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Perspective Trump’s criminal justice reform is a step in the wrong direction
The following editorial was written by Keith Wattley, a lawyer and executive director of UnCommon Law, a nonprofit law firm that provides therapeutic and legal counseling for people serving lengthy prison terms in California prisons.
Donald Trump claims he’s taking a step toward desperately needed criminal justice reform, but he’s not. A bipartisan bill known as the First Step Act has been described by activists as groundbreaking in the fight to end mass incarceration, and Mr. Trump has said he’s “waiting with his pen” for the bill to land on his desk. Some support the bill because it will reduce some sentences and lead to some savings when it comes to the cost of incarceration. Having spent many years working with people in prison who are seeking release, I respectfully disagree. This is not a case in which a little reform is better than none.
The bill provides incentives for some people in federal prison to participate in educational, vocational and therapeutic programs by awarding them time-reducing credits for completing them. It also increases the use of home detention, post-release transitional programs and electronic monitoring. But it prevents those convicted of the most serious crimes from reducing their sentences at all, and in doing so it perpetuates the false narrative that people who commit violent crimes are fundamentally different from those who commit nonviolent crimes. Ironically, it prevents those convicted of the most serious crimes from reducing their sentences by participating in the programs this bill cites as essential to smart criminal justice reform.
I know from my experience as the executive director of UnCommon Law, a nonprofit law firm, that this is counterproductive in the fight for meaningful criminal justice reform. We spend months and even years working with people in prison for violent crimes, helping them to develop the emotional intelligence and communication skills they’ll need upon release from prison. More than 200 of our clients have been released from life sentences, and not a single one has gone on to commit a violent crime. But this bill tells my clients their personal transformation doesn’t matter.
In my experience, violence has its roots in feelings of inadequacy and rejection dating back to childhood trauma. And most people who commit violence also have the capacity to reinterpret and overcome their traumatic experiences in a way that brings understanding to, and remorse for, their own actions, along with a newfound commitment to helping others learn from their experience. They are not fundamentally different from people who have committed nonviolent offenses. They and the communities to which they return would most likely benefit the most from incentives to participate in educational and therapeutic programming, as well as earlier release.
While it is tempting to believe that we keep our communities safe by locking up people convicted of violent crimes as long as possible and denying them time-reducing credit, the reality is that the people our society fears the most — people convicted of murder and who have been paroled on a life sentence — are actually the least likely to return to prison even for a minor infraction. Their return rate is roughly 1 percent. We should not accept their categorical exclusion from sentence-reducing measures that would permit their earlier return to the community, where they can be the next generation of violence interrupters.
There are other misleading promises in this bill. For example, it will reduce mandatory minimum sentences for perhaps 2,000 people annually; however, this part is not retroactive, so no one currently serving such a sentence will have it shortened. It also reduces the discrepancy in sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine, which Congress already did back in 2010. This bill just finally makes the change retroactive, which may benefit up to 2,600 people.
After decades of “get tough” rhetoric, drug wars and a prison-building boom that gave us the highest rate of incarceration in the world, it now appears that reform is possible — if only because we’re finally talking about it. But we must learn from our past, not replicate old mistakes in present-day reforms. This bill is likely to benefit private prison companies more than the incarcerated population, as it seems primed to increase the use of electronic monitoring systems created by private corporations to to track, surveil and control those who have been released from prison and are in home-detention and post-release transitional programs. Indeed, one of those corporations, GEO Group, proudly bills itself as “a complete electronic monitoring solutions provider” and already has 30,000 “participants” in its programs.
The total number of people benefited by the bill is shockingly small — it affects only about 4,000 in the federal prison system, which itself makes up less than 10 percent of the total population of people incarcerated in the United States. A large majority of incarcerated people are actually housed in state prisons and local jails, which are unaffected by this bill. Although some have celebrated the bill because it prohibits the shackling of women during childbirth, the practice of shackling pregnant women in all but the most extreme circumstances has been banned in federal prisons for 10 years, so the provision will likely have little to no practical effect.
I stand with advocates seeking to bring people home from prison sooner rather than later. It’s what I do. But we should not be tempted by the false promise that this is the beginning of a more expansive reform effort. Those in control have not taken any steps toward real criminal justice reform, which ideally would involve developing real alternatives to incarceration. When policymakers want to have that conversation, please count me in. But any would-be reform effort that begins by denying the benefits of therapeutic, educational and vocational programs to the people who could benefit most is not a “first step” — it’s a step in the wrong direction.
Read the story on NY Times >
Speaking of… America’s top reform DA just took his most radical step yet
Larry Krasner continues to build a reputation as the prosecutor who wants to keep people out of prison. Among other head-turning changes, Philadelphia’s district attorney has stopped prosecuting marijuana possession, instructed his 300 assistant district attorneys to stop seeking bail on low-level charges, and had his office begin plea negotiations below the low end of the state’s sentencing guidelines.
Krasner has unwaveringly pushed further left than his “reform-minded prosecutor” peers, a class that now encompasses state and county law enforcement officials in jurisdictions from Houston, to Chicago, to San Francisco. Recently he further broke into new territory by speaking out about the elephant in the room: violent crime, a classification that most state inmates are in for.
Krasner has challenged the idea that every person convicted of killing should be sent away for the rest of their lives, which is the mandatory minimum sentence for first- or second- degree murder in Pennsylvania. He has mandated that he personally sign off on any deal offered that exceeds 15 to 30 years in prison.
According to a recent Philadelphia Inquirer analysis, in six cases that were initially filed as “murder generally” Krasner sought third-degree or involuntary manslaughter charges rather than the first- or second-degree murder charges that would have been the norm under his predecessors. While comprehensive national comparisons are hard to come by, criminal justice experts view this willingness to lower murder charges as a first of its kind effort among prosecutors in major municipalities.
Read the story on Slate >
More of This Jerry Brown is fighting Trump with pardons
Just before the Thanksgiving holiday last week, California Governor Jerry Brown pardoned 38 people, including three refugees from Vietnam who faced deportation. Tung Thanh Nguyen, Truong (Jay) Quang Ly, and Hai Trong Nguyen all came to the United States as children. As teenagers, they were convicted of crimes, which put them at risk of being deported.
But with Brown’s pardons—made more urgent as President Trump ramps up raids and deportations of refugees from Southeast Asia—they can stay.
Tung Thanh Nguyen served more than 16 years for brandishing a knife and acting as lookout during a murder. Jay Quang Ly was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for driving a car in which the passenger shot and killed someone, and served nine years. Hai Trong Nguyen was imprisoned for nearly 16 years for robbery involving a firearm.
All three men are now activists working on criminal justice reform efforts, including juvenile justice and prison re-entry programs for Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Now that Governor Brown has pardoned these men—along with several other immigrants and refugees in recent months—they could fight a deportation order. Brown’s track record on pardons overall is unusual; since returning to office in 2011, he has granted more than 1,100 pardons, more than any governor in the state’s modern history. And advocates are hoping other governors will also use their executive clemency power to help halt deportations.
“Governor Brown’s laudable record on pardons should light a fire under other governors to do much more to protect immigrants targeted for deportation by the Trump administration,” Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC) in California, told The Appeal. “Governors have the power to stop many of these deportations with the stroke of their pen.”
Read the story on The Appeal >
Watch This American prisons are hell for women
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country--over two million. Roughly 200,000 of them are female. But existing American prisons are often ill-equipped to handle the specific needs of women and girls. Amna Nawaz talks to Andrea James, a lawyer and former federal inmate who founded the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, about her experience.
Less of This How incarcerated parents are losing their children forever
Lori Lynn Adams was a mother of four living in poverty when Hurricane Floyd struck eastern North Carolina in 1999, flooding her trailer home and destroying her children’s pageant trophies and baby pictures. No stranger to money-making scams, Adams was convicted of filing a fraudulent disaster-relief claim with FEMA for a property she did not own. She also passed dozens of worthless checks to get by.
Adams served two year-long prison stints for these “blue-collar white-collar crimes,” as she calls them. Halfway through her second sentence, with her children — three toddlers and a 14-year-old — temporarily under county supervision, Adams said she got a phone call from a family court attorney. Her parental rights, he informed her, were being irrevocably terminated.
Before going to prison, Adams had sometimes drifted from one boyfriend to another, leaving her kids with a babysitter, and she didn’t always have enough food in the house. But she was not charged with any kind of child abuse, neglect or endangerment. Still, at a hearing that took place 300 miles from the prison, which she couldn’t attend because officials wouldn’t transport her there, she lost her children. Adams’s oldest daughter went to live with her father, and her other three kids were put up for adoption. She was banned from seeing them again.
Read the story on The Marshall Project >
Dessert The life of civil rights lawyer Dovey Johnson Roundtree will be immortalized in upcoming film
According to the Seymour Tribune, a memoir by the late civil-rights pioneer Dovey Johnson Roundtree will not only be reissued but adapted into an upcoming film.
On Monday, Algonquin Books announced plans for a 10th-anniversary edition of Roundtree’s Mighty Justice, due out next November. Originally titled Justice Older Than the Law, it will be co-written by Katie McCabe.
Also of note: middle grade and picture book versions of her memoir will be published via Roaring Brook Press while its film rights have been acquired by Red Crown Productions. Octavia Spencer will serve as executive producer.
Roundtree was a criminal-defense lawyer who played a key role in the desegregation of interstate bus travel. Over the course of a distinguished career that spanned nearly half a century, she vigorously defended black churches, community groups, politicians and lower-income clientele, in addition to serving as a mentor to several generations of black lawyers.
Read the story on The Root >
Volunteer at the Border
Al Otro Lado needs volunteers!! We need immigration attorneys, paralegals, doctors, nurses, EMTs, social workers, mental health professionals, art therapists, and nice people who want to help out! No special skills are required to volunteer - just let us know a little more about you in the application. As volunteer needs arise, we will email them out to the list. Volunteer opportunities are available in Tijuana, Los Angeles, and remotely.
Sign up here >
Free Event Diversity Holiday Happy Hour in San Francisco
Join the Bay Area Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society, Asian American Bar Association of Greater Bay Area, Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, Bay Area Legal Aid, California ChangeLawyers, Equal Justice Society, Public Advocates, and the South Asian Bar Association - NC for our second joint holiday happy hour to celebrate diversity in the law!
RSVP 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.
Apply here >
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 >