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Author: Kayleen Jones

Federal Sentencing Reform

The Equal Justice Initiative recently profiled four bills that impact federal sentencing in the United States. The following blog post will outline those four bills based on information from EJI.

The first bill is the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act. If passed, this bill will allow judges more flexibility to adjust mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. This will reduce the number of people sent to federal prison each year. The bill will also expand the compassionate release program, expand access to substance abuse treatment, and allow sentence reductions for those prisoners who complete vocational, educational, or substance abuse programs.

The second bill is the Smarter Sentencing Act. If passed, this bill will eliminate some mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly for drug offenses.

The third bill is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. If passed, this bill will create new mandatory minimum sentences for people who aid terrorists and perpetrators of domestic violence that result in death. It will also limit solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons.

The fourth bill is the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act. If passed, this bill will remove some barriers to re-entry for former prisoners. It will also prohibit employers from asking about criminal history until the final conditional job offer.

For more information about these bills, click here.

Compensating the Wrongly Convicted

Anthony Ray Hinton was recently exonerated after 30 years behind bars in Alabama. His case, and others like it, have made the broken parts of our criminal justice system quite apparent. CBS’s 60 Minutes recently focused on compensation, or lack there of, for the wrongly convicted in our country.

According the Innocence Project, a national organization that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and criminal justice system reform, only 30 states and Washington D.C. provide some kind of compensation for the wrongly convicted. However, just because states provide some kind of compensation does not mean it is enough. In Hinton’s state of Alabama, which does have compensation legislation, he received nothing. Since many states have poor or nonexistent compensation laws, many exonerees are homeless after being released. Exonerees are given less support than those out on parole. According to 60 Minutes people out on parole in Alabama are eligible for job training, housing assistance, and a bus ticket home. Exonerees like Hinton are not eligible for those services.

In response to this problem, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative stated that exonerees “need support, they need economic support, they need housing support, they need medical support, they need mental health care. They need to know that their victimization, their abuse has been taken seriously.”

Here in Wisconsin, wrongly convicted individuals can receive up to $25,000 in compensation. On December 24, 2015 Andrew Beckett of the Wisconsin Radio Network reported that there are efforts in process to raise that number to $1 million. State representative Dale Kooyenga (R – Brookfield) co-sponsored the bill saying that it will help the wrongly convicted individuals restore their lives The proposed bill would also provide exonerees health care, job training, and affordable housing. Previous efforts to increase compensation limits in Wisconsin have failed to pass in the Legislature.

To watch the 60 Minutes episode about compensation for the wrongly convicted click here.

To read the Innocence Project fact sheet about compensation for the wrongly convicted click here.

To read “Wisconsin lawmakers push to raise restitution for wrongful convictions” from the Wisconsin Radio Network click here.

Florida and Alabama’s Capital Sentencing Scheme Found to be Unconstitutional

On January 12th, the United States Supreme court found Florida and Alabama’s capital sentencing procedures to be unconstitutional as they do not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to hand out a death sentence.

Florida and Alabama allow a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence to be overruled by an elected judge. This means that a judge can decide to impose the death penalty against a jury’s recommendation. In Florida, no judge has overruled a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence in 15 years. Alabama on the other hand, has had judges override juries’ recommendations of life sentences 101 times since 1976, including 26 times since the year 2000.

The Supreme Court found the capital sentencing design of Florida and Alabama to violate the Sixth Amendment which states that any fact that makes a person eligible for death must be determined by a jury, not a judge.

Read more about the ruling here.

Read the Supreme Court ruling here.

2016-2017 Go Big Read Theme: Immigrants and Community

Have you read any great books lately? Do you think something you’ve read would make a great Go Big Read selection? Let us know! For the 2016-2017 academic year, we are seeking books with a focus on immigrants and community.

In the press release about the upcoming theme, Chancellor Blank had this to say: “America is a nation of people with roots throughout the world. Immigration is a topic that will lend itself to sharing our own stories of where we come from, as well as sparking a wide range of discussions about how we build community.”

If you’ve recently read something that engages with the theme of inequality in America, we want to hear about it. The deadline to submit books for consideration is January 24, 2016, and we are accepting both fiction and non-fiction nominations. You can use this form to nominate titles, and read more about our selection criteria here, and also see if your favorite title is on our running suggestion list.

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Death Penalty Numbers Continue To Fall In 2015

Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs corespondent, recently investigated why the death penalty is becoming less common in the United States in the story “Why has the death penalty grown increasingly rare?” So far in 2015 only 27 executions have occurred which is the lowest number in 25 years.

What she found is that many judges are not handing out death penalty sentences, too many cases of death row inmates are found to be flawed, and the resources for execution are not as readily available as people might think.

According to information from the Death Penalty Information Center, all the death penalties this year came from only 21 counties, which is less than 1% of the counties in the country.

Former attorney general of Virginia, conservative Republican Mark Earley, presided over 36 executions between 1998-2001. Having been a part of those executions and working as a part of the criminal justice system he no longer believes the death penalty is justified. He said: “We get it wrong sometimes, and in the death penalty, we just can’t get it wrong.” He is referring to the high number of 156 death penalty inmates who have been exonerated.

Totenberg also showed a side to the death penalty that is often left out: the drug companies. Drug companies don’t morally or economically want to be involved with the death penalty. This makes it difficult for states to actually get the drugs needed for lethal injection.

To read the full article “Why has the death penalty grown increasingly rare?” click here.

To visit the Death Penalty Information Center click here.

#WeAreHere and #JusticeReformNow

Musical artist, Alicia Keys, recently spoke at a Capital Hill briefing about the state of mass incarceration in the United States. She started a new campaign, #WeAreHere for #JusticeReformNow, with her organization, We Are Here, and Cut50, a bipartisan initiative to cut the U.S. prison population by 50% over the next ten years.

According to the Upworthy article “Alicia Keys released a beautiful video to get 1 million signatures for prison reform” by  Erica Williams Simon, Keys and her partner organizations are asking for the reformed laws to do three things. First, send fewer people into a broken system. Second, invest in education, rehabilitation, and treatment, rather than incarceration and punishment. And third, address economic, civil, and social barriers to re-entry.

To raise awareness and bolster action Keys created the video below.

To read the Upworthy article “Alicia Keys released a beautiful video to get 1 million signatures for prison reform” by Erica Williams Simon, click here.

To read about #cut50 click here.

To learn more about the We Are Here organization, click here.

A Look at UW’s Current Go Big Read Book, “Just Mercy,” from the Selection of the Book to the Author’s Recent Talk on UW’s Campus

This post was written by UW-Madison Journalism student, Lisa Speckhard.

Since 2009, UW-Madison has hosted Go Big Read, its common book program. A book is chosen to be widely read and discussed throughout campus and the community. According to the program’s website, the goal is to “engage students, faculty, staff and the entire community in a vibrant, academically driven experience.”

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This year, the Go Big Read selection committee was looking for a book about inequality in America. They noted this was a pressing local issue, as could be seen in the Madison reactions to grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York, as well as the local shooting of Tony Robinson.

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Over 200 entries were submitted by students, faculty, staff, and members of the community. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank chose “Just Mercy.”

Blank stated, “Bryan Stevenson’s book raises tough and important questions about inequalities in the criminal justice system … Now is a particularly good time to hold these conversations, as UW-Madison students, staff and faculty grapple with the ways in which these larger national issues affect our own community.”

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The New York Times review of the book called it “a call to action for all that remains to be done.”

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Bryan Stevenson is a the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a professor of law at New York University School of Law. In 2015, he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. You can learn more about his journey here:

UW-Madison and the greater Madison area offered many ways to interact with the book. UW distributed over 5,000 copies to new students, used the book in over 170 class sections, assigned it as reading for all first year law students, held a faculty and staff panel discussion on the issues raised in the book, and is hosting a human rights conference at the Pyle Center next week. Later in November, Central Library will provide a life-size model of a solitary confinement cell for visitors to experience.

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Students even interacted with the book artistically. Business students made posters inspired by the book.

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It wasn’t just students who were involved; the UW-Madison Police department also joined in.

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Madison residents can listen to a chapter of the book everyday on Wisconsin Public Radio.

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Madison Public Library facilitated discussion by distributing discussion kits.

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And a community panel discussion, featuring the Middleton Police Chief and the CEO of Urban League, was held at Middleton Public Library.

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At 7 p.m. Monday night, author Bryan Stevenson came to the UW-Madison campus to speak at Union South in Varsity Hall.

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Students and people from the community formed a long line to hear him speak.

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Before the talk, I asked audience members why they came.

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Stevenson opened the talk with a vision for the future.

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He then laid out four steps for arriving at that future.

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During the event, some audience members used Twitter to state their agreement and enthusiasm.

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After the event, I asked audience members what their biggest takeaway was:

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The talk is available online for those with NetIDs.

Those interested in “Just Mercy” can continue listening to a chapter of the book a day on NPR, check out the Pyle Center’s upcoming human rights conference, or step into a model solitary confinement cell at Madison Public Library.

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To read the original article by Lisa Speckhard click here.

TBT: Emma Watson interviews Malala Yousafzai

NPR profiled a recent interview with Malala Yousafzai in the article “Viral Video: Emma Watson Inspires Malala to Call Herself A Feminist.” The video shows Emma Watson, a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, having a conversation with Malala for the Into Film Festival. The annual, free film festival is a celebration of film and education for 5-19 year olds across the United Kingdom.

Watson and Malala talked about Malala’s new film “He Named Me Malala.” In the interview Malala said that she hopes it is “not just a movie but a movement.” Malala also talked about how she was inspired by Watson’s 2014 HeForShe speech by saying “When you said ‘if not now, when? If not me, who?’ I decided that there’s no way and there’s nothing wrong by calling yourself a feminist, so I am a feminist. And feminism is another word for equality.” They concluded the conversation by talking about the importance of education for all girls and all children around the world.

Watch the interview below.

To read the article “Viral Video: Emma Watson Inspires Malala to Call Herself A Feminist” click here.

Watch the trailer for “He Named Me Malala” below.

 

Solitary Confinement Cell at Madison Public Library

A recent Wisconsin State Journal article, “Around Town: Solitary confinement crisis brought home by model cell” by Samara Kalk Derby, profiled the life-size, walk-in model of a solitary confinement cell at the Madison Central Library. At the Library, patrons can walk around the cell and if they want, check out audio of what prisoners in solitary confinement hear, such as moaning, screaming, and other loud noises.

The model cell has been to multiple venues around Madison, including the state Capitol. It’s estimated that 4,000 people have explored the model cell. The cell was brought to the Library to help patrons make connections between this year’s Go Big Read book, Just Mercy, and Wisconsin.

According to information posted outside the cell, between December 2011 and December 2012, Wisconsin placed over 4,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, which was approximately twenty percent of the prison population at the time.

The state Department of Corrections is considering limiting solitary confinement to ninety days. Currently, prisoners can be in solitary for 180 days to an entire year. Although an improvement, ninety days in solitary confinement is still six times the international standard for torture.

The model cell will be on display at Madison Central Library until Thursday, November 12th.

To read “Around Town: Solitary confinement crisis brought home by model cell” click here.

9th Grade English Students at West High School Read and Respond to Just Mercy

Post written by Kim Schopf and Lynn Glueck, Madison West High School

Every year, Madison Metropolitan School District students in English classes take beginning, middle and end-of-year writing assessments that help students and teachers gauge progress on the critical skills of reading a text closely and writing an argument based on that text. This year, as a way of tying this reading and writing authentically to the English 1 (9th grade English) curriculum and to current and relevant events and issues  in our community and the nation, the team chose to use an excerpt from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.  The excerpt, the story of 13-year-old Ian Manuel who was imprisoned in Apalachee Correctional Institution, for much of  time in solitary confinement, struck a chord with students, many of whom were interested in reading the book. When they reviewed their assessments together as a class it engendered discussions about race, justice, punishment, and forgiveness. While being horrified about the treatment of Ian in prison, they also struggled with notions of appropriate consequences for actions in adolescence. These are exactly the kinds of discussions that foster critical thinking that we want to see in our West classrooms.

In support of engaging students in their learning, there’s a new structure for English 1 instruction at Madison West, in which students choose books to read based on interest rather than exclusively reading whole-class texts. Also, while the focus is still mainly on reading literature, there’s more integration of nonfiction text. So the recent donation of copies of Stevenson’s Just Mercy from UW-Madison’s Go Big Read program is a welcome addition to the classroom libraries.  Students’ reading of the book, and attendance at the Go Big Read event at which Stevenson spoke, ties in well with the curriculum for quarter three of English 1, in which students will dig deeply into a unit of instruction entitled “Because Lives Matter”  and focus on writing argument based on text.  A central focus will be on social justice and exploring the following questions:

  • What is the significance of being able to express self and to be acknowledged?
  • How do readers deepen their content knowledge as well as come to understand perspectives and cultures?
  • How do writers create argument writing in order to examine and convey their ideas?
  • How does research enhance the discovery of storytelling, ideas, and arguments?

We strongly encouraged our 480 9th grade English students to attend the Go Big Read author event on October 26!

A big thank you to UW-Madison for providing the copies of Just Mercy for  West High students. The Wisconsin Idea in action.