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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Monday, June 15, 2015

Nevada Ends Life Without Parole For Children


Map from Wikipedia 
At the end of May, Nevada became the 13th state to end life without parole sentences for offenders younger than 18. The bill was sponsored by Nevada Assembly Speaker John Hambrick, a Republican from Las Vegas, Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson, a Republican from Las Vegas, and Assemblyman Pat Hickey, a Republican from Reno. The bill was passed by the state Legislature with a unanimous vote.

James Dold, an advocate for this legislation from the nonprofit organization Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth had this to say: "Finally, Nevada law has caught up and recognizes that children are different than adults and those differences need to be taken into account." The law goes into effect on October 1, 2015.

For more information click here.

To read more about the nonprofit organization the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth click here.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Prison Built On Second Chances

 Photo of a Halden Prison cell from STR/Reuters /Landov

This past weekend NPR published a story about an unconventional prison in Norway. The maximum security prison in Halden, Norway houses murderers, rapists, drug smugglers, and in one prison operator's words "everything" else. However, like Bryan Stevenson, the prison's operators want to give the inmates a second chance. The prison's mission makes two things very clear. First, the prisoners are not bad people, they just did bad things. And second, the prisoners are not in prison to be punished, they are there to serve time. As one of the employees of the prison said:
Anybody can change their lives with the right kind of help, guidance, giving them a chance.
Prisoners have their own private cells furnished with a bed, desk, TV, and refrigerator. They are locked in their cells for 12 hours a day, compared to the 23 hours a day the would be locked in their cells for the same offenses in the United States. One inmate who was in the Halden Prison for murder, had this to say about why that kind of prison does not work:
If they lock me up 23 hours a day, if an officer come open my door, I kick his [butt], because why should I not? I'm locked up 23 hours a day anyway," he says. "But they treat me with respect, they give me opportunities and trust, and I want to show that I'm worthy.
The prison offers inmates a second chance with counseling, classes, and workshops to learn useful skills, like welding. However, if the inmates do not cooperate they are sent to more conventional prisons. So far this prison, focused on rehabilitation, has less than 30% of released prisoners commit crimes again.

To read or listen to the NPR story click here.

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