Friday News Roundup: Can You Talk Your Way out of a Life Sentence?

Friday News Roundup latest news

This week in the news: ‘Can you talk your way out of a life sentence?,’ Pew uncovers how many are affected by civil legal problems, 11K pardons issued in Illinois, ‘Do Human Trafficking Intervention Courts really work?,’ and more.  

Criminal Justice

Can You Talk Your Way out of a Life Sentence?

In the past decade, California has begun to examine the possibility of parole for “lifers” (unless the sentence explicitly bans the possibility of parole) — an option that most of the nation’s 162,000 incarcerated individuals do not have. According to the state’s Board of Parole Hearings, more than 5,000 California “lifers” were eligible to go before a two- or three-person parole panel in 2019 to make the case that they are suitable candidates for release. In the first 11 months of the year, 1,074 of them, or 19 percent, were granted parole. While that number is still dwarfed by the tens of thousands left inside, it’s a striking shift from previous decades, when fewer than 1 percent of those who went before the board returned to society. (Slater, The New York Times, January 1, 2020)

Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration 

This OpEd from the Brennan Center for Justice offers possible solutions from Rachel Barkow, New York University law professor and author, for tackling America’s criminal justice crisis. One of her key arguments: policy should not be based on populist ideas about punishment, and that we must effectively change views towards criminal justice reform. Read her ideas here. (Sangree, Brennan Center for Justice, January 3, 2020) 

Inspired by Her Own Experiences, Baltimore Woman Publishes Magazine Giving Voice to the Incarcerated

Inspired by her experiences of incarceration and the stories of others with similar experiences, Tia Hamilton began devising State v. Us in 2017 as a way to elevate the voices of those who have been incarcerated. State v. Us takes a closer look at the criminal legal system, especially as it applies to people of color, who are statistically overrepresented in the carceral system. Since its launch in 2017, Hamilton has released four volumes with a fifth in progress and has worked hard to secure distribution in both correctional catalogs and the US at large. (Brico, The Appeal, January 2, 2020) 

Civil Legal Aid & The Right to Counsel

Alternative Approaches: Pew Study Finds Civil Legal Problems Impacting 47% of US Households

Pew Charitable Trusts conducted a nationwide study that found a widespread need for civil legal assistance across the US. Pew’s call for alternative approaches follows the release of a survey it commissioned, which found one in three US households faced a civil legal issue, such as a problem with housing or employment, within the past 12 months. Even though, according to Pew, this is the first representative survey in decades to reach across all income levels of the American public, the nonprofit believes the actual incidence of civil disputes is likely higher because the questions did not include a comprehensive list of potential civil legal issues. Underscoring the need in the civil legal arena is the rise of the right-to-counsel movement. This effort calls for attorneys to be publicly provided to low-income individuals facing a civil legal matter, just as they are provided to indigent people charged with a crime. (Odendahl, The Indiana Lawyer, January 8, 2020) 

Juvenile Justice

Opinion: Young Offenders Don’t Belong in Adult Prisons. California Has a Chance to End the Practice

In November, the group Chief Probation Officers of California proposed raising the age limit on California’s youth justice system from 18 to 20. The plan, if adopted, would make California the second state in the nation to recognize that young men and women, whether they’re 18 or 20, don’t belong in adult courts and correctional facilities. The probation chiefs are now looking for a legislative sponsor and vetting the idea with advocates, juvenile court judges, prosecutors, and defenders. They could draft a bill for introduction this year. (Schiraldi, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2020) 

Drug Treatment

Illinois Pardons Are a Reminder of the Scale of Marijuana Arrests, Past and Present

On Dec. 31, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that he would issue 11,017 pardons to people with low-level marijuana convictions. That announcement came on the eve of the state’s marijuana legalization going into effect. Illinois’s law, passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor last year, makes it the 11th state to make recreational marijuana legal for people over 21 and the first to do so via legislation rather than ballot initiatives. Pritzker said “the defining purpose of legalization is to maximize equity for generations to come.” The pardons, he promised, are only the first step in erasing the records of the hundreds of thousands of people across the state who have criminal records from low-level marijuana charges. (Gullapalli, The Appeal, January 3, 2020) 

Prison Conditions 

Mississippi Prison Killings: Five Factors Behind the Deadly Violence

Understaffing, powerful gangs, and constant lockdowns brewed tensions that exploded last week in a Mississippi prison when at least five individuals were killed. The Marshall Project claims that short staffing is likely the biggest problem facing prisons around the country, and it’s especially acute in Mississippi. Between 44 and 50 percent of the jobs were vacant at the state’s three big, publicly run prisons in 2019, according to State Personnel Board data published by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. (Neff & Santo, The Marshall Project, January 8, 2020) 

Problem-Solving Courts & Trafficking

Charged with Prostitution, She Went to a Special Court. Did it help?

When New York State created a network of 12 Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, criminal justice professionals hailed it as an innovation. The courts send people into counseling sessions to help them leave the multibillion-dollar sex trade while dismissing their charges and sealing their records. But even as courts like these have begun to proliferate nationwide, New York’s own have come under increasing criticism. (Goldbaum, The New York Times, January 6, 2020)