by California ChangeLawyers
News Brief is the newsletter for vigilant optimist. A curated collection of social justice stories, delivered to your inbox every Wednesday night. Thanks for reading!
by California ChangeLawyers
News Brief is the newsletter for vigilant optimist. A curated collection of social justice stories, delivered to your inbox every Wednesday night. Thanks for reading!
#ChangeLawyers We must stop sentencing people of color to death in Los Angeles
The following editorial was written by Priscilla Ocen, Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, where she teaches criminal law, family law and a seminar on race, gender and the law. She is also the Vice-Chair of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission.
Across the country, people of goodwill increasingly recognize that death penalty is a racist, immoral system that is broken beyond repair. Yet, it appears that Los Angeles County has yet to get the message.
Since 2012, 22 people have been sentenced to death and all of them are people of color. That is more than the amount of people sentenced to death in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia combined, and higher than anywhere else in the country.
Indeed, our county has uncritically embraced capital punishment as a means of accountability while simultaneously costing taxpayers millions and failing to make us safer. Numerous studies have found that the death penalty has little to no deterrent effect on crime, is rife with racial inequality, and according to the Equal Justice Initiative, for every nine people executed, one has been exonerated. That is why I and over 75 other legal professors and scholars have written an open letter demanding an end to this arbitrary and discriminatory practice in Los Angeles County.
Throughout the United States, a growing number of reform-minded prosecutors are rejecting the death penalty and embracing smart justice policies including rehabilitation programs and new approaches to reviewing and prosecuting serious crimes. Despite the growing movement towards meaningful and practical reforms, Los Angeles has taken a backseat to embracing forward-thinking policies. This approach has left us stuck in the past and disproportionately killing people of color.
California has historically been a leader when it comes to progressive policies and much-needed reforms. Our state led and continues to be at the forefront of minimum wage increases, Medicaid expansion, climate justice, LGBTQ rights, marijuana legalization, and other advancements. Why then is Los Angeles abusing the outdated and biased practice of capital punishment, especially when violent crime is at a historic low?
Simply put: Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
District Attorneys hold tremendous power in the justice system. District Attorneys decide who gets charged, what crimes to charge, and they have enormous influence over the punishment meted out. As officers of the court, they must pursue justice, not revenge. As elected officials, they have a duty to listen to the will of the people of Los Angeles County, who have rejected capital punishment in the last two elections. Most importantly, they have the power to end the abhorrent and anachronistic practice of state-sanctioned killing. That means that L.A. County’s reliance on the death penalty could end now if Jackie Lacey is courageous enough to implement meaningful criminal justice reform.
Use of discretion to oppose the death penalty is not without precedent. As the District Attorney of San Francisco, Kamala Harris refused to pursue the death penalty. In March, Governor Newsom issued a moratorium on the death penalty, putting a halt to all executions.
Nationally, capital punishment is becoming increasingly obsolete and death sentences are plummeting. Last year, juries returned death sentences in just 42 murder cases, compared to 315 in 1996. Throughout the United States, more than 21 jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty; five jurisdictions have issued a moratorium on executions, and eight jurisdictions, including the federal government, have shown significant declines in death penalty sentencing.
Yet, District Attorney Lacey continues to seek the death penalty despite its many harms.
In Los Angeles County, the use of the death penalty actively targets and punishes those who are least able to afford a quality defense. A new report from the ACLU shows that out of the 22 death penalty verdicts during DA Lacey’s tenure, eight defendants had lawyers who were previously or subsequently disbarred, suspended or charged with misconduct. And a ninth defendant had a lawyer who repeatedly fell asleep throughout his trial. According to numerous studies, the quality of defense counsel is the single biggest factor in determining whether someone will be sentenced to death. In the United States, whether you live or die should not turn on whether you can pay for a good lawyer.
Read the story on LA Daily News
#ChangeLawyers Part 2 I was in juvenile hall. Here’s why it should be abolished.
The following editorial was written by Leticia Silot, 18, an organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Center. She lives in San Francisco.
As I was leaving juvenile hall after my first time there, I remember one of the guards saying to me with all the confidence in the world: “Trust me, I’ll see you again soon.”
He was right. I was sent to San Francisco’s juvenile hall, called the Youth Guidance Center, four times for sentences lasting anywhere from two weeks to two months. I was living without my parents at the time, so I did things to make money to survive. Instead of rehabilitating me, juvenile hall only made me feel less in control of my life.
It’s a system that shouldn’t exist, and it’s time to abolish it. Juvenile hall is a relic of the past: kids, mostly young people of color, ripped from their families and communities and put behind bars because the government can’t figure out what else to do with us. San Francisco alone is spending $300,000 every year for each young person locked up at juvenile hall, and for what? My experience in juvenile hall, and from working with others who spent time there, has taught me how wasteful it is to spend so much on incarcerating kids. It’s money that could be spent on programs and other efforts that actually help young people find a place and a voice in the world, instead of ruining their lives.
Abolishing juvenile detention is not just idealistic talk; it could really happen. Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to pass legislation that would shut down juvenile hall for good and put the savings into youth programs that actually work. San Francisco now has a chance to do better by young people — and to set an example for the rest of the country.
Research has shown that incarcerating young people doesn’t work — in fact, time in “juvie” is the single largest predictor of future incarceration.
Spending time in juvenile hall makes you feel hopeless. On some days, I was locked in my cell for up to 24 hours for getting in trouble with staff, for things like wanting to brush my teeth. On these days, I could only come out of my cell for 30 minutes at night. I couldn’t talk to anyone during meals. I was put in shackles to go to my cell or to see my probation officer — basically, anytime they moved me from one unit to the next, even within the facility. Once, I received an extra hour in my cell as penalty for being in possession of a peanut butter cup.
Not many people talk about what it’s like to be a young woman inside those walls. All day, every day, you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, exposed. We’re separated from the men, yet kept in confinement. You’re trying to hold on to anything you deem as "normal" but aren’t even given proper clothes to cover up. They cycled the same underwear among all the girls. They told us they didn’t have money for deodorant, so we went without it.
This is your life now. Get used to it, I remember thinking.
After my longest sentence in juvenile hall — two months, after which I knew I didn’t ever want to go back — I was introduced to the life-changing programs of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. It’s run for and by formerly incarcerated girls and women, like me, to empower those impacted by the juvenile justice system to create positive change in our community.
I found people there who would check on me after I got out and keep me on track. I found my voice and purpose and reclaimed my independence to take my life on a different path. This is one of many alternative programs in my city that work with incarcerated youth to help us turn our lives around. Now, as an organizer with the center, I get to help other young people so they don’t end where I was: looking out a blurry cell window day after day, feeling trapped and broken.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Young people need community care, not cages. Juvenile hall did not help me at all. Instead, let’s use the money for opportunities that give young people a decent shot at a better future.
Read the story on Buzzfeed News
More of This Neighbors form human chain to protect family from ICE
Say it Louder: Judges are overwhelmingly white, and that’s causing a crisis of legitimacy
The following editorial was written by Alicia Bannon and Laila Robbins, who work in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The nation’s courts have a checkered history when it comes to doling out justice for people of color and women. We often focus on the egregious outcomes — racial disparities in sentencing, over-incarceration of black men, courts that ignore survivors of sexual violence. Less often do we consider which factors might contribute to these injustices, including the race and gender of the justices who sit on the top state courts.
We reviewed 60 years of data and found that those who preside over these often overlooked but powerful institutions continue to be overwhelmingly white and male. This lack of diversity creates a legitimacy crisis for the justice system.
While national attention is often focused on the United States Supreme Court, the top courts in each state typically are the final word on interpreting state law and making decisions that more than 23,000 lower state court judges are to follow. Ninety-five percent of all cases filed in the United States are heard in state courts.
Those courts decide some of the most pressing issues affecting our lives. In recent years, state supreme courts have reversed billion-dollar verdicts in consumer protection cases, authorized executions using experimental drugs, barred localities from regulating fracking and struck down restrictive abortion laws.
But seldom do these courts look anything like an increasingly diverse America.
We found that nearly half of all states do not have a single justice sitting on their high courts who is black, Asian, Latino, or Native American — even though people of color make up about 40 percent of the population. In eight of the 24 states with all-white high courts, people of color make up at least a quarter of the population. Thirteen states have not seated a single justice of color since at least 1960. Eighteen states have never seated a black justice.
The dearth of gender diversity is also appalling. Women hold only 36 percent of the seats on top state courts. Seventeen states have only one female justice. (State supreme court benches have five to nine justices.)
We also found that not only are state high court judges overwhelmingly homogeneous, but also, by some measures, state courts are becoming less reflective of the nation’s diversity than they were a generation ago. While there are more lawyers of color than ever before, we found that the gap between the proportion of people of color on the bench and their representation in the American population was higher in 2017 than it was in 1996.
The public legitimacy of our entire judicial system is under threat if the judges making crucial decisions about the law don’t reflect the diversity of the communities affected. As former Justice Yvette McGee Brown of the Ohio Supreme Court observed, the public’s perception of justice suffers “when the only people of color in a courthouse are in handcuffs.”
Read the story on NY Times
Speaking of… Exonerations show the failure that is our justice system
SEVENTY CONVICTED murderers had their guilty verdicts thrown out last year, the highest number since researchers at the University of Michigan Law School began tracking exonerations in 1989. African Americans were disproportionately represented among them, which is unsurprising given that over the past 30 years blacks have been seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of homicide than whites.
Still, it was remarkable when Corey Atchison, a 48-year-old black man, last week had his homicide conviction thrown out by a judge in Tulsa, Okla., three years after his younger brother was cleared, also of a first-degree murder conviction, by the same judge — in a completely unrelated case. The brothers’ wrongful convictions represent the sort of serial failure of justice that wrecks lives and shreds confidence in the system.
In the case of Mr. Atchison and his brother, Malcolm Scott, the system produced what Oklahoma District Judge Sharon Holmes concluded were fundamental miscarriages of justice that resulted in the two men serving a combined total of close to 50 years behind bars — nearly 30 for Mr. Atchison; 21 for Mr. Scott. In 2017, Mr. Scott, in a federal lawsuit seeking damages for his wrongful conviction from the city of Tulsa and a pair of former detectives, declared he wanted compensation for “unfathomable wrongs” that robbed him of his liberty as a 17-year-old.
In both cases, those wrongs appear to have involved police investigators who coerced witnesses into giving false testimony. Without those witnesses, the judge said of Mr. Atchison’s case, it’s unlikely a jury would have found him guilty in the murder of James Lane, who was shot to death in a robbery in 1990. Other witnesses whose accounts might have persuaded a jury to find Mr. Atchison not guilty were not called to testify in his 1991 trial.
The reversal of Mr. Scott’s murder conviction, and that of a co-defendant, De’Marchoe Carpenter, involved the drive-by shooting death of a 19-year-old woman, Karen Summers. Both men, teenagers when they were convicted, were sentenced to life in prison. It was only with the help of a private investigator and the Oklahoma Innocence Project, a clinic at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, that another man, against whom charges in the same murder were dropped, ultimately confessed that he fired the fatal shots. (His confession came just before he was executed, in 2014, for another murder.) Other witnesses recanted the testimony they gave at trial.
The private investigator, Eric Cullen, began looking into Mr. Scott’s and Mr. Carpenter’s convictions in 2006 and quickly concluded that they were innocent; it took a decade for a court to reach the same conclusion. As it happens, Mr. Cullen was also instrumental in unearthing evidence and testimony that led to Mr. Atchison’s exoneration.
The fact of Mr. Cullen’s involvement, more than any innate self-corrective mechanism in the judicial system, was the critical factor in these cases. Had he not come along, and had he been less persistent, the men would likely still be incarcerated — and would have remained so until their deaths. Which raises the question: How many other wrongly convicted men and women are wasting away behind bars, victims of overzealous or corrupt police and prosecutors and a judicial system too often ill-equipped to render its most basic obligation: justice?
Read the story on Washington Post
Less of This The shocking lack of lawyers in rural America
The following article was written by JESSICA PISHKO, a writer and the lead attorney for the 2019 Rural Criminal Justice Summit for the Deason Criminal Justice Center at SMU Law School in Dallas, Texas.
LaSalle Parish, Louisiana, a rural agricultural region, is in almost the exact center of the state. In Louisiana, a parish is the equivalent of a county. LaSalle is marked with creeks and rivers that have been rerouted to make space for fast-food restaurants and trailer parks. The biggest town is Jena, with a population of just over 3,000, where one-story clapboard buildings have been constructed around a small downtown.
Scott Franklin was first elected as the LaSalle Parish sheriff in 2007 on a promise to reduce the presence of drug dealers. One of his best-known campaigns, dubbed Operation Fielder’s Choice, was a large-scale drug operation based on three options that Franklin gave to drug dealers when he became sheriff: quit, leave the parish, or go to jail.
In October 2014, a 31-year-old woman named Charty Berry, who had been arrested for driving with a suspended license and had an extensive history of arrests, entered into a deal to “make cases,” or purchase drugs for the purpose of arrests, for detectives working on Operation Fielder’s Choice in order to receive favorable treatment on her pending criminal charges. The detectives also agreed to pay Berry $100 a case. Three months later, Berry told Detective Brant King that she would be able to purchase prescription hydrocodone from a friend of hers, Charles Keene, who lived with his wife, Sherrie, in Tullos, a town of fewer than 400 people. The detectives gave her $20 to purchase the drugs, as well as a wristwatch with a hidden video camera that Berry would use to record the drug buy.
Berry put on the watch, walked to Keene’s home, and knocked on the door. She spoke with both Keene and his wife, recording the entire interaction. Berry later testified that Keene initially said he didn’t have anything to sell her. Then, he seemed to change his mind, telling Berry that he could get some pain pills “from his kin folk,” and asked Berry for $10 a pill. Keene gave Berry two hydrocodone pills from his prescription bottle and took Berry’s $20, telling her he would use the money to replace the pills later. Before leaving, Berry told Keene he was an “all right fellow.”
Less than an hour later, Berry gave the detectives the watch and two hydrocodone pills. In August, the sheriff’s office used that as evidence to arrest both Charles and Sherrie Keene and charge them with distribution of and conspiracy to distribute hydrocodone. The Keenes weren’t the only ones arrested in the summer of 2015 on drug charges. All told, the sheriff’s office picked up 19 people who had been set up by Berry. Most of them were kept in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. The LaSalle Parish District Attorney, J. Reed Walters, without outing Berry as the informant, charged them with drug-related crimes ranging from distribution to criminal conspiracy to distribute, some of which can carry substantial prison terms.
Until that point, these events could have taken place in any number of towns in the U.S. But what happened next reflects the serious lack of resources in the criminal-justice system in rural areas such as LaSalle Parish. Everyone charged with a crime was appointed a public defender by the judge, as promised by the Constitution. But only three public defenders served the entire parish, working for the 28th Judicial District Court, and they each had more than three times the state’s recommended caseload; all held second or even third jobs to make their own ends meet. In fact, at the time the Keenes were arrested, the public defender’s office was operating under a “restricted services” agreement, which tried to limit the new cases the office took on.
Another complication: Two of the public defenders had at some point represented Berry, and the third had overseen them and knew about Berry’s cases in great detail. According to rules of professional conduct for lawyers, it would be unethical for them to represent any of the 19 defendants. The public defender’s office knew about Berry’s role in the cases, though that fact had not yet been made public, and as a result, its lawyers began to pursue ways to get conflict-free counsel for the defendants. In the meantime, the attorneys didn’t work on the cases, and nothing moved forward.
Charles Keene, who still lives in LaSalle Parish, said in a phone conversation that being in jail was one of the low points in his life: “You have no clue how humanity has gotten,” he said. “You realize, Oh my God, there are the people you hear about on Cops.”
Derrick Carson, the lead public defender for the 28th Judicial District Court, sought funding from the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which oversees public defenders in the state, to bring in outside defense attorneys. Carson told me his request for more defense attorneys came at a time when his office, and public defender’soffices across Louisiana, already faced severe budget deficits: He had cut salaries, including his own, and asked for a rent abatement from his office’s landlord. The board said it did not have funding available.
While there would have been a substantial wait time anyway for the cases to be resolved, between the restriction of services and the infrequency of court, the conflict-of-interest problem made the wait even longer. All through 2015, Keene and the others waited in limbo, most of them in jail.
Over the past five years, criminal-justice advocacy groups have successfully campaigned to elect progressive prosecutors, reduce the use of money bail, and improve jail and prison conditions. But these reformers, as well as academics, have generally focused on big-city policing and jails. Think of the days-long protest, in February 2019, over the loss of heat at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Hundreds of people stood outside in the record freezing temperatures until the power came back on. Congressional representatives and candidates for president declared their support. The incident made national headlines. Yet, when 19 people in LaSalle Parish were arrested and detained without adequate representation—all for nonviolent crimes instigated by a paid informant—few outside the parish knew about it.
Read the story on The Atlantic
Less of This Too Students at Harvard Law received hate-filled texts, and the school's response is concerning
Four first-year Harvard Law School students said they have been targeted by racist and sexist emails and text messages from a fellow student and are accusing the school of not doing enough to deal with the threats.
In an email to the dean of the law school, the students described the messages as containing “racist taunts about affirmative action and intelligence” and “body-shaming” language, along with “other personal insults.”
The messages were sent from an anonymous person to black and women students in a section of their first-year class between December 2018 and March 2019.
Chris Volcy, one of the students who was targeted, said the messages made her feel “unsafe [and] uncomfortable going to class.”
“It was all we could think about … all we could talk about, all we were focusing on, instead of our schoolwork,” said Volcy.
The students told BuzzFeed News that they have an idea of who the suspect is. Two of the black students said they feel the attacks were racially motivated, while two other women students believe they were targeted because of personal issues with the suspected sender.
Regardless of intent, all of the students told BuzzFeed News the harassment has left them scared and uncomfortable in class and unable to focus fully on their schoolwork. One of the students, Chelsea Rooney, told BuzzFeed News the messages disturbed her enough that she felt compelled to report them to the administration.
“In the era of school shootings, in this era of white supremacy, really, and the violence and anger that goes along with that, I think it was our duty as students to bring this forward,” said Rooney. “It would have been really irresponsible for us to receive these messages, know that someone is exhibiting really bizarre behavior, and not say anything.”
However, Rooney and the others claim their reports fell on deaf ears, and they are accusing Harvard Law of ignoring their concerns.
The Dean of Students for Harvard Law School, Marcia Lynn Sells, told BuzzFeed News that none of the messages that the students received “threaten[ed] any type of violence.”
Read the story on Buzzfeed News