A Vital Takeaway from 2019: Collaboration May Be Our Strongest Tool

People walking on a calendar

As 2019 comes to a close, we reflect on the year’s accomplishments. 2019 is my first year working at the Justice Programs Office and on the Right to Counsel National Campaign (R2C), and I’ve been surprised by the level of collaboration I see between criminal justice stakeholders on the issue of the right to counsel. Perhaps I had low expectations—when your justice system model is called “adversarial,” common goals don’t sound easy to come by—but as I learned more about the repercussions of poor public defense, I began to understand the imperative for collaboration. An effective public defense delivery system helps other parts of the criminal justice system function properly, and many of those who work in this system every day understand that. In terms of meaningful, systemic change, I’m aware that an interest in working together is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a key start. I’d like to touch on a couple of highlights from 2019 that can inspire us as we move forward.

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Friday News Roundup: 100K New Voters!

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This week in the news: New Kentucky Governor to sign order restoring voting rights to 100K people with felony convictions, Vera’s new numbers for people in county jails and state prisons, prosecutors are hitting roadblocks in their attempt to right past wrongs, and more. 

Voting Rights

New Kentucky Governor to Sign Order Restoring Voting Rights to 100k Felons

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) pledged to soon restore voting rights to over 100,000 people with felony convictions in his inaugural speech on Tuesday. “On Thursday I will sign an executive order restoring voting rights to over a hundred thousand men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now. They deserve to participate in our great democracy,” Beshear commented. Just two states, Kentucky and Iowa, currently deny the right to vote to anyone convicted of a felony; and in Kentucky, only the governor can give back voting rights. (Frazin, The Hill, December 10, 2019)

Jails and Prisons

Soaring Female Population, Racial Disparities Drive State Incarceration Numbers

Although America’s chillingly-high incarceration rates have begun to decline, soaring female jail populations and stark racial disparities in state prisons continue to present a formidable challenge to policymakers. A new initiative examining jail and prison data in all 50 states, produced by the Vera Institute of Justice, shows that “progress to end mass incarceration has been uneven,” with smaller cities and rural counties showing sharp increases, even while the number of people put behind bars from urban areas has dropped. (TCR Staff, The Crime Report, December 9, 2019) 

Why Smaller Cities are Expanding Their Jails, and Their Populations

In 2015, after nearly a decade of jail overcrowding, rural Coffee County, Tennessee, completed a new 400-bed jail—a facility more than twice the size of its predecessor. The jail population then skyrocketed, increasing more than 60 percent between 2015 and 2018. While the number of people jailed had dipped slightly by September 2019, the Coffee County story is still one of increased incarcerations. The project cost a whopping $21 million to complete, a figure that does not include the cost of maintaining or staffing the new facility. Additionally, more than half of the people in the new jail haven’t been convicted and  are likely unable to afford bail. Coffee County’s story illuminates a troubling national phenomenon. (Jackson & Reuters, City Lab, December 9, 2019) 

Prisons Neglect Pregnant Women in Their Healthcare Policies

Prison Policy Initiative conducted a 50-state survey and found that, in spite of national standards, most states lack important policies on prenatal care and nutrition for pregnant women. Diana Sanchez, 26, gave birth without any medical aid or assistance despite footage showing she alerted jail deputies and medical staff that she was in labor. While the rate of pregnancy in prison has remained stable (around 4 percent) since the early 2000s, the additional 10,000 plus women imprisoned since then indicates that the number of women who are incarcerated while pregnant has grown, too. As long as the mass incarceration of women endures, the rate of women incarcerated while pregnant will continue to rise. (Daniel, Prison Policy Initiative, December 5, 2019)

Public Defense

Lawmakers Order Investigation Into Maine’s State-Appointed Criminal Defense Lawyer System

Maine is the only state without a public defender system. Instead, defendants who cannot afford a lawyer are appointed one from a pool of 420 private lawyers who have volunteered for the task through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. A report by the Sixth Amendment Center found those lawyers are overworked, underpaid, and poorly supervised. There will be an investigation into the financial management and oversight practices of MCILS, seeking to determine if fraud, waste, and abuse occurred and how to prevent it moving forward. (WMTW, Augusta, December 10, 2019)

Prosecutors Can Right Past Wrongs – If Only the System Lets Them

More and more prosecutors are trying to right wrongful convictions and restore justice in the legal system, but they’re meeting opposition on all sides. It’s a truism that no one—no matter their politics—wants to see an innocent person languish in prison. But, in this story, read how Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner hasn’t been able to win a new trial for Lamar Johnson whom she believes is innocent, let alone an exoneration. She has faced an unlikely opponent: the courts. Over the last decade, a growing cohort of prosecutors like Gardner has emerged across the country, seeking a new approach to justice. While they have aimed to reform current tough-on-crime practices, they have also begun to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. By addressing past wrongs, these prosecutors are bringing accountability to an office that has too long operated in the shadows, and restoring trust in the criminal legal system as a whole. But intense opposition is slowing the pace of reform. (Morrison & Trivedi, The Appeal, December 10, 2019) 

Drug Treatment 

New Orleans Jail Staff Supplied Fentanyl that Killed Incarcerated Man, Lawsuit Alleges

Staff at the troubled New Orleans Justice Center are accused of violating previously-incarcerated Edward Patterson’s constitutional rights by failing to treat his drug addiction. The fentanyl that killed him in December 2018 was smuggled into the Orleans Justice Center by jail staffers, alleges a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Patterson’s family. “These conditions echo the complaints of many other families who have lost loved ones while incarcerated at the facility in recent years, and undoubtedly sustains the ongoing pattern of unconstitutional standards and practices at the Orleans Parish jail,” reads the November 27th complaint. “The conditions are unsafe…They’re unsafe in the sense that people who are taken off the street and out of their homes like Mr. Patterson, awaiting trial, are subjected to conditions that put them at harm,” Wesley Blanchard, an attorney representing Patterson’s family, told The Appeal. (Gill, The Appeal, New Orleans, LA, December 11, 2019) 

Friday News Roundup: Racism in Criminal Justice – the Numbers Are Here

Friday News Roundup latest news

This week in the news: A new report about racial disparities in incarceration and prison sentences since 2000, second chances in the form of diversion and restorative programs, a public defense crisis in Utah, and more. 

Race and Justice

Report: Racial Divide Shrinks in US Criminal Justice System

Racial disparities have narrowed across the US criminal justice system over 16 years, though black people are still significantly more likely to be behind bars than white people, new federal figures show. Racial gaps broadly declined in local jails, state prisons, and among people on probation and parole, according to a study released Tuesday by the nonpartisan think tank, the Council on Criminal Justice.The divide in state imprisonment rates dropped for all major crimes but was most pronounced for drug offenses. Black people were 15 times more likely than white people to be in state prisons for drug crimes in 2000, but that dropped to five times as likely by 2016. (Thompson, AP, Sacramento, December 3, 2019)

The Growing Racial Disparity in Prison Time

While arrest and prison admission rates are dropping for black people, they are sitting in prison longer than their white peers. For drug and property crimes, black people are serving increasingly more time, growing at a rate of 1 percent or more on average every year, as the time served in prison by white offenders has dropped. This larger trend was noted in the same aforementioned report published by the Council on Criminal Justice Monday, and The Marshall Project looks at why, considering discretionary actors in the system, criminal histories built disproportionately during decades of rising incarceration, biased risk-assessment tools, and more. (Li, The Marshall Project, December 3, 2019)

Second Chances

Inside Philly DA Larry Krasner’s New Plan to Drop Low-Level Drug Charges in Favor of Addiction Treatment

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner quietly launched an interim version of an unprecedented “diversion” program, in which prosecutors simply withdraw charges for those who show proof they’re in drug treatment. “We’re on the cusp of sending every single case involving mere possession of drugs to diversion,” Krasner said in an interview, favoring treatment as best-practice and expert-recommended. The district attorney’s effort is a radical shift from previous approaches in Philadelphia, where diversion programs have been selective, limited to those with few or no previous convictions, exposed defendants who fail out of treatment to consequences including criminal convictions and incarceration, and often required hundreds of dollars in court costs. (Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 3, 2019)

What Happens When Prison ‘Lifers’ Get A Chance at Healing and Redemption?

Hope and redemption are relatively new themes in prisons, especially for those convicted of the most serious offenses, but a California prison program run by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition facilitates self-evaluation, accountability, and healing. This LA-based nonprofit serves formerly and currently incarcerated people. The course is run by the coalition’s Hope and Redemption Team (HART), a group of former “lifers” who were all paroled after being sentenced to life in prison and are now dedicated to helping other men still behind bars. (Wing, Barry, The Appeal, December 3, 2019)

Public Defense

With Cases Increasing Year After Year, Utah County’s Public Defenders are ‘At Full Capacity,’ Association Director Says

Public defender caseloads in Utah County have more than doubled since 2000, but the county has not put forward money to hire more attorneys in nearly 12 years. It is one of only two counties in the state with an office dedicated to providing legal defense to low-income people unable to afford representation. There are less than two dozen attorneys on staff, despite receiving thousands of felony, misdemeanor, and juvenile cases each year and a rapidly growing population. These defense attorneys are “passionate, caring, [and] diligent,” as Utah County public defender Margaret Lindsay described her colleagues, but more cases mean less time allotted to each. (Richards, Daily Herald, December 2, 2019)

Criminal Justice 

Private Prisons Face an Uncertain Future as States Turn Their Backs on the Industry

Some states are passing laws abolishing private prisons and businesses are cutting ties with the facilities. The number of people in private prisons is trending down from its peak in 2012 of about 136,220 people, with a population decrease of about 12 percent in the past five years. As more facilities are closing, the for-profit prison industry has established an advocacy group called Day 1 Alliance (D1A). The Washington Post reported that the largest companies in the industry, the two behind D1A, still saw profit increases as of October. (Kim, Vox, December 1, 2019)

Changing Course: Counteracting the Criminalization of Trafficking Survivors

Young african american with his head down

Over the past decade, there has been an increased public awareness that sex trafficking survivors are being arrested and prosecuted for prostitution. Accordingly, many jurisdictions have opened specialty courts for these survivors. This is progress, but in the grand scheme of things, we have only scratched the surface of the problem.

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