Criminal Justice

  • May 11, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Say the words “judicial selection” to average Americans, and their eyes may very well glaze over.  But tell them the story of Wendy Baggett ‒ a woman whose three-day-old baby died because her doctor neglected to take her off of blood pressure medication during her pregnancy ‒ and a spark of concern may appear in those dull pupils.  Then explain that a jury sided with Baggett in her medical malpractice claim against the doctor, only to be overturned by business-backed judges on the Alabama Supreme Court, and that concern may transform into shock, curiosity and perhaps, eventually, action.

    It’s well understood that telling human stories is more effective than talking about political, economic or societal problems in the abstract.  That’s why Life of the Law, a bi-weekly podcast series, focuses on compelling, human-driven stories instead of merely analyzing legal arguments and dissecting Supreme Court rulings. 

    The story of Baggett is a true one, used to exemplify how the practice of electing judges affects people from all walks of life.  As explained in the podcast, in states where judges are forced to campaign for the bench, courts are becoming increasingly hostile to tort plaintiffs and to criminal defendants.  This makes sense; campaigns cost money, business interests have plentiful funds from which to donate, and judges, whether consciously or unconsciously, tend to side with the interests of those who helped them win their increasingly expensive elections.  (In criminal cases, judges are often attacked by their business-backed opponents for being “soft on crime” when they side with defendants, merely because it’s an easy attack.)

  • May 4, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of Boston Police Department

    I applaud Marilyn Mosby's swift and decisive move in charging the six Baltimore police officers on Friday, May 1 with crimes ranging from second-degree murder to manslaughter, assault and false imprisonment, and I'm hopeful that she'll get the result that she's seeking, if that’s what the interests of justice determine is warranted.  However, I don't believe that the Baltimore officers will be convicted of any murder or manslaughter charges and that this likely result will lead to more civil unrest.  According to The Washington Post, in order to secure a guilty finding in Maryland for second degree murder in the death of Freddie Gray, (the “depraved heart” murder), the judge or jury must agree that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of three necessary elements for conviction: (1) that the defendant (here the police transport van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson), actually caused Freddie Gray’s death; (2) that Officer Goodson’s conduct itself posed a very high risk to endangering Gray’s life; and (3) that Goodson, aware of the risk he was causing to Gray’s life, acted with extreme disregard of the life endangering consequences of his actions.

    To secure a manslaughter conviction, even for involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors must convince a judge or a jury (and these will likely be jury trials), that the officers in Baltimore knew or should have known that their actions were a direct threat to Gray’s life and that what the police did in arresting, subduing and transporting Gray was something they knew was inherently dangerous or that it was done with a reckless disregard for human life.

    Prosecutors will face an uphill and arduous battle in securing convictions against these six police officers, even given the current climate of public skepticism, mistrust, and suspicion (and even disdain) of the police that began in earnest in Ferguson last August.  For what the police engaged in on April 12 in Baltimore, even in its violence, brutality and senselessness, was nothing if not the routine and mundane activities of the police, particularly in communities of color in cities across the United States. What happened to Gray, we may very well learn from defense counsel in the upcoming trials of the officers, was standard operating procedure (with an unintended, accidental and tragic result), perhaps even in compliance with police policy, as well as tactics and strategies that the officers were trained in, and all in a day’s work in the perilous, violent and dangerous world that the police believe that they toil in selflessly, thanklessly and courageously every day.  This is the police narrative, always and already, and one that prosecutors will need to challenge vigorously in order to secure any convictions against the “Baltimore Six.” 

  • May 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law. Follow him on Twitter @atibaellis.

    The New York Times recently published a story entitled, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men.” The graphic portrayed how the war on drugs, American policies of mass incarceration and other structural forces, have left these African American men and their communities oppressed in the United States because these men are incarcerated, disabled from full citizenry or deceased.

    A purely academic discussion of this data and its meaning was what this blog post was supposed to be about.  But over the past weekend, we saw the city of Baltimore, Md. react to the fact that Freddie Gray is now missing forever.  Gray’s fatal injuries, inflicted during his custody of the Baltimore Police Department, provide us a specific case of an African American man going missing. Mr. Gray’s death puts into relief how one person loses his life due to the policies and structures of inequality, and the Baltimore police officers involved have now been charged in Mr. Gray’s death.

    Yet it isn’t simply Gray’s death that teaches us something about structural racism. The uprising that occurred in reaction to Gray’s funeral, the reaction to opinion leaders and the Internet opinion-sphere all teach us something about how our language regarding racism falls prey to a gap of misunderstanding and misperception. This is a multilayered problem reflective of the complicated tableau of race in America.

    On one level, Gray’s death is one more tragedy that we can add to the long list of tragedies that seem to target African American men. Gray is forever missing, along with Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and many more. And, as Professor Elwood Watson points out, black women like Dr. Ersula Ore or Kathryn Johnston similarly suffer violence, abuse and death due to this same system of oppression.

    Though the factual circumstances vary, it appears that all these people I’ve named are the casualties of either the war on drugs, the effects of declaring poor minority neighborhoods “high crime neighborhoods,” police bias against people of color or all of the above.  This results in their individual and communal struggles against siege policing and its short and long-term effects. Because of these factors, these men and women lose their lives or their livelihoods in a manner not subject to due process. 

  • May 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Rena Steinzor and Thomas McGarity, past presidents and founders of the Center for Progressive Reform. Steinzor is a professor at the University of Maryland Carey Law School, and McGarity is a professor at the University of Texas Law School. Steinzor is author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction. McGarity is author of Freedom to Harm: The Lasting Legacy of the Laissez Faire Revival.

    With the announcement that GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra received the outsized compensation of $16.2 million in 2014, what should have been a year of humiliation and soul-searching for that feckless automaker instead ended on a disturbingly self-satisfied note.  Purely from a public relations perspective, Barra worked hard for her money.  Appearing repentant, sincere, and downcast, she persuaded star-struck members of Congress that the company was committed to overhauling a culture characterized by what she called the “GM shrug,” loosely translated as avoiding individual accountability at all costs.  Even as she blinked in the television lights, GM fought bitter battles behind the scenes to block consumer damage cases and exploit corporate tax loopholes.

    Largely on the basis of her political adeptness, Barra has been taking victory laps in the business press, hailed as the rare (female) CEO who has led her corporation out of a morass that could happen to anyone.  This performance and the accolades it inspired provide a troubling coda to what was a destructive year for American drivers.  Dubbed “the year of the recall,” automakers recalled an unprecedented 64 million vehicles ‒ about one in five cars on the road; GM led with 26 million of this total.

    To restore justice to GM’s beleaguered customers – and the scores of families who lost loved ones in crashes caused by the defective switch – we can only hope that the Justice Department’s criminal investigation of the company and its senior executives results in prosecutions that could offset the unjust favors the legal system is already prepared to bestow.

  • April 30, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jessica Eaglin, Counsel, Justice Program, Brennan Center for Justice

    Protests in Ferguson, Mo. led to investigations that uncovered a deeply problematic justice system that pulled thousands of people into a web of criminal justice debt and aggressive debt collection practices. Among those harsh enforcement practices: Driver’s license suspension for failure to pay court-imposed debts.  Using driver’s license suspension to enforce debt payment is not unique to Ferguson. Today, driver’s license suspensions are a frequently used tool to enforce collection of criminal justice debt.

    Criminal justice debt” refers to the accumulation of fees and fines that a defendant acquires while being processed through the justice system. Fees and fines may be imposed for anything from restitution to make the victim whole to punitive fines designed to deter future wrongdoings. Most commonly, courts impose user fees to recover operating costs. These fees are imposed at various stages throughout the process; including charges for bookings, jail stays, prosecution, public defense and probation services.

    Fees and fines do not disappear once a person has been convicted and incarcerated. Rather, those costs linger. When combined with other debts most people face – credit card debt, child support and insurance payments, for example – the additional costs of criminal justice debt can be difficult or impossible to pay. In California alone, there is more than $10 billion in uncollected, court-ordered debt.

    Enter collection enforcement, such as suspension of a driver’s license. It is growing in popularity. In 2010, the Brennan Center reported that at least eight of the 15 states with the largest prison populations suspended licenses based on missed debt payments: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. At least four states suspended licenses for failure to appear in court for an arrest warrant, the underlying cause being failure to pay debts.  In the Lone Star state, individuals convicted of a drug offense have their licenses suspended for 180 days. In Florida, a drug conviction leads to license suspension for one year. Nationally, 40 percent of license suspensions are for unpaid traffic tickets, unpaid child support and drug offenses.