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#ChangeLawyer Civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson wants the US to face its history
The following is an interview with Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to prisoners who might have been denied a fair trial.
Last month, Congress passed the First Step Act, a prison-reform bill intended to reduce recidivism. Do you think this bill will actually change the realities of mass incarceration?
It’s important but insufficient, in terms of the actual number of people in jails and prisons. We’ve gone from 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the 1970s to 2.2 million people today. We have to radically reorient ourselves and start talking about rehabilitation, restoration and how we end crime. And if we do that, we’re going to come to very different choices than we’ve come to in this era of overincarceration, where the response to everything is punishment.
You’ve said we live in a society that hasn’t dealt with its past. What do you mean by that? We are compromised by the legal architecture we created in the 20th century that codified racial segregation and racial hierarchy. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude: It was the ideology of white supremacy, in which people persuaded themselves that black people aren’t fully human. When you look at the 13th Amendment, which talks about ending forced labor, it says nothing about ending this narrative of racial differences. Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved.
Do you think the rhetoric espoused by President Trump and his supporters is just a continuation of what America was founded on? If we had done the work that we should have done in the 20th century to combat our history of racial inequality, no one could win national office after demonizing people because they’re Mexican or Muslim. We would be in a place where we would find that unacceptable.
Last year, you opened a national lynching memorial. What were you hoping to achieve? What we haven’t done in this country is create cultural spaces that expose people to the history of enslavement and lynching and segregation and motivate them to say, “Never again.” And if we make that commitment, then we’re going to be required to be more responsive when people say, “Well, those immigrants of color are unacceptable” or “Those people over there are unacceptable.” When we hear the echo of that narrative, I hope it motivates us to respond differently.
You live in Montgomery, Ala., where both Confederate Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis’s birthday are state holidays and Martin Luther King Day is celebrated along with Robert E. Lee Day. How do you reconcile all that? It is unevolved to want to celebrate the architects and defenders of slavery. In Germany, there are no Adolf Hitler statues. They don’t want to embrace something so horrific. That’s not true in America. The landscape has become complicit in the way in which we have tolerated racial bias, so that has to change. There are things about which we can all feel proud. We can all honor, for example, the white people who were abolitionists in the 18th and the 19th centuries. And we can name some streets and schools and buildings after them, and all of us can celebrate those folks. That’s what we have to get to if we’re really serious about progressing past this history.
What would the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. think about America if he was alive today? When he found out that one in three black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail and prison, when he saw the level of poverty, when he heard some of the rhetoric that we frequently hear, I think he would be heartbroken. But I also think he would be excited that if he called a meeting, thousands would come. And that’s what has to happen, even without Dr. King — that we have to be willing to make that commitment so that we can create a world where if Dr. King emerged, he would be so proud to say his dream has finally been realized. We’re not in that world yet.
Read the interview on NY Times >
More of This Newly elected DA are blacklisting cops who lie
In the racially divided city of St. Louis the chief prosecutor has embraced a controversial tool to hold police accountable: blacklisting cops who she says are too untrustworthy to testify in court.
So far, Kim Gardner has dropped more than 100 cases that relied on statements from the 29 officers who got on the list for alleged lying, abuse or corruption. And she won’t accept new cases or search-warrant requests from them, either.
From Philadelphia to Houston to Seattle, district attorneys recently elected on platforms of criminal justice reform are building similar databases of their own.
Often known as “do not call” lists, they are also called “exclusion lists” or “Brady lists” after a famous Supreme Court decision requiring prosecutors to disclose to defense lawyers information about unreliable police officers or other holes in their cases.
The goal is to help prosecutors avoid bringing cases built on evidence from officers who are likely to be challenged in court, these new DAs say. Having a centralized list at a district attorney’s office, they say, allows for the gathering of institutional knowledge, so that if one prosecutor on staff knows about a bad cop, all the prosecutors do.
Read the story on Marshall Project >
Even More of This
Less of This Trump is undoing diversity in the federal bench
The following editorial was written by Derrick Johnson, a lawyer and the president and chief executive of the NAACP.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision and leadership in pursuing equality for all left an enduring legacy of immeasurable significance for the country that honored him this week. His call for leaders “in love with justice” and “with humanity” has taken on a special urgency during the Trump administration.
King’s devotion to equal justice included supporting racial and gender diversity on the federal bench. In 1966, he recommended Constance Baker Motley for a federal judgeship in New York. Motley was an extraordinary civil rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and had represented King. She was the first African American woman to serve in the New York State Senate and the first woman as Manhattan borough president. Based on support from King and others, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Motley to the Southern District of New York. She was the first African American woman to serve in the federal judiciary.
That history is important to recall as President Trump’s hostility to diversity in his judicial appointments becomes increasingly apparent. Last week, the White House announceda new slate of white male nominees, consistent with its record over the past two years. Of more than 150 Trump nominees to lifetime positions, only three have been African American. No African Americans or Latinos have been nominated to federal circuit courts.
Trump has appointed no black women to the bench. Not one. The last African American woman appointed to a federal judgeship was President Barack Obama’s nominee Wilhelmina Wright, confirmed by the Senate in 2016.
Trump has no excuse. Scores of extremely qualified African American women are practicing law or sitting on state and local courts around the country. This pool of candidates has existed for decades. Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter appointed seven black women to judgeships. Signaling that judicial diversity is not a partisan issue, President George W. Bush appointed eight black women, including two to appellate courts. Obama appointed a record 26 African American women to the judiciary.
The paucity of diverse Trump appointees is only half the story. Diversity on the bench inspires confidence and trust in courts by the communities they serve. Differences in backgrounds and perspectives enhance the judicial decision-making process.
Read the story on Washington Post >
Less of This Too The Supreme Court just ended my military career
The following editorial was written by, Brynn Tannehill a former naval aviator and a defense analyst who has researched and written about transgender issues.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that the Trump administration could reinstate its policy barring most transgender people from serving in the military while several cases challenging the policy are being decided. The decision was both a devastating blow to me personally, and a disturbing sign of what is to come for transgender people in the United States.
I graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1997, and was on active duty for over a decade. When I began transitioning in 2010, I transferred from the Naval Reserves, which I had joined in 2008, to the Individual Ready Reserves, an administrative status that allows service members to deal with medical issues before returning to full duty. By spring 2012, I had resolved the “issues” at my own expense, and was ready to return to full duty — in my case, as a Navy helicopter pilot.
The problem was that at the time, the military’s medical regulations prohibited transgender people from serving. I then set off on years of volunteer work on my own time researching transgender military issues. This included educational outreach, research, policy development and coordinating with the Pentagon to build an evidence-based standard for transgender service, based on the lessons learned from the other 18 countries that allow transgender people to serve.
In 2015, the Department of Defense stopped discharging people for being transgender and began the open and transparent process of researching how to institute an inclusive policy. This included an assessment of the costs, in terms of both money and readiness, of integrating transgender troops. Researchers found both impacts to be negligible.
By 2016, a policy was in place for transgender people already serving. Two years later, the military put in place a process for new recruits, officer candidates and people on inactive status like myself. The day after that, I contacted my recruiter to begin the process of rejoining the military.
Over the past year, I’ve had countless medical and psychological exams in my quest to return to the job I was trained to do: flying Blackhawk helicopters. This involved a lot of time off work and considerable travel, all at my own expense. At every turn, the people examining me reached the same conclusion: I was “aeromedically adapted” — fit to fly — and able to return to the service. There was, finally, a chance that I might be able finish my career after 16 good years of service.
I was hoping against hope, throughout this process, that I’d be able to join my friends who had fought alongside me for the right to serve openly. Nearly every week I would see pictures of them in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It gave me a thrill in December to see a picture of four of them together at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. One was an airborne ranger, and one was Special Forces.
All of this makes the administration’s dogged attempt to undo everything achieved over the last few years even more baffling. The ban was developed in secret, without the sort of careful study that went into the policy it reversed. It does not reflect any current medical understanding of transgender people, and it has been denounced by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association.
No one, including the lawyers for the Trump administration, has been able to show that inclusion of transgender service members or providing care to them has had any measurable negative impact on morale, readiness or unit cohesion. The chiefs of staff of all four service branches of the military have testified to Congress that there have been no issues.
The Supreme Court decision isn’t about me, though. It isn’t even about the dozens of people I advised to follow a path back to service similar to mine. It is about what this means for transgender people in the United States as a whole.
While it is true that the high court’s decision is not final — and that, in fact, it may have had more to do with lower court injunctions against Mr. Trump’s policy, rather than the policy itself — the signal it sends is clear. The cruel pointlessness of the president’s policy, which had led to the injunctions, was not pressing enough to move the court’s five conservative justices.
Their decision signals a weakening of any shelter transgender people might find under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The court is saying that government discrimination based not on evidence, but solely on animus against transgender people, is permissible.
For me, however, it probably marks the end of almost 10 years of trying to find a way to serve my country in uniform again. The court also rejected the administration's request for a quick hearing on the ban itself, which means at least another year of waiting. By then I will have likely aged out of my eligibility.
If this were through some failing of mine, I could accept it. But it speaks volumes about where we are as a country that the opportunity for many to serve should be denied by the prejudices of a few.
Read the story on NY Times >
Perspective LA County has the largest jail system in the country. We must not let it expand.
The following editorial was written by Patrisse Cullors, Founder and Board President of Dignity and Power Now, cop-founder of Black Lives Matter, and consults multiple organizations on issues from criminal justice reform to maternal justice; and Lex Steppling, the Director of Campaigns and Policy for Dignity & Power Now.
Los Angeles has a history that defies its place in the liberal imagination as a beacon of progressive politics in the West, driven by a set of unique, often bizarre actors and actions that have resulted in the largest jail system in the United States. About 17,000 people are held in Los Angeles County jails on any given day, often in terrible conditions. Many, if not most, are pretrial and therefore legally not guilty.
The state’s decades-long, brutal legacy of mass incarceration and state violence has left a legacy of profound multigenerational trauma throughout its communities. Perhaps the chief perpetrator of such harms is a lineage of sadistic law enforcement leaders including Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (who called Black people “monkeys”), his protege Daryl Gates (known for his vicious of policing of communities of color), and the notorious tandem of Los Angeles County sheriffs Sherman Block, and Lee Baca, who in 2017 was convicted in federal court for overseeing a scheme designed to impede a federal investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses in the county jail system and lying to investigators.
Distilling the scope of harm to these prominent law enforcement figures may be reductive, but nonetheless helps illustrate the forces of aggressive policing and militarization that has defined policing in Los Angeles County for the last 60 years. Indeed, the abuse that the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Office perpetrated in the streets turned into a national flashpoint with the 1991 Rodney King beating, trial, and subsequent rebellion.
Behind the walls of the largest jail system in America, however, brutality thrived and was normalized. Los Angeles County jails became accepted as an almost normal part of life. Those enduring the most suffering resorted to gallows humor and other forms of expression, namely hip-hop–like Ice-Cube’s “24 Wit’ An L” where he rapped that “LA is like a jail cell”–making the city a hotbed of culture in the era when incarceration boomed.
But the California communities most impacted by mass incarceration have had enough, especially after years of disappointment from traditional allies like the Democratic Party and legacy civil rights organizations. They have begun to stand up to demand an end to the horrific and widespread incidents of abuse and murder at the hands of sheriff’s deputies in the Los Angeles County jail system. My older brother Monte was one of its victims: In late 1999, he was incarcerated pretrial at a county jail complex called Pitchess Detention Center, accused of taking our mother’s car for a joy ride. He told us that while he was held there, he was beaten by a group of four or five sheriff’s deputies. In 2012, I founded Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization fighting for the dignity and power of all incarcerated people, their families, and communities. One year later, fueled by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, I co-founded Black Lives Matter.
Despite the county jail system’s long history of harm, in June 2018 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $2.2 billion dollar plan to replace the Men’s Central Jail. How can they allocate billions to the largest jail system in America when the benefits of mass incarceration have been proved to be nil? Los Angeles, for example, leads the nation in homelessness, and it’s impossible to ignore. The city’s acutely visible crisis of shelter should be a harsh wake-up call to the county that spending billions for a new jail is not only a bad fiscal move but a slap in the face to the communities that have suffered so greatly by the aforementioned legacy of abuse and family separation.
Listen to The Appeal >
Governor Gavin Newsom has expressed a commitment to having his administration reflect the diversity of the great state of California. He has requested our help to ensure that the incoming administration has a broad, inclusive, and reflective pool of talent from which to draw.
The goal of this portal is to increase the number of people from underrepresented backgrounds applying for positions in the administration, and to increase their visibility during the application process.
Apply here >
Fellowship Opportunity Al Otro Lado hiring year-long fellow
With support from California ChangeLawyers, we seek to hire a full-time, year-long legal Fellow to support the work of our Border Rights Project, and increase the projects capacity to represent detained asylum seekers, mentally incompetent detainees, and asylum-seeking families that have been separated by ongoing policies and tactics of family separation.
Apply here >
Fellowship Opportunity Root & Rebound hiring summer fellow
The Summer Legal Fellow will be working out of our office in downtown Fresno, which focuses on serving women of color with records and in reentry from incarceration.
The ChangeLawyers fellow will drive forward legal clinics, know-your-rights trainings, and direct services for the women of Fresno and the broader Central Valley.
Apply here >
Fellowship Opportunity Community Water Center hiring year-long fellow
Over a million Californians each year lack access to safe and affordable drinking water. In addition to systemic racism, one of the root causes of water inequality is under-representation and unresponsive representation at the local level.
With support from California ChangeLawyers, CWC seeks a full-time, year-long Legal Fellow to provide legal assistance to communities without safe water and local water board members.
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Fellowship Opportunity Legal Services of Northern California hiring summer fellow
In the last four years, our 23-county northern California service area has seen at least one disastrous wildfire every fire season. With support from California ChangeLawyers, we seek to hire a full-time, the Fellow will work on a disaster relief project, as well as conduct client intake.
Apply here >