Criminal Justice

  • February 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

     

    “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

    “I can’t breathe.”

    “Black lives matter.”

    These are the now ubiquitous chants, hashtags and mantras that stand as succinct and eloquent expressions of the current crisis in race and criminal justice.  They also effectively capture the struggle for racial justice throughout our nation’s history and embody a call to action.  Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” reminds us that while some have the capacity to devalue and destroy life, a gesture of surrender can also become a symbol of strength.

    “I can’t breathe” speaks to the poignant frailty of human life and the way in which violence intended to silence can instead embolden the oppressed.  And “black lives matter” is a profound reminder of the important work that remains to be done in order to achieve true racial justice in our country.

    “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

    On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Witnesses stated that Mr. Brown’s hands were up in surrender before he was killed.  Although this testimony later faced scrutiny and contradiction, the indication that a law enforcement officer responded to non-violence with lethal force struck a dangerously tender nerve that ignited a wave of protests across the country.  The public skepticism – and anger – about the criminal justice system’s treatment of Black people was compounded by the Missouri grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict the officer that shot and killed Mr. Brown.

    This image of a White police officer using lethal force against a Black man in surrender is powerfully evocative of past events.  Almost 50 years ago – on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965 – state troopers in Selma, Alabama, violently assaulted 600 unarmed men, women and children who peacefully attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to draw national attention to their fight to participate in the political process.  Law enforcement officers clubbed, spat-on, whipped and trampled with horses the protesters who had stopped to pray.

    Then, as now, this image of police answering non-violence with violence shocked and horrified the nation.  In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress about the importance of voting rights; the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. secured an order allowing the march to proceed safely; and the Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965.

    Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” speaks to not just the police brutality currently plaguing Black communities, but also the power of collective, strategic organizing and legal action.

  • February 11, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jennifer Carreon, M.S.C.J., Policy Researcher, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Sarah Bryer, National Juvenile Justice Network

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

     

    In the past decade, there has been a lot of good news in the field of juvenile justice reform – not least the series of four landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that, beginning with Roper v. Simmons in 2005, recognized the developmental differences that separate children and teens from adults, including their lessened culpability and enormous capacity for change.  At the same time, most states have significantly cut the number of youth they incarcerate.  Between 2001 and 2011, the number of youth confined in the U.S. declined by 41 percent.

    What’s more, new data from Texas shows that incarcerating fewer youth and serving more of them in the community makes communities safer.  Since 2007, the state has closed nine youth prisons, even as the juvenile arrest rate fell to a 30-year low.  In a report released at the end of January, the Council of State Government’s (CSG) Justice Center analyzed 1.3 million individual case records spanning eight years and assembled from three state agencies.  CSG found that youth who were incarcerated were 21% more likely to recidivate than youth handled locally.

    But it’s not time to break out the champagne yet: In spite of a decade of reform, racial disparities are worse than ever.  A new national study looking at racial and ethnic disparities between 1980 and 2000 found that Black and Hispanic boys were far more likely to be sent to a secure facility than white boys for similar behavior.  In the U.S. in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), Black youth were incarcerated five times as often as White youth; Latino youth twice as often; Native American youth three times as often.  If we think of the juvenile justice system as a maze with pathways in and out, it’s clear that youth of color have far more pathways into the maze than White youth do, and they’re lucky to find a pathway out.

    Even in states where significant juvenile justice reforms have been undertaken, the ratio of youth of color receiving dispositions in juvenile court has gotten worse, not better.  In Texas – where the CSG report provides powerful evidence that youth justice reform has produced promising results – one sees disproportionate numbers of youth of color at every decision point in the system, and with Black youth in particular, who appear at almost twice the rate one would expect compared to their numbers in the general population.

  • February 11, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Most Americans are aware that black people in the South were frequently subjected to public executions by white mobs during the Reconstruction era, but the true extent of this practice was not known until very recently.  Yesterday, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents 3,959 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.  The report is significant not just because it found evidence of approximately 700 more lynchings than previously recorded, but also because it reveals the true nature of lynchings and their effect on the African American community and society as a whole – then and now.

    The report notes that lynchings were not merely public hangings, but rather involved severe forms of torture, including castration, dismemberment, flaying and burning.  In addition, lynchings were not typically spur-of-the-moment acts of vigilante justice, but were celebrated events – ceremonious spectacles often attended by the entire white community of a town, including prominent public officials, and written about in the town newspaper.  Those who participated in lynchings did not wear disguises or cover their faces, but no white participant was ever convicted of murder for engaging in the practice.

    Importantly, EJI’s report investigates the role that lynchings played in society during this time, finding that lynchings constituted a form of racial terror used to keep black people subjugated.  A lynching victim was typically accused of a crime – often of raping a white woman – or of a minor offense such as speaking improperly to a white person or wearing a military uniform in public.  Then, without due process, he (or sometimes she) was ritualistically and publicly murdered.  Because the accusations were usually obvious pretense and because white perpetrators were never punished for their actions, lynchings had a deep psychological impact on the black community and also created a culture in which black lives were viewed as unimportant and not valuable.

    EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said, “[t]he geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed.”

    Contact EJI for the full-length report or read the report summary here.

  • February 10, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether America is now a “post-racial” society.  The introduction of the first non-white family into the White House was accompanied by some enthusiastic declarations of victory over the scourge of racism.  Observers looked to the president and to other successful minorities and decided that yes, racism is indeed over.

    But focusing on the most successful elements of any demographic group proves little, for wealth has the ability to elevate and to insulate.  One area where this is most evident is in the American criminal justice system.  When navigating the justice system, the ability to hire top-notch legal counsel or to post a significant bond drastically affects the outcome of a case.  This is true for both white citizens and for citizens of color.

    Unfortunately, however, racial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color.  There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

    The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system.  From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white.

  • 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.