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Category: Go Big Read 2015-2016: Just Mercy

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.

Stories of Federal Prison Inmates

In the first few weeks of February, the popular photo blog Humans of New York has featured photographs and stories of federal prison inmates. The inmates are from five prisons across the Northeast. Some inmates tell the story of how they ended up in prison and some talk about what they are doing in prison. One inmate talks about a class he started for parents to send coloring projects, bedtime stories, and other creative projects to their kids. Read his story by clicking here.

Although the blog features mostly people who live in New York City, sometimes photographer, Brandon Stanton, shares stories of people whose voices might not otherwise be heard. In this case that is federal prison inmates. In December he featured stories of Syrian refugees.

To view the blog Humans of New York, click 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.

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.

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.

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.