A Year in Criminal Justice

George Lavender

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 23 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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