Category: Criminal justice reform

Georgia steps in the right direction

Gov. Nathan Deal

by Lisa D’Souza

In November 2011, a special council appointed by Georgia’s Governor, Nathan Deal, released its Report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians.  This report has resulted in reform proposals that the Georgia legislature will soon consider.
While it is heartening that Georgia has recognized its incarceration rates as a problem the report, and the resulting reform proposals, failed to consider input from the communities most affected by mass incarceration and ignore relevant factors, for example treating addiction as a crime instead of a medical problem.

The Atlanta Progressive News article below has a comprehensive summary of the report’s recommendations as well as criticisms of its shortcomings.

Congratulations, Georgia, for taking this step in the right direction.  We can only hope it is the first of many.

Georgia Considers Reforms to Reduce Prison Population, Costs


With additional reporting on the Special Council’s recommendations by Matthew Cardinale.

(APN) ATLANTA — This year, the Georgia Legislature is expected to begin considering a package of reforms intended to reduce the state’s prison population as well as the enormous costs to taxpayers that Georgia’s mass incarceration policies have caused year after year.

The Report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians finished its findings and recommendations for the state legislature on Friday, November 18, 2011.  Shortly after his inauguration in January 2011, Gov. Deal had called for prison reform, and the legislature created the Special Council to research the issue. (more…)

Star of “The Wire” hooked by the streets of Baltimore

David Simon (R) and Ed Burns (L) on the set of The Wire

By Alan Bean

I learned about The Wire from former homicide detective Ed Burns.  He was sitting next to me at a convening of people concerned about the abuse of snitch testimony. “What do you do?” I asked.  When he told me he co-produced The Wire I said, “what’s the wire?”

Burns took my gnorance in stride.  “It’s an HBO drama about the war on drugs,” he replied.  I suspect I wasn’t the first person Burns had met who hadn’t heard of The Wire, a production widely regarded as the best dramatic series in the history of television.  The show had a rabidly loyal following, but it never rivalled HBO productions like The Sopranos.  The subject matter was gritty, intense, profane and troubling.  But from the moment we popped in the first rented DVD, my wife and I were hooked.

Sonja Sohn working with Baltimore street kids

Sonja Sohn played Detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs on The Wire, a role she initially struggled with.  Like the “corner boys” of Baltimore featured in The Wire, Sohn grew up in a world marked by deprivation, street hustling, violence and fear.  According to this Washington Post article, playing a cop was hard for Sohn; in the world she was raised in, law enforcement was the enemy.

The Wire played for five critically acclaimed seasons before Ed Burns and co-producer David Simon moved on to other things.  Sohn couldn’t move on.  The streets of Baltimore were wrapped around her soul.  This feature article in the Post is worthy of your time, and your reflection. 

After ‘The Wire’ ended, actress Sonja Sohn couldn’t leave Baltimore’s troubled streets behind

By Phil Zabriskie, Published: January 27

Sonja Sohn stood in front of her audience, confident about the performance she was about to give. This wasn’t surprising, considering her history as an actress who was just coming off a five-year run as Det. Shakima “Kima” Greggs on HBO’s “The Wire,” one of the most critically acclaimed shows in television history. To project professionalism, she had pulled her hair back and was wearing pressed slacks and a collared shirt. Her motivation was clear, her research was done, and after many months of preparation, she was ready. (more…)

Profiting from Prison

by Melanie Wilmoth

Over the past decade, federal and state governments have increasingly turned to prison privatization. A report released this week by The Sentencing Project highlights the rise of private prisons in the U.S. and the consequences of privatization.

Private prisons now hold approximately 8% of the entire prison population in the U.S. This shift toward privatization, The Sentencing Project reports, began with public policies enacted in the 1970s and 1980s:

“The War on Drugs and harsher sentencing policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, fueled a rapid expansion in the nation’s prison population. The resulting burden on the public sector led private companies to reemerge during the 1970s to operate halfway houses. They extended their reach in the 1980s by contracting with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to detain undocumented immigrants.”

Private prison corporations are in the business of warehousing prisoners. They contribute to and profit from mass incarceration. With the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for-profit prison companies have lobbied for mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, truth-in-sentencing policies, and immigrant detention centers. As a result of increasing prison privatization, two of the largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, have combined annual revenues exceeding $2.9 billion. (more…)

‘Michelle Alexander: Jim Crow Still Exists in America’

By Melanie Wilmoth

In a recent episode of Fresh Air on NPR, Dave Davies interviews attorney and author Michelle Alexander. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander argues that, as a result of the war on drugs, the U.S. has created a system of mass incarceration which disproportionately targets people of color.

“The war on drugs,” Alexander states, “was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern Strategy, of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about, threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.”

The “wave of punitiveness” and get-tough policies that followed the declaration of the war on drugs had an incredible impact on communities of color. Although African-Americans make up about 13% of the general population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. “In major American cities today,” Alexander points out, “more than half of working-age African-American men either are under are correctional control or are branded felons.” (more…)

Coerced confessions: One way wrongful convictions happen

by Lisa D’Souza

It seems impossible to imagine confessing to a serious crime that you know you did not commit.  That’s why confessions make such great evidence.  Juries almost always believe them.  And yet, false confessions happen.  They usually happen in serious felony cases; 80% of coerced confessions uncovered in one study were obtained in murder investigations.  A significant number of the convictions overturned by DNA evidence were based on coerced confessions.  Others remain in jail on cases in which DNA evidence exonerates them but based on their confession judges and prosecutors refuse to consider the conviction wrongful.

Young people or people with mental retardation are more susceptible to making a false confessions.  Another study found that 63% of false confessors were under the age of 25, and 32% were under 18; yet of all persons arrested for murder and rape, only 8 and 16%, respectively, are juveniles.   In a 2005 study at Williams College, students gave false confessions when confronted with manufactured evidence.

Police are trained to interrogate suspects using psychological methods.  These interrogation techniques are powerfully coercive and are designed to destroy the suspect’s hope and confidence.  Police often lie to suspects about the evidence against them and make false promises about what will happen if they provide a confession.  The police, convinced before the interrogation that the suspect is guilty, go to great lengths to obtain a confession.  The prosecution is then convinced by the confession that the suspect is guilty.

And that is how many wrongful convictions happen.

Nga Truong spent her 17th, 18th and 19th birthdays in jail after being coerced into confessing that she murdered her infant son.  Why would she say she killed her baby when she hadn’t?  Read more about Nga Truong at:

Learn more about coerced confessions at: at:

Pastor W.G. Daniels waged peace in Fort Worth, Texas

PASTOR 4By Alan Bean

No one can account for the dramatic drop in violent crime.  According to the Washington Post, in 2011 the DC homicide rate reached its lowest point since 1963.  But just across the county line, the homicide rate is experiencing an upswing.  When violent crime drops there is always a reason.  When gang-related violence plunged in Fort Worth, TX, a big part of the reason was the Rev. W.G. Daniels. 

Daniels died this week.  Marty Sabota’s obituary shows that Daniels grasped many of the principles criminologist  David Kennedy outlines in his excellent book Don’t Shoot:

America has four inextricably linked problems that converge in its most troubled communities.   There’s the violence that terrorizes many of its, especially, black and minority communities. There’s the chaos that comes with, especially, public drug markets.  There’s the devastation being wrought on, especially, troubled black and minority communities by our criminal justice in response to the first two problems.  And there’ the worsening racial divide that’s causing.

In Fort Worth, Pastor W.G. Daniels stopped the violence by forging a creative dialogue between law enforcement and the communities most affected by violent crime.  A former police officer who understood the law enforcement mindset, Daniels made the perfect peacemaker.  He knew why his neighbors didn’t want to talk to the police, but he also understood why law enforcement will always concentrate on high crime communities.  Daniels didn’t want the police to ignore the hot neighborhoods; he just wanted them to show more respect and professionalism.  

Getting gang members, community members and the police on the same page isn’t easy, but it can be done.  As Daniels once told the Star-Telegram:

You had gangs like the Crips and the Bloods fighting against each other, but after we conducted a survey, we found that there just needed to be somebody to bring a truce to stop the madness and no better people to do it than pastors who meet every Sunday. We needed to send a message that it would not be tolerated, and by the help of God and Christ we were able to bring about peace.

When people are talking to one another behavior changes.  Open air drug markets move underground, police officers feel more appreciated and behave with a higher level of professionalism, residents of high crime neighborhoods gain a new sense of confidence and self-respect.  Criminologist David Kennedy and pastor W.G. Daniels heal communities because they understand the spiritual nature of the war they are fighting.  (more…)

Has mass incarceration given us safe streets?

By Alan Bean

Charles Lane is excited.  Crime rates have been falling across America and, if present trends continue, the safe streets we enjoyed in the 1950s will soon return. 

Lane sees mass incarceration as a curious paradox.  It’s too bad we had to lock up 2.3 million people to “take a bite out of crime”, he seems to say, but that’s the way the corn bread crumbles.

You get the impression that Lane, like most moderate liberals, has formed his conclusions about crime and punishment after reading a single book, in Lane’s case Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe.  How did America solve its crime problem?  We rolled up our sleaves and fixed it, Zimring says.

Fine, but how did we solve the crime problem?  What sort of tough, decisive political decisions did our leaders make?  There can be only one answer: we locked up millions of poor black males.

If Zimring and Lane think that’s a viable solution they need to read Michelle Alexander’s description of the post-prison experience in The New Jim Crow.  Have we solved the crime problem by creating (intentionally or by accident) a new racial caste? 

Lane’s self-congratulatory column explains why William Stuntz finished The Collapse of American Justice on a somber note:

The disaster that is contemporary American criminal justice does not look so disastrous in most places, which is why there has been no sustained political demand for large-scale reform of the justice system. Major changes in the system’s structure . . . require a critical mass of voters (also legislators and appellate judges) to support a program that carries little benefit for them.

Why should Charles Lane worry about problems that are largely invisible from the gentrified and suburban neighborhoods of Washington DC or New York City?  If the streets of the Big Apple are safe again, what’s the problem? (more…)

“Both sides are us”: Stuntz and Kennedy unpack the spirituality of criminal justice reform

By Alan Bean

In 2010, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, rocked the civil rights community back on its heels.  Alexander accused the criminal justice reform movement of seeking legal solutions to a moral problem, of fighting for affirmative action while abandoning the victims of a brutal and counter-productive drug war, of telling pretty stories about wrongfully convicted poster-boys while ignoring the social nightmares unfolding in poor communities of color.

 If the way we pursue reforms does not contribute to the building of a movement to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, and if our advocacy does not upset the prevailing public consensus that supports the new caste system, none of the reforms, even if won, will successfully disrupt the nation’s racial equilibrium.  Challenges to the system will be easily absorbed or deflected, and the accommodations made will serve primarily to legitimate the system, not undermine it.  We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war.

In 2011, two books by white males revealed that Michelle Alexander is not the only American scholar in search of a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration.   The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz, and Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America by David M. Kennedy are not books written in response to Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  Stuntz and Kennedy are white male academics who see mass incarceration and the war on drugs as unmitigated disasters.  These authors tackle America’s racial history head on.  Most importantly, they agree with Alexander that a movement to end mass incarceration must begin with a new moral consensus.    (more…)

“Banking on bondage”: The rise of private prisons in the U.S.

by Melanie Wilmoth

A recent report by the ACLU, “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration,” details how the private prison industry feeds (and profits from) mass incarceration in the U.S.

As the ACLU points out, there are few who truly benefit from our country’s obsession with “tough-on crime” policies. With over 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S, the punitive consensus driving mass incarceration has successfully shattered families and busted states’ budgets. However, there is one group that does benefits from locking up more and more people: the private prison industry.

Just as prison populations in public corrections facilities boomed over the last 30 years, the number of individuals in private prisons increased over 1600% between 1990 and 2009.

For private prisons, more crime equals more prisoners and more prisoners equals more profit. It’s no wonder that for-profit prisons support immigrant detention, mandatory minimum sentences, and “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws. Large prison populations and harsh sentences result in greater profits. In fact, the success of the private prison industry relies on the country’s opposition to criminal justice reforms and fair sentencing laws:

“In a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company, stated: ‘The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by…leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices…’

The GEO Group, the second largest private prison operator, identified similar “Risks Related to Our Business and Industry” in SEC filings:

‘Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities, the demand for which is outside our control …. [A]ny changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.’”

Moreover, when you’re in the business of locking people up, there is high incentive to cut costs and maximize profits and little incentive to rehabilitate inmates and reduce future crime. As a result of cost-cutting measures, research suggests prisoners in private facilities are more likely to experience violence and inhumane conditions. In addition, private prisons tend to have high staff turnover due to low wages. While corrections officers and staff are making close to minimum wage, top executives at GEO and CCA receive over $3 million each in annual compensation.

Also of concern, as Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast points out, is the seldom mentioned “revolving door” between public and private corrections which the ACLU report highlights:

“Many in the private prison industry…once served in state corrections departments, and numerous state corrections officials formerly worked for private prison companies. In some cases, this revolving door between public corrections and private prisons may contribute to the ability of some companies to win contracts or to avoid sufficient scrutiny from the corrections departments charged with overseeing their operations.”

With high incentives to increase prison populations while cutting corrections costs and with little meaningful oversight due to the “revolving door,” the private prison industry is in a dangerously powerful position. In order to end mass incarceration, as the ACLU suggests, we must divest from private prisons and halt the expansion of “for-profit incarceration.”

To read the full ACLU report, click here.

Philly rejects criminal justice reform ad, NAACP files lawsuit

The NAACP and ACLU filed a lawsuit last month against the city of Philadelphia. The reason? The Philadelphia International Airport refused to accept a criminal justice reform ad sponsored by the NAACP. The ad (shown above) emphasizes mass incarceration in the U.S. and the need for smart criminal justice reforms. Although the Philadelphia airport claims that it does not accept ads “relating to political and social issues,” the NAACP argues that the decision to reject the ad violates freedom of speech. See the NAACP’s response below. MW

NAACP, ACLU file lawsuit against city of Philadelphia for rejecting criminal justice reform ad 

Refusal to Accept Ad Violates First Amendment Freedom of Speech

The NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on October 19 against the City of Philadelphia for violating the First Amendment, after Philadelphia International Airport refused to accept an advertisement promoting criminal justice reform. The ad highlights America’s high incarceration rate.

The city claimed that the ad had been rejected because it does not accept “issue” or “advocacy” advertisements at the airport. However, the airport has accepted numerous other ads relating to political and social issues.

“The walls of Philadelphia International Airport are public space, and city officials do not have the right to suppress any group’s viewpoint based on their own beliefs or political considerations,” stated NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan. “Our First Amendment right to free speech is just as strong as that of the U.S.O., the World Wildlife Federation or any other advocacy group that has graced the walls of the airport,” Keenan said, referring to ads from other organizations that the city accepted.

The NAACP’s rejected advertising says, “Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world’s people & 25% of the world’s prisoners. Let’s build a better America together.” The ads are part of a public awareness campaign surrounding the NAACP’s “Misplaced Priorities” report, which explores the connection between high incarceration rates and poorly performing schools. (more…)