criminal justice reform

  • February 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative; winner of the 2014 David Carliner Award

    Receiving the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Award last year was a huge honor and a wonderful celebration of the connection between criminal justice reform and other progressive movements. For too long, progressive movements have all worked in isolation from each other, but ACS and this award have, like its namesake, celebrated our common struggle for justice and human rights.

    I went to law school a decade ago when prison populations were going up and up, and up seemed like the only future. Both the powers that be and the established progressive movement were ignoring criminal justice advocates. The award, named for human rights champion David Carliner, represents an important milestone because it recognizes criminal justice issues – and the victories we have won together over the last decade – as essential victories for the broader progressive movement.

    I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to challenge policies that were doing more to exacerbate existing racial and economic disparities in our country than they were doing to respond to crime.  I wanted to collaborate with other criminal justice experts – such as incarcerated people, their families and lawyers – to force our country to confront the fact that our criminal justice system has grown so large that it punishes everyone, including people who are not directly involved in the criminal justice system.

    Take the U.S. Census. The U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as if they were willing residents of the prison location. This would be nothing more than a good item of statistical trivia if there weren't so many people in prison and if we didn't use this flawed data to draw legislative districts. Taking more than 2 million incarcerated people, who are mostly people of color, and deliberately counting them in the wrong communities systematically changes the legislative districts and therefore every political decision our legislatures make. "Prison gerrymandering" is a very subtle but ever-present thumb on the scale of our democracy. That's a large part of why state legislatures prioritize the demands of excessive punishment over more sensible alternatives.

  • February 2, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Geoffrey R. Stone writes in the Huffington Post about campus sexual assault and argues for a more thoughtful approach from universities “to keep their students safe and to ensure that they can live and learn in an environment free from sexual violence.”

    At The Week, Andrew Cohen considers the lessons of Georgia’s recent decision to execute a developmentally disabled man.

    In The Atlantic, Kent Greenfield asserts that corporations should shoulder greater responsibilities if they are to be considered people under the law.

    Cristian Farias argues in The New Republic that Justice Scalia could be the decisive vote on the Affordable Care Act.

    In Slate, Jamelle Bouie contends that public apathy has led to significant criminal justice reform, but larger support is needed to tackle the biggest problems. 

  • January 19, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Elise C. Boddie, Associate Professor of Law, Rutgers University-Newark; former director of litigation NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc.; and a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    One of the many indelible images of the civil rights era is a black and white picture of an African-American boy, maybe nine or ten years old, holding a poster in front of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Alabama. The year is 1964. The boy’s small hands are clutched around the edges of his poster, which in plain, scrawled lettering, calls for people to register to vote in the name of “freedom.”   We cannot see his eyes because they are averted from the camera.  Instead, he has fixed his gaze on a group of policemen who are about to descend upon him and, as we later learn, arrest him just after the picture is taken.[1]

    The picture is a reminder that the right to vote is more literally secure than it was in Selma in 1964.  Less than a year later, Selma would emerge as the birthplace of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, following a march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of civil rights leaders, including now-Congressman John Lewis.  An earlier attempted march to Montgomery led demonstrators over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they were beaten mercilessly by Alabama state troopers before having to turn back, all in full view of the national press.[2]  The horror and disgrace of that moment helped catalyze national support and the political will to pass voting rights legislation.[3]

    We rightly celebrate and honor Dr. King as the “drum major for justice”[4] who helped bring that fight to fruition, along with the countless, nameless thousands – the young Selma boy among them –  who laid their bodies on the line so that future generations could exercise their constitutional rights.   The police no longer beat African Americans in the street for trying to register; and literacy tests, which barred so many Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color from voting, no longer exist as a result of the 1965 Act.  The frontal indignities of Jim Crow at least are gone.

    And yet, like a weed with roots deep beneath the surface, other practices soon emerged in their place, including at-large voting schemes,[5] racially-discriminatory annexations[6] and redistricting plans that sought to “crack” or “pack” minority voters in order to dilute their voting strength.[7]   Evidence of this adaptive discrimination carries through to the present.  For example, following the record turnout of voters of color for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections states enacted restrictive laws that made it harder to vote.[8]

    Against a record of  “unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution,”[9] Congress included in the Voting Rights Act a core provision that limited the authority of states with “the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights”[10] to unilaterally change their voting practices.  This “preclearance” provision, known as Section 5, required covered jurisdictions with certain indicia of low voter participation to secure federal approval of any proposed voting changes[11] by demonstrating that they would not disfranchise minority voters.[12]  In a landmark case, South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the Supreme Court upheld the Act against a constitutional challenge,[13] as it would in later cases brought by jurisdictions that sought to evade the statutory protections for minority voters.[14]  In 2013, however, the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down a companion provision that established the scope of Section 5’s geographic coverage.[15]  While acknowledging that voting discrimination persists, [16] the Court concluded that the coverage provision no longer reflected the most “current” manifestations of such discrimination.  In light of “dramatic” improvements in the landscape of voter suppression, the Act’s incursion on the “equal sovereignty” of the states was no longer justified.[17]   

    After Shelby, fifteen states enacted laws that discouraged voter participation.[18]  Although the precise impact of these laws is hard to determine, voters of color appear to have been disproportionately affected in at least five states – Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, each of which had been covered by the Act’s preclearance provision before Shelby and each of which had also experienced a significant increase in the population of voters of color.[19]  Thus, in a time of burgeoning “minority” voting power, states have actively sought to limit accessibility to the polls.  The timing, of course, is hardly coincidental, but rather – as a Texas federal district court judge concluded with respect to that state’s photo identification law[20] – appears calculated to suppress minority turnout.[21]

  • January 15, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    At Bloomberg View, Noah Feldman argues that Justice Antonin Scalia could be the key to ending the Affordable Care Act.

    Nina Totenberg reports for NPR on the Supreme Court case that has the justices considering whether a sock counts as drug paraphernalia.

    At Buzzfeed, Chris Geidner provides a guide to the multiple same-sex marriage cases that the Supreme Court could decide to hear this term.

    Jonathan Rapping writes in The Nation that the problems with the American justice system go beyond abusive policing.

  • January 5, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    In The Atlantic, James Fallows provides a profile of the late Mario Cuomo in which he calls the former New York Governor “the most accomplished and engrossing public thinker” of the recent generation’s politicians.

    Steven Sanders argues in the Huffington Post that the Supreme Court should take up a marriage equality case.

    In The Boston Globe, Jessica Meyers reports on an upcoming Supreme Court case about a Massachusetts panhandling law that considers how to balance free speech with public safety.

    Hayato Watanable argues at The Hill that it is time to have an Asian-Pacific American on the Supreme Court.

    Steven Mazie at The Economist’s Democracy in America blog discusses a North Carolina abortion law that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently struck down.  

    At the blog for the Brennan Center for Justice, Lauren-Brooke Eisen considers whether there are criminal justice reforms upcoming in 2015.