Thursday, July 30, 2015

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president's visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the third in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 3: Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 People in Prison for Drug Offenses

As part of this WPR story, Cardin mentioned that Monday July 13th, President Obama announced that he was going to commute the sentences for 46 Americans in prison for drug offenses. A Wisconsin man was one of those chosen to have his sentence commuted. Obama noted that punishments for these individuals did not fit their crimes. For nonviolent drug offenses, many were sentenced to at least 20 years in prison, and 14 were sentenced to life in prison.

President Obama framed this act in terms of second chances by saying: "I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances." He expressed a similar sentiment in his letters to those whose sentences had been commuted by saying:
I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better. So good luck, and godspeed.
Watch the video of Obama's announcement below.
To read a New York Times article about this announcement click here.
To listen to the WPR interview click here.
To read Douglas Berman's Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president's visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the second in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 2: The Wisconsin Connection 

Minority Incarceration Rates by State (2012)
Image and stats from UW-Milwaukee
Wisconsin's incarceration rate for minorities is 12.8%, which is approximately double the nation as a whole and more than three percent higher than the next highest state, Oklahoma. Joy Cardin related this information to Berman and asked what might cause Wisconsin's numbers to be so high. He mentioned the Truth in Sentencing Law and the "war on drugs" as possibilities. 

As Berman explained, the Truth in Sentencing Law was proposed with equality in mind. The idea being that it would stop racial bias in deciding who would be granted parole. Statistics showed that white offenders were being granted parole in higher numbers than minority offenders. With the Truth in Sentencing Law the sentence given would be the sentence served. This way all offenders would be treated equally. However, Berman further explained, that the law just shifted the inequality from who was granted parole to the actual sentencing. The rules attached to the law are complicated. To receive a shorter sentence, it is almost necessary to have a skilled, invested lawyer. Defendants who cannot afford the kind of legal help necessary receive longer sentences. They receive longer sentences not because they have committed a worse crime, but because the are less equipped in the court room.

Similarly he explained, the "war on drugs," particularly the minimum sentencing laws related to crack cocaine, has disproportionately put African Americans behind bars. Berman said that the ratio is 9:1 for African Americans who are brought in to federal court for crack offenses. 

To read an NPR article about Wisconsin's incarceration of minorities click here.
To listen to the WPR interview click here.
To read Douglas Berman's Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president's visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 1: Obama Visits a Federal Prison

El Reno Correctional Institution, Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons
With his remaining time in office, President Obama is working to improve the criminal justice system. On Thursday July 16th, he visited a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. During the visit he met with six inmates. In addition to traveling to Oklahoma to talk about criminal justice reform, President Obama also stopped in  Philadelphia to speak at an NAACP conference. At he conference he expressed his concern for the number of Americans in prison and how much it is costing the country. He said:
We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and to rehabilitate individuals.
During his radio interview, Berman praised Obama for paying attention to this issue, as he feels that it is overdue. While he praised Obama for his efforts to make the criminal justice system more fair for the over-represented African Americans and Latinos in prison, Berman is hoping the president also works to correct the socioeconomic inequality, as poor people are also over-represented in prison.

Much of what Berman talks about in this interview is how criminal justice reform is being championed by both Democrats and Republicans. He explained Democrats have been connected to the issue because of their concern with racial disparities and mass incarceration. However in recent years more Republicans are expressing concerns about the racial disparities and how much mass incarceration costs taxpayers, particularly without much taxpayer benefit.

To read an NPR article about the president's visit to the federal prison click here.
To listen to the WPR interview click here.
To read Douglas Berman's Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Acknowledging Our History: Commemorating Lynched Americans

Bryan Stevenson, helped erect this marker in Montgomery, Ala.
Photo by John M. Glionna, originally from LA Times
The recent Los Angeles Times article "Civil rights lawyer seeks to commemorate another side of southern heritage: Lynchings" profiles Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative's work to place memorial markers at lynching sites across the southern United States.

As a part of EJI's Race and Poverty Project, Stevenson has been traveling around the south talking to city officials to gain support to put up the commemorative markers. He has started out in predominately African American communities and acknowledges that there are some places where white residents may push back on the idea. He argues that to truly achieve racial equality we have to talk about our whole history, even the painful parts, such as lynchings. 

As another part of the Race and Poverty Project, EJI conducted a multi-year investigation about lynchings of African Americans in the American south. As a result of the investigation, EJI published a report of their findings called Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.  The report documents nearly 4,000 lynchings, or as EJI explains "systemic domestic terrorism" incidents, between 1877 and 1950 across 12 southern states.

To read the Los Angeles Times article "Civil rights lawyer seeks to commemorate another side of southern heritage: Lynchings" click here.

To read a summary of EJI's Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror click here

For more information about EJI's Race and Poverty project click here.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Understanding the Legacy of Racial Injustice

This week, on July 7th, the Equal Justice Initiative released an animated film Slavery to Mass Incarceration. The film is narrated by Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson and features art from Molly Crabapple. In just under six minutes Stevenson and Crabapple tell the story of how the enslavement of African people has evolved to mass incarceration of African Americans today. The film points out that an African American person is six times more likely to be sentenced to prison for the same crime as a white person. And that one in three black men born today can expect to spend some time in prison. With this film EJI hopes to engage people in the conversation about this injustice in the United States and help move the country forward.

Slavery to Mass Incarceration was created as a part of Equal Justice Initiative's Race and Poverty Project. As EJI explains, the Race and Poverty project "explores racial history and uses innovative teaching tools to deepen our understanding of the legacy of racial injustice."

Watch the film below.


To read more about EJI's Race and Poverty Project click here.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bryan Stevenson: winner of the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for nonfiction

On Saturday, June 27th, at the annual American Library Association conference, Bryan Stevenson was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for nonfiction for his book Just Mercy.

The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were established by the American Library Association in 2012 to recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year. The winners (one for fiction, one for nonfiction) are announced at the ALA Annual Conference. Winning authors receive a $5,000 cash award and two finals in each category receive $1,500. The winner is chosen by a seven-member selection committee of library professionals from across the country who work closely with adult readers.

The awards were created in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The awards were created during the foundations's centennial and in recognition of Andrew Carnegie's deep belief in the power of books and learning to change the world.

On winning the award Stevenson had this to say: "I'm pretty overwhelmed. I'm thankful to you, for creating a space where something like this can happen to someone like me."

He also spoke about libraries and books: "[They] get you to do some things and understand some things that you can't otherwise understand. I wrote this book  because I was persuaded that if people saw what I see [regarding mass incarceration], they would insist on something being different."

Watch a brief interview with Bryan Stevenson about winning the Andrew Carnegie Medal below.


To read more about the award ceremony click here.
For more information about the Andrew Carnegie Medal click here.
Find past winners of the Andrew Carnegie Medal here.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Helping the Poor in the Criminal Justice System

Image from The Constitution Project
One of the focuses of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative's work is helping the poor in the United States criminal justice system. Stevenson has asserted that in our current criminal justice system wealthy people fair better than poor people. The Constitution Project, a non-profit organization that works to build bipartisan consensus on significant constitutional and legal questions, explores this disparity in their film Defending Gideon.

In the film, the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright case is highlighted. As a result of the case the United States Supreme Court ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases when defendants are unable to pay. According to Defending Gideon, 80% of people accused of a crime today cannot afford a lawyer. However the law is not perfect.  As was pointed out by Huntsville Times columnist, Stephen Stetson, in an editorial: "Federal law requires the states to provide attorneys for the poor, but it doesn't specify how." What this means is that all states are not created equal when it comes to appointing lawyers to defendants. In the film, Bryan Stevenson explains the problem this way:
 Rights and even court decisions don't necessarily turn into realities for the people who are the intended beneficiaries, without implementation.
He further points out that problems with implementation are often structural. Some examples he points out are some states have too many cases, but not enough resources, some states appoint lawyers but don't give lawyers adequate compensation so the lawyers are less able to prepare an adequate defense, and some states hire contract lawyers where the state bids on who will do the most cases for the least amount of money. Stevenson and The Constitution Project argue that these kinds of systems are flawed and disadvantage the poor.

To watch Defending Gideon click here.
To learn more about the Constitution Project click here.
To read Stephen Stetson's Huntsville Times editorial click here.

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