Nkechi Taifa

  • November 12, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The New York Times, Gregory B. Craig and Cliff Sloan argue that President Obama does not need Congress’s permission to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

    At The Intercept, Jordan Smith and Micah Lee report on a major breach of security at Securus Technologies that resulted in the leak of over 70 million prison phone call records. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, contends that “this may be the most massive breach of the attorney-client privilege in modern U.S. history.”

    On Tuesday, Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism towards Tyson Foods, Inc.’s challenge to a nearly $5.8 million class action suit, writes Lawrence Hurley in Reuters. ACS Board Member David Frederick is representing the plaintiffs in the case.

    Nkechi Taifa will receive the 2015 Cornelius R. “Neil” Alexander Humanitarian Award from the D.C. Commission on Human Rights at the 5th Annual Commission on Human Rights Awards on Dec. 9.

  • September 16, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

     “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist, except as punishment for a crime ….”  This criminal punishment exception to the 13th Amendment is all the more brazen when one considers the inhumanity of lengthy prison sentences today – often handed out in assembly-line fashion, and dispensed more often to Blacks. Although we call our system a criminal justice system, its focus is punishment and it punishes very severely.  Punishment’s correlation to enslavement remains in the Constitution and, as such, must be closely scrutinized.

    As a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project in the 1980s, I often cited in my conditions of confinement briefs Chief Justice Warren’s notable 1957 quote in Trop v. Dulles. His statement heralded the importance of considering the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This principle recognizes a people’s moral growth due to advancements in attitude and approaches.

    During the height of the war on drugs with mandatory minimum sentences firmly in vogue, unnecessarily long sentences were robotically meted out with seemingly callous abandon.  Shocking punishments over the past 30 years of 10, 20, 30 years and life imprisonment for drug offenses hardly raised an eyebrow. These commonplace sentences snatched mothers from children, men from loved ones, and furthered the destabilization of families and communities. Such punishments should offend our society’s standard of decency. 

    But they have not.  

    In 1991 the Supreme Court ruled in Harmelin v. Michigan that mandatory life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the 8th Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment because, although the punishment was cruel, it was not unusual. It sounds ludicrous and left many of us flabbergasted.

    The twisted rationale reminded me of McClesky v. Kemp, decided a few years earlier in 1987. There the Court declined to provide relief in a death penalty case despite overwhelming evidence of racial bias because the justices feared that the floodgates would be opened to widespread racial challenges in other parts of criminal sentencing as well.   

    Lengthy sentences are cruel, but they are usual. Systemic racism exists, but that is the norm. Fortunately, since Harmelin, the Supreme Court has seen fit to use the 8th Amendment to ban the beating by prison guards of a handcuffed prisoner (Hudson v. McMillian, 1992); to prohibit the execution of a mentally retarded person (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002); to bar the execution of a prisoner for crimes committed while a minor (Roper v. Simmons, 2005); and to abolish life without parole for minors who commit non-homicidal crimes (Graham v. Florida, 2010).

  • June 19, 2015
    Guest Post

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

    *This post originally appeared on Open Society Voices

    My soul is heavy. A young white man walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire, killing nine black parishioners gathered in prayer. A grandmother said she had to play dead to shield her five-year-old grandchild from slaughter. A prominent state senator, who was also a pastor, was leading Wednesday night Bible study when he was gunned down, along with an 87-year-old elder. 

    This massacre was an act of terrorism, pure and simple. For African Americans in this country today, it seems there is no sanctuary anywhere.

    This is not a good time to be black in America. According to one analysis released this week, African Americans are killed at 12 times the rate of people in other developed countries around the world. But when has there ever been a good time to be black in America? We survived slavery and lynchings; weathered the Klan, the Birmingham church bombing and Bull Connor’s dogs; and were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for this? As Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” My soul is heavy today.

    The issue of race and racial justice must take center stage in this country. We can no longer hide from it, or sweep it under the rug. We cannot be scared to insert it into reports and commissions and legislative initiatives. We must courageously confront it, embrace it, do whatever it takes, and heal. People of African descent in the U.S. have endured hardship and tragedy far too long.

    The tragedy at the Emanuel AME Church was not about one lone young white man. This is about centuries of systemic oppression, repression, and yes, terrorism. 

    At the Open Society Foundations, we work to combat prejudice, and to change the racial narrative in this country. We work to flush implicit bias out of the shadows, confront it, and change attitudes. We work to end the system of mass incarceration that tears so many families and communities apart, and affects black people disproportionately. We demand better policing, in the name of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and countless others. We work to make this society more inclusive, to challenge inequality of opportunity, to improve life outcomes for all men and women of color.

  • April 16, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Kanya Bennett and Nkechi Taifa. Bennett is the Legislative Counsel at American Civil Liberties Union, and Taifa is the Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society Foundations.

    “The FOP does not disagree that there is a need for civil asset forfeiture revision.” That is what the Fraternal Order of Police said at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary hearing on civil asset forfeiture. And when Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked if FOP stood by those words, the response was “absolutely” – even though FOP’s testimony suggested otherwise.

    Grassley even offered him some advice, saying that, now is “not the time to oppose needed reforms,” in light of national headlines on police violence

    This should make it clear to everyone that the time is ripe for federal reform. Though work remains to convince some that community policing instead of “slush funds” must be law enforcement’s number one priority, we should be optimistic.

    Grassley said “legislation is necessary” and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) believes that “we can come together on a bipartisan basis to fix what is broken.”  

    For months there has been national discourse around civil asset forfeiture and all that is uncivil about it. Members on both sides of the aisle – and organizations across the spectrum – are demanding reform. And rightfully so. 

    Civil asset forfeiture gives law enforcement the power to take property away from someone who has not been convicted of a crime. And this property can be cash, cars, homes, and anything else – like a “simple gold cross” – that law enforcement believes is connected to a crime. Yes, a woman had her gold cross necklace seized when she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation!

    And just how does one go about getting a necklace … or money, or car, or house back? Well, often they don’t. Due process requirements don’t require judicial hearings. More than 60 percent of federal forfeitures were uncontested over the past few years.  

    When property owners do get notice and muster the courage to go up against the government, they find the deck is stacked against them. Property owners bear the cost of going to court and the burden of proving their property’s “innocence.” And in almost all instances, property owners are not entitled to counsel.

    So, what is driving this practice that sounds unfair, unjust, and un-American? How is it that we still have this “thorn in the side of civil liberties?” Civil asset forfeiture is big business for law enforcement at all levels – federal, state, and local. The practice generates billions of dollars annually and law enforcement is permitted to keep the assets it seizes. 

  • March 14, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Kanya Bennett, Director of Policy Development and Programming at the American Constitution Society, Angelyn Frazer, State Legislative Affairs Director at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society Foundations
     
    In 1989, five African American and Latino boys were wrongly convicted of a heinous crime committed in New York City’s Central Park. Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon document their story in The Central Park Five. As PBS describes, The Central Park Five documentary “raises important questions about race and class, the failings of our criminal justice system, legal protections for vulnerable juveniles, and basic human rights.”
     
    And these “important questions” were certainly raised at the February 26th screening of the film hosted by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Open Society Foundations (OSF), and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS). How could our criminal justice system fail on so many different levels, with law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys falling short? Decades later, why do young men of color remain vulnerable to the same fate as the Central Park Five? Can we point to criminal justice reform that will prevent another case like the Central Park Five?
     
    The Central Park Five featured our criminal justice system at its very worst. The police, with great help from the media, made vulnerable juveniles of color the poster children for violent criminal activities or what they coined a “wilding,” a narrative they held on to even when the evidence suggested another story. Prosecutors played detectives and advanced their case against the boys using this flimsy support. And a lawyer whose job it was to poke holes in the district attorney’s assertions allegedly fell asleep, almost every day, during trial.