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Say It Louder The most progressive, diverse court in the country just did something extraordinary
The Washington Supreme Court is on a roll. On March 11, it took the unprecedented step of outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for people under the age of 21—making Washington the first state in the nation to extend such protections to defendants who, while technically adults at the time of their crime, have greater potential for rehabilitation because of their youth. The previous month, a majority of the court struck down Washington’s drug possession law, effectively legalizing possession of controlled substances while overturning thousands of convictions going back decades. And, in January, the court made it easier for victims of police misconduct to sue law enforcement officers who violate their rights.
This extraordinary series of decisions shows how a diverse and progressive judiciary can make the country a more just and equitable place. The Washington Supreme Court’s members exemplify the kind of judges whom Joe Biden should be looking for as he prepares to announce his first slate of judicial nominees. To counter the current dominance of conservative ideology in the federal judiciary, liberals can’t rely on moderates committed to minimalism; they need a distinct vision of the law as a force of justice that guarantees equal rights and dignity to those who are impoverished, unpopular, and powerless. To find one, they need only look to Washington state.
Because it interprets its own state constitution, the Washington Supreme Court has much more leeway than a federal court to depart from SCOTUS jurisprudence. States’ high courts have final say over the meaning of their own state constitutions, which gives justices room to expand rights that SCOTUS has constricted under the federal Constitution. Many state constitutions, including Washington’s, provide greater protections than the federal Constitution. That’s why, in 2018, the Washington Supreme Court has permanently banned the death penalty and prohibited sentences of life without parole for juveniles—two steps SCOTUS has refused to take.
Those decisions were a preview of things to come. In 2019 and 2020, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee appointed two new justices to the court: Raquel Montoya-Lewis, a Jewish Native American woman, and Grace Helen Whitener, a disabled Black lesbian immigrant. (In November, the state voted overwhelmingly to keep both women on the bench.) There, they joined Justice Mary Yu, an Asian American Latina lesbian, as well as Steven González, the current chief justice, who is Hispanic, and one of just two men on the nine-member court. Inslee’s appointees created the most diverse high court in American history.
Read the story on Slate
Say Her Name The pain, grief, and fury of Samaria Rice
Samaria Rice has every right to be angry at the world. On November 22nd of 2014, Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed her 12-year-old baby boy, Tamir, in what could best be described as a drive-by shooting. Loehmann, who had been fired for emotional instability and gross incompetence from another police department before he could even finish basic training, never should’ve hired in Cleveland - where they failed to even check his records. Had they done so, they would’ve learned that his superiors literally said that he should never work in law enforcement again.
The sheer number of people and systems who’ve failed Samaria Rice is so long. The people who failed to check Timothy Loehmann’s background failed her. The man who called 911 on Tamir Rice in spite of knowing that Tamir was a child and believing that he was playing with toys, failed her. The 911 operator who failed to inform police that Tamir was a child and only suspected of playing with toys failed her. Of course, Timothy Loehmann, who shot and killed Tamir with seconds of seeing him, failed her, but so did all of the police who showed up that day, as they mercilessly let Tamir bleed out in agony on the ground without offering him an ounce of comfort or aid. Those same officers then tackled Tamir’s sister and locked her in a police car when she saw what happened to her baby brother.
The city failed Samaria when they literally sent her a bill for the ambulance that arrived on the scene on that horrible day. The local prosecutors who failed to hold police accountable for Tamir’s murder obviously failed Samaria. As did the Attorney General and Governor of Ohio who each refused to use their authority to do anything substantive on the case.
Read the story on The North Star
More of This Meet the first openly transgender Black woman to hold office
Andrea Jenkins lives just a few blocks away from 38th and Chicago, the crossroads in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed on 25 May last year. She spent two decades of her life working to revitalise the community there, and kicked off her 2017 campaign for the city council’s Eighth ward in an arts centre a few yards away.
After Floyd’s death, when the crossroads became a space for collective mourning, Jenkins visited every day. But in the midst of a bitter Minneapolis winter and with the neighbourhood reeling from the long-term effects of Floyd’s death, Jenkins hasn’t been in months.
“It breaks my heart,” she says. “I knew every single business owner up there by name. Many of them are struggling – the few who are still there.” After years of economic upswing and community growth, Floyd’s death changed everything. “ When I walk through there, especially in winter time, it’s cold, people are shivering, there’s fire burning out of garbage cans. It looks like a scene out of Mad Max.”
These are the consequences of fatal police violence in countless societies around the US, where the ramifications can extend beyond personal grief and trauma, and deep into the fabric of local community relations. But in the case of George Floyd, the repercussions spread so much wider – throughout the world – igniting a global discussion on race and racism.
Jenkins, the first Black, openly transgender woman elected to public office in the US, became one of the most forceful voices to emanate from Minneapolis. She is not only a politician but also a poet, oral historian and an activist. She sang gospel in front of the nation’s media at a press conference in the days after Floyd’s death and played a central role in re-examining how the city’s long-criticised police force was funded. She insisted that racism be treated as a national public health emergency. And this month, with the murder trial of former officer Derek Chauvin, she is trying to prepare the city for the potential fallout.
Read the story on The Guardian
More of This Too Clemency for 100 women in Biden’s first 100 days
More than 200,000 women and girls are incarcerated in this country — 10,000 of them in federal prisons — and Danielle Metz used to be one of them.
Metz was married to an alleged drug kingpin and had two small children, 3 and 7 years old, when she was sentenced in 1993 for drug conspiracy and money laundering convictions. She had never been in legal trouble before, "not even a traffic ticket," she says. "I was sentenced to three life sentences and when I came in the system they didn't have parole or anything like that anymore. So I was just doing time day for day. The process was really hard. My family didn't know what to do in the beginning. I had exhausted my appeals. Clemency was my only hope.”
Nothing came of Metz's first clemency petition, however things started to change when prosecutors wrote a letter to the Office of the Pardon Attorney on her behalf. In August 2016, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.
"That was after 23 years and 8 months of serving," Metz says.
The U.S. Constitution gives the president power to grant clemency for a person who committed a federal crime. Typically that's either a commutation, which reduces a person's sentence, or a pardon, which absolves them of a crime. Metz works now with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. As part of a clemency campaign, the group is asking President Biden to grant clemency to 100 women during his first 100 days in office.
The Council's founder and executive director Andrea James says draconian penalties and mandatory minimum sentences that escalated the country's "war on drugs" including the 1994 crime bill and the government's increased use of drug conspiracy charges swept up too many people who had marginal if any roles in drug trafficking.
"When I was in federal prison, there were women that were there for conspiracy who never touched a drug, they didn't see a drug," says James, who was incarcerated for two years on a wire fraud conviction. "If you took conspiracy out of the equation, you could not justify these women sitting in prison for 10, 15, 20, 25 years and life without parole sentences and it's just absolutely heartbreaking."
Read the story on NPR
Perspective Virtually no one is dangerous enough to justify jail
Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson are assistant professors of law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and the University of Virginia School of Law, respectively.
Every day, jails in the U.S. hold close to half a million people who are legally presumed innocent. When people who have been arrested can’t afford or are denied bail, they are locked in concrete cages that are sometimes littered with excrement, often subject to extreme heat or cold, always rife with disease and violence, and always steeped in humiliation, distress, and fear. In recent years, one-fifth of the incarcerated population hasn’t even been convicted of a crime.
The stated rationale for most pretrial detention is public safety. Current law authorizes detention (or unaffordable money bail) if the accused person presents a threat. Supreme Court doctrine suggests that the threat must be grave enough to outweigh the defendant’s right to liberty. Yet there has been no serious attempt to figure out how “risky” a person must be for detention to be justified on these grounds.
We conducted a survey study to help answer that question. And we learned that, if you ask people to consider the harms that both crime and jail inflict as if they themselves could experience either one, their answer is clear: Jail is rarely justified as a means of harm prevention.
To explain the study, let’s return to the legal justification for pretrial detention (or unaffordable bail). Once upon a time, flight risk was the principal concern in the pretrial phase. In today’s interconnected world, however, few people pose a true risk of flight. Nowadays, the primary justification for keeping accused people in jail is to prevent a future crime. Remember, though, that we are talking about people who have not been convicted. The government has no right to impose punishment before a conviction. It does not claim that pretrial detention is deserved. The legal rationale for detention is simply that its safety benefits outweigh the harm that it inflicts. The public good outweighs the individual cost.
Read the story on The Appeal
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