Latest criminal justice news, updates, and commentary 12.18.23
Meribah Knight, along with the NYTimes and other major outlets, produced The Kids of Rutherford County, about the illegal arrest and jailing of hundreds, or perhaps thousands of children and the two determined lawyers who did something about it.
The Story Project is making a series of films about the impacts of Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of drugs in Oregon. This policy change, which has been shown to save lives and improve health in countries like Portugal, is facing a ton of backlash right now. So it’s an important time to learn about how it actually works. Here is part 1 (for the busy, a trailer).
Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley DeBug, which holds the national Participatory Defense network, gave his ‘brief but spectacular take on how to protect your people’ on PBS.
Freedom Reads, the National Book Foundation and the Center for Justice Innovation launched the Inside literary prize, the first major US book award to be judged exclusively by incarcerated people. The winner will be announced in June 2024.
Solutions and Wins
Detroit is on pace to have its lowest murder rate in 60 years this year. This matches a national trend, found by criminologist Jeff Asher, of plummeting murder rates. Here’s his chart showing the violent crime rate at its lowest since 1969:
Louisiana is poised to standardize and update its jail regulations based on recommendations from a UT Austin report. Congratulations to the dedicated advocates who fought for this.
The governors of Missouri and Wisconsin have been issuing pardons and commutations at a rate not seen in their states for decades. It’s a system release valve and more governors need to do it.
According to a recent Duke study: due to reductions in incarceration rates, Black men are now more likely to go to college than to prison (the inverse was true 15 years ago).
Max Kenner, director of the Bard Prison Initiative, celebrated the return of education grants in NY to pay for college in prison, and urges other states to follow.
Some months ago, thanks to ferocious advocacy in New York by the Center for Community Alternatives (project led by Katie Schaffer) and many allies, Governor Hochul agreed to withdraw her center-right candidate for Chief Judge (who would have been awful for justice work), and nominate Rowan Wilson with progressive approval. The new court under Judge Wilson just ruled that the Congressional maps were not drawn according to the rules, and said they need to be done again, which could significantly tip the balance in the 2024 House elections. Congratulations to everyone who funded or worked on this crucial judicial accountability work.
Ten current and former prisoners in Alabama are suing the state and several companies for maintaining slavery and profiting $450million a year off of extremely underpaid and unpaid labor performed under often dangerous conditions. Why is this under the ‘wins’ column? Because this lawsuit was made possible in part by the successful campaign in 2022 to pass an amendment to Alabama’s constitution outlawing slavery in all forms, including for people convicted of crimes. This suit is one of the first tests of whether these reforms, passed in several states, will work. To learn more about this multi-state campaign, check out End The Exception.
Portland DA Mike Schmidt secured state funds to convene a 30-person violence prevention commission that will make recommendations using a comprehensive public health approach.
Professor Benjamin Weber makes a powerful case for teaching the history of mass incarceration in high schools and colleges. I’d go further and say it should be mandatory in the curriculum. It’s hard to imagine understanding this country without that context.
Morgan Godvin shares updates on Oregon’s Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of all drugs, and which has come under heavy fire. Morgan is a survivor of heavy drug addiction and knows firsthand how criminalization only makes things much, much worse. The state’s delays in funding for treatment services and the police department’s refusal to confiscate drugs used in public are making the public extremely impatient to roll back reforms, even though these flaws have nothing to do with decriminalization itself.
Ana Zamora discusses the recent Gallup polling on crime, safety, policing, and the justice system, arguing that the wrong questions are being asked. In 2023, it’s ridiculous to pit ‘toughness’ against ‘fairness.’ How is someone supposed to answer who wants to get serious about crime solutions, by which they mean abandoning security theater and focusing on practical interventions that work to cut crime.
Here’s a quick twitter thread making plain why mandatory reporting of sex trafficking isn’t a great policy. The author says her trafficker is a police informant, so reporting him could put her in danger. Real life is a lot messier than righteous policymaking allows.
There’s an urgent campaign in North Carolina pressing the outgoing Dem governor to commute the death sentences of 136 people as an act of racial justice.
The retail theft hysteria that has infected many political campaigns and has generated federal legislation is based on complaints and data produced by large retailers like Target who now admit that the data is wrong and they used this story to cover for their underperformance.
Bolts Magazine previewed some of the thousands of elections in 2024 that will have a profound impact on the number of people held in jail and prisons and whether human rights violations are addressed.
More than 60 democrats in Harris County (Houston) DA have voted to censure DA Kim Ogg for creating a ‘culture of fear’ against her political opponents with her threats of political prosecution. Ogg will face challenger Sean Teare in 2024’s election.
Arguing before the Florida Supreme Court, DeSantis’s lawyers couldn’t name a single policy that led to the governor removing DA Monique Worrell from office after Orlando voters had overwhelmingly voted her into office. And here’s the Orlando Sentinel urging the Florida courts to reinstate her.
Bolts reports on how restoration of voting rights for people with convictions is playing out in Kentucky. There’s a ton of work to be done to let people know about it and to challenge and change the anti-voting culture that was fostered by the previous prohibition.
Reports and investigations
UCLA researchers found that the children of parents who experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)– such as abuse, neglect, violence in the home, or loss of a parent – are at increased risk of arrests and convictions by young adulthood.
The Center for Just Journalism did a report measuring the realities of current crime reporting against the values and goals of journalism, and made a bunch of recommendations.
UPenn published a study on the systematically high rates of ‘failure to appear’ in court by police officers and victims. They note: “victim FTA rates are so persistently high that many appear to be effectively "opting out" of the criminal proceeding.”
Sarah Stillman of the New Yorker wrote a fresh and devastating take on the felony murder rule, which allows prosecution for 1st degree murder of a person who may not have even been on the scene of the crime or intended that anyone die, simply because they participated in planning or doing a felony and someone died. It’s a perverse, archaic rule and should be abolished.
ProPublica is out with yet another impressive investigation, this time on how police departments have undermined the goals and intent of body-worn cameras, by constantly refusing to release the footage. Here’s a thread by the author. Without release, police officers like Derek Chauvin who brutalize people continue to run rampant.
Scrutinize’s recent report finds that the vast majority of NY state’s criminal court decisions are unpublished, making it very challenging to hold judges accountable.
A report from the Wren Collective finds that in most Harris County (Houston) cases ending in a death sentence over the previous 20 years, overworked and rushed defense lawyers (appointed by judges who want to keep the caseload moving) failed to find and present compelling evidence that could have kept their clients off of death row. They recommended that the county create an independent capital defender’s office to properly try death penalty cases.
Wall of Shame
What happens when a system insider tries to change things? Sometimes, they get death threats.
Facial recognition tech is a disaster in New Orleans.
ProPublica uncovers rampant, sadistic child abuse in the Tennessee juvenile detention system.
The City of Atlanta has now spent $1.3million litigating to prevent the City from putting a petition on the ballot allowing the voters to decide whether to build a new police training center, aka ‘cop city.’
Fourteen people who were jailed ‘for their own safety’ when experiencing mental health and substance use distress never made it home, according to an investigation by ProPublica and Mississippi Today. They died in those jails in Mississippi, often by suicide, when they weren’t properly supervised and cared for.
Bowing to pressure from the governor, Alabama’s parole board has clammed up completely, refusing grants in almost all cases. This is cruel and devastating to families and people who are incarcerated and have done everything asked of them, is costly to the state, further strains overcrowded systems, and serves no purpose other than allowing the governor to campaign on vengeance and toughness.
Thanks to a change in NY law, people who were victims of sexual assault may sue even if the original statute of limitations has passed. Nearly 700 women have filed lawsuits alleging abuse while they were imprisoned at Rikers Island jail.
The children and teachers at Uvalde knew what to do and followed their training. According to this ProPublica investigation, the police did not.
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