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The Prison Complex

Wednesday, Dec 31, 2014, 3:36 pm

A Year in Criminal Justice

By George Lavender

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As 2014 comes to a close The Prison Complex asked several people with experience of the criminal justice system for their view on the past year and their hopes or fears for the year ahead. 

Piper Kerman
Author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison 

What was the most promising development in criminal justice in 2014?

The most promising development of 2014 was peaceful mass demonstrations against police brutality that enforces racial hierarchy. It's going to take both public pressure and persuasion to see necessary changes to the criminal justice system, and the front end of the system - policing, court reform, sentencing reform - is the name of the game if we want to see fewer Americans with criminal convictions (and obviously fewer confined in prisons and jails). 

What was the worst moment in criminal justice in 2014?

The Missouri and New York grand jury results in the Brown and Garner cases really laid bare how corrupt and dysfunctional the courts system is. Getting attention and heat on the courts system is difficult because it's so wonky and "unsexy", but we can't get justice in the streets or in prisons and jails without focusing on courtrooms.

What should we watch for in 2015? 

I think it's going to be a strange and interesting year because of growing rhetoric and activity from conservatives about justice reform. Just remember, when it comes to the criminal justice system..."follow the money".  Those that benefit from the current system aren't going to back off their profits easily.

Maya Schenwar

Author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better

What was the most promising development in criminal justice in 2014?

The sweeping protests against police violence over the past several months have been an enormously important development. Many of these protests have expanded far beyond the specific tragedies that sparked them; they are exposing the ways in which the entire criminal legal system (including, of course, law enforcement) is built on anti-black racism and is fundamentally unjust. These activists have called us to imagine our way beyond policing--to rethink what we mean when we talk about "safety" and "justice."

What was the worst moment in criminal justice in 2014?

This past year contained many disappointments and horrors in the realms of criminalization and punishment--including ongoing and intensifying police violence toward communities of color (particularly black communities), and the news that the prison population had actually increased in 2013, breaking the modest decrease of previous years.  One moment I have been thinking about a lot recently is the release of Obama's very short list of commutations and pardons earlier this month. Despite signals from the Justice Department earlier this year that thousands of clemency petitions would soon be granted, a mere eight individuals (all incarcerated on drug charges) received sentence commutations. Even if many more commutations are granted next year, the lack of clemency granted this year reveals an ongoing disregard for the lives of those behind bars--a disregard for the fact that every day and every minute counts, and that we are participating in rendering incarcerated people's lives disposable with every minute we ignore them.

What should we watch for in 2015? 

In 2015, I think we should pay close attention to the ongoing rise of activism against policing, as well as the growing movements for decarceration, geared toward shrinking the prison-industrial complex as a whole. At the same time, we must be wary of the ways in which, as prison "reform" (and even policing "reform") gains popularity, the system simply finds new ways to imprison people. For example, as prison budgets are presumably reduced in California as a result of Proposition 47's passage, we must ensure that the savings are not simply transferred to policing and "alternative" forms of incarceration. And most of the reforms on the table for changing the way police operate do not address the fundamental injustices that ground their existence. We must watch for "reforms" that are simply the status quo masquerading as change.

Cam Ward 
Alabama state senator and chairman of the joint committee that oversees Alabama's prison system

What was the most promising development in criminal justice in 2014?

I think the fact that an actual dialogue with all three branches of government as well as community stakeholders and law enforcement is a major step forward in realizing that we can no longer ignore this problem. This sets the foundation for the tough reforms ahead.

What was the worst moment in criminal justice in 2014? 

The continued revelations of abuse in our prison system. Tutwiler being the worst but the abuse allegations continue throughout the entire system.

What should we watch for in 2015? 

A large omnibus bill that will seek to reform the sentencing and parole side of the system. It will also include measures that will increase the use of alternative sentencing programs like community corrections and drug courts.
 
Marc Mauer
Executive Director of The Sentencing Project 

What was the most promising development in criminal justice in 2014?

The success of the California sentencing reform ballot initiative, Proposition 47, which was adopted by a wide margin by state voters. The initiative reduces 6 lower level property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, thus eliminating state prison as a sentencing option in such cases. Individuals convicted of these offenses can be sentenced to local jail incarceration or community supervision, which will free up substantial cost savings. Under the terms of the initiative these savings will be invested in substance abuse and mental health treatment, truancy prevention, and other services designed to address factors contributing to crime.

What was the worst moment in criminal justice in 2014?

The tragedies in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and elsewhere, where the vast divide between law enforcement and African American communities in many cities became painfully obvious. Despite increasing diversity in the leadership and ranks of law enforcement in some parts of the country, the goal of a justice system that is both fair and perceived to be fair is still a far ways off.

What should we watch for in 2015?

We are cautiously optimistic about prospects for federal sentencing reform through the Smarter Sentencing Act in 2015. The bill would cut mandatory minimum drug sentences in half and grant increased discretion to judges to take into account relevant case factors at sentencing rather than being forced to impose "one size fits all" sentences. The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote in 2014, and includes sponsors ranging from Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz.

Laurie Jo Reynolds

Assistant Professor of Public Arts, Social Justice and Culture, University of Illinois at Chicago, organizer Tamms Year Ten Campaign 

What was the most promising development in criminal justice in 2014?

Eight years ago, it was impossible to interest reporters in stories about prison conditions, unless it was a true crime exposé. Now we have an explosion in culture, arts and news about solitary confinement. In addition to the steady work of organizations like Solitary Watch, and alternative media reports, we’ve seen editorials condemning the use of isolation in every major newspaper in the country.  The promising part is the trend toward policy reform. The Marshall Project found that states passed more reforms this year than in the past 16 years combined. Some states are focusing on the politically easiest cases, such as youth or pregnant women, but some have addressed the hardest cases too. It’s true that bureaucracies sometimes deflect sincere reform efforts, or escape policy changes through passive resistance or subterfuge. But they also may establish a “new normal” and a shift in the culture of extreme punishment. Moving away from prison conditions that can reasonably be described as torture is a strong first step.

What was the worst moment in criminal justice in 2014? 

Hearing calls to reopen Tamms the day after the election. Governor Quinn closed the notorious state supermax, upsetting the guards union and downstate legislators who wanted those jobs to stay where they were. In spite of all the claims that closing Tamms would cause prison violence, it has proven to be a good decision. Violent incidents actually decreased by 35% from FY2012 to FY2013. Yet legislators are teaming up with the guards union to urge the new governor to re-open closed prisons, and co-opting the arguments of prison reform advocates about overcrowding to make their case. Consider how short-sighted such a move would be. Each year, our state essentially empties out 2/3 of the prison system and fills it up again. (On an annual basis, roughly 30,000 people are released.) Mathematically speaking, we could drastically reduce the population simply by slowing the rate of return in very modest amounts. That just means lowering recidivism. It’s not hard. Address the needs of returning citizens. Employ people in poor neighborhoods. Expand alternatives to incarceration. Doing so will also reduce crime. (Spending time in prison actually increases the risk factors for reoffending.) We need to invest in people caught in the system, not the system.

What should we watch for in 2015? 

The Pope, the Justice Department, George Soros, the Cato Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, Jay Z, President Clinton—everyone has come out in favor of reducing mass incarceration and a lot of money has been dropped on the project. But “reducing mass incarceration” is a goal that requires nuts-and-bolts arguments about who shouldn’t be incarcerated, and implicitly who should. Someone has to persuade decision-makers who’s in and who’s out. I fear we will increase our reliance on the dichotomy between “violent offenders” and “non-violent offenders,” a distinction that isn’t as practical as it seems. (People with violent crimes often have the lowest recidivism rates, and people with non-violent offenses may go on to commit violent ones.) Non-violent drug offenders are the group that people commonly refer to when they say there is something wrong with the system – from Michelle Alexander to Newt Gingrich to Eric Holder. But, we have a lot of people in prison with violent offenses and we should address who they are and how they got there. I’m all for nickel and diming our way into having less prisoners. My fear is that instead of taking the opportunity to rethink incarceration, we will release some groups from its grasp, and continue to demonize the rest. 

Dan Berger
Author Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

What was the most promising development in criminal justice in 2014?
 

The burgeoning movement against police brutality, with protests still sweeping the country, is a breath of fresh air.  With strategies, demands, and organizational forms still developing, the series of creative, grassroots actions have squarely targeted state violence. It has shifted a national narrative around the routine police killing of black and brown people while providing an outlet for thousands of people to get involved in campaigns against one of the most visible forms state violence. Although the connection to other aspects of the carceral state still need to be made with greater fore and endurance, these protests certainly build on the uptick in decarceration campaigns as well as the direct action immigrant rights movement that has shut down police stations and blocked deportations in recent years.
 
What was the worst moment in criminal justice in 2014? 
 

It is hard to pick an exact moment; there are many contenders. But the combination of intransigence and self-congratulation displayed by various state officials who sustain mass incarceration and police violence. The conservative case for prison reform has attracted a lot of money and attention, and then gone on to claim victories for shrinking prison population through flawed “justice reinvestment” processes—the so-called Texas miracle. But in fact, their politics of social austerity and expanded police power do not bring us any closer to ending mass incarceration; if anything, they have expanded the carceral state in the realms of policing and surveillance. Meanwhile, prison populations have not declined this year the way they did in year’s past; in some places they increased, while Guantanamo remains open and torture remains legal.
 
What should we watch for in 2015? 

Whether they are being disingenuous or just naïve, those in power—and here I mean not just government officials but also some nonprofit executives, think tanks, and others—often greet grassroots movements with false hope and fake solutions aimed more at stopping protests than ameliorating social injustice. In a context that sees thousands of people being active around these issues for the first time, some of these proposals may sound enticing, especially when they seem to incorporate aspects of our demands. We demand police accountability, they propose body cameras. We demand that money spent on prisons instead be reinvested in communities, they propose “justice reinvestment” that shifts resources to police and prosecutors (which ultimately feeds the prison system). And so on, and so on. We need to keep organizing, which includes both expanding the sense of “we” through popular mobilization and articulating a vision of something beyond what those in power can imagine.
 

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.

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