Criminal Justice

  • July 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations, Washington Office

    *This post originally appeared on Open Society Voices

    President Obama changed 46 lives on Monday, commuting the prison terms of individuals who had been locked away serving long sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses. “These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority of them had been sentenced to at least 20 years—14 of them had been sentenced to life—for nonviolent drug offenses,” the president said in making the announcement. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

    I enthusiastically applaud the president’s announcement, as I did with his two prior batches of releases. For more than 20 years now, I have been pushing, along with many other champions of criminal justice change, for reform of the egregiously lengthy sentences for crack cocaine offenses—sentences which were unjust, inconsistently applied, and racially discriminatory.

    I was aware of the use of the executive clemency power to close painful chapters in history, which presidents of both parties have courageously used. John F. Kennedy quietly issued commutations to people given mandatory minimum sentences under the 1956 Narcotics Control Act, widely seen as unnecessarily harsh during his administration. Gerald Ford used his authority to create an executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War, 90 percent of which were granted.

    President Obama’s commutations this week allow dozens more worthy candidates, many of whom thought they would never again see the light of day, the opportunity to have a second chance. This is phenomenal. But we as a country need to go further, and release the broadest spectrum of prisoners possible without compromising public safety.

  • July 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Theo Shaw, a William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholar, University of Washington School of Law; and one of the young students charged in the “Jena 6” case. Follow him on Twitter @theorshaw

    Glenn Ford, imprisoned nearly half his life for a murder he didn’t commit, died earlier this month after a battle with lung cancer. Socially, though, he died 30 years ago – in part because of our nation’s underfunded public defender systems and prosecutorial misconduct, and lack of accountability.

    As an intern for the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) in 2010, I worked on multiple cases where prosecutorial misconduct and lawyers’ ineffectiveness resulted in wrongful convictions. Some of our clients received ineffective legal representation because our nation’s public defender systems are so terribly underfunded lawyers are compelled to represent more people than is ethically possible, which increases the likelihood of wrongful convictions.

    Compounding those injustices are government abuses of power. During Ford’s initial trial, prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to his defense. Disturbingly, Ford’s nightmare isn’t unique. During my summer with the IPNO, I befriended John Thompson. He spent 18 years in prison—14 of those years on death row—for a crime he didn’t commit. In his case, prosecutors also withheld evidence favorable to his defense; and the gross injustice of government abuse is a reality for many more defendants.

    After his release, Ford filed a petition seeking compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Ford's request was denied because, according to District Judge Katherine Dorroh, he failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was factually innocent. This is clear for me: a criminal justice system built on the principle of Equal Justice Under Law should require more – for justice and fairness.

    For our society to banish these injustices it must face reality and take action. 

    In our juvenile and criminal justice systems, race and poverty significantly determines outcome. In fact, there are important cause and effect relations between race and poverty. It’s undeniable and ethically inexcusable that for indigent and racial minorities in our justice systems, both historically and within our contemporary society, the right to counsel is violated almost daily.

    As a prospective public interest lawyer, I am strongly committed and passionate about the right to competent legal representation and equal justice for indigent people, racial minorities, juvenile offenders, condemned prisoners, and those wrongly convicted in our legal system. This means I am just as committed to fighting systemic poverty, challenging racial discrimination in our criminal justice system, and ending human rights abuses in our juvenile and adult detention facilities, practices such as solitary confinement, guard abuse, and degrading conditions of confinement.

    My vision and hope for a just society is also fueled by a deeply held universal concern (across race) for all persons who have had or will have their constitutional rights violated. Hence, I am committed to using my knowledge (legal and otherwise) to be a powerful and compassionate voice for every person accused of a crime. In this way I hope to help this country realize the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright

     

     

  • July 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, and Lee KovarskyProfessor of Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

    *This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

    Monday, the Supreme Court Justices delivered their oral opinion summaries in the Term's high-profile death penalty decision, Glossip v. Gross. Rather than reading from his concurring opinion or from a prepared statement, Justice Antonin Scalia -- still frazzled from release of the same-sex marriage cases -- appeared to be improvising. He accused Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of expressing personal "policy preferences," and added that the "two justices are willing to kill the death penalty outright rather than just pecking it to death." Why the defensiveness and outrage?

    Glossip was a 5-4 victory for death penalty states, which retained leeway to use new and untested lethal-injection "cocktails." Scalia was part of the majority but he sounded strangely like he was uttering last words. Justice Samuel Alito's presentation of the majority opinion was also unusually defensive and hostile to the dissenters. Justice Alito insists it is "settled that the death penalty is constitutional." In a career-defining dissent, Justice Breyer showed just how unsettled the American death penalty remains.

    The precise legal question in Glossip was whether states could use midazolam as the anesthetic in a three-drug legal-injection cocktail. For years, states used sodium thiopental, until suppliers stopped selling it for use in executions. Many states turned to pentobarbital, which also became difficult to obtain. Oklahoma turned to midazolam, considered more of an anti-anxiety medication than an anesthetic. After several "botched" executions, the Supreme Court agreed to hear whether improvements to Oklahoma's cocktail -- including a 400 percent increase the midazolam dosage -- satisfied the Eighth Amendment. Holding that it did, the Court seemed to announce a rule that an execution could not be Cruel and Unusual under the Eighth Amendment unless there is a "known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain." Justice Sotomayor dissented, calling this a "surreal" endorsement of inhumane "human experimentation."

    Justice Breyer did more. Joined by Justice Ginsburg, he wrote a dissent arguing that the death penalty is flat out unconstitutional, and he characteristically loaded his opinion with empirical data. In doing so, Breyer and Ginsburg joined the ranks of predecessors such as John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun who, in their later years on the Court, declared they no longer believed that there exists a constitutional way to administer capital sentences. In 1994, an 85 year-old Blackmun penned a memorable single-Justice dissent swearing off his participation in capital process: "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." For Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, the death penalty cannot escape a dilemma's horns -- the procedural protections necessary to make the penalty reliable mean that the process takes so long that it no longer serves its retributive or deterrent purposes.

  • June 23, 2015
    Video Interview

    by Nanya Springer

    As Stephen Bright provided closing remarks at the 2015 ACS National Convention, he extoled the virtue of representing unpopular clients ‒ particularly criminal defendants, who are usually poor and often people of color.  He listed the names of inmates who have been wrongfully convicted and recently released from prison, all unwitting members of a far-too-large society of American exonerees:  Willie Manning in Mississippi, Anthony Ray Hinton in Alabama, Alfred Brown in Texas, and Glenn Ford in Louisiana.  But Bright also delighted the crowd by introducing a special guest: exoneree and recent law school graduate Jarrett Adams.

    Adams served almost 10 years of a 28-year prison sentence for a crime that he did not commit.  After being exonerated with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he obtained a degree in criminal justice and then attended law school at Loyola University Chicago.  He has worked at the Federal Defender’s Office in Chicago and at the public interest law firm Loevy & Loevy, and soon he will begin a dual fellowship with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ‒ the very court that overturned his conviction and set him free.

    At the convention, Adams sat down with ACS to explain why it’s so important for law students to develop professional networks.  He said, “There are only so many big firms, and if you don’t . . . get a 4.0 or know someone . . . you don’t have the opportunity to summer with them and to get into the door.  ACS offers you the opportunity to network with the big law firms at events like this.”  He added, “You never know when you’re going to be in a networking event and meet someone that’s going to help you become someone.”

    Arguably, Adams – who hopes to practice civil rights law and continue leading the nonprofit organization he co-founded, Life After Justice – is already “someone.”  But, as he would probably agree, there is always room for growth and advancement.

    Adams’ entire interview can be viewed below.

  • June 19, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    For those who attended, the 2015 ACS National Convention was not only an opportunity to catch up with old friends, make new connections, and obtain CLE credits; it was also a time to reflect upon the important work that attorneys do every day and gain inspiration for the road ahead.  Speakers from across the country and from diverse professional backgrounds delved into the issues of the day, including voting rights, women’s access to reproductive health care, LGBT rights and marriage equality, access to counsel, and more.  Here are some highlights with links to high-quality video for those who missed the live event.

    Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, received a stirring round of applause when he encouraged students and young lawyers to represent unpopular clients, saying “we need to see the kinds of injustices that got . . . people where they are.” In attendance with Mr. Bright were Theo Shaw, one of the exonerated “Jena 6” who is now on his way to law school on a full scholarship, and Jarrett Adams, an exoneree who graduated from law school and will soon begin clerking for the court that exonerated him.

    Wendy Davis, women’s rights crusader and a former state Senator from Texas, discussed how rampant voter suppression has led to bad policies in her state, particularly concerning access to reproductive health care. “Women who lack the means to manage their fertility lack the means to manage their lives,” she declared. “It is just that simple.”

    Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for automatic registration of all eligible voters in the U.S., stating that “the ability to vote is a right, it is not a privilege.” He decried efforts to make voting less accessible, explaining that in-person voting fraud is very rare and no such widespread schemes have been detected.

    U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries discussed the ongoing need to address faulty police practices, including so-called “taxation by citation,” “stop and frisk,” and “broken windows” tactics that disproportionately target low-income people and communities of color.

    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew laughs and applause during her conversation with California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. Speaking about her groundbreaking career, she said “I don’t think the meaning of feminism has changed,” it has always meant “girls should have the same opportunity to dream, aspire, achieve . . . as boys.” It’s about “women and men working together to help make society a better place.”