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Will Campaign 2020 Promote Or Undermine Criminal Justice Reform?

When mass incarceration in America gets political attention, it’s often so the issue can be used as a cudgel to attack opponents. Thus, the president Twitter-shames former Vice President Joe Biden for his role in promoting the 1994 crime bill even as Donald Trump’s own history of hounding the Central Park Five is highlighted in “When They See Us,” director Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries on the teens accused, convicted, imprisoned, and eventually exonerated.

When Democrats and Republicans cooperated on a criminal justice reform bill late last year that made modest changes in the federal system, they congratulated themselves for getting something done in gridlocked Washington.

But it hardly solved the problem. That’s the message of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI. “The presidential election will be important setting the tone,” he told me at a recent appearance in Charlotte. “The hard work has to happen in North Carolina, in the state legislature on issues like sentencing, on issues like prisons, on issues like excessive punishment, and that’s true for every state in the country.”

We are at a time when the idea of punishment has overwhelmed the concept of rehabilitation, Stevenson said, as the U.S. prison population has grown since the 1970s from 300,000 to 2.3 million, with 6 million on probation or parole and 70 million with an arrest history, and “no one seems bothered by it.”

According to its mission statement, EJI is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

Stevenson spoke of the children caught in the system, of the pipeline “from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse,” and of a reaction to crime that lowered the minimum age of trying children as adults, with sentences that could mean life without possibility of parole. “They will change,” he said. “That’s what being a child means.”

Though politicians have often touted their “law and order” bona fides and have been hesitant to step away from that image with policy that could make opponents question their toughness, the December bipartisan legislation was a “First Step,” as the bill was called, to address inequities that disproportionately affect African Americans, minorities and the poor.

In his criminal justice work, Stevenson said he has seen the results tragically play out as he represents the accused in a system that treats you better “if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent” and when he brings appeals before judges “more committed to finality than they are to fairness.”

In the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, many have listened to their party’s base and floated criminal justice proposals to build on last year’s bill, including Sen. Cory Booker’s “Next Step Act.” Booker tweeted about his plan’s sweeping reforms, which include eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, ending the federal prohibition on marijuana, expunging records and reinvesting in the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.

It also includes a provision to reinstate the right to vote in federal elections for formerly incarcerated individuals. “Blacks are more than four times as likely than whites to have their voting rights revoked because of a criminal conviction,” Booker noted.

That last issue made headlines when Florida Republicans, after the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved returning voting rights to former felons who served their sentences, proposed limits that would first require payments of all fees and fines, a caveat that would keep many disenfranchised, a move that some Democratic lawmakers compared to Jim Crow tactics, such as poll taxes.

Stevenson also drew a line from America’s history of white supremacy to its treatment of African Americans in the justice system, in a nation that could get comfortable with two and a half centuries of slavery and that, when it came to its Native American population, kept so many place names derived from their languages but “made the people leave.”

His Charlotte appearance was sponsored by the Levine Museum of the New South, which is exhibiting, through July 17, “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America.” It’s a collaboration with EJI and its Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Slavery did not end, it just evolved,” said Stevenson, who has testified in cases that deal with, for example, racial bias in jury selection.

As Stevenson noted, important action is taking place in the states, with New Hampshire recently becoming the latest to abolish the death penalty. “While it will be important to hear how our candidates for president address these issues, it will be more important that we ask our state representatives to think about this problem of over incarceration, too many people in jails and prisons in states like North Carolina who are not a threat to public safety,” he said. “We spend a lot of money on jails and prisons that could go into education and health and human services and support for people who are vulnerable.”

And the voices of the vulnerable too often are the ones least heard in a noisy presidential political season. Yet Stevenson has hope. “Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

IMAGE: Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.


Support Criminal Justice Reform? Then You’re with Kaepernick

The most interesting part of Super Bowl LIII wasn’t watching the game; it was seeing the celebrity seas part over former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick’s ostracization from the NFL.

Megastars Cardi B and Rihanna, activist Shaun King, actress Piper Perabo, and award-winning director Ava Duvernay all boycotted the event and indicated their support for the former 49ers quarterback, many tweeting #ImWithKap. It was the usual lineup of the social justice varsity.

Not only have each of those people positioned themselves against police brutality specifically, they’ve aligned themselves with criminal justice reform generally. Kaepernick’s ban from the NFL crystallizes one of the most important aspects of reform, and it’s not simply free speech or the abuse of black bodies. It’s the need for redemption and re-entry.

To me, whether or not you agree with Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality isn’t at issue. The NFL decreed that his taking a knee during the national anthem was wrong, and now Kaepernick’s facing lifetime punishment and lack of employment for that allegedly bad behavior.

It’s no different than the discrimination faced by poorer black men when they have to reveal past bad decisions on job applications by checking the “felony conviction” box. They are being kept out of an economy because they committed an offense.

Michelle Alexander, author of  The New Jim Crow, wrote that the purpose of the modern criminal legal system in the United States is racially motivated social control of black men to create “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.” Kap isn’t outside of society at large, but he’s out of the league and he’s being controlled, professionally speaking. The new Jim Crow is Roger Goodell.

It looks like non-celebs are making this issue unnecessarily complicated — and inconsistent.

Seventy-five percent of people polled last winter agreed that the current criminal justice system needs an overhaul because they know that mass incarceration itself is unpatriotic; too many people are locked up. And we economically bully people who’ve broken the law. And, yes, police cross the line sometimes.

Even though his protest is only a fraction of the larger reform agenda they claim to align with, a majority of people surveyed don’t think that Kap’s kneel is appropriate.

Because I’m citing separate surveys, it’s hard to tease out the hypocrites who are calling for reform out of one side of their mouths and screaming “Boycott Nike!” out of the other.

But there’s one easily identifiable person who’s rooting for reform while also sidelining Colin: owner of six-time Super Bowl-winning team the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft.

Just weeks ago, The REFORM Alliance, a new organization formed by rapper Meek Mill and Sixers’ owner Michael Rubin, announced its intention to free 1 million people from correctional control, namely probation and parole.

Motivated by their “collective disgust,” nine founding partners pledged to “leverage (their) considerable resources to change laws, policies, hearts and minds” to achieve reform of oppressive supervision systems. Kraft is one of the nine partners.

To be fair, Kraft is the only NFL team owner to be reported to have said that he thinks Kaepernick should be rehired in the league, so I don’t dismiss the Patriots’ owner as a total pretender.

But I’m not willing to call Kraft a prize, either. Back in September, when reporters asked him if he would hire Kaepernick, Kraft refused to talk about it.

The man who’s raising the sole Super Bowl ring-clad fist to champion rehabilitation and release from social control should let Kaepernick re-enter the NFL on his team; after all, Kap’s still younger than Kraft’s second-string quarterback.

But more than that, keeping Colin Kaepernick out of the league runs headlong into the justice reform movement that Kraft’s trying to advance.

Proper overhaul of the criminal justice system would never include blacklist on anyone’s employment. If you’re in favor of criminal justice reform, then you’re with Kap, too. It’s that simple.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at

Yes, Kim Kardashian Is Trump’s Smartest Adviser

The nation’s foolish and costly “War on Drugs” has destroyed so many lives — taking fathers and mothers from their families, condemning parolees to lives on the margins and decimating entire neighborhoods, especially in poor, black areas. It was uplifting, then, to hear that 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson, who served 21 years behind bars for her non-violent involvement in a drug-selling scheme, was released from an Alabama prison earlier this week after her sentence was commuted.
Let us now praise President Donald J. Trump, whom Johnson thanked enthusiastically — appropriately so — for the clemency. Yes, there are many things wrong with Trump’s policies toward drug offenders. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has reversed President Barack Obama’s efforts to end lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offenders, threatening to go back to the “Reefer Madness” era.
Then there is the president’s use of his clemency powers, which have been largely reserved for celebrities and for the enemies of his enemies. It took intervention by a mega-celebrity, Kim Kardashian West, to win Johnson’s release. West had seen a viral video of Johnson telling her story from behind bars.
That said, Trump has still done something right. Even if just one injustice is corrected, the occasion is worth celebrating.
Johnson was one of the felons featured in a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report on the lengthy prison sentences meted out to non-violent offenders. The mother of five, her life had fallen apart after she was divorced and lost her job with FedEx. She filed for bankruptcy and lenders foreclosed on her house.

As if that weren’t enough, her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Johnson said she became involved in the drug ring as a way to make ends meet; she claims that she never made any drug deals or sold drugs herself but merely relayed messages among others involved. But federal prosecutors gave promises of leniency to several others in the drug ring in exchange for their testimony against Johnson. And, despite a clean record prior to her arrest, she was convicted of several counts and sentenced to life without parole plus 25 years. Killers have gotten less time.
It is hard to imagine that a white mother with the same clean record and minimal involvement in a drug-trafficking scheme would have been condemned to spend the rest of her life in prison. The ACLU found “a staggering racial disparity in life-without-parole sentencing for nonviolent offenses. . . Blacks are disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison and jail population, but the disparities are even worse . . . among the nonviolent LWOP population. . . .The ACLU estimates that nationwide, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses are Black, 17.8 percent are white, and 15.7 percent are Latino.”
The popularity of life-without-parole sentences is a fairly recent feature of a criminal justice system that has become, if anything, more weighed down with unconscious prejudices over the last several decades. Sentencing felons to life without parole became more popular after the U.S. Supreme Court briefly banned the death penalty in the 1970s; it seems rational that judges, jurors and legislators would have sought out a way to confine the most violent offenders indefinitely.
But only fear, propaganda and frank racism can explain the explosion in life-without-parole sentences for non-violent crimes. In stark contrast to the sensible public conversation around the opioid epidemic, prosecutors, state legislators, police officers and members of Congress spent the 1970s and ‘80s loudly characterizing the crack epidemic as an existential threat to cities around the country — and perhaps to the nation itself. The only response, they claimed, was to lock up any and all involved for long stretches. Is it mere coincidence that the crack epidemic mostly involved black Americans?
The only glimmer of hope for those who remain incarcerated for life as a result of those wretched policies is clemency from the president. So it seems reasonable to suggest that advocates for sentencing reform round up as many Trump-friendly celebrities like Kardashian as they can — where are you, Rosanne Barr? — and show them videos of sympathetic non-violent felons. If that’s the way to get more of them out of prison, let’s get started.

Under Incarceration Problem? Prison Workers Union Hits Back Against Cotton’s Claims

The president of a prison workers union hit back against comments made late last week by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton that the U.S. has an “under-incarceration problem,” highlighting the different conversations being had about mass incarceration in the country.

“Even with the recent inmate decline, our prison system remains terribly overcrowded and understaffed. For example, high and medium security facilities are 32% and 47% overcrowded, respectively,” wrote Eric Young, President of the Council of Prison Locals, a union representing over 30,000 prison workers across the country, in a letter addressed to Cotton. “Given these statistics, it’s hard for me to understand why you would think our country has a problem with ‘under incarceration.'”

Cotton gave a speech last week at the Hudson Institute in which he said that the nation had an “under incarceration problem,” apparently ignorant of a vastly different national conversation focused over the effects of the “tough on crime” criminal justice policy pursued by successive administrations over the past 30 years.

Cotton’s speech also conflated the low rate of arrests for property and violent crimes with a dearth of inmates filling American prisons. “Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes,” he said during his speech. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”

The Council of Prison Locals, on the other hand, has been an advocate of criminal justice reform that would see nonviolent offenders and other inmates who pose no threat to the general public, like those in jail on drug possession charges, be given lighter sentences.

“We accept that the sentencing reform package pending in the U.S. Senate is not a perfect bill. However, this is one of those areas where we must not allow the perfect to get in the way of the good – and this is a good bill,” wrote Young in another letter to Democrat Senate Whip Dick Durbin back in 2013 when the Smart Sentencing Act of 2013 was being drafted. “The Grassley compromise bill takes much needed steps in the direction of reducing the number of people we keep incarcerated at federal prisons while also providing fairness in sentencing.”

Nevertheless, Cotton’s office was undaunted by the arguments of a prison guard union with an intimately greater day-to-day interaction with the country’s prison population. “When over half of violent crimes go unsolved, there are many heinous murderers and other dangerous offenders walking the streets who should be in prison,” said Cotton’s communications director, Caroline Rabbitt, to Politico. “Ask the wife, son, or father of a murder victim whose assailant is never arrested whether there’s at least one more criminal who should be incarcerated.”

Given nearly half of the prison population consists of people arrested on drug possession charges, there are plenty of Americans who also don’t deserve to be incarcerated for what constitutes a misdemeanor in other countries.

Photo: Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) discusses the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron