Category Archives: Criminal Law

Murdered in his home while being black!

Thursday night, September 6th, while some people were contemplating burning their Nike gear because of an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, a 26 year-old unarmed immigrant, Botham Shem Jean, was shot and killed while being black in his own home by a 30 year-old white female off duty Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, after supposedly entering an apartment she mistakenly thought was her own.

The same night Jean was killed, Nike aired its first 30th anniversary "Just Do It" ad, narrated by Colin Kaepernick, during the NFL season opener between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles. 

Colin Kaepernick began his slient and peaceful protest, first by sitting and then by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Kaepernick has clearly stated a number of times that his protest has nothing to do with disrespecting the flag or military, but is simply a stand against the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of mostly white police officers. Jean's killing is the most recent example of what Kaepernick's protest is about. 

Guyger told police she thought she was entering her own apartment not realizing she was on the wrong floor; she thought her home was being burglarized and opened fire, shot him twice in the chest, and killed him. Guyger, off-duty but still in uniform, was returning home from either a 12 or 15-hour shift Thursday night; she said she mistook  Jean's apartment for her own, which was a floor below in the same complex. Weird, given he had a red welcome mat at the door (she didn't) and presumably different stuff in his place, but okay.

Jean was a devout Christian and talented singer and worked as a risk assurance associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He earned a bachelor's degree at Harding University in Arkansas, where he had been a beloved worship leader. Jean described himself on LinkedIn as a "young professional, engaged in developing a career built upon integrity, dedication and relationships, leveraging useful technologies to gain an understanding of and add value in a range (of) industries, striving towards leadership in my career, my community and society." A college friend described him as "wildly popular, hugely successful, and an incredible leader…he was a gentleman and a scholar." 

In an affidavit released Monday, Guyger made several shady new claims. She said Jean's door was open; she didn't know it was the wrong apartment until after she shot him; she saw "a large silhouette" – cue myth of the big black dude – as she entered; and Jean "ignored" her "verbal commands" – in, lest we forget, his own apartment. At least two witnesses refute her; they say they heard a woman knocking on the closed door and saying "Let me in,” and Jean was too “meticulous” to ever leave his door ajar. Also Guyger, it turns out, has been here before: In May 2017, Guyger was called to assist another officer searching for a suspect. An affidavit indicates a man identified as Uvaldo Perez got out of a car and became combative with Guyger and another officer. A struggle began and Guyger fired her Taser at Perez, who wrested the weapon away from her. Guyger then drew her gun and shot Perez in the abdomen, the affidavit says. Guyger was not charged in the case.

Dallas police requested an arrest warrant Friday for Guyger after Jean’s death was ruled a homicide; it wasn't issued until Sunday, reportedly because the Texas Rangers took over the case and were still investigating. Guyger, a four-year veteran of the department, was charged with manslaughter, booked into Kaufman County jail that evening and was freed an hour later after posting $300,000 bond, according to jail records. Given the contradictions in Guyger's story, officials say she could face stiffer charges once her case goes to a grand jury.

Allison Jean flew to Dallas from the family’s native St. Lucia after the shooting. Her son will be buried on the Caribbean island Thursday.  “She took my life away, like my very own life,” said Jean's mother, Allison. “She has to face whatever the law says. The very Bible says to render to Caesar that which is Caesar so if Caesar says to pay a penalty for a life, then she has to pay.”

Brandt Jean, brother of Botham Jean, is comforted by his sister, Allisa Charles-Findley, as their mother, Allison, looks on during a news conference.

For now, his family is left to grieve and seek answers. They gathered this weekend for a vigil at Jean's Dallas church, where the congregation honored him with one of his favorite hymns, "My God is Real," and a friend compared him to holy men of the Bible who gave friends spiritual guidance and "evangelized every day." His loss, he said, is "a disservice to humanity." It's also why Kaepernick and so many others continue to speak out in righteous rage, said family attorney Benjamin Crump, who said Jean's death should "astonish most sensible Americans…Black people have been killed by police in some of the most arbitrary ways in America. Blacks have been killed for ‘driving while black’ in their automobiles, ‘walking while black’ in their neighborhoods and now ‘living while black’ in their own apartment."

Critics online echoed him. The harsh clear lesson, said one: "Suit. Tie. Christian. Respectable. At home. Black. Dead." Jean's mother Allison Jean, a former government official of St. Lucia, likewise cited the clear racism behind her son's murder in an interview, calmly arguing a white man would not have met the same grim fate. “Botham loved God. Botham loved you. Botham loved mankind," she said. "God loves us all the same, and this has to stop."

As I heard about this young man's life, I couldn't help but be reminded about my oldest son. My son, who will be 25 tomorrow has been actively involve in church since his youth. Like Jean, he sings in the choir, and  is currently a minister and founder of an organization dedicated to help others. This could have just as easily been either of my two sons. My thoughts and prays go out to the Jean family. Hopefully Jean's tragic death will open the eyes of those burning their Nike gear and help them realize that police killing unarmed people is a real problem that needs to first be acknowledged and then solved. 

White Cop found Guilty of Murder for Killing Black Teen

A Texas jury found a white former police officer who shot and killed Jordan Edwards, an unarmed black teenager last year guilty of murder. 

Roy Oliver fired three rifle rounds into a car full of teenagers, which included Edward's sixteen year old brother who was driving and another brother, as they were leaving a party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs in April 2017. Fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was unarmed and sitting in the passenger seat, was struck and killed. Edwards was a first-year student at Mesquite High School where he played football. 

The Texas high school football team that Jordan Edwards had been a part of prior to his untimely death

Edwards' brother was held in police custody overnight for the purpose of questioning him as a witness. Police originally claimed there was alcohol present, during the trial, the jury learned there was no alcohol present at the party, despite what police had initially said. 

"It's been a hard year … I'm just really happy," Edwards's father, Odell, told reporters at the court after the verdict on Tuesday. 

Jordan Edwards with his father, Odell, in a family photo.

At the time of the shooting, Oliver claimed the vehicle was trying to run over his partner, but several witness accounts and body-cam footage showed the car was moving away from the officer. A vigil was held at Edwards's school on the evening of May 1, 2017. A lawyer for Edwards' family demanded the arrest of Oliver.

Oliver was placed on administrative leave following the shooting and fired from the Balch Springs police force on May 2, 2017 after police admitted the video of the shooting contradicted Oliver's initial statement. 

Police originally stated there was an "unknown altercation with a vehicle backing down the street towards the officers in an aggressive manner". After reviewing body cam footage, Police Chief Jonathan Haber later admitted that the vehicle was not moving toward the officers, but rather away from them.

Local reporters, who were present in the courtroom on Tuesday as the verdict was read, reported that there were hugs, claps and cheers from the family of Edwards. 

Oliver faces between five and 99 years in prison for the murder. His sentencing hearing began immediately after the trial. The former police officer was acquitted of manslaughter and aggravated assault. 

Daryl Washington, Edwards's lawyer, said the verdict is not just about justice for the young teenager's family but for the families of all unarmed black people killed by police. 

"This case is not just about Jordan," Washington told reporters, adding that "it's about Tamir Rice, it's about Walter Scott, it's about Alton Sterling, it's about every unarmed African American who has been killed and who has not got justice". 

According to the Washington Post Fatal Force database, more than 980 people were killed by police in 2017. 

The Guardian identified more than 1,090 police killings the previous year.

Nearly a quarter of those killed by police in 2016 were African Americans, although the group accounted for roughly 12 percent of the total US population.

According to watchdog group The Sentencing Project, African American men are six times more likely to be arrested than white men.

These disparities, particularly the killing of African Americans by police, has prompted the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a popular civil rights movement aimed at ending police violence and dismantling structural racism.


For additional information and details, see: "Flashback: Jordan Edwards' stepbrother recounts harrowing night, hearing cop's fatal shots," from the Dallas Moring News which includes links to 38 other articles related to Jordan Edwards.

I went from prison to professor – here’s why criminal records should not be used to keep people out of college

By Stanley Andrisse, Howard University

Beginning next year, the Common Application – an online form that enables students to apply to the 800 or so colleges that use it – will no longer ask students about their criminal pasts.

As a formerly incarcerated person who now is now an endocrinologist and professor at two world-renowned medical institutions – Johns Hopkins Medicine and Howard University College of Medicine – I believe this move is a positive one. People’s prior convictions should not be held against them in their pursuit of higher learning.

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The U.S. leads the world in the rate of incarceration. kittirat roekburi/www.shutterstock.com

While I am enthusiastic about the decision to remove the criminal history question from the Common Application, I also believe more must be done to remove the various barriers that exist between formerly incarcerated individuals such as myself and higher education.

I make this argument not only as a formerly incarcerated person who now teaches aspiring medical doctors, but also as an advocate for people with criminal convictions. The organization I lead – From Prison Cells to PhD – helped push for the change on the Common Application.

My own story stands as a testament to the fact that today’s incarcerated person could become tomorrow’s professor. A person who once sold illegal drugs on the street could become tomorrow’s medical doctor. But this can only happen if such a person, and the many others in similar situations, are given the chance.

There was a time not so long ago when some in the legal system believed I did not deserve a chance. With three felony convictions, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking as a prior and persistent career criminal. My prosecuting attorney once stated that I had no hope for change.

Today, I am Dr. Stanley Andrisse. As a professor at Johns Hopkins and Howard University, I now help train students who want to be doctors. I’d say that I have changed. Education was transformative.

US incarceration rates the highest

The United States needs to have more of this transformative power of education. The country incarcerates more people and at a higher rate than any other nation in the world. The U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the world population but nearly 25 percent of the incarcerated population around the globe.

Roughly 2.2 million people in the United States are essentially locked away in cages. About 1 in 5 of those people are locked up for drug offenses.

“‘How I Learned to Read – and Trade Stocks – in Prison,’ by Curtis ‘Wall Street’ Carroll.

I was one of those people in prison not so long ago.

Early life of crime

Growing up in the Ferguson, North St. Louis area, I started selling drugs and getting involved with other crimes at a very young age. I was arrested for the first time at age 14. By age 17, I was moving substantial amounts of drugs across the state of Missouri and the country. By my early 20s, I found myself sitting in front of a judge and facing 20 years to life for drug trafficking charges. The judge sentenced me to 10 years in state prison.

When I stood in front of that judge, school was not really my thing.

Although I was a successful student athlete and received a near full scholarship to play football for Lindenwood University, a Division II college football program, I found it difficult to get out of the drug business. Suffice it to say, there were people in the drug world who wanted me to keep moving drugs. And they made it clear that they would be extremely disappointed if I were to suddenly stop. So I continued. For this reason, I didn’t view my undergraduate college experience the way I view education now.

The transformative power of education

Education provides opportunities for people with criminal records to move beyond their experience with the penal system and reach their full potential. The more education a person has, the higher their income. Similarly, the more education a person has, the less likely they are to return to prison.

A 2013 analysis of several studies found that obtaining higher education reduced recidivism – the rate of returning to prison – by 43 percent and was four to five times less costly than re-incarcerating that person. The bottom line is education increases personal income and reduces crime.

Despite these facts, education is woefully lacking among those being held in America’s jails and prisons. Nearly 30 percent of America’s incarcerated – about 690,000 people – are released each year and only 60 percent of those individuals have a GED or high school diploma, compared to 90 percent of the overall of U.S. population over age 25. And less than 3 percent of the people released from incarceration each year have a college degree, compared to 40 percent of the U.S. population.

Rejected by colleges

I had a bachelor’s degree by the time I went to prison but never got the chance to put it to use. Then something tragic happened while I was serving time that prompted me to see the need to further my education. Due to complications of diabetes, my father had his legs amputated. He fell into a coma and lost his battle with Type 2 diabetes. I was devastated. This experience made me want to learn more about how to fight this disease.

While incarcerated, I applied to six biomedical graduate programs. I was rejected from all but one – Saint Louis University. Notably, I had a mentor from Saint Louis University who served on the admission committee. Without that personal connection, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten a second chance.

I finished near the top of my graduate school class, suggesting that I was likely qualified for the programs that rejected me.

Restore Pell grants to incarcerated people 

Based on the difficulty I experienced in going from prison to becoming a college professor, I believe there are things that should be done to remove barriers for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people who wish to pursue higher education.

One of those barriers is cost. When the government removed Pell funding from prisons by issuing the "tough on crime” Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the vast majority of colleges offering courses in prison stopped. Due to the federal ban on receiving Pell grants while incarcerated, most of those serving time are not able to afford to take college courses while in prison. The Obama administration took a step toward trying to restore Pell grants for those in prison with the Second Chance Pell pilot. The program has given over 12,000 incarcerated individuals across the nation the chance to use Pell grants toward college courses in prison.

Inmate Terrell Johnson, a participant in the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup, speaks with then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2015. Patrick Semansky/AP

Through the program, 67 colleges and universities are working with over 100 prisons to provide college courses to the incarcerated.

Under the Trump administration, this program is at-risk of being discontinued at the end of 2018. Historically, some have argued that allowing Pell dollars to be used by those in prison takes precious Pell dollars from people who did not violate the law. However, the current Second Chance Pell pilot funding being directed to prisons, $30 million, accounts for 0.1 percent of the total $28 billion of Pell funding. Even if the program were expanded, based on historical levels, it would still amount to one-half of 1 percent of all Pell funding. This is justified by the impact that Pell dollars would have in prison in terms of reducing recidivism.

Remove questions about drug crimes from federal aid forms

Federal policymakers could increase opportunities by removing Question 23 on the federal student aid form that asks if applicants have been convicted of drug crimes. A 2015 study found that nearly 66 percent of would-be undergraduates who disclosed a conviction on their college application did not finish their application.

Federal student aid applicants likely feel the same discouragement. I felt discouraged myself when I was applying to graduate programs when I came across the question about whether I had ever been convicted of a crime. It made me feel like I was nothing more than a criminal in the eyes of the college gatekeepers.

This question also disproportionately effects people of color, since people of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the question runs the risk of making formerly incarcerated people feel isolated and less valuable than those who’ve never gotten in trouble with the law.

When people who have been incarcerated begin to feel like they don’t belong and higher education is not for them, our nation will likely not be able to realize their potential and hidden talents.

It will be as if we have locked them up and thrown away the key.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation

Citizenship through the eyes of those who have lost the right to vote

By Kimberly R. Kras, University of Massachusetts Lowell

A fundamental right of U.S. citizenship is having your voice heard by voting to elect representatives. However, at least 6 million U.S. citizens cannot vote in the United States because they have been convicted of a felony.

Losing the right to vote is among numerous other consequences of being convicted of a crime. This so-called “civil death” suggests that person is considered dead to society. The larger political consequence is a lack of representation in government of a large group of citizens who are largely poor and people of color.

I study the impact of being convicted on individuals and communities. States have a variety of rules and regulations when it comes to voting rights and felony convictions. In some states, when a person is convicted they are barred from voting until they successfully complete prison, probation or parole. But in 12 states, people convicted of felonies are barred from voting for life.

In response to growing concern that these laws disenfranchise large segments of America’s citizens, several states have recently made substantial, yet controversial, changes to voting rights of ex-felons. This may be a growing movement.

Voting rights and felony convictions

In 2016, Virginia’s Gov. Terry McAuliffe took executive action to restore voting rights to at least 173,000 ex-felons. In April, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order to restore voting rights to felons on parole.

Florida may be next in line for change.

In July, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about whether laws excluding felons from the right to vote are constitutional. In November, the state will vote on a ballot measure to restore ex-felon’s voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentence.

These decisions will impact a large segment of Florida’s voting-age population and continue to build a strong precedent for other states.

Florida has historically played an important role in American elections. Yet roughly 10 percent of Floridians can’t vote because they have been convicted of felonies. Research suggests that had these Americans been able to cast their vote for president in the 2000 election, Florida would have been a blue state. Studies show that ex-felons largely vote Democrat, and in this case would have made an impact in a presidential election.

However, critics point out that many felons do not vote even if their rights are restored.

That may be true, but research shows that for many ex-felons it’s because they don’t know they can. This means fewer people have input in electing representatives who generally support causes important to them such as rehabilitation for offenders and criminal justice reform.

Crime and the social contract

Some pundits and legal scholars argue that felons should not be eligible to vote because when people commit crime they violate the “social contract.” The social contract is the agreement among citizens to abide by rules and laws for the good of society. This reasoning says that those who break it, say by committing a crime, are no longer entitled to the benefits of the contract, such as political representation.

People who study criminal behavior often say the opposite is true. They argue that restoring voting rights may in fact reinstate the social contract and improve factors that led the individual to commit crime in the first place.

In research I conducted, and headed by professors Beth Huebner and Timothy Bynum, we spoke with people returning from prison about how their felony conviction impacted their life after release. One participant whose name is protected under a confidentiality agreement, stated: “Not being able to vote restricts our voice.”

Another participant stated how his inability to vote about things important to him, like justice reform, meant that other voters might reinforce laws and restrictions that affect him: “Those are usually the people who want to put harsher rules and penalties and categorize everybody the same. I feel that they allow more and more of those laws to be piled on us because we’re not allowed to speak our minds.”

Americans who have been convicted and stripped of their right to vote often feel that they can’t see themselves as citizens who are giving back to the community if they are denied participation in the political process.

Restoring voting rights signals to all citizens that those who have served their time for a past crime can participate in a key mechanism of civic engagement: voting. Participating in civic life is associated with reductions in recidivism, so an inclusive approach to democracy can only strengthen the political process. That’s because the interests of more Americans, especially those historically silenced, will be heard through their vote.

Ex-felons as citizens

Moreover, research has shown that denying voting rights impacts not just individuals, but also families and entire communities, especially those typically underrepresented in political arenas like people of color and those in poverty. For example, partners of ex-felons are less likely to vote.

In 2016, approximately 70 percent of individuals in prison were people of color, despite making up only 25 percent of the U.S. population. Researchers attribute some of this racial disparity to sentencing laws and policies resembling what’s been termed by Michelle Alexander as “The New Jim Crow.” 

Restricting ex-felons from voting really says that, if you have committed a crime in the U.S., you can never be a full citizen again, even after serving punishment. That message suggests that they are always second- or third-class citizens.

The ConversationBut studies have shown that when people are reintegrated meaningfully in our society, the chances that they return to prison are reduced and the public is safer. Without the right to vote, ex-felons have less of a benefit or an interest in contributing positively to our communities. Being fully engaged in your community and having a voice in what happens to you are vital connections to others in the community – connections that can act to reduce crime. Voting rights represent the epitome of what it means to be a U.S. citizen.


Republished with permission from The Conversation


The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement

Race of mass shooters influences how the media cover their crimes, new study shows

By Laura Frizzell, Sadé L. Lindsay, and Scott Duxbury, The Ohio State University

On Jan. 24, 2014, police found Josh Boren, a 34-year-old man and former police officer, dead in his home next to the bodies of his wife and their three children. The shots were fired execution-style on Boren’s kneeling victims, before he turned the gun on himself.

On Aug. 8, 2015, 48-year-old David Ray Conley shot and killed his son, former girlfriend and six other children and adults at his former girlfriend’s home. Like Boren, Conley executed the victims at point-blank range.

Both men had histories of domestic violence and criminal behavior. Yet despite the obvious similarities in these two cases and perpetrators, the media, in each case, took a different approach.

If news reports mention a shooter's tought childhood, chances are he's white.

When describing Boren, the media focused on his good character and excellent parenting, going as far to call Boren a big “teddy bear” despite a prolonged history of domestic violence. They attributed his crime to “snapping” under the significant stress of his wife’s recent divorce filing.

In Conley’s case, media reports made little attempt to include any redeeming aspects of his personality. Instead, they focused exclusively on Conley’s history of domestic violence and prior drug possession charges. If you were to read articles about Conley, you would likely infer his crime stemmed from his inherently dangerous and controlling personality.

What might explain the differences in media coverage? Could it have something to do with the shooter’s race?

Boren, it turns out, was white; Conley was black.

In a recent study, we explored whether the race of mass shooters influences how the media depict their crime, their motivations and their lives.

We found that the discrepancies in the media coverage of Boren’s and Conley’s crimes were indicative of a broader phenomenon.

Explaining the crime, portraying the criminal

For the study, we randomly selected 433 online and print news articles covering 219 mass shootings from 2013 to 2015. While definitions of a mass shooting can vary, we adhered to the one most commonly used in empirical research: an event in which four or more people are shot, excluding the shooter.

Next, we created a unique data set based on information provided in the articles. We coded each article for a variety of variables associated with the crime and the shooter, including setting of the shooting, number and gender of victims killed and injured and age of the shooter.

After analyzing the data, we found that the shooter’s race could strongly predict whether the media framed him as mentally ill. (Less than 1 percent of the crimes had a female perpetrator.)

In all, about 33 percent of the articles in our study describing the crimes of a white shooter made a mention of mental illness. On the other hand, 26 percent of articles describing a Latino shooter and only two percent of articles describing a black shooter mentioned mental illness.

In fact – holding all aspects of the crime equal – white shooters were nearly 95 percent more likely to have their crimes attributed to mental illness than black shooters. Latino shooters were 92 percent more likely than black shooters to have mental illness mentioned as a factor.

An empathy gap

Furthermore, those articles that did describe a white shooter as mentally ill would often suggest that the shooter had been a generally good person who was a victim of society. The shooting, in other words, was out of character.

For example, in one case, a shooter in a rural trailer park set up a rifle in some bushes and began firing at the family trailer, with his wife, father-in-law and two young children inside. When the police arrived, he turned the rifle on them, hitting two officers before they gunned him down.

Yet subsequent news coverage noted his generally quiet demeanor and his willingness to help family and friends. The man who committed these crimes, one article noted, “wasn’t the same person who loved back-porch cookouts.”

However, such narratives – even within articles that mentioned mental illness – were less common when the shooter was black or Latino.

The graph below includes all news articles in our sample that framed a shooting as stemming from mental illness.

The chart shows the proportion of thematic narratives by race within the mental illness subsample.

Nearly 80 percent of articles that described white shooters as mentally ill also described them as a victim of society and circumstance – a tough childhood, a failed relationship or financial struggles.

However only one article that described a black shooter as mentally ill did the same. Furthermore, no article in our sample offered testimony to black shooters’ good character, suggested that the shooter was from a good environment or that the shooting was out of character. Across the board, roughly the same pattern played out with perpetrators who were Latino.

Why does this matter?

Media coverage actively shapes how we perceive reality.

It seems as if media outlets tend to cast the violent acts of white criminals as unfortunate anomalies of circumstance and illness. For black shooters (and, to a lesser extent, Latino shooters) media outlets render their crimes with a brush of inherent criminality.The ConversationThis isn’t to say that crimes shouldn’t be fully examined and that personal hardships and society don’t play a role. But if the circumstances of one group’s crimes are being explained in an empathetic way, and another group’s crimes aren’t given the same level of care and attention, we wonder whether this can insidiously influence how we perceive huge swaths of the population – criminal or not.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation

Laura Frizzell, PhD Student in Sociology, The Ohio State University; Sadé L. Lindsay, PhD Student in Sociology, The Ohio State University, and Scott Duxbury, PhD Student in Sociology, The Ohio State University


See our related post, "Why the reaction is different when the terrorist is white".

The Prosecutor – The Most Powerful Position in the Criminal Justice System

Next month, Kimberly Gardner, will become St. Louis' first black prosecutor and the most powerful person in the City of St. Louis criminal justice system. Ms. Gardner will become a member of a very exclusive club, out of more than 2,300 elected prosecutors nationwide, only a few dozen are African-American

Having the right black prosecutor can make a tremendous difference how fairly justice is administered and how injustice is resisted. The bizarre, half-hearted grand jury presentation conducted by the white prosecutor in Michael Brown’s death, versus Marilyn Mosby’s vigorous pursuit of indictments in the case of Freddie Gray demonstrate the potential difference. Jennifer Joyce waiting more than four year to prosecute former police office Jason Stockley and only did so after a video surfaced even though the city reach a wrongful death settlement with the victim's family.

However, Ms. Gardner doesn't get a pass just because she's black. Black folks are well aware there are those among us that will sell us out for opportunity. As Phillip Agnew, with Dream Defenders stated during the PBS special "America After Ferguson

"It's not a matter of just having a representative … that looks like you, they've got to come from the community, know the issues of the community, and then it's folks in the community that got to remind them every day that we pay your bills and where watching every single day to ensure that the platform on which we elected you on is followed and defend you when those people who seek to calibrate the system and right the system as it's been built seek to come after your for that office" 

Make no mistake, if Ms. Gardner proves to be a fair prosecutor, there will certainly be those that will attempt to distort her statements, villify her actions and generally discredit her. There is a private prison system that stands to lose millions of dollars under a non-oppressive system. 


Powers of the Prosecutor

Robert H. Jackson, Attorney General of the United States, delivered an address during the second annual conference of united states attorneys on April 1, 1940 in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D. C. 

The speech Jackson gave demonstates the power of prosecutors. Even though he was addressing federal prosecutors, local and state prosecutors hold a similar type of power that can devastate lives.

The Federal Prosecutor

The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. His discretion is tremendous. He can have citizens investigated and, if he is that kind of person, he can have this done to the tune of public statements and veiled or unveiled intimations. Or the prosecutor may choose a more subtle course and simply have a citizen's friends interviewed.

The prosecutor can order arrests, present cases to the grand jury in secret session, and on the basis of his one-sided presentation of the facts, can cause the citizen to be indicted and held for trial. He may dismiss the case before trial, in which case the defense never has a chance to be heard. Or he may go on with a public trial. If he obtains a conviction, the prosecutor can still make recommendations as to sentence, as to whether the prisoner should get probation or a suspended sentence, and after he is put away, as to whether he is a fit subject for parole. While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice' or other base motives, he is one of the worst.

These powers have been granted to our law-enforcement agencies because it seems necessary that such a power to prosecute be lodged somewhere. This authority has been granted by people who really wanted the right thing done – wanted crime eliminated – but also wanted the best in our American traditions preserved.

Because of this immense power to strike at citizens, not with mere individual strength, but with all the force of government itself, the post of Federal District Attorney from the very beginning has been safeguarded by presidential appointment, requiring confirmation of the Senate of the United States. You are thus required to win an expression of confidence in your character by both the legislative and the executive branches of the government before assuming the responsibilities of a federal prosecutor.

Your responsibility in your several districts for law enforcement and for its methods cannot be wholly surrendered to Washington, and ought not to be assumed by a centralized Department of Justice. It is an unusual and rare instance in which the local District Attorney should be superseded in the handling of litigation, except where he requests help of Washington. It is also clear that with his knowledge of local sentiment and opinion, his contact with and intimate knowledge of the views of the court, and his acquaintance with the feelings of the group from which jurors are drawn, it is an unusual case in which his judgment should be overruled.

Experience, however, has demonstrated that some measure of centralized control is necessary. In the absence of it different district attorneys were striving for different interpretations or an applications of an Act, or were pursuing different conceptions of policy. Also, to put it mildly, there were differences in the degree of diligence and zeal in different districts. To promote uniformlty of policy and action, to establish some standards of performance, and to make available specialized help, some degree of centralized administration was found necessary. 

Our problem, of course, is to balance these opposing considerations. I desire to avoid any lessening of the prestige and influence of the district attorneys in their districts. At the same time we must proceed in all districts with that uniformity of policy which is necessary to the prestige of federal law.

Nothing better ean come out of this meeting of law enforcement officers than a rededication to the spirit of fair play and decency that should animate the federal prosecutor. Your positions are of such independence and importance that while you are being diligent, strict, and vigorous in law enforcement you can also afford to be just.

Although the government technically loses its case, it has really won if justice has been done. The lawyer in public office is justified in seeking to leave behind him a good record. But he must remember that his most alert and severe, but just, judges will be the members of his own profession, and that lawyers rest their good opinion of each other not merely on results accomplished but on the quality of the performance. Reputation has been called "the shadow cast by one's daily life." Any prosecutor who risks his day-to-day professional name for fair dealing to build up statistics of success has a perverted sense of practical values, as well as defects of character. Whether one seeks promotion to a judgeship, as many prosecutors rightly do, or whether he returns to private practice, he can have no better asset than to have his profession recognize that his attitude toward those who feel his power has been dispassionate, reasonable and just.

The federal prosecutor has now been probibited from engaging in political activities. I am convinced that a good-faith acceptance of the spirit and letter of that doctrine will relieve many district attorneys from the embarrassment of what have heretofore been regarded as legitimate expectations of political service. There can also be no doubt that to be closely identified with the intrigue, the money raising, and the machinery of a particular party or faction may present a prosecuting officer with embarrassing alignments and associations. I think the Hatch Act should be utilized by federal prosecutors as a protection against demands on their time and their prestige to participate in the operation of the machinery of practical politics.

There is a most important reason why the prosecutor should have, as nearly as possible, a detached and impartial view of all groups in his community. Law enforcement is not automatic. It isn't blind. One of the greatest difficulties of the position of prosecutor is that he must pick his cases, because no prosecutor can even investigate all of the cases in which he receives complaints. If the Department of Justice were to make even a pretense of reaching every probable violation of federal law, ten times its present staff would be inadequate. We know that no local police force can strictly enforce the traffic laws, or it would arrest half the driving population on any given morning. What every prosecutor is practically required to do is to select the cases for prosecution and to select those in which the offense is the most flagrant, the public harm the greatest, and the proof the most certain.

If the prosecutor is obliged to choose his cases, it follows that he can choose his defendants. Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted. With the law books filled with a great assortment of crimes, a prosecutor, stands a fair chance of finding at least a technical violation of some act on the part of almost anyone. In such a case, it is not a question of discovering the commission of a crime and then looking for the man who has committed it, it is a question of picking the man and then searching the law books, or putting investigators to work, to pin some offense on him. It is in this realm ­in which the prosecutor picks some person whom he dislikes or desires to embarrass, or selects some group of unpopular persons and then looks for an offense, that the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies. It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.

In times of fear or hysteria political, racial, religious, social, and economic groups, often from the best of motives, cry for the scalps of individuals or groups because they do not like their views. Particularly do we need to be dispassionate and courageous in those cases which deal with so-called "subversive activities." They are dangerous to civil liberty because the prosecutor has no definite standards to determine what constitutes a "subversive activity," such as we have for murder or larceny. Activities which seem benevolent and helpful to wage earners, persons on relief, or those who are disadvantaged in the struggle for existence may be regarded as "subversive" by those whose property interests might be burdened or affected thereby. Those who are in office are apt to regard as "subversive" the activities of any of those who would bring about a change of administration. Some of our soundest constitutional doctrines were once punished as subversive. We must not forget that it was not so long ago that both the term "Republican" and the term "Democrat" were epithets with sinister meaning to denote persons of radical tendencies that were "subversive" of the order of things then dominant. 

In the enforcement of laws which protect our national integrity and existence, we should prosecute any and every act of violation, but only overt acts, not the expression of opinion, or activities such as the holding of meetings, petitioning of Congress, or dissemination of news or opinions. Only by extreme care can we protect the spirit as well as the letter of our civil liberties, and to do so is a responsibility of the federal prosecutor.

Another delicate task is to distinguish between the federal and the local in law-eaforcement activities. We must bear in mind that we are concerned only with the prosecution of acts which the Congress has made federal offenses. Those acts we should prosecute regardless of local sentiment, regardless of whether it exposr lax local enforcement, regardless
of whether it makes or breaks local politicians. 

But outside of federal law each locality has the right under our system of government to fix its own standards of law enforcement and of morals. And the moral climate of the United states is as varied as its physical climate. For example, some states legalize and permit gambling, some states prohibit it legislatively and protect it administratively, and some try to prohibit it entirely. The same variation of attitudes towards other law-enforcement problems exists. The federal government could not enforce one kind of law in one place and another kind elsewhere. It could hardly adopt strict standards for loose states or loose standards for strict states without doing violence to local sentiment. In spite of the temptation to divert our power to local conditions where they have become offensive to our sense of decency, the only long-term policy that will save federal justice from being discredited by entanglements with local politics is that it confine itself to strict and impartial enforcement of federal law, letting the chips fall in the community where they may. Just as there should be no permitting of local considerations to stop federal enforcement, so there should be no striving to enlarge our power over local affairs and no use of federal prosecutions to exert an indirect influence that would be unlawful if exerted directly.

The qualities of a good prosecutor are as elusive and as impossible to define as those which mark a gentleman. And those who need to be told would not understand it anyvvay. A sensitiveness to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power, and the citizen's safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.

School-to-Prison Pipeline Complete — New Law Makes Schoolyard Fights Felony

By Justin Gardner

Schoolyard fights now a felony.

On January 1, 2017, the state of Missouri will implement a public school policy sure to accelerate the descent into police state dystopia. See, Missouri Revised Statutes 565.054 and 565.056.

The Hazelwood School District put out a memo to parents and guardians stating that, according to Missouri statute, fights at school or on buses will be treated as felonies — which can result in up to four years of prison, fines or probation.

Dear Parents/Guardians:

We want to make you aware of a few new State Statutes that will go into effect on January 1, 2017, which may have a drastic impact on how incidents are handled in area school districts.

The way the new statue reads, if a person commits the offense of an assault in the third degree this will now be classified as a Class E Felony, rather than a misdemeanor. If he or she knowingly causes physical injury to another person (hits someone or has a fight with another individual and an injury occurs) – one or both participants may be charged with a Felony.

Gone are the days when teachers broke up fights and sent the kids home, calling the parents and perhaps suspending the kid if it was a serious incident. “School Resource Officers” or local cops now arrest the kids and, if there is any perceived injury (an arbitrary judgment), will charge them with third-degree assault – treating children cooped up in school as if they are violent adults on the streets.

What does this mean for students?

For example, if two students are fighting and one child is injured, the student who caused the injury may be charged with a felony. Student(s) who are caught fighting in school, bus or on school grounds may now be charged with a felony (no matter the age or grade level), if this assault is witnessed by one of the School Resource Officers/police officers (SRO) or if the SRO/local law enforcement officials have to intervene.”

It doesn’t stop there. Even attempts or threats to cause harm will be treated as a Class A misdemeanor, which can bring up to a year of prison time. If the assaulted person is considered a “special victim,” a Class D felony can be imposed which can mean up to seven years in prison.

The Free Thought Project has reported on numerous examples of how public schools are increasingly relying on armed cops to carry out discipline, thereby criminalizing the age-old reality of children behaving badly.

This has resulted in the increasingly prevalent phenomenon known as the “school to prison pipeline.”

The Arizona State Law Journal found that over the last three decades, there has been a marked shift in public schools to using law enforcement instead of school administrators and teachers for students violating school rules.

Approximately 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement during the 2011-2012 school year, and about 92,000 students were arrested on school property. Unsurprisingly, these numbers affect disadvantaged minority students the most.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) documented disturbing examples of children being subjected to law enforcement, just as a shocking video emerged of a cop brutalizing a teenage girl in the classroom for misbehaving.

”Some police actions involve alarming physical altercations, with kids subdued and handcuffed. Others may be handled without much force. But law-enforcement involvement in school discipline has routinely resulted in kids—some as young as elementary school-age—summoned to court to answer charges that they committed crimes. Frequently, charges include battery or assault in connection with schoolyard fights or disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace at school —issues that some believe should be handled by school officials, not cops.”

The worst state is Virginia, with a rate of 16 students per 1,000 being referred to law enforcement. One school had a shocking 228 students, most between 11 and 14, that were referred to cops. A 12-year-old girl was charged with obstruction of justice for clenching her fist at a cop. 11-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who is autistic, was slammed to the floor for walking out of class too early, and then was charged with felony assault on a police officer and disorderly conduct.

Other shocking examples include five- and six-year-olds being handcuffed, arrested and booked into jail for throwing temper tantrums. Dress code violations, tardiness, and even passing gas have all led to students being referred to law enforcement.

CPI describes how early exposure to law enforcement and the “justice system” has a devastating impact on the mental health of children, and makes it more likely they will grow up to live all or part of their lives behind bars.

“…prosecuting kids in court for low-level accusations like disorderly conduct and battery is actually backfiring; kids become stigmatized, develop records and often disengage from school. The risk increases that they’ll progress to more serious trouble, especially if core emotional or mental-health or learning problems go unresolved or inadequately treated.”

The Arizona State Law Journal confirmed that incarceration increases delinquency and future involvement in the justice system, and “the official processing of a juvenile law violation may be the least effective means of rehabilitating juvenile offenders.”

“No one should underestimate the negative consequences associated with incarcerating a juvenile, both to our society as a whole and to the youth themselves, which is the end result of the school-to-prison pipeline. Empirical research demonstrates that incarceration produces long-term detrimental effects on youth, including reinforcement of violent attitudes and behaviors; more limited educational, employment, military, and housing opportunities; an increased likelihood of not graduating from high school; mental health concerns; and increased future involvement in the criminal justice system.”

By enacting their draconian new rules, the state of Missouri is completely ignoring science, instead, falling back on uniformed state agents with badges and guns – trained to confront the worst of society – to deal with misbehaving kids in school.

Missouri is ignoring the proven benefits of “restorative justice.”

“Thus, rather than excluding the student from the school community for misbehaving, which potentially can cause resentment, disrupt that student’s educational progress, and lead to recidivism and dropping out of school, one of the primary goals of restorative justice is to integrate the offender back into the school community as a productive member.

In essence, restorative justice practices are conflict resolution tools that involve victims, offenders, and other members of the school community. Using formal and informal conferences, or “circle groups,” victims share with offenders how they have been harmed by the offender’s behavior, offenders have opportunities to apologize to the victims, and, with the help of the victims and the other members of the school community, conference participants devise remedies for the harmful behavior.”

Instead of smart approaches like restorative justice, Missouri is set to plunge its children into a police state nightmare — guaranteeing a long-term rise in prison population and further destroying the mental health of the most vulnerable individuals.


Justin Gardner writes for TheFreeThoughtProject.com, where this article first appeared. Republished here under a fair use exemption.

Kimberly Gardner given the power to change lives

Congratulations to Kimberly Gardner on her outstanding primary victory!  

Last month, we posted, "We Need Black Prosecutors". The voters of St. Louis decided the same thing and elected Kimberly Gardner as the democratic nominee and the next presumptive St. Louis City Circuit Attorney. In a city that is majority African-American, it is of extreme importance that St. Louis is finally positioned to have it's first Black Circuit Attorney. Ms. Gardner will become the most powerful person in the St. Louis City criminal justice system.

When a kid commits a crime, the justice system has a choice: prosecute to the full extent of the law, or take a step back and ask if saddling young people with criminal records is the right thing to do every time.

"It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men"

Adam Foss, a former assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, Massachusetts discussed how prosecutors can change lives. He is among the type of black prosecutors we had in mind when we wrote our post last month. Below is a video of a TED talk Mr. Foss gave about the power of the prosecutor. At the beginning of his talk, he asked the audience a few simple questions that drove home a very powerful point that too many prosecutors miss.

What makes Ms. Gardner's victory even more amazing is the fact that she won dispite the fact the neither the St. Louis Police Officers Association or the Ethical Society of Police (St. Louis' black police union) endorsed her. Both unions endorsed other candidates. As a result, Ms. Gardner doesn't have any political obligation to police officers. 

I've never had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Gardner, but the limited interviews and news clips I have seen, indicates she shares some of the same sentiments as Mr. Foss.

I believe Ms. Gardner will be a fine circuit attorney dedicated to her new position and will be a refreshing change from the current administration.

However, there is no greater protection than personally understanding your rights. It's still important to educate yourself about the law and how our court system works.

40 Reasons Our Jails and Prisons Are Full of Black and Poor People

The deaths of Philando CastileAlton Sterling, the police ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge resulted in more post being published on this site than any other month in our history. The police shooting of Charles Kinsey while he laid on the ground with his hands up demonstrated that even when you do everything imaginable to prevent police violence against you, it may still occur. 

Court.rchp.com has over 200 pages and posts, hundreds of informative videos and is constantly growing. Bookmark our site so you can visit again, because there's too much information to digest in one visit. Start with our home page, then Understanding Missouri Courts and Legal research for Non-Lawyers to get an overview of what it takes to represent yourself when you have legal issues. You might decide that self representation is not for you. Gaining additional knowledge can help you better understand the legal process and the concepts your lawyer may discuss with you. 

Our rights are under attack and unless you take steps to learn how to preserve those rights, they will simply fade away. Don't learn the hard way that you can not always depend on others to help you. You must learn to help yourself when it comes to legal issues. The article below provides you with 40 reasons why you should use this site to learn more about the law and how to use it for you benefit. 


photo of chained prisoners
What does it say about our society that it uses its jails and prisons as the primary detention facilities for poor and black and brown people who have been racially targeted and jail them with the mentally ill and chemically dependent? It's a crisis not just for those locked behind bars, but for all of us. (Photo: AP)

By Bill Quigley

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the US, totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults.  We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail.  Most of the people inside are poor and Black.  Here are 40 reasons why.

One.  It is not just about crime.  Our jails and prisons have grown from holding about 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.2 million today.  The fact is that crime rates have risen and fallen independently of our growing incarceration rates.

Two.  Police discriminate.  The first step in putting people in jail starts with interactions between police and people.  From the very beginning Black and poor people are targeted by the police.  Police departments have engaged in campaigns of stopping and frisking people who are walking, mostly poor people and people of color, without cause for decades.  Recently New York City lost a federal civil rights challenge to their police stop and frisk practices by the Center for Constitutional Rights during which police stopped over 500,000 people annually without any indication that the people stopped had been involved in any crime at all.  About 80 percent of those stops were of Black and Latinos who compromise 25 and 28 percent of NYC’s total population.  Chicago police do the same thing stopping even more people also in a racially discriminatory way with 72 percent of the stops of Black people even though the city is 32 percent Black.

Three.  Police traffic stops also racially target people in cars.  Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers and Hispanic drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.  Connecticut, in an April 2015 report, reported on 620,000 traffic stops which revealed widespread racial profiling, particularly during daylight hours when the race of driver was more visible.  

Four.  Once stopped, Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely to be given tickets than white drivers stopped for the same offenses.

Five.  Once stopped, Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be searched.  DOJ reports Black drivers at traffic stops were searched by police three times more often and Hispanic drivers two times more often than white drivers.  A large research study in Kansas City found when police decided to pull over cars for investigatory stops, where officers look into the car’s interior, ask probing questions and even search the car, the race of the driver was a clear indicator of who was going to be stopped: 28 percent of young Black males twenty five or younger were stopped in a year’s time, versus white men who had 12 percent chance and white women only a 7 percent chance.  In fact, not until Black men reach 50 years old do their rate of police stops for this kind of treatment dip below those of white men twenty five and under.  

Six.  Traffic tickets are big business.  And even if most people do not go directly to jail for traffic tickets, poor people are hit the worst by these ticket systems.  As we saw with Ferguson where some of the towns in St. Louis receive 40 percent or more of their city revenues from traffic tickets, tickets are money makers for towns.  

Seven.  The consequences of traffic tickets are much more severe among poor people.  People with means will just pay the fines.  But for poor and working people fines are a real hardship.  For example, over 4 million people in California do not have valid driver’s licenses because they have unpaid fines and fees for traffic tickets.  And we know unpaid tickets can lead to jail.

Eight.  In schools, African American kids are much more likely to be referred to the police than other kids.  African American students are 16 percent of those enrolled in schools but 27 percent of those referred to the police.  Kids with disabilities are discriminated against at about the same rate because they are 14 percent of those enrolled in school and 26 of those referred to the police.

Nine.  Though Black people make up about 12 percent of the US population, Black children are 28 percent of juvenile arrests.  DOJ reports that there are over 57,000 people under the age of 21 in juvenile detention.  The US even has 10,000 children in adult jails and prisons any given day.

Ten.  The War on Drugs targets Black people.  Drug arrests are a big source of bodies and business for the criminal legal system.   Half the arrests these days are for drugs and half of those are for marijuana.  Despite the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a Black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person.  The ACLU found that in some states Black people were six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites.   For all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 the U.S. Black drug arrest rate rose dramatically from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons; during the same period, the white drug arrest rate barely increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons.  

Eleven.  Many people in jail and prison because the US has much tougher drug laws and much longer sentences for drug offenses than most other countries.  Drug offenders receive an average sentence of 7 months in France, twelve months in England and 23 months in the US.

Twelve.  The bail system penalizes poor people. Every day there are about 500,000 people are in jails, who are still presumed innocent and awaiting trial, just because they are too poor to pay money to get out on bail.   Not too long ago, judges used to allow most people, even poor people to be free while they were awaiting trial but no more.   In a 2013 study of New York City courts, over 50% of the people held in jail awaiting trial for misdemeanor or felony charges were unable to pay bail amounts of $2500 or less.  

Thirteen.  This system creates a lot of jobs.  Jails and prisons provide a lot of jobs to local, state and federal officials.  To understand how this system works it is good to know the difference between jails and prisons.  Jails are local, usually for people recently arrested or awaiting trial.  Prisons are state and federal and are for people who have already been convicted.  There are more than 3000 local jails across the US, according to the Vera Institute, and together usually hold about 500,000 people awaiting trial and an additional 200,000 or so convicted on minor charges.  Over the course of a year, these local jails process over 11.7 million people.  Prisons are state and federal lockups which usually hold about twice the number of people as local jails or just over 1.5 million prisoners.

Fourteen.  The people in local jails are not there because they are a threat to the rest of us.  Nearly 75 percent of the hundreds of thousands of people in local jails are there for nonviolent offenses such as traffic, property, drug or public order offenses.

Fifteen.  Criminal bonds are big business.  Nationwide, over 60 percent of people arrested are forced to post a financial bond to be released pending trial usually by posting cash or a house or paying a bond company.  There are about 15,000 bail bond agents working in the bail bond industry which takes in about $14 billion every year.   

Sixteen.  A very high percentage of people in local jails are people with diagnosed mental illnesses.  The rate of mental illness inside jails is four to six times higher than on the outside.  Over 14 percent of the men and over 30 percent of the women entering jails and prisons were found to have serious mental illness in a study of over 1000 prisoners.  Arecent study in New York City’s Rikers Island jail found 4,000 prisoners, 40 percent of their inmates, were suffering from mental illness.  In many of our cities, the local jail is the primary place where people with severe mental problems end up.  Yet treatment for mental illness in jails is nearly non-existent.  

Seventeen. Lots of people in jail need treatment.  Nearly 70 percent of people prison meet the medical criteria for drug abuse or dependence yet only 7 to 17 percent ever receive drug abuse treatment inside prison.

Eighteen.  Those who are too poor, too mentally ill or too chemically dependent, though still presumed innocent, are kept in cages until their trial dates.  No wonder it is fair to say, as the New York Times reported, our jails “have become vast warehouses made up primarily of people too poor to post bail or too ill with mental health or drug problems to adequately care for themselves.”  

Nineteen.  Poor people have to rely on public defenders.   Though anyone threatened with even a day in jail is entitled to a lawyer, the reality is much different. Many poor people facing misdemeanor charges never see a lawyer at all.  For example, in Delaware more than 75 percent of the people in its Court of Common Pleas never speak to a lawyer.  A study of Jackson County Michigan found 95 percent of people facing misdemeanors waived their right to an attorney and have plead guilty rather than pay a $240 charge for a public defender.  Thirteen states have no state structure at all to make sure people have access to public defenders in misdemeanor courts.

Twenty.  When poor people face felony charges they often find the public defenders overworked and underfunded and thus not fully available to provide adequate help in their case.  In recent years public defenders in Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania were so overwhelmed with cases they refused to represent any new clients.   Most other states also have public defender offices that have been crushed by overwork, inadequate finances and do not measure up to the basic principles for public defenders outlined by the American Bar Association.  It is not uncommon for public defenders to have more than 100 cases going at the same time, sometimes several hundred.  Famous trial lawyer Gerry Spence, who never lost a criminal case because of his extensive preparation for each one, said that if he was a public defender and represented a hundred clients he would never have won a case.

Twenty One.  Lots of poor people plead guilty.  Lack of adequate public defense leads many people in prison to plead guilty.  The American Bar Association reviewed the US public defender system and concluded it lacked fundamental fairness and put poor people at constant risk of wrongful conviction. "All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring…The fundamental right to a lawyer that America assumes applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the US."

Twenty Two.  Many are forced to plead guilty.  Consider all the exonerations of people who were forced by police to confess even when they did not do the crime who were later proven innocent: some criminologists estimate 2 to 8 percent of the people in prison are innocent but pled guilty.   One longtime federal judge estimates that there is so much pressure on people to plead guilty that there may easily be 20,000 people in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Twenty Three.  Almost nobody in prison ever had a trial.  Trials are rare in the criminal injustice system.  Over 95 percent of criminal cases are finished by plea bargains.   In 1980, nearly 20 percent of criminal cases were tried but that number is reduced to less than 3 percent because sentences are now so much higher for those who lose trials, there are more punishing drug laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and more power has been given to prosecutors.

Twenty Four.  Poor people get jail and jail makes people worse off.  The poorest people, those who had to remain in jail since their arrest, were 4 times more likely to receive a prison sentence than those who got out on bail.  There are tens of thousands of rapes inside jails and prisons each year.  DOJ reports over 4,000 inmates are murdered each year insideeach year.  As US Supreme Court Justice Kennedy told Congress recently “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working.  And it’s not humane.  We [society and Congress and the legal profession] have no interest in corrections, nobody looks at it.”

Twenty Five.  Average prison sentences are much longer than they used to be, especially for people of color. Since 1990, the average time for property crimes has gone up 24 percent and time for drug crimes has gone up 36 percent.  In the US federal system, nearly 75 percent of the people sent to prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.  

Twenty Six.  There is about a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by the time he reaches his mid-thirties; the rate for white males without a high school diploma is 53 percent lower.  In the 1980, there was only an 8 percent difference.  In New York City, for example, Blacks are jailed at nearly 12 times the rate of whites and Latinos more than five times the rate of whites.

Twenty Seven.  Almost 1 of 12 Black men ages 25 to 54 are in jail or prison, compared to 1 in 60 nonblack men.  That is 600,000 African American men, an imprisonment rate of five times that of white men.  

Twenty Eight.  Prison has become a very big private business.  Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) owns and runs 67 for-profit jails in 20 states with over 90,000 beds.   Along with GEO (formerly Wackenhut), these two private prison companies have donated more than $10 million to candidates and spent another $25 million lobbying according to the Washington Post.  They lobby for more incarceration and have doubled the number of prisoners they hold over the past ten years.

Twenty Nine.  The Sentencing Project reports that over 159,000 people are serving life sentences in the US.  Nearly half are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino.  The number of people serving life in prison has gone up by more than 400% since 1984.  Nearly 250,000 prisoners in the US are over age 50.

Thirty.  Inside prisons, the poorest people are taken advantage of again as most items such as telephone calls to families are priced exorbitantly high, some as high as $12.95 for a 15 minute call, further separating families.

Thirty One.  The DOJ reports another 3.9 million people are on probation.  Probation is when a court puts a person under supervision instead of sending them to prison.  Probation is also becoming a big business for private companies which get governments to contract with them to collect outstanding debts and supervise people on probation.  Human Rights Watch reported in 2014 that over a thousand courts assign hundreds of thousands of people to be under the supervision of private companies who then require those on probation to pay the company for the supervision and collect fines, fees and costs or else go to jail.  For example, one man in Georgia who was fined $200 for stealing a can of beer from a convenience store was ultimately jailed after the private probation company ran up over a thousand dollars in in fees.

Thirty Two.  The DOJ reports an additional 850,000 people are on parole.  Parole is when a person who has been in prison is released to serve the rest of their sentence under supervision.  

Thirty Three.  The DOJ reported in 2012 that as many as 100 million people have a criminal record, and over 94 million of those records are online.  

Thirty Four.  Everyone can find out people have a record. Because it is so easy to access to arrest and court records, people who have been arrested and convicted face very serious problems getting a job, renting an apartment, public assistance, and education.  Eighty-seven percent of employers conduct background checks.  Employment losses for people with criminal records have been estimated at as much as $65 billion every year.  

Thirty Five.  Race is a multiplier of disadvantage in unemployment for people who get out of prison.  A study by Professor Devah Pager demonstrated that employers who were unlikely to even check on the criminal history of white male applicants, seriously discriminated against all Black applicants and even more so against Black applicants with criminal records.

Thirty Six.  Families are hurt by this.  The Sentencing Project reports 180,000 women are subject to lifetime bans from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families because of felony drug convictions.

Thirty Seven.  Convicted people cannot get jobs after they get out.  More than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed one year after being released.  Is it a surprise that within three years of release from prison, about two-thirds of the state prisoners were rearrested?

Thirty Eight.  The US spends $80 billion on this big business of corrections every year.  As a retired criminal court judge I know says, “the high costs of this system would be worth it if the system was actually working and making us safer, but we are not safer, the system is not working, so the actual dollars we are spending are another indication of our failure.”  The cost of being number one in incarceration is four times higher than it was in 1982.  Anyone feeling four times safer than they used to?

Thirty Nine.  Putting more people in jail creates more poverty.  The overall poverty rate in our country is undoubtedly higher because of the dramatic increase in incarceration over the past 35 years with one research project estimating poverty would have decreased by 20 percent if we had not put all these extra people in prison.  This makes sense given the factthat most all the people brought into the system are poor to begin with, it is now much harder for them to find a job because of the barriers to employment and good jobs erected by a criminal record to those who get out of prison, the increased number of one parent families because of a parent being in jail, and the bans on receiving food stamps and housing assistance.

Forty.  Putting all these problems together and you can see why the Center for American Progress rightly concludes “Today, a criminal record serves as both a direct cause and consequence of poverty.”

What does it say about our society that it uses its jails and prisons as the primary detention facilities for poor and black and brown people who have been racially targeted and jail them with the mentally ill and chemically dependent?  The current criminal system has dozens of moving parts from the legislators who create the laws, to the police who enforce them, to the courts which apply them, to the jails and prison which house the people caught up in the system, to the public and business community who decides whom to hire, to all of us who either do something or turn our heads away.  These are our brothers and sisters and cousins and friends of our coworkers.  There are lots of proposed solutions.  To learn more about the problems and the solutions are go to places like The Sentencing Project, the Vera Institute, or the Center for American Progress.  Because it’s the right thing to do, and because about 95 percent of the people who we send to prison are coming back into our communities. 


The article was republished with permission under license from CommonDreams

Bill Quigley, the author of this article, is Associate Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.  He is a Katrina survivor and has been active in human rights in Haiti for years. He volunteers with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Bureau de Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port au Prince. Contact Bill at quigley77@gmail.com

We Need Black Prosecutors

The prosecutor is the most powerful figure in the American criminal justice system.  This is particularly so because, as the Supreme Court has recognized, the criminal justice system in the United States today “is, for the most part, a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”  In the state courts where over ninety percent of criminal cases are prosecuted, ninety-four percent of the convictions are the result of guilty pleas, and ninety-seven percent of federal convictions are the result of guilty pleas.  In this system of pleas, prosecutors have enormous advantages and often dictate not only the crimes defendants are convicted of, but the sentences that are imposed.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch addressed the National Black Prosecutors Association who are in St. Louis participating in a weeklong convention about the criminal justice system. Melba Pearson, the group's president, said the organization’s annual conference is being held in St. Louis because of the heightened focus on policing in light of the fatal 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

The City of St. Louis is a majority black city. However, the police and prosecutor, two institutions that have the most devastating effect on the lives of black folk are headed by white men. As I read the Post article, I couldn't help but consider the irony that McCulloch, the poster child of prosecutorial misconduct, was explaining to a group of Black prosecutors the  “lousy job” that prosecutors do. Sadly, McCulloch on several occasions has appeared bias towards police and racist in some of his actions.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson (Center) has sought to use prosecutorial discretion to fight racial gaps in justice.

St. Louis is roughly 48% black and 47% white according to the most recent census data, but the prosecutors of both the circuit and municipal court levels are white. In the State of Missouri, county prosecutors are 99% white. There is only one black elected county prosecutor in the entire state; Shane Farrow in Moniteau County Missouri. Unfortunately, Mr. Farrow is being prosecuted himself for an accident that occurred, ironically in Columbia, MO, which recently gain national attention for racial discrimination.

Recent incidents in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, Columbia and most recently Baton Rouge & Minnesota demonstrate the racial bias and divide that exist within our society. White police officers are quicker to stop and arrest black people and white prosecutors are quicker to  bring charges against black suspects, especially when the evidence may not be compelling. The said reality is that many low-income defendants, even those that are innocent, may plead guilty to avoid the possibility of longer sentences. See the Kansas City Star article, "Study finds that Missouri and Kansas prosecutors are overwhelmingly white". 

The primary election for St. Louis City Prosecutor is on August 2, 2016. It is my hope that a strong black candidate whose sole motivation is not to punish, but to rehabilitate, will be elected. However, as Phillip Agnew with Dream Defenders mentioned;

"It's not just a matter of having a representative that's on the city counsel, or in the mayor's office or on the police force that looks like you; they've gotta come from the community, know the issues of the community and then it's folks in the community that remind them everyday that we pay your bills and watching every single day to ensure that the platform on which we elected you with is followed and also defend you when those people who seek to calibrate the system and right the system as it's been built, seek to come at you for that office."

Unfortunately, I don't know any of the candidates well enough to make a recommendation. The Ethical Society of Police, a minority organization of about 215 St. Louis city officers who are almost all black, voted at their February 25 meeting to endorse Patrick Hamacher, a white candidate, in the race for St. Louis circuit attorney. I was surprised that they had not endorsed Steve Harmon, a former police officer and the son of former Police Chief Clarence Harmon. See the Atlantic article, "Most States Elect No Black Prosecutors".

I don't know much about Mr. Hamacher and he might be a great candidate. However, he and the other white candidate, Mary Pat Carl, currently work as prosecutors under Jennifer Joyce. In fact, Ms. Carl was endorsed by Joyce. 

The St. Louis Prosecutor's office appears to be a corrupt system. In corrupt systems, decent people end up with three options: get out, conform or be crushed. There are always good, moral people who look at what's happening around them and decide that they can't live with themselves if they go along with it. However, such people are almost always bullied, marginalized and destroyed. In bad systems, the decent person is the freak, the oddball, the awkward crank who is not a team player, not one of us. Both Hamacher and Carl were promoted while working for Joyce and seemed to have flourished, which by default means they conformed. I understand that most people do, but it doesn't earn my vote.

Regardless of who you support, if you're registered, you need to vote! If you're not registered to vote, you need to get registered, however, it's too late for the August 2nd primary. If you don't vote, don't complain, you got exactly what you're efforts earned.