by California ChangeLawyers
News Brief is the news letter for vigilant optimist. We hand-pick social justice stories and deliver them to your inbox every Wednesday night. Thanks for reading!
by California ChangeLawyers
Podcast of the Week The Power of ChangeLawyers
On this episode of Attorney Heart, attorney Chris Punongbayan shares his powerful advocacy as the executive director of California ChangeLawyers. We discuss the importance of diversity in the profession and Chris introduces us to the definition of a Change Lawyer. Chris explains the purpose of California ChangeLawyers and how it focuses on investing in bright, diverse legal changemakers.
Listen to Attorney Heart Podcast >
#ChangeLawyers Meet the lawyers who have saved their clients a million days in jail
On any given day in this nation’s courtrooms, there’s a parade of defendants struggling with homelessness, mental illness or drug addiction.
That is the fundamental insight of “holistic defense,” a form of legal representation pioneered in the Bronx two decades ago. Using this method, public defender’s offices not only help clients with their court cases but also try to address the life circumstances that led them to commit crimes in the first place.
And according to one of the first ever large-scale, empirical studies of holistic defenders’ effectiveness, helping people with their life problems often gets them out of jail, too.
In drug cases, those represented holistically saw their likelihood of serving time decrease by 25 percent; expected sentence lengths were reduced by 63 percent.
Over 10 years, defendants under the holistic model spent 1.1 million fewer days behind bars. About 4,500 people who otherwise would have gone to jail avoided it completely.
At a holistic defender’s office, clients are not represented by a single defense attorney; instead, they’re furnished with a team of criminal, civil and family attorneys, social workers and non-lawyer specialists who help with their housing issues, food stamps and other public benefits. Together, these advocates identify the biggest challenges in each defendant’s life and communicate that information to judges, who otherwise face an assembly line of indistinguishable cases proceeding before them each day.
Of course, not every jurisdiction in America can afford—or has the political will to provide—this caliber of legal services to poor people. Many public defender’s offices around the country have claimed to be “holistic” (it’s become something of a buzzword), but few have the actual staffing and training to back it up. In rural areas, social workers, drug-treatment providers and mental-health services, let alone high-quality lawyers, are few and far between.
“It is very difficult to get policymakers to say that they will fund $1 more than what is constitutionally required,” said David Carroll, executive director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center.
Justine Olderman, executive director of The Bronx Defenders, acknowledged in an interview that her organization’s demonstrated effectiveness is possible in part because of the robust funding dispensed by the city of New York as well as the philanthropic donations available there.
But the new RAND study found that holistic defense saved New York taxpayers $165 million in incarceration costs over a decade, offsetting the higher price tag of hiring social workers and staffing for a range of client needs.
For Wendy Porrata, 45, though, holistic representation has been a lasting blessing. After running up a long rap sheet of drug-related arrests in the 1990s and early 2000s, she relied on The Bronx Defenders not just to get her out of jail, she says, but also for a couch to sleep on (in their office) and even help with her schoolwork.
Now, she’s a professional social worker herself. “We should bottle up whatever [they] did for me,” she said, “and provide it to people everywhere.”
Story by the Marshall Project >
More of This In Texas' biggest county, voters that sweep in diverse judges into office
Beto O’Rourke didn’t manage to boot Ted Cruz from the Senate this week, but he got a consolation prize: His long-shot race for Congress drew an unprecedented number of Democratic voters to the Texas polls. As a result, their party swept every judicial seat in the state’s most populous county, knocking out Republican judges who had staunchly opposed bail reform and sent kids of color into juvenile detention at shockingly high rates.
In Harris County, which is home to Houston and the third-largest county in the United States, Democrats unseated 59 Republican judges—including 23 district judges, 13 family court judges, eight county civil judges and probate judges, and 15 misdemeanor judges. Of the newly appointed Democrats, an unprecedented 17 are black women, significantly changing the face of a judiciary that had been primarily white. Democrats also fared unexpectedly well in the state’s appellate courts, almost all of which were dominated by Republicans. The Third Court of Appeals flipped to Democratic control, a crucial victory given that its jurisdiction includes Austin and its judges often hear challenges to laws passed by the statehouse. Republicans also lost control of the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas, which hasn’t had a Democratic judge since the early 1990s.
The judicial sweep in Harris County could have major ramifications for criminal justice reform. For the past two years, the county has been embroiled in a lawsuit over its practice of keeping people accused of misdemeanors locked up in jail simply because they don’t have enough money for bail. In 2016, videos released by the Texas Organizing Project showed local bond hearing officers were routinely setting cash bonds for mentally ill and homeless defendants without taking into account their ability to pay. Sometimes the officers were even increasing the bond amount to punish the defendants. In 2017, a federal judge made national headlines when she ruled this bail system was unconstitutional. She required the county to free almost everyone accused of minor crimes within a day of their arrest, whether or not they had enough money to cover bail.
The county’s Republican judges quickly appealed, spending millions of dollars on the legal fight. But after the midterms, all those judges are on their way out, and the Democrats who replaced them are eager for change. “People are stuck in jail and pleading [guilty] just because they can’t afford it,” Alex Salgado, a Democrat who unseated Judge Paula Goodhart, told the Texas Observer. “That’s not how it should work.” It’s likely the Democratic judges will settle the bail lawsuit, says Jay Jenkins of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
The Democratic sweep could also mean big changes for juvenile justice. In October, Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle revealed that two Harris County judges were responsible for more than 20 percent of all the kids sent to juvenile detention in the entire state. “The two courts—overseen by Judges Glenn Devlin and John Phillips—not only sent more teens to juvenile prison, but they also sent them younger and for less-serious offenses than the county’s third juvenile court,” Blakinger wrote. “And, from all three courts, the kids sent to state lockups were almost all—about 96 percent—children of color.”
Story by Mother Jones >
Speaking of… Voters want criminal justice reform
THE RESULTS OF THE 2018 MIDTERMS are decidedly mixed. But while pollsters and pundits work to make sense of exactly what happened, one clear winner has emerged since Nov. 6: criminal justice reform.
Several state ballot measures reforming the criminal justice system passed with flying colors around the country. Floridians restored the right to vote to people with felony convictions; Louisiana abolished convictions based on non-unanimous juries; Washington state tightened up police accountability; and Colorado removed language in the state constitution allowing prison labor without pay.
The voters are ahead of politicians when it comes to criminal justice reform. Recent research we conducted for the Pretrial Justice Institute found that solid majorities of voters support major reform of the criminal justice system in the United States (57 percent), including nearly one-in-five voters (19 percent) who support a complete overhaul of the system. This sentiment crosses partisan lines, too, with majorities of Democrats (64 percent) and independents (58 percent) and nearly half of all Republicans (48 percent) backing the call for major reform of the criminal justice system.
Voters also reject the “War on Drugs.” A solid majority of Americans supports marijuana legalization, and in the absence of federal action, states have been taking steps to legalize marijuana and decriminalize opioid use. In Michigan, voters just approved an initiative legalizing recreational use and possession of marijuana, while voters in states as red as Oklahoma, Missouri and Utah approved medicinal marijuana initiatives. This follows on successful legalization efforts in nine other states and medical marijuana laws in more than a dozen others.
There is so much more to do. While Amendment 4 is indeed a progressive victory, even this reform is modest in scope, excluding entire classes of citizens who have served their time from having their voting rights restored, except by the governor and cabinet on a case by case basis. We ought to be going much further.
Politicians ignore the pressing need for criminal justice reform at their own peril. If they aren’t motivated by a personal sense of morality, or at least by the desire to conserve government funds, then the public’s clear desire for reform ought to catalyze their action. Change is coming and politicians of both parties can help lead the way—on a path trail blazed by voters.
Story by the Marshall Project >
Stay Vigilant The newest Jim Crow
The following op-ed was written by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
In the midterms, Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to legalize marijuana, Florida restored the vote to over 1.4 million people with felony convictions, and Louisiana passed a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials. These are the latest examples of the astonishing progress that has been made in the last several years on a wide range of criminal justice issues.
This progress is unquestionably good news, but there are warning signs blinking brightly. Many of the current reform efforts contain the seeds of the next generation of racial and social control, a system of “e-carceration” that may prove more dangerous and more difficult to challenge than the one we hope to leave behind.
Bail reform is a case in point. Thanks in part to new laws and policies — as well as actions like the mass bailout of inmates in New York City jails that’s underway — the unconscionable practice of cash bail is finally coming to an end. In August, California became the first state to decide to get rid of its cash bail system; last year, New Jersey virtually eliminated the use of money bonds.
But what’s taking the place of cash bail may prove even worse in the long run. In California, a presumption of detention will effectively replace eligibility for immediate release when the new law takes effect in October 2019. And increasingly, computer algorithms are helping to determine who should be caged and who should be set “free.” Freedom — even when it’s granted, it turns out — isn’t really free.
Under new policies in California, New Jersey, New York and beyond, “risk assessment” algorithms recommend to judges whether a person who’s been arrested should be released. These advanced mathematical models — or “weapons of math destruction” as data scientist Cathy O’Neil calls them — appear colorblind on the surface but they are based on factors that are not only highly correlated with race and class, but are also significantly influenced by pervasive bias in the criminal justice system.
As O’Neil explains, “It’s tempting to believe that computers will be neutral and objective, but algorithms are nothing more than opinions embedded in mathematics.”
Challenging these biased algorithms may be more difficult than challenging discrimination by the police, prosecutors and judges. Many algorithms are fiercely guarded corporate secrets.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be set “free” from a brick-and-mortar jail thanks to a computer algorithm, an expensive monitoring device likely will be shackled to your ankle — a GPS tracking device provided by a private company that may charge you around $300 per month, an involuntary leasing fee. Your permitted zones of movement may make it difficult or impossible to get or keep a job, attend school, care for your kids or visit family members. You’re effectively sentenced to an open-air digital prison, one that may not extend beyond your house, your block or your neighborhood. One false step (or one malfunction of the GPS tracking device) will bring cops to your front door, your workplace, or wherever they find you and snatch you right back to jail.
Who benefits from this? Private corporations. According to a report released last month by the Center for Media Justice, four large corporations — including the GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies — have most of the private contracts to provide electronic monitoring for people on parole in some 30 states, giving them a combined annual revenue of more than $200 million just for e-monitoring.
If you asked slaves if they would rather live with their families and raise their own children, albeit subject to “whites only signs,” legal discrimination and Jim Crow segregation, they’d almost certainly say: I’ll take Jim Crow. By the same token, if you ask prisoners whether they’d rather live with their families and raise their children, albeit with nearly constant digital surveillance and monitoring, they’d almost certainly say: I’ll take the electronic monitor. I would too.
Some insist that e-carceration is “a step in the right direction.” But where are we going with this? A growing number of scholars and activists predict that “e-gentrification” is where we’re headed as entire communities become trapped in digital prisons that keep them locked out of neighborhoods where jobs and opportunity can be found.
If our goal is not a better system of mass criminalization, but instead the creation of safe, caring, thriving communities, then we ought to be heavily investing in quality schools, job creation, drug treatment and mental health care in the least advantaged communities rather than pouring billions into their high-tech management and control. Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” We failed to heed his warning back then. Will we make a different choice today?
Story by NY Times >
#ProtectMueller In the age of Trump, people cheer for lawyers
“#ProtectMueller” demonstrations had been planned for months by a national coalition of left-leaning groups in anticipation of Trump interfering in the Russia investigation. Over 900 protest events were triggered by Trump’s firing of Sessions and his installation of Whitaker, a move widely seen as an attack on the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
It’s an odd moment to be a lawyer in American public life. Relatively obscure provisions of the constitution (like the Appointments Clause, governing which officials require Senate confirmation) and little known federal laws (like the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, setting out the requirements for temporarily filling vacant federal posts) are suddenly of vital national importance. As an attorney, ordinary Americans don’t usually ask me if the Acting AG needs to be confirmed by the US Senate – several people asked me exactly that at the Boston rally.
Another lawyer, Ron Fein with Free Speech For People, told the crowd Matthew Whitaker “is a Trump loyalist and he’ll have no qualms whatsoever about attempting to undermine Mueller’s investigation.” And he too called for prosecutorial independence, “we need to make sure that Mueller can do his work”.
Nora Mann, an activist and another lawyer, led the protestors in a legal call and response:
“There are some legal questions that are open, some of them are pressing and time sensitive.
Did Trump have the right to appoint Whitaker?” “NO”
“Does Whitaker have the right to limit Mueller’s work?” “NO!”
“Does he or some other functionary in Justice have the right to fire Mueller?” “NO”!
“Must he recuse himself?” “YES!”
The age of Donald Trump is one in which crowds cheer for lawyers.
The legitimacy of Whitaker’s appointment will, almost certainly, face an immediate legal challenge. Any party facing the US Department of Justice in court potentially has the standing to attack the DOJ’s actions on the theory that Whitaker lacks lawful authority to be attorney general, and so DOJ actions taken on the basis of his authority are invalid. US Senators could also potentially sue.
Story by New Stateman >
Less of This Jeff Session’s legacy will be catastrophic for asylum seekers
Jeff Sessions is out. At the request of the president, the attorney general submitted his resignation letter to the White House the day after this week’s midterm elections.
Yet in spite of Trump’s obvious contempt for Sessions, the attorney general was one of the president’s most effective champions. Both men have based their vision for the country on white supremacy, and from his perch at Justice, Sessions did everything in his power to complement Trump’s brutality.
The starkest manifestation of their joint vision revealed itself in the administration’s treatment of immigrants in general, and Central American asylum seekers in particular; the family-separation initiative, a horrific, ongoing display of state-sponsored trauma, will be a stain on America’s reputation for generations.
As head of the Justice Department, which houses the country’s immigration court system, Sessions also had the power to, at will, snatch cases from the immigration appeals courts and unilaterally impose his own rulings on them, setting crucial precedents for other cases. It is through this authority that Sessions surreptitiously dismantled the asylum system. Like an ultraconservative Supreme Court of one, he cherry-picked a handful of pending asylum cases that he could use to issue disastrous legal guidance.
From his confirmation in February 2017 to his resignation Wednesday, Sessions exercised his judicial power several times—overturning, among other things, immigration judges’ power to close cases and dismiss deportation proceedings, which strained the courts and put in jeopardy the ability of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to live in the United States. His docket took a particularly destructive turn last March, when he referred to himself a case, dubbed Matter of A-B-, involving a woman who sought asylum after enduring more than a decade of beatings, death threats, rape, and stalking by her ex-husband in El Salvador.
When Sessions commandeered A-B- from the Board of Immigration Appeals—the appellate level of the immigration-court system—he issued a one-page statement addressing the question of whether “a victim of private criminal activity” (such as spousal abuse) can be considered part of a “particular social group” for purposes of granting asylum. Past court decisions on the question were clear: Retired immigration judges, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, several civil society organizations, and even lawyers within Trump’s Department of Homeland Security filed briefs informing Sessions that, indeed, decades of case law have affirmed domestic violence victims’ eligibility for asylum.
But Sessions wasn’t interested in settled case law. In June, he issued a final decision in Matter of A-B-: “Generally,” he wrote, “claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence…will not qualify for asylum.”
The ruling was more disastrous than many had anticipated. Overnight, Sessions delegitimized the two most common reasons Central American migrants seek legal asylum, thus prompting the nation’s approximately 350 immigration judges—as well as the hundreds of asylum officers who screen asylum seekers for “credible fear”—to err on the side of ordering some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees back to the dangers from which they fled.
Whether or not Jeff Sessions’s Trump-era successors advance his treacherous immigration and asylum legacy, it’s safe to assume they won’t roll it back. Interim Attorney General Matt Whittaker holds extremist views on executive-over-judicial power, so he’s unlikely to oppose or alter Sessions’s case-law tactic.
As always, case workers, activists, and community organizers will be tasked with protecting asylum seekers, and helping refugees endure these dark times. We must support them as much as we can, financially and otherwise, and push for a more humane agenda to reverse Jeff Sessions’s catastrophic legacy.
Story by the Nation >
Funding Opportunity Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund
Administered by the National Women’s Law Center Fund, the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund connects those who experience sexual misconduct including assault, harassment, abuse and related retaliation in the workplace or in trying to advance their careers with legal and public relations assistance.
Apply here >
Job Opportunity Asian Americans Advancing Justice hiring Worker’s Rights and Housing Rights attorneys
Job Opportunity OneJustice Pro Bono and Immigrant Lawyer, Healthy Nonprofits Program Director, Pro Bono Justice Program Director
Since 2007, OneJustice has developed and launched a variety of effective projects with possibilities of replication during the Justice Bus Project, Rural Justice Collaborative (RJC), IMPACT LA, Executive Fellows Program, and Nonprofit Management Consulting.
Apply here >
Job Opportunity Law for Black Lives hiring membership director
This position is a unique opportunity to support and direct an emerging network of lawyers, law students and legal workers.
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Fellowship Opportunity 2019 MTO Fellowship
Applications are now open for the 2019 MTO Fellows Program. This program is an important initiative designed to encourage, promote and support a community of individuals who contribute to the diversity of the legal profession.
Apply here >
Fellowship Opportunity Soros Equaliy Fellowship
The U.S. Programs’ Equality team seeks applicants for its Soros Equality Fellowship, which aims to support emerging mid-career professionals who will become long-term innovative leaders influencing the racial justice field. The fellowship award provides individuals with a grant of $100,000 to support production of an innovative racial justice project over the course of 18 months.
Apply here >