Monday, April 22, 2013

Letter from Chemung County Jail

By Zerline Hughes

Criminal justice reform work is not usually synonymous with that of environmental reform but when I caught site of a piece today, I was taken aback.

Now, I'm not the most environmental person. I don't have three separate trash receptacles in my home but I teach my children to not toss trash out of the car window. We practice keeping our community clean and are often involved with community clean ups in our Washington, DC neighborhood where our neighbors are not so invested in such things. I don't do much more, though.
Image part of a children's climate change competition.

So, when Googling for "Earth Day" and "prison" issues, I happened upon this Ithaca Journal submission written by Ithaca-area activist and professor, Dr. Sandra Steingraber. She and 11 others, dubbed the Seneca Lake 12, were protesting fracking - drilling and injecting fluid into the ground to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside - at Inergy, natural gas storage facility. Because they were trespassing, Dr. Steingraber was one of the protesters arrested and sentenced to pay a fine or serve 15 days in jail in the Chemung County Jail in Elmira, NY. She opted for the latter.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Interrupting the Prison Pipeline through the D.C. Child Welfare System

By Katie Ishizuka

Last week, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released the fourth and final brief in a series addressing ways in which youth outcomes in the District can be improved to decrease justice system involvement and increase public safety. The brief, entitled Fostering Change: How Investing in D.C.’s Child Welfare System Can Keep Kids Out of the Prison Pipeline, focuses on youth involved in the District’s child welfare system. 

District youth may become involved with the child welfare system for a number of reasons, with the top two being neglect and physical abuse. The third highest reason for youth entering foster care is now parental incarceration: a collateral consequence of D.C. possessing one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

The majority of these youth are in poverty and residing in Wards (7 and 8) facing economic, social and political exclusion and disinvestment. Ninety-nine percent are African American or Latino. They are 30% more likely to commit violent crime, 59% more likely to be arrested as juveniles and 28% more likely to be arrested as adults if they have experienced maltreatment. One in six has an incarcerated parent and almost half will not graduate high school of those in foster care. Most have experienced multiple forms of trauma and for those currently or previously involved in the child welfare system, the leading cause of death is violent homicide by gunshot.

Put another way, this is an extremely vulnerable group of youth facing individual, family, neighborhood and systemic barriers. While the District’s public child welfare agency, Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), is tasked with ensuring the safety and well-being of these youth, no single agency or system can do this alone. Improving youth outcomes is reliant upon the strengths and collaboration of all youth-serving systems, including the education, employment and mental health systems. Recommendations on how these systems can be supported can be found in JPI’s first three briefs: Mindful of the Consequences:How Improving the Mental Health of D.C. Youth Benefits the District; Workingfor a Better Future: How expanding employment opportunities for D.C’s youthcreates public safety benefits for all residents; and The Education of D.C.:How Washington D.C.’s investments in education can help increase public safety.

In addition, optimizing youth outcomes is reliant upon neighborhood and community investments in the areas of D.C. with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment, including Wards 5, 7 and 8. The Wards in which people have the ability to get work and provide for their families are the Wards with the lowest child welfare system involvement and lowest justice system involvement.

More information on solutions with the capacity to promote the short and long-term safety, well-being and permanency of the District’s vulnerable youth; save on foster care, criminal justice and human costs; enhance social justice and increase public safety can be found in Fostering Change

Katie Ishizuka is a JPI research intern and co-author of Fostering Change: How Investing in D.C.'s Child Welfare System Can Keep Kids Out of the Prison Pipeline. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Do you remember the Central Park Five?

By Adwoa Masozi
In 1989 I was six; too young to know that in New York City, a half hour from my New Jersey home, a political lynching of five African-American boys was taking place in full view of the American public by the justice system and national media. These young men-- Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam—have come to be known as the Central Park Five. Each of these young boys were falsely accused and wrongly convicted for the 1989 rape and brutalization of a white woman jogger in Central Park. 

I asked my dad, who now is 60 years old, what he remembers about that case when it first hit the news. He recounts the story well. 

“Well, at first I believed what they said. Five young black kids attacked a white woman in the park. Donald Trump was out there making statements about it. No one knew who the woman was—it was kept quiet, but they were parading the kids around on the TV.” 

Before I could get my next question in he added,
“They were being interviewed without the parents being there, which was illegal. You can easily scare young children into saying what you want.”

Q: How do you think the media helped to influence public opinion on the case?
“The media reported what the police said. At the time there was no solid evidence. The media was going to be biased because it was a white woman and they always want to promote stories of when black males rape a white female. It’s a quintessential case of stereotyping.”

Q: When did you stop believing they were guilty?
“The prosecutors and the detectives kept denying the guilt of the confessor. The guy who did it admitted he did it and the prosecutors and the detectives insisted he was lying.”

Q: What was the role of the white woman?
“She wasn’t interviewed too much; if I remember right her memory was messed up.  You never heard her story, they kept it quiet. I believe she had memory loss.”

Thanks daddy.
His name is Keith J. Burnam Sr.

The film produced by documentarian Ken Burns based on this case, and named after it, The Central Park Five, will debut this evening at 9 PM on PBS. And I look forward to watching it. I want to know all their stories, because there were six victims--not just one--in this case. Was the outcome of their trials because of a biased jury or did it also have something to do with the quality of their representation—who represented them? Was it the cops involved or the media? Why didn’t it matter that they were children? Where were their parents? How does the nation make amends to the wrongfully convicted?

Perhaps, the greater tragedy here is that this case is not isolated—far from it. This story has played out again and again in the cases of the Scottsboro Boys, Susan Smith, Emmett Till, and a host of others that don’t always get national recognition. 

While racism is less conspicuous these days, it remains an effective agent suffuse throughout all systems servicing or penalizing the American public. Whether we’re talking education, healthcare, employment, housing or justice—disparities in who has the most and least access cuts clear across the board.

Sarah Burns, author of The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, puts it best, “These young men were convicted long before the trial, by a city blinded by fear and, equally, freighted by race. They were convicted because it was all too easy for people to see them as violent criminals simply because of the color of their skin."

Adwoa Masozi is the Communications Associate at JPI.

Friday, April 12, 2013

CCA: In Need of New Direction

By Tosin Oyekoya

Last month, Corrections Corporation of America promoted Kim White, an African-American woman, as their Vice President, Correctional Programs Division. She formerly served as Managing Director, Inmate Programs and served more than 25 years with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

After seeing posts about the manner in which CCA decided to celebrate Black History Month in February, I’m hoping her presence will slow down CCA’s efforts on doing such a thing again.
Image featured on ACLU's Feb. 8 blog.
If you weren’t made privy to the campaign I'm speaking of, let me update you. CCA celebrated Black History Month with blog posts remembering Rosa Parks and posted Facebook trivia contests about the contributions of African-American musicians. Evidently, CCA must have forgotten that they are the largest private corrections company in the United States and manage more than 60 facilities with a designed capacity of 90,000 beds.

How ironic is it that this company, celebrating Black History Month, is making $1.7 billion annually off of the incarceration of people of color?

The concept of privately-owned companies making profit from incarcerating human beings is absurd to begin with. It incarcerates more African Americans than any other private prison company. It spends millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to ensure their facilities stay full.

Overall according to NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated populations nationwide- federal, state, and private. African Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons. Also one in six black men has been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. In some states, like Illinois, African Americans are eight times more likely to be incarcerated for a petty drug offense than white people, even though African Americans and white people consume and distribute drugs at similar rates, according to the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fulfilling Gideon's Promise

By Spike Bradford

Image courtesy Blue Mass Group / Project Legal
We have all heard the mandated Miranda warning in numerous television shows and films. Officers are required to tell accused people,“if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you,” and we assume it to be true; that indigent defense is one of the glorious benefits of our system that so highly values equal treatment under the law. However, the reality of indigent defense is often as different as real life is from most of those shows and movies.

This week, the Brennan Center for Justice released Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel
, a report describing a justice system that continues to provide poor defendants with substandard or non-existent counsel at trial and recommending several solutions to bring our courts in line with the 1963 Supreme Court ruling in the Gideon v. Wainwright case. That ruling found that accused people who are deemed unable to afford legal representation have a right to have that representation provided for them by the state, the same promise given by the Miranda warning.

Gideon at 50
asserts that the ruling basically produced an unfunded mandate that many jurisdictions have been unable or unwilling to meet. Many poor defendants—as many as 90 percent qualify for public defense, according to the American Bar Association—choose to accept unfair plea agreements or to face the court with inadequate representation. Public defenders are notoriously overworked and underpaid, often through statutes that cap their pay – we make note of this in our 2011 report, System Overload: The Costs of Under-Resourcing Public Defense. The situation has helped to feed our current historically high prison population and costs counties, states and communities dearly.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mainstream Film Highlights Mandatory Minimum Sentencing and Snitching

By Tosin Oyekoya
Snitch,” a film released late last month, tells the story of a John Matthews, a father who goes undercover for the DEA in order to free his son who was imprisoned after a drug deal setup. Matthews, played by superstar Dwayne Johnson, was willing to go over and beyond to prevent his teenage son, Jason Collins, played by Rafi Gavron, from serving 10 years in prison under mandatory-sentencing laws for having made one unintelligent mistake. He ill-advisedly accepted delivery of a box full of ecstasy as a favor for a friend. The film displayed him as a good kid who lived in a suburban area. His parents were both hard workers; his father owned a shipping company.

This movie – based on a true story – addresses two issues within the criminal justice system. The first issue is mandatory minimum sentencing. Mandatory sentences are predetermined sentences for certain categories of offenses, mainly drug-related and gun-related crimes. Under this sentencing policy, people must serve a minimum number of years in prison. These laws are enacted by state legislators that require judges to give fixed prison terms to those convicted of specific crimes. These laws prevent judges from considering other relevant factors, such as the defendant’s role in the offense or likelihood of committing a future offense.

A first-time drug offender will get a 10-year mandatory minimum without chance of parole in the federal system which is what Jason in the movie faced. Mandatory minimum sentencing forces plea bargains out of the accused. The threat of a mandatory prison term means that some people arrested for relatively low-level drug offenses feel compelled to plead down and serve a prison sentence, even though the root cause of the offense may be low-level drug sales to sustain a habit, while treatment may be a more appropriate course. Another criticism of mandatory minimum sentencing is that it is too harsh. The crime committed is not worth the amount of years taken from the offender and further causes prison overcrowding, yet another issue.