Skip to main content

Tag: Criminal Justice Reform

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.

#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.

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president’s visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the third in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 3: Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 People in Prison for Drug Offenses

As part of this WPR story, Cardin mentioned that Monday July 13th, President Obama announced that he was going to commute the sentences for 46 Americans in prison for drug offenses. A Wisconsin man was one of those chosen to have his sentence commuted. Obama noted that punishments for these individuals did not fit their crimes. For nonviolent drug offenses, many were sentenced to at least 20 years in prison, and 14 were sentenced to life in prison.

President Obama framed this act in terms of second chances by saying: “I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances.” He expressed a similar sentiment in his letters to those whose sentences had been commuted by saying: “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better. So good luck, and godspeed.”

Watch the video of Obama’s announcement below.

To read a New York Times article about this announcement click here.

To listen to the WPR interview click here.

To read Douglas Berman’s Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president’s visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the second in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 2: The Wisconsin Connection 

Minority Incarceration Rates by State Image and stats from UW-Milwaukee

Minority Incarceration Rates by State
Image and stats from UW-Milwaukee

Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for minorities is 12.8%, which is approximately double the nation as a whole and more than three percent higher than the next highest state, Oklahoma. Joy Cardin related this information to Berman and asked what might cause Wisconsin’s numbers to be so high. He mentioned the Truth in Sentencing Law and the “war on drugs” as possibilities.

As Berman explained, the Truth in Sentencing Law was proposed with equality in mind. The idea being that it would stop racial bias in deciding who would be granted parole. Statistics showed that white offenders were being granted parole in higher numbers than minority offenders. With the Truth in Sentencing Law the sentence given would be the sentence served. This way all offenders would be treated equally. However, Berman further explained, that the law just shifted the inequality from who was granted parole to the actual sentencing. The rules attached to the law are complicated. To receive a shorter sentence, it is almost necessary to have a skilled, invested lawyer. Defendants who cannot afford the kind of legal help necessary receive longer sentences. They receive longer sentences not because they have committed a worse crime, but because the are less equipped in the court room.

Similarly he explained, the “war on drugs,” particularly the minimum sentencing laws related to crack cocaine, has disproportionately put African Americans behind bars. Berman said that the ratio is 9:1 for African Americans who are brought in to federal court for crack offenses.

To read an NPR article about Wisconsin’s incarceration of minorities click here.

To listen to the WPR interview click here.

To read Douglas Berman’s Sentencing and Policy blog click here.

WPR: A Look at the Push for Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama recently became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. Wisconsin Public Radio host, Joy Cardin, held an interview with Ohio State University law professor, Douglas Berman, to talk about the significance of the president’s visit. During the interview, Berman touched on many of the same issues as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy. In particular he spoke about inequality in our criminal justice system, what incarceration rates are like in Wisconsin, and why criminal justice reform matters to both Republicans and Democrats.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about issues brought up in the interview.

Part 1: Obama Visits a Federal Prison

El Reno Correctional Institution, Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons

El Reno Correctional Institution, Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons

With his remaining time in office, President Obama is working to improve the criminal justice system. On Thursday July 16th, he visited a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. During the visit he met with six inmates. In addition to traveling to Oklahoma to talk about criminal justice reform, President Obama also stopped in  Philadelphia to speak at an NAACP conference. At he conference he expressed his concern for the number of Americans in prison and how much it is costing the country. He said: “We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and to rehabilitate individuals.”

During his radio interview, Berman praised Obama for paying attention to this issue, as he feels that it is overdue. While he praised Obama for his efforts to make the criminal justice system more fair for the over-represented African Americans and Latinos in prison, Berman is hoping the president also works to correct the socioeconomic inequality, as poor people are also over-represented in prison.

Much of what Berman talks about in this interview is how criminal justice reform is being championed by both Democrats and Republicans. He explained Democrats have been connected to the issue because of their concern with racial disparities and mass incarceration. However in recent years more Republicans are expressing concerns about the racial disparities and how much mass incarceration costs taxpayers, particularly without much taxpayer benefit.

To read an NPR article about the president’s visit to the federal prison click here.

To listen to the WPR interview click here.

To read Douglas Berman’s Sentencing and Policy blog click here.