alan Bean

I heartily commend this well-crafted article on the unlikely evangelical-libertarian coalition that created the Right on Crime movement. David Dagan and Steven M. Teles appreciate that liberal organizations like the ACLU, the Open Societies Institute and the Public Welfare Foundation carried the torch for criminal justice reform during the dark ages (1980-2000) of tough-on-crime politic and ever-expanding prison populations.  But liberal politicians have been too afraid of the soft-on-crime label to associate themselves with the reform movement; in fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton built careers on out-toughing the conservatives.

Real political change required a bi-partisan approach, and this meant that the impetus for reform had to come from the political right.  Democrats will vote for change, but only if conservatives give them political cover.  Conservatives, especially in deep-red states like Texas, don’t have to worry about looking soft.

But it goes deeper than that.  The initial inspiration for the reform movement came from the evangelical world.  Pat Nolan, an evangelical Catholic Republican who once carried a torch for the lock-’em-up movement, went to prison in 1993 on corruption charges.  Nolan still claims he was innocent (and I am inclined to believe him) but, like many defendants, he accepted a plea deal rather than roll the dice with a jury.  In the joint, Nolan encountered the brokenness that is the American criminal justice system.  Because he was plugged into the evangelical world of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship and the Republican political establishment, Nolan found ways to make things happen. (more…)

Immigrants for Sale

Posted by Pierre R. Berastaín

This video is from some time ago, but its message is as powerful today as it was when it first came out.  How do prisons make money and how do anti-immigration laws ensure these private prisons’ profits?

David Barton’s great embarrassment (and why it matters)

By Alan Bean

Therapeutic historian David Barton is looking for another publisher after his publisher, Thomas Nelson, decided to cancel Jefferson Lies.

Barton’s history provides therapy for conservative Americans who have been traumatized by the ugly truth about slavery, native American genocide and the religious deism and unabashed racism of our founding fathers.

It is difficult to confront the bald truth about our nation without experiencing a deep sadness.  To be sure, there is much to admire in the American experiment.  Though we have frequently teetered on the verge of fascism, we have generally been able to pull back from the brink.  Most Americans have been on the wrong side of the big moral issues most of the time, and yet we have learned from our mistakes.

By the standards of history, America is a bastion of freedom–the competition isn’t that strong.

Weighed in the balance with the kingdom of God, we don’t do so well.  Nobody does.  As a nation, we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (more…)

If DA Watkins opposes the death penalty why does he seek death?

By Alan Bean

Dallas County DA Craig Watkins is morally opposed to the death penalty, yet he continues to ask juries to sentence defendants to death.  Professor Rick Halperin wants to know why.

Technically, the answer is simple.  Prosecutors are public servants, politicians really, and are thus accountable to the wishes of the constituency they represent.  A solid majority of Dallas County residents favors capital punishment, so Craig Watkins bows to their preferences.

Prosecutors who personally oppose the war on drugs, by the same reasoning, continue to indict drug dealers because it’s the law.  Prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys, the theory goes, are obligated to enforce rules created by others.

Lawyers can do things the rest of us cannot.  We cannot prosecute or defend suspected criminals, for instance, nor can we preside at trial–those roles have been delegated to particular legal professionals.  But we must also realize that legal professionals are shackled to the rules of their profession in ways that can be quite limiting.  This may be necessary, but it minimizes their ability to argue that the emperor has no clothes.  According to legal theory, the emperor is fully clothed by definition. 

It is generally assumed that people advocating for criminal justice reform should be trained attorneys, and many aspects of advocacy work do require legal expertise.  But we also need non lawyers like Rick Halperin in the game. 

In her wildly successful The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michelle Alexander underscores the need for grassroots advocacy.

Not surprisingly, as civil rights advocates converted a grassroots movement into a legal campaign, and civil rights leaders became political insiders, many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers.  This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system.  Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve—i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation.  The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem. (p. 214)

The argument that prosecutors opposed to the death penalty must nonetheless ask juries for death sentences is driven by Alice in Wonderland logic.  Thanks to Dr. Halperin for pointing that out.  Thanks also to the wonderful Dallas South Blog for printing this story(more…)

Former narcotics cop: “End the drug war, spend money on schools instead.”

In the New York Times opinion piece below, former narcotics cop Neill Franklin discusses the need to end mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs. Franklin, now the executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, was a police officer for 34 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department. Alan and I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Franklin speak at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference this February. MWN

Spend Money on Schools Instead

by Neill Franklin

If we have any hope of healing the deep wounds of race in this country, we’ve first got to stop the bleeding caused by mass incarceration and the other ill effects of the failed “war on drugs.”

Thanks to our ramped up “war on drugs,” when I walk in my old neighborhood I see houses where one or both parents are behind bars or on probation or parole. It didn’t use to be that way.

Our prohibition policies, and the “us vs. the man” mentality they have caused in our communities, have badly damaged how young black men are perceived — and not just by white people. As an African-American narcotics cop in Baltimore, even I fell victim to fear and apprehension when I encountered a group of black teenagers on the street. Making drugs like marijuana illegal has made them incredibly lucrative, and it’s not hard to see why many teenagers choose to enlist in the dope game and play for the chance at moving up the chain and raking in tax-free money rather than donning a McDonald’s uniform.

Even if our drug policies aren’t successful in reducing drug use, they are successful in turning whole communities into criminals. Nearly one in three black men can expect to spend time behind bars. For many black teenagers, getting arrested is a rite of passage.

But it wasn’t always this way. (more…)

Getting Organized to Fix the Justice System

by Lisa D’Souza

When I was an assistant public defender, friends and I would wonder what would happen if all the defense lawyers decided to protest the problems with the criminal justice system.  What if every criminal defense lawyer refused to represent people against whom the state sought the death penalty?  What if we agreed we would no longer represent anyone charged with “war on drugs” felonies?  The system can’t operate without defense lawyers.  Why do we let it operate with us?

Today, in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander offers another radical idea to force society to confront the problems in our criminal justice system.

I’m not sure what the best path forward is.  I am sure it is time for us to get organized.  It is time to start talking.  We all know there are serious problems with our criminal justice system.  And it is up to us to fix them.  How?

The source of American punitiveness

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Since the 1970s, the prison population in the U.S. has increased by 700%. Consequently, there are now over 2.3 million people behind bars. Friends of Justice believes that this shift toward mass incarceration was driven by a punitive public consensus. This punitiveness resulted in tough-on-crime policies that promote harsh punishment over rehabilitation and leave prisoners locked up and left out.

There are many theories that attempt to explain why the U.S. shifted toward punitive criminal justice policies over the last 40 years. A recent study by Unnever and Cullen (2010) explores the social sources of punitiveness among Americans by examining the efficacy of three prominent theories: the escalating crime-distrust model, the moral decline model, and the racial animus model.

The escalating crime-distrust model suggests that punitiveness is driven by the combination of an individual’s fear that crime is increasing, belief that his or her safety is at risk, and distrust in the government’s ability to protect him or her from crime. This theory also argues that an individual’s belief that courts put the rights of offenders over the rights of victims further contributes to a punitive attitude toward crime. The moral decline model suggests that punitive attitudes stem from an individual’s belief that society is in a state of moral decay. Therefore, only harsh policies toward crime will restore social cohesion. The racial-animus model argues that racial and ethnic hostility and intolerance is tied to punitiveness in the criminal justice system:

 “A sizable proportion of the American public perceives the crime problem through a racial lens that results in an association of crime with African Americans, especially Black men. This lens, mostly unique to Whites and especially to those who are racist, colors their view of crime. For these Americans, when they think about crime, the picture in their head illuminates a young, angry, Black, inner-city male who offends with little remorse. For them, this offender is the “superpredator” Black male.” (more…)