It’s time to give thanks, so in this issue of our Friday News Roundup, we take a look at a world beyond incarceration, write notes to people on death row, think about freedom from the inside, and practice thankfulness for the first steps toward reform.
Looking Beyond Incarceration
The Appeal Podcast: Imagining a Post-Incarceration World
Adam Johnson hosts this podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition, and everything in between, and tackles the question: when you radically reimagine the US legal system and move it away from our current carceral hyper-punitive model, what do you replace it with? Johnson discusses this with guest Danielle Sered of Common Justice, who has been implementing alternative justice systems in New York City for years. (Johnson, The Appeal, November 21, 2019)
Texas Court Stops Rodney Reed’s Execution to Further Review Claims of Innocence
Last Friday our weekly roundup covered Rodney Reed’s impending execution scheduled for this week, and that afternoon Texas’ highest criminal court halted his execution. The case is going back to trial court to further review several claims, most notable that Reed is innocent of the murder that landed him on death row over 20 years ago. Unfortunately, Reed will still be on death row for the holidays, but the Innocence Project is asking for you to send him a note this Thanksgiving. (Mccullough, The Texas Tribune, November 15, 2019)
What I Think About When I Think About Freedom
John J. Lennon reflects on what his life might look like in 10 years if he is granted and released on the parole he’s eligible for after serving 28 years. He hopes to reconnect with his one living brother and continue writing. While incarcerated, Lennon learned to write, went to college, and built a career as a prison journalist publishing stories in national magazines and websites, including Esquire, The Atlantic and New York. “It’s conflicting, I imagine, to hear how someone who once took a life thinks about living a good life.” (Lennon, The Marshall Project, November 13, 2019).
#Thankful for Reform
House Panel Approves Marijuana Decriminalization, But it Faces a Long, Hard Road
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted 24-10 to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, #MOREAct, which would remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances, where it’s now banned alongside powerful drugs like heroin and LSD. The bill would require federal courts to expunge convictions for marijuana offenses, authorize a 5 percent tax on marijuana sales to encourage minority communities to enter the cannabis business, and more. (Johnson, NBC News, November 21, 2019)
Ayanna Pressley Introduces Extensive Criminal Justice Reform Resolution
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced a sweeping criminal justice reform resolution last week that calls for decriminalizing consensual sex work, abolishing cash bail and solitary confinement, and shrinking the overall jail and prison population among a slate of other policies. The resolution, named the People’s Justice Guarantee, wants to decrease the US prison population by 80 percent, and proposes decriminalizing low-level offenses, ending the death penalty and life sentences without the possibility of parole, and capping sentences for all crimes. (Pitofsky, The Hill, November 16, 2019)
The Latest Reports
The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines
Brennan Center released a new analysis on the troubling and well-documented increase in fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts in the last decade. Many states and localities rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic government operations. But the report finds that fees and fines unjustly burden people with debt just as they are reentering society and do not improve public safety. They are also ineffective at raising revenue. (Menendez, Brennan Center, November 21, 2019)
Report: Mississippi Laws Cause ‘Extreme’ Prison Sentences
Mississippi’s habitual offender laws are causing “extreme” prison sentences that are disproportionately affecting African American men and costing the state millions of dollars for decades of incarceration. The report finds that long prison sentences do not improve public safety, and is based on information from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which is the state with the third-highest imprisonment rate in the US. (Pettus, AP, Jackson, November 19, 2019)
Missouri Prosecutors Hold All the Cards. Public Defenders and Vulnerable Clients Fold
Thousands of Missourians do not have enough money to hire a lawyer and have to rely on the state’s seriously under-resourced public defender system. Overburdened and lacking funding, the state prosecutors have wide latitude that can go unchecked. Read about Jamie Bess, who spent two years in prison without being convicted of anything, then prosecutors suddenly dropped her case due to lack of evidence. (Moore, Kansas City Star, November 20, 2019)
No Kids Currently Held At State’s Sole Juvenile Detention Facility
Vermont’s sole juvenile detention center is empty for the first time in years. This is a significant milestone for the facility, which has been under scrutiny for practices that allegedly put youth in “dangerous conditions.” Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, which is run by the Department for Children and Families, houses youth involved in the justice system between the ages of 10 and 17, but as of Wednesday, no one was being held at the Colchester facility. “It’s been a combination of policy changes and law changes and then just individual litigation and advocacy on behalf of kids who are there to try get them into more appropriate placements,” commented Chief Juvenile Defender Marshall Pahl regarding the news. (Elder-Connors, VPR, November 20, 2019)
State Would Expand Juvenile Courts, Halls to 18- and 19-year-olds Under Proposal
California would expand its juvenile justice system under a proposal from the state’s probation chiefs, a move they said would allow a more restorative approach for those teenagers. The plan from the Chief Probation Officers of California lobbying group, or CPOC, would let 18- and 19-year-olds receive rehabilitative services provided by juvenile courts and detention centers and seal their criminal records. Supporters cite a growing body of research on adolescent brain development showing that people as old as 25 share many of the same characteristics as teenagers, but experts warn the policy could be difficult to implement. (Palamino, Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle, November 20, 2019)
He Was 17 When He Went To Prison. How Much Should That Matter To The Parole Board?
William Palmer was recently released from a life sentence because of Miller v. Alabama, which offers early release for individuals convicted as youths. But the California Attorney General’s Office asked the state’s highest court to take another look, with a loss meaning returning to prison and a win potentially easing the path to release for thousands. Palmer’s appeal is before the California Supreme Court, which is poised to decide whether the board properly took his youth into account. (Vansickle, The Marshall Project, San Francisco, November 18, 2019)
What Does Death By Incarceration Look Like in Pennsylvania? These Elderly, Disabled Men Housed in a State Prison.
In the US one in 10 people serving life without the possibility of parole is incarcerated in Pennsylvania, with more than 5,400 people in the state sentenced to life without parole. The Appeal produced a photo essay looking inside one prison that helps provide end-of-life care for men. These people will ultimately die while incarcerated if relief does not come in the form of a new law to provide parole eligibility or changes to the commutations process. (Vaughn, The Appeal, November 20, 2019)
A Sad Last Gasp Against Criminal Justice Reform
The New York Times released an opinion piece about focusing on implementation of criminal justice reform in New York starting in January amid recent pushback from prosecutors and police unions. “Across the country, a movement away from incarceration has been a rare point of consensus among Americans.”“Yet talking about reform is one thing. Doing the work — asking for public trust while emptying cells in jails and prisons — will be harder.” (The Editorial Board, The New York Times, November 17, 2019)