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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Month: March 2016

Nixon’s “War on Drugs” was Founded on Racism

Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have focused their work on the unequally high incarceration rates of African Americans. They argue the criminal justice system favors white people, especially in regard to drug offenses. Now there is proof that the criminal justice system’s drug policy’s were formed with exactly that in mind.

David Baum recently published  and article called “Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs” in Harper’s. For the article he references a 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief. In the interview Ehrlichman says:  “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” In other words Nixon and his advisors had an idea of how devastating thier policies would be to the African American community. The Equal Justice Initiative explains that the legacy of those policies are mass incarceration of black people and deepening institutionalized racism in the country.

To read more about this click here.

To read “Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs” click here.

Criminal Justice Activist Shaka Senghor on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday

Oprah recently interviewed criminal justice activist Shaka Senghor as part of her SuperSoul Sunday series. Shaka spent nineteen years in prison for second-degree murder at the age of nineteen, and seven of those years were spent in solitary confinement.

There are many parallels between Shaka’s experiences with the criminal justice system and the anecdotes in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Shaka, like many of the individuals Mr. Stevenson has represented, experienced physical and sexual abuse growing up, and he also turned to the streets and drug dealing as a way of gaining the support and acceptance he lacked at home.

Shaka also discusses the dehumanization that takes place in modern American prisons. This dehumanization almost certainly contributes to the high rates of mental illness in prisons, which Shaka describes as common and especially apparent when inmates were subjected to solitary confinement.

Shaka now visits classes and kids in his community to talk about his experiences, teaches classes at the University of Michigan, and has a fellowship at MIT’s Media Lab. One of his greatest challenges in his activism is figuring out ways to “empower young men and women in communities where powerlessness is the norm.” Shaka’s ultimate goal is to “raise awareness” that young people in communities and in prison are worthy, valuable, and redeemable. He says that “all [he] ever wanted was a fair chance to just be a human,” and his actions help spread that message in communities where youth are at higher risk of incarceration.

To watch the full episode, click here.

Life After Thirty Years in Prison

A recent article from The Crime Report details one man’s experiences re-entering society after thirty years behind bars. The article is the second in a series from The Crime Report that follows Lorenzo Brooks and his experiences adjusting to life outside of prison after being incarcerated for thirty years.

Lorenzo Brooks, now 60, was convicted of second-degree murder thirty years ago. Even before his release was granted, he says, “I made preparations and I set goals,” he says. “I just educated myself on the resources available.” Re-entry to society is something that many former inmates struggle with upon their release from prison, especially after decades spent behind bars.

“Some people don’t prepare themselves while they’re in (prison),” Lorenzo says. “They think someone else is going to do it for them.”

Immediately after his release on September 22, 2015, Lorenzo went to Bellevue Men’s Shelter in Manhattan and then another shelter in Brooklyn. According to the article, the next day “he began to rebuild his life. He went to the Human Services Administration, where he filled out applications for food stamps, Medicaid and immediate cash assistance. Next, he filled out an application to live at the Fortune Society in Harlem, an organization that provides housing and support to formerly incarcerated men and women, and was admitted about three weeks later.”

A photo of Lorenzo Brooks in his neighborhood. Photo by Alice Popovici from The Crime Report.

A photo of Lorenzo Brooks in his neighborhood. Photo by Alice Popovici from The Crime Report.

Lorenzo now has a job as a program aide in charge of security at the Fort Washington Men’s Shelter in New York City. His first day at the job, he tried swiping his ID card three times before being able to successfully clock in for his shift. He says of his experiences on his first day at his first job outside of prison in thirty years that, “I wasn’t used to swiping a card….It was very foreign to me, very foreign.”

Lorenzo hopes to one day have “a position as counselor for clients [at a homeless shelter like the one he works at] with substance abuse problems—a job that would require about four months of specialized training.”

“Right now, my position is one of being at the bottom of the ladder,” he says, “You’ve always got to crawl before you walk.”

Lorenzo uses his own experiences to empathize with many of the men at the shelter, some of whom were just recently released from prison themselves. “Being in their position, you can feel hopeless and helpless,” he said, “so I try to let them know that they’re not helpless and that there is hope.”

To read the article “Life After Prison: ‘You’ve Got to Crawl Before You Walk'” by Alice Popovici at The Crime Report, click here.

Florida Revises Death Penalty

Last week, Florida governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that prevents judges from overruling juries’ recommendations for life imprisonment and imposing death sentences instead. A recent article from the Equal Justice Initiative covers the details and impacts of this change in Florida’s death penalty sentencing. As a result, there are only two other states in the nation–Delaware and Alabama–that allow judges to impose death sentences even after juries have recommended life imprisonment.

The article states that “Florida’s legislature changed the law in response to a United States Supreme Court decision in January which held that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment’s requirement that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

Florida’s new law requires that if a jury recommends a life sentence, the judge imposes life in prison, whereas if a jury recommends death, the judge has the choice to sentence the defendant to either death or life in prison. 10 jurors, not 7, now must recommend death in order for the judge to be able to impose a death sentence, but Florida still does not require that jury recommendations for death be unanimous. Florida and Alabama remain the only two states that allow for a jury to recommend death even if the verdict is non-unanimous.

According to the article, Alabama actually “has the same statute as Florida’s old scheme. Alabama judges have overridden jury life recommendations 101 times, and nearly 20 percent of the people currently on Alabama’s death row were sentenced to death through judicial override. An Alabama trial judge ruled last week that Alabama’s statute is unconstitutional in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.”

To read the EJI article entitled “Florida Abolishes Death Sentences by Judicial Override,” click here.

Rise in Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Juvenile Detention Facilities

A recent article by the Equal Justice Initiative reports on a study published by the Justice Department that found that allegations of reported child sexual abuse in juvenile detention facilities have increased in the past decade.

The study found that the rate of formal allegations of sexual abuse in state facilities rose from 19 per 1000 youth in 2005 to 47 per 1000 youth in 2012. Local and private facilities also saw increases in their rates of alleged sexual abuse from 2010 to 2012 as well. Staff harassment of the youth in juvenile detention facilities characterized 45 percent of these allegations.

The article also discusses the fact that most staff members who are found guilty of sexually abusing children in juvenile detention facilities do not face criminal charges. The study found that “most staff members do not face consequences apart from being discharged from their jobs or allowed to resign. The study shows that fewer than half of the staff members who were found to have abused children were subjected to legal action. Only about 37 percent were referred for possible criminal prosecution, and only about 17 percent were arrested. Nearly 20 percent kept their jobs.”

The study also found that over half of the confirmed victims of sexual abuse in juvenile detention facilities did not receive medical follow-up afterwards, including medical examinations, HIV/AIDS testing, and STD testing.

EJI’s article also stated that “juvenile correctional authorities told the Bureau of Justice Statistics that in half of the confirmed staff-on-youth sexual victimization cases, the sexual contact between the child and the staff member ‘appeared to be willing.’ The study’s authors disavowed this characterization, writing that ‘[r]egardless of how juvenile correctional authorities reported these incidents, they were considered an abuse of power, involved an unknown level of coercion, and were illegal.'”

To read the Equal Justice Initiative’s article, click here.

To read the Justice Department’s report on sexual abuse in juvenile detention centers, click here.

EJI Receives $1 Million from Google.org

On February 26th, the USA Today reported that Google.org, the philanthropic sector of Google, is giving $1 million to the Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan Stevenson had this to say about the partnership with Google: “They have the skills and the knowledge and the innovative techniques to allow us to do this work in a way that engages a broad cross section of our nation.”

EJI was not the only organization to receive racial justice grants from Google.org. Two million dollars were distributed among other organizations in the  Bay area who are working to end racial inequalities in education.

Google is taking an unprecedented stand on racial justice for a technology company. Justin Steele, a Google.org administrator said “Google and our own industry need to do more to promote equality and opportunities for all. Last year Google.org launched a new dedicated effort to support leaders who are doing critical work to end mass incarceration and combat endemic educational inequality for black and brown students.”

To read  the USA Today article “Google gives $1M to Bryan Stevenson’s racial justice effort” by Jessica Guynn, click here.

For more information about Google’s racial justice work, click here.