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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: Criminal Justice System

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.

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.

Bryan Stevenson’s Interview with Truthout

 

Photo of Bryan Stevenson by Linda Nylind Guardian

Bryan Stevenson was recently interviewed by Truthout. In the interview he was asked to elaborate on some of the issues he discusses in his book, Just Mercy. In particular he expands on what the book’s title means, areas of the Unites States’ criminal justice system that he is advocating to improve, and the challenges ahead for helping those most vulnerable in our current system.

Stevenson works primarily on issues in the criminal justice system related to race and poverty, children in prison, mass incarceration, and the death penalty. In this interview he explains why his work is so important an why he started the Equal Justice Initiative as a young lawyer. He sums up the purpose of his work by saying:

It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.

With his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson hopes to bring these issues to the attention of more people. For example in the United States 68 million people out of 320 million people have criminal records. That equates to one out of every four to five people in our country. He sees that number as too high and as a result is devoted to working for social justice.

To read the Truthout interview click here.

Go Big Read selects ‘Just Mercy’ for 2015-16

Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls Bryan Stevenson “America’s Mandela.”
Stevenson has spent his career fighting for racial justice and wants his fellow Americans to realize that something is inherently wrong with the land of the free and the home of the brave having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Photo: Brian Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson
Photo: Nina Subin
In the 1980s, Stevenson co-founded the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama. Since then, he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court five times and played a role in landmark court cases that have transformed how the criminal justice system deals with violent youths. His book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” is the latest selection for Go Big Read, UW-Madison’s common-reading program.
Go Big Read organizers encouraged the campus community to suggest titles that fit into a theme of inequality in America. Chancellor Rebecca Blank chose “Just Mercy” from the short list that a selection committee culled from 200 nominated titles.
“Bryan Stevenson’s book raises tough and important questions about inequalities in the criminal justice system,” Blank says. “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.”
Hundreds of UW students and community members have taken part in demonstrations following the fatal shooting by a Madison police officer of a black teenager on the city’s East Side, as well as grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York. Many more added their voices to this important discussion during campus forums.
Stevenson’s book focuses on one of his first cases, which involved Walter McMillan, a black Alabama businessman sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman despite having an alibi verified by dozens of witnesses. “The message of this book, hammered home by dramatic examples of one man’s refusal to sit quietly and countenance horror, is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made,” said a review in The New York Times. “‘Just Mercy’ will make you upset and it will make you hopeful.”
Stevenson grew up in Delaware and graduated from Harvard in 1985 with a law degree and a master’s degree in public policy. Since then he has helped secure relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, advocated for poor people and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice. He also is on the faculty at New York University School of Law and the winner of a MacArthur “genius grant.” Last year President Barack Obama appointed him to a task force established to recommend police practices that can improve relations between officers and the people they serve, particularly in minority communities.
William P. Jones, a professor of history and a member of the Go Big Read review committee, says he will use Stevenson’s book in his courses to introduce the question of “mass incarceration” and its impact on the economic and political history of the United States.
“There is perhaps no greater evidence of injustice and inequality in our society than the brutality, unfairness and racial bias displayed by our criminal justice system,” Jones says.  “‘Just Mercy’ is an ideal book for us to read and discuss together as we seek to understand and address those problems.”
By recounting his experience as a defense attorney, the author shows how poverty and racial bias work together to shape those inequalities, Jones says. “Stevenson forces us to confront the contradictions between our criminal justice system and our nation’s founding principles of equality, freedom and justice.”
Planning is underway for how students, faculty and staff will use the book in classrooms and for special events associated with “Just Mercy.” Stevenson is scheduled to visit campus Oct. 26, when he will give a talk in Varsity Hall at Union South. Copies of the book will be given to first-year students at the Chancellor’s Convocation for New Students and to students using the book in their classes.