Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Karlyn Schumacher

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.

Record-Breaking Number of Exonerations in 2015

The Equal Justice Initiative published an article yesterday that examined the record-breaking number of exonerations in the United States in 2015.

The article reports that 149 people were exonerated in 2015 after being wrongfully incarcerated, and according to the National Registry of Exonerations, the number of exonerations in America have doubled since 2011. According to the report, “we now average nearly three exonerations a week,” and “most [now] get little attention” because they happen so frequently.

The article and report also cite a number of ways in which 2015’s exoneration rate is record-breaking. Of the 58 people exonerated for homicide in 2015, more than two-thirds were minorities, and half were African-American.  The National Registry of Exonerations also cited official misconduct in 65 of the exonerations in 2015, and three-quarters of the 58 homicide exonerations involved known official misconduct.

There were also 27 exonerations for cases based on false confessions and 65 exonerations for guilty-plea cases. According to EJI’s article, “more than 80 percent of the false confessions were in homicide cases, mostly by defendants who were under 18 or mentally handicapped or both, the [National] [R]egistry [of Exonerations] reports.”

You can read the full article by the Equal Justice Initiative here.

You can read the National Registry of Exonerations report for 2015 here.

Prisoner Re-Entry Event

On February 10th, 2016, the Morgridge Center for Public Service and Madison-area Urban Ministry are teaming up to put on an event entitled Returning Prisoner Simulation that is directly related to the themes discussed by Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy.

Participants in the event will have the opportunity to walk in recently released inmates’ shoes as they experience the same obstacles faced by released inmates upon their re-entry to society from jail and/or prison.

The Morgridge Center for Public Service’s Facebook page describes the event more fully, stating that:

“This workshop begins with an introduction to the principles of Restorative Justice and explains the basic needs of returning prisoners. Each participant receives a mock profile that describes the life of a former prisoner and they take on the role of that character during a brief role-play. They must complete fundamental life tasks, such as finding housing and a job, or simply cashing a check.

By incorporating the restorative practice of storytelling, the simulation opens a glimpse into the sense of overwhelming frustration that a newly-released prisoner may feel. Immediately after the role-play, a facilitated debriefing by the simulation director allows participants to share their immediate reactions.”

The event will take place from 6-8:30 pm on Wednesday, February 10th, in the Red Gym at the UW-Madison campus. Participation is limited (there are about 80 spots), so if you are interested in attending, you can register for the event by clicking here.

To view the Morgridge Center’s Facebook page for this event, click here.

UW-Madison Students Study Inequalities, Food Deserts in South Madison

A recent article from Madison 365 discusses a class offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that studies food deserts in Madison and has students interact with programs in Madison that aim to combat this issue. A unique feature of this course is its face-to-face, hands on component, which has students volunteering at different organizations and interacting with other volunteers, some of whom are former inmates.

The course, which is called “Building Food Justice Capacity in South Madison,” is “working to improve access to healthy food via sustainable, urban agriculture” and does so by having the fourteen students enrolled in the course collaborate with organizations around Madison. According to the article, this course started as a project that began in 2013 with a grant from the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment.

The project, in conjunction with the course, aims to “understand and combat racial discrimination and food insecurity by working with community leaders. It was designed to address inequities in South Madison’s current food system, while at the same time establishing employment opportunities for former inmates.”

Students volunteer at food kitchens, community dinners, and other organizations in South Madison as a way to interact with those experiencing food injustice as well as formerly incarcerated individuals. One student in the course says of the experience, “I found it extremely rewarding to be able to sit with men with whom I superficially had very little in common with and be able to talk openly about difficult issues regarding race and incarceration. Seeing their willingness to bring us into an intimate discussion about issues that affect them so personally was humbling.”

While food deserts and issues of accessing fresh food might not seem to be directly related to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, it is hard to ignore the fact that amidst all the food inequality in South Madison, African American adults in Dane County have been arrested at rates of more than eight times than the rate of arrests for whites (according to the article). The convergence of poverty, inequality, and racial injustice in South Madison is manifest in both the food desert status of South Madison as well as the rates of arresting African Americans in Dane County.

To read the article from Madison 365, click here.

Bryan Stevenson on The Laura Flanders Show

Bryan Stevenson was recently featured on The Laura Flanders Show, which is a weekly interview-based show hosted by Laura Flanders.

Flanders and Stevenson discussed the extremely high rates of mass incarceration in the United States and possible solutions to this issue, among other things, during Stevenson’s interview. Flanders in particular focused on the issue of isolation and how it relates to mass incarceration and our criminal justice system.

Watch the video of the interview below.

To watch the full interview, click here.

To read Laura Flanders’ “System Overhaul: Stop Isolating Prisons” click here.

Former Inmate Receives Award for Volunteer Work

Last week, a former Dane County jail inmate received the Presidential Award for his service in volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank. A news story from discusses Dominic Davis’s journey from an inmate at the Dane County jail to a dedicated volunteer at Second Harvest Food Bank.

Two years ago, Davis served his year sentence for drug charges at the Dane County jail and took part in the Pathfinders treatment program at the Chris Farley House. The Chris Farley House is a treatment facility in Madison that focuses on providing substance abuse services to a wide range of people.

While participating in the treatment program at the Chris Farley House, Davis opted to join an inmate volunteer program at the jail. Through this program, Davis volunteered at the Second Harvest Food Bank in the warehouse, where he also learned basic skills that later helped him get a job there. Davis says, “I worked harder than I had ever worked before in my life.”

A manager at the Chris Farley House nominated Davis for the Presidential Award, which he was awarded at the Faith in Action Celebration on November 12. Sheriff David Mahoney says, “Dominic Davis is an example of when the criminal justice system addresses the problems that bring a person into the system, rather than focusing on punishment, we can change lives to the positive.”

To read the article and watch a news clip of the story, click here.

UW-Madison Students Learn About Racial Justice Through Art at Wheelhouse Studios

The Morgridge Center for Public Service recently published an article about the opportunity that 18 UW-Madison freshman students had this fall to learn about racial justice through creating art. The students are enrolled in three courses that are focused on the same topic, which is “Citizenship, Democracy, and Difference.”

Their professor, Professor Kathy Cramer, took the students to Memorial Union’s Wheelhouse Studios earlier this month. The students were given small squares from a portrait and were asked to paint their squares on a larger square canvas without seeing the larger portrait.

Once the students completed their individual squares, these pieces were put together to form a large version of the portrait. Students were then shown the original portrait and saw the similarities between their collaborative work and the original.

The article from the Morgridge Center says that, “The students gather[ed] to reflect on the project through the lens of racial and social justice work. Students talk[ed] about the need for collaboration and the power of many over one. Other students explain[ed] how they felt their piece of the portrait seemed insignificant, alone. But now they realize how important it was to the final, collaborative picture. Just one missing piece would have left an incomplete portrait. Instructors explain[ed] how important these same principles are to racial and social justice.”

To read the original article and see the students’ finished portrait, click here.

Upcoming Community Workshop in Middleton on Racial Inequalities

On October 12th, the Middleton Public Library held a community panel discussion of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. This event sparked much discussion about social injustices and issues of racism in Dane County. Five Middleton community leaders have organized a community-wide follow-up workshop in the wake of the book discussion to address racial inequalities in Dane County.

The event, entitled “Equity vs. Equality: An Examination of Racial Inequalities That Exist in Dane County,” will take place from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM in the courtroom at the Middleton Police Station, which is located at 7341 Donna Drive in Middleton. The event will be co-lead by Percy Brown, Director of Equity and Student Achievement at Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, and Laura Love, Director of Secondary Education at Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District.

Participants in the workshop will discuss current racial inequalities in Dane County, what actions are currently being taken to combat these inequalities within the community, and brainstorm other ways to tackle racial inequalities in the community.

One of the planners of the event, Middleton’s Chief of Police Charles Foulke, says, “The Equity vs. Equality training is a logical step in maintaining the momentum that community leaders have been building to address this very real problem [of racial inequality]. I am pleased to be part of the planning team for this training and feel the Middleton Police Department can be part of the solution.” The Middleton Police Department has been actively engaging with the themes in Just Mercy.

The event costs $10 to participate in, and scholarships are available for those in need.

To register for the event, pick up a form at the Middleton Public Library or the Middleton Outreach Ministry Office. You can also register online by clicking here.

You can email Jim Iliff at with any questions you might have or to apply for a scholarship to attend the event.

An Evening With Bryan Stevenson a Success

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, visited UW-Madison on Monday, October 26th, and for many, the culminating event of the day, Stevenson’s talk at Varsity Hall in Union South, was an overwhelming success.

Part of the crowd at An Evening With Bryan Stevenson.

Varsity Hall’s doors were set to open at 6:00 pm, but people were already lined up and waiting before 5:00 pm; the hall’s capacity was reached before 6:30 pm. Live streaming of the event was available for those who were not able to attend the event in Varsity Hall.

Stevenson discussed four things that need to change in order to help combat social injustice, racism, and corruption in America’s criminal justice system, and he shared anecdotes from Just Mercy as part of this discussion. The crowd was energized and responsive during Stevenson’s talk, evinced especially by the resounding applause after the talk and the question and answer session.

The number of people who attended Stevenson’s talk was higher than anticipated. Reception of the event has been overwhelmingly positive, which speaks to the important conversations surrounding social justice, race, and the criminal justice system that Stevenson’s Just Mercy has sparked at UW-Madison and in the larger community.

To watch the video recording of Bryan Stevenson’s talk at UW-Madison on Monday, October 26th, click here. (Please note that this video is only available for viewing by those with Net IDs).