Say Her Name The South’s first and only Black woman Chief Justice
It was late October, only a week after Fair Wayne Bryant walked out of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Bryant’s freedom had not been preordained. The 63-year-old was more than two decades into a life sentence for breaking into a carport storeroom in Shreveport. Bryant’s arrest stemmed from a police search of a van he was riding in where hedge clippers were found. The owner of the home said that the hedge clippers belonged to him; Bryant denied taking them and Bryant’s cousin said they were his.
He had been intermittently incarcerated since he was a young man.
Bryant was previously convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, for the 1979 attempted robbery of a cab driver during which an accomplice shot the driver. He was then convicted in 1987 for the theft of multiple telephones, a remote control, and “a robot” from RadioShack, and sentenced to two years of hard labor. In 1991, he was sentenced to 18 months of hard labor after forging a $150 check. Then, in 1992, he was sentenced to four years for another burglary.
The now-infamous life sentence, covered everywhere from the Guardian to CNN, was a result of Caddo Parish district attorneys invoking the state’s habitual offender statute—in August 1997 and again in February 2000.
For decades, Caddo was a snakepit of racism in which Black people were wrongfully prosecuted and frequently prevented from serving on juries at a courthouse that, until 2011, proudly displayed the flag of the Confederacy. Attorneys for Felton Dorsey, a Black man sentenced to death in Caddo Parish in 2009 for killing a white former firefighter, wrote in a brief that he suffered discrimination in his case because Black people were struck from his jury and “the quintessential symbol of white supremacy looms over the courthouse.”
As The Appeal chronicled in 2019, under the habitual offender statute, a district attorney “can file to have a person’s punishment enhanced based on their criminal history.” In practice, the freedom to inflict a disproportionate penalty meant that a person could be sentenced to 13 years in prison for possessing about three grams of marijuana, and another could face 20 years to life for stealing $31 worth of candy.
Such sentences were so flagrantly excessive that, in 2017, state lawmakers significantly lessened the punishments. These reforms, signed into law by Governor John Bel Edwards, didn’t benefit Bryant because his sentence was deemed legal at the time it was imposed.
And yet, here Bryant was, chatting via Zoom. He’s got a gleaming bald pate, a kink in his back, and some pain in his shoulder. He’s flummoxed by cellphones, having last used a push-button model.
Bryant was recalling where he learned of the dissent, written by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Bernette Johnson—the first and only Black woman to hold the position.
Read the story on The Appeal
More of This The civil rights lawyer who made being a Black man in America look effortless
Vernon Jordan came from humble beginnings and grew up in a segregated America, yet he moved through the world in the manner of someone who owned it. He was a Black man who knew what it meant to be called the n-word, not in a burst of anger but with cruel nonchalance. He knew what it meant to be underestimated.
In response to these indignities, he used his physical presence — his formidable height, his confident bearing, his politicized skin tone and his pitch-perfect style — to rise above those who would insult his humanity.
Jordan — who died at his home Monday at 85 — was a civil rights activist, an NAACP supporter and a Washington insider. He worked on voter registration at the grass-roots level, and he agitated for diversity within corporate America. He was part of the Establishment at a time when that was an accomplishment rather than a character flaw. He was considered a credit to his race back when such an assessment was met with accolades rather than allusions to respectability politics.
Jordan was a power broker who sealed his deals with charisma and charm, who held secrets close and held the so-called race card even closer, not because it was the ace up his sleeve but because it was a badge of honor.
So much of what gave Jordan stature and influence both with presidents and everyday folks is among the tools and characteristics that today have become suspect. Certainly, circumstances have changed and some of the scandals and ethical lapses that this former Washington fixer might once have been called in to repair have been deemed not worth the effort or simply beyond mending.
Read the story on Washington Post
Watch This This is how raids became a favorite tool of police
Less of This How prisons undermine American democracy
In a series of cases in the 1960s, the Supreme Court articulated a principle that fundamentally changed American democracy: one person, one vote. The creed, which is considered constitutional law and has never been overturned, meant that legislative districts had to be apportioned to have roughly equal populations. Before then, rural districts were significantly overrepresented in state legislatures, and in some cases, state senators from rural areas had just about 10,000 constituents while their urban counterparts had millions. Yet in spite of the Supreme Court’s many rulings on the issue, American democracy still does not adhere to “one person, one vote” in practice — and not only when it comes to the completely lopsided apportionment of the US Senate or the Electoral College.
Across the country, there are legislative districts that use prison inmates to artificially boost their population, a practice known as prison gerrymandering. By counting inmates as residents of their prisons rather than of their homes, elected officials from counties with large prison populations have fewer voting constituents. In effect, that boosts the voting power of people who happen to live near prisons, and dilutes the voting power of the communities that prisoners come from.
In some cases, prisoners make up the majority of a legislative district. And because incarcerated people are barred from voting in all but two states and Washington, D.C., representatives from those districts feel compelled to cater to the needs of only a minority of their constituents if they wish to be reelected. Prisoners seldom hear from their local elected officials, and in many cases don’t even know who they are as a result. This is not because these representatives are inherently sinister actors — though not responding to the needs of incarcerated constituents is a failure of leadership and the duty to serve a district in its entirety — but because the system encourages elected officials to ignore their prison populations.
Read the story on Boston Globe
Speaking Of… Prisons are getting whiter. That’s how mass incarceration might end.
President Biden has come a long way since his “Lock the SOBs up” days, pledging on the campaign trail to cut incarceration by 50 percent — and even “go further.” Such a proposition would need support in all 50 states, because the federal government oversees only about 10 percent of the 2.1 million Americans who are behind bars. And that presents a huge obstacle to the president’s ambitious goal: Research shows that many White Americans see incarceration as a “Black problem,” and the more they see it that way, the less willing they are to do anything about it.
Biden and others might surmount this resistance, however, by highlighting a surprising trend: White Americans have been filling jails and prisons at increasing rates in the 21st century. Reducing incarceration, reformers can credibly argue, will benefit Whites as much as Blacks.
It’s true that the criminal justice system is suffused with racial biases that harm African Americans and Hispanics while favoring Whites. But consider some data, beginning with jails. Jails are operated mainly by cities and counties and generally hold inmates for less than a year. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that since 2000, the rate of being jailed increased 41 percent among Whites while declining 22 percent among African Americans. Beginning in 2017, the White rate of being jailed surpassed that of Hispanics for the first time in living memory. And in 2018, Whites became 50 percent of the jail population, particularly notable because Whites represent a lower proportion of the U.S. population than they have in centuries.
Prisons, operated by states and the federal government, hold individuals who have committed more serious crimes. Unlike jails, their overall population has been shrinking, but parallel racial dynamics are evident. The White rate of imprisonment is down only 12 percent in this century, whereas the Hispanic rate has fallen 18 percent and the Black rate is down a remarkable 40 percent. The trend of African Americans leaving prison is accelerating, dropping Black imprisonment rates to levels not seen in 30 years. The causes are still debated, but the collapse in urban crime most likely played a role.
Read the story on Washington Post
Ethics & Wellness Webinars
Learn how to examine and observe your mental wellbeing. Presented by the California Judges Association and OCBA Diversity & Inclusion Committee
More info and sign up here