Criminal Justice News

News: prisoners trapped inside mandatory evacuation zone in SC; bad news out of Nevada

Prisoners in more ways than one?

Why am I not surprised that prisoners in three South Carolina prisons will not be among those removed from Hurricane Florence’s destructive path, even though they are within the mandatory evacuation zone.

The welfare of prisoners is seldom a priority, only the perception that administrators are doing their best. According to prison officials, it’s “safer” for prisoners to stay put. They also cite public safety and the possibility for escape as reasons for their decision.

While these might be legitimate concerns, the plight of those trapped in cells should take precedence.

An article in yesterday’s The New Yorker, states: “During Hurricane Katrina, people were trapped in flooded cells with nothing to eat or drink. Last year, after Hurricane Harvey, prisoners reported flooding in cells; a man in a Texas prison told me that he lost access to functioning toilets and running water.”

Families of prisoners say that they could not get any information about the South Carolina Department of Corrections’s plans for evacuation.

No surprise here.

Bad news out of Nevada

In a decade, when advocates are striving to reverse policies that led to mass incarceration-from mandatory minimum sentencing to unfair bail practices–my home state, Nevada, is bucking the trend with an imprisonment rate 15 percent above the U.S. average. 

The Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) released a report on Wednesday, which states:

  • NV prison admissions have increased 6 percent in the past decade;
  • the female population (less than 10 percent of the inmate population) has increased 39 percent;
  • slightly more than 50 percent have been identified as having mental health issues.

On another note, Nevada Department of Correction Director James Dzurenda is battling a lawsuit for authorizing the use of midazolam, a sedative, for the lethal cocktail used in executions. Alvogen, which manufactures the drug, does not want it used in unintended ways.

(Midazolam was not purchased from Alvogen but from third a party, after the state’s supply of a similar drug ran out.)

In the meantime, Scott Dozier’s twice-delayed execution for the horrific killings of two drug-associates is postponed until the Nevada Supreme court hears oral arguments on September 21.

Dozier’s execution will be the first in ten years.

Ask One Mother’s Voice

If you are the mother of an incarcerated son and have questions or concerns, please contact me at omvforyou@gmail.com or on Twitter @onemothersvoice.

 

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Criminal Justice

A personal mission; prison reform vs criminal justice reform

My Mission

Many years ago, when my (now deceased) son was incarcerated, I knew next to nothing about criminal justice policies, rates of incarceration, or racial disparities in sentencing.

I paid little heed to his complaints about overly punitive judges, ineffective lawyers, or prison conditions. In actuality, I believed he was just venting his frustrations.

With a better understanding of the political and social factors that have led to mass incarceration, I might have been more proactive, perhaps even joining an organization that tackled criminal justice issues.

Doing so, could have helped me cope with my anxiety and worry.

Hence, in 2016, I created a podcast, One Mother’s Voice: In the Name of Justice to provide for mothers with sons in prison “… accurate information about U.S. criminal justice policies and their effects on families and communities, and to promote activism as an antidote to hopelessness and helplessness.” (OMV is on hiatus until January 2019)

The podcast featured topics from community bail funds to health care in prisons as well as my commentary on criminal justice issues and news.

My goal for the revamped OMV is to give mothers a platform to share their experiences with the criminal justice system, their concerns, and their strategies for coping with emotional pain.

If you have a story to share, contact Wista Jeanne Johnson at omvforyou@gmail.com.

The (Trump-approved) First Step Act debate

2016 was an encouraging year for federal sentencing reform. There was bipartisan support in Congress for changing minimum mandatory sentence laws for low-level drug offenses. (Good news.)

In May 2018, the First Step Act (FSA), a prison reform bill, passed the House in May 2018. Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to President Trump, has been the major proponent of the bill.

(Some believe that Kusher’s advocacy was prompted by the fact that his father, Charles Kushner, spent two years in federal prison for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering.)

Critics of FSA say that the bill is “back-end” reform that affects those already incarcerated rather than “front end” reform that seeks to affect policies that keep people out of prison through preventative measures. Its provisions include:

  • encouraging inmates to participate in vocational and rehabilitative programs
  • authorize more funding for these programs
  • increasing “good time credits”
  • using algorithms to determine inmate eligibility for these credits.

However, Vox reports “…algorithms can perpetuate racial and class discrimination; for instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes.”

FSA faces opposition from Republicans (Sen. Tom Cotton–AK) and Democrats, including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senator Cotton said, “This naive policy ignores the reality of recidivism. Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study…(m)ost criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs.

The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement.” (Of course, he makes no mention of the causes for recidivism.)

According to a Marshall Project article, “Opponents, mostly on the left, say any criminal justice reform bill should also reduce mandatory minimum sentences or give judges more discretion to make the punishment fit the crime. A bipartisan Senate bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, is also making its way through Congress. It includes “back end” reform—services for prisoners—and “front end” reform—reducing sentence time. Its supporters believe that the House bill is stealing support and momentum from the more comprehensive bill.”

FSA only affects federal prisoners.

Let’s hope that, despite its limitations, it proves beneficial for incarcerated persons who seldom get second chances.

 

 

Keeping Up

Keeping up: Books by Michelle Obama and activist DeRay McKesson; straight talk about “take a knee” and good news out of Ferguson, MO

Apologies for the lapse in posting.

My schedule these days means a lot of juggling tasks and projects. In August, I returned to teaching at the College of Southern Nevada; I am preparing for a move at the end of October, and I am writing my book proposal.

That said, going forward, I will post twice weekly (Wednesdays and Saturdays).

“Michelle, ma belle”

Come November, most Americans eagerly await Thanksgiving, I, on the other hand, look forward to the publication of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming: In Her Own Words. 

Our former First Lady is a dynamic speaker and truth-teller, so I expect she will pull no punches about her years under the nation’s microscope.

While President Obama is an excellent speaker, he is more measured in his public speaking. He’s first and foremost a politician; she is a fiercely opinionated black woman who is not looking for public approval or worrying about how history will view her.

In 2017, I re-posted “Behind Closed Doors: Michelle and Obama,“a humorous account of what I imagine they said in private about being the First Couple.

Can’t wait to get a real peek behind the White House doors.

Supernova” DeRay McKesson

Despite having read Wesley Lowery’s 2016 book, They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, about his coverage of protests in those cities, I had not heard of  activist and community organizer, DeRay McKesson.

In an August 31 article, The Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley wrote: “… DeRay Mckesson is just 33 years old, but he has shot into the public sphere like a supernova.”

McKesson moved into my orbit last week when he appeared on Noah Trevor’s The Daily Show to discuss his new book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, a memoir and collection of essays on “resistance, justice, and freedom” and an insider’s look at the Baltimore protests, ignited by the death of 25-year old Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury after riding unrestrained by a seat belt in a police transport van.

His death was deemed a homicide by the Maryland State Medical Examiners; however, the cases against six officers ended in mistrials, dropped charges, or “nolle prosequi” (do not charge).

Although, McKesson was “tear-gassed, shot at with rubber bullets and hid under his steering wheel” during 400 days of protest, he told Noah, “I think about hope as a belief that our tomorrows will be better than our todays. I think about hope as (doing) real work, not magic.”

In 2015, was McKesson was No. 11 on Fortune magazine’s list of 50 greatest world leaders.

He is host of Crooked Media’s prize-winning podcast, Pod Save the People.

Couldn’t have said it better...

Caught Beto O’Rourke, Democratic nominee for the Texas Senate, on Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO) recently.  Maher showed a video clip of O’Rourke giving a candid response to a politically-charged issue–the actions of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who “take a knee” during the national anthem to protest police shootings of black men and “systemic oppression.” It’s refreshing to hear a political candidate who doesn’t waffle for fear of losing votes.

Straight Outta Ferguson

Finally, some good news o of Ferguson, MO.

Last month, Wesley Bell, 43, a city councilman, won the Democratic primary for St. Louis County district attorney, ousting Robert McCullough (who has held office since 1991).

Bell faces no Republican opponent, so he is likely to take office in November.

McCullough faced criticism for his failure to charge the officer who shot 18-year old Michael Brown in August 2014.

According to the Huffington Post, Bell…”pledges to never seek the death penalty, eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenses, publicly oppose legislation that would create new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and adopt other policies that advocates for criminal justice reform favor.”