News Tag: Criminal Justice Reform

White House: Severe Criminal Justice Policies Hurt U.S. Economy

April 28, 2016

Published in The New York Times via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Longer prison sentences for non-violent criminals and crowded prisons are hurting the American economy more than they are helping it, economists in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration said in a report released on Saturday.

The prison population in the United States is 4.5 times larger than it was in 1980, primarily driven by longer sentences and higher conviction rates for nearly all offenses, according to the Council's report.

Economists are "of one mind" that packed prisons, excessively long sentences, and insufficient reentry programs "are counter-productive to our economy as a whole in addition to hurting the people involved," Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters in a call on Friday.

On Monday, administration officials, economists, business leaders, and scholars will discuss the Council's findings at an event hosted by the White House, the American Enterprise Institute think tank, and New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

The United States can reap greater economic benefit through investments in police, prisoner education, and job opportunities for ex-prisoners than it can from putting additional funding toward prisons, the Council's report said.

The Council's report was based on a review of existing economics research, and does not estimate the indirect costs borne by the U.S. economy as a result of its current criminal justice policies.

Later this year, the Brennan Center will unveil a study quantifying how much the U.S. criminal justice system costs Americans in terms of employment, wages, and gross domestic product, said the center's director of justice programs, Inimai Chettiar.

Previous administrations have not brought the same focus to how criminal justice policies affect the U.S. workforce, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who led the Congressional Budget Office from 2003-05 and is now president of the American Action Forum think tank.

Since the recession of the late 2000s, "every aspect of the workforce has been scrutinized more closely, and this sort of popped out," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Sandra Maler)

ACLU of MS Urges Governor to Veto SB 2237

April 21, 2016

Download this statement here.

The ACLU of Mississippi urges Governor Bryant to veto Senate Bill 2237! This bill is contrary to governmental transparency and speeds up the legally flawed and morally bankrupt process of ending prisoners’ lives.  

The death penalty is the most absolute and extreme punishment available. Secret executions are unacceptable. We oppose the death penalty altogether. However, as long as Mississippi continues to sentence people to death, executions must remain transparent and our state government must remain accountable.  

For 123 years, Mississippi executed people by hanging, followed by 14 years of electrocution and 45 years by gas chamber. Some states have turned to experimental drug combinations.  Botched executions in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Ohio in 2014 have proven that drug and supplier information is essential.  The public has a right to know this basic information under the First Amendment.

 

Today, 47 men at Parchman and one woman at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility are awaiting execution. The state of Mississippi should not shield companies doing business in this state from public scrutiny. Instead of advocating for the suppression of free speech, our state government should focus on making sure our criminal justice system ensures fairness and accuracy, so that Mississippi is never accused of executing an innocent person.

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Legal Director Charles Irvin Talks Debtors' Prisons on Conversation Live

April 04, 2016

Host Cyrus Webb welcomed ACLU of MS Legal Director Charles Ivin to #ConversationsLIVE to discuss his work in bringing people together, what the ACLU of MS has been involved in and the groundbreaking win in Biloxi recently dealing with ‎debtors’ prison‬.

Hear his interview that aired on WYAD 94.1 here. Originally aired on April 3, 2016.

ACLU of MS Statement on Passage of SB 2237 – Execution Secrecy Bill

March 25, 2016

The ACLU of Mississippi is deeply disturbed that the Mississippi State House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 2237 by a vote of 80-39. This bill cloaks execution in secrecy and allows the barbaric use of a firing squad. 

The ACLU of MS believes all current methods of capital punishment violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that outlaws cruel and unusual punishment. 

The Mississippi State Legislature should use its energies to abolish the death penalty and should make greater efforts to ensure the judicial process is fair so that no innocent person faces an ultimate and final punishment. ​

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Praise Biloxi Debtors' Prison Settlement

March 22, 2016

On March 18, Racial Justice Program Senior Attorney Nusrat Choudhury testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) for its briefing on “Municipal Policing and Courts: A Search for Justice or a Quest for Revenue.

Her testimony highlighted the problem of modern-day debtors’ prisons and the ACLU’s federal lawsuit Kennedy v. City of Biloxi, which challenged the illegal arrest and jailing of poor people in Biloxi, Mississippi, without a hearing or representation by counsel. During the briefing, commissioners generally praised the Biloxi settlement agreement, with Commissioner Kladney specifically noting that the reforms adopted in the agreement should be replicated elsewhere. 

Download the Hearing Statement here.

Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors' prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.

The ACLU of Mississippi is working to expose and challenge modern-day debtors' prisons across the state. If you have experienced a debtors' prison situation, please let us know.

ACLU of MS Supports Clergy for Prison Reform Policy Platform

March 17, 2016

By Blake Feldman, Advocacy Coordinator 

Published in Jackson Free Press

Clergy for Prison Reform (CPR), a group of faith leaders from throughout the state, recently released a policy platform concerning pending legislation related to criminal justice.  The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi fully supports its platform.

Rather than measuring success by projecting reduced costs, CPR is speaking from a moral platform that demands immediacy. CPR’s moral authority is important because it humanizes incarcerated individuals, their families, and their communities, and we hope that this serves as an important reminder to law makers that inconvenient topics shouldn’t be set aside for next session. Justice delayed is, in fact, justice denied.

Too often, legislators, policy experts, and even advocates in the policy arena lose touch of the urgency these issues deserve. We applauded important criminal justice reforms passed into law two years ago, but legislative action building upon those reforms is long overdue. In January, I stood outside the Capitol with a group of more than a hundred Mississippians protesting for prison reform. The protesters were disproportionately Black women – mothers, wives, girlfriends, and daughters of a loved one incarcerated.

Several of those women were advocating for rehabilitative programs. They were unfortunate enough to have loved ones serving their sentence in a private prison, operating in a manner prioritizing its fiduciary duty to shareholders over the wellbeing of inmates and public safety. SB 2512 would make sure that any private prison corporation who wants to do business in our state must actually prioritize rehabilitation and reduced recidivism.

Many of the protesters have had loved ones taken from their communities and placed in prison to serve draconian sentences. If their brother was convicted of a crime before HB 585 was passed, the law arbitrarily denies him the same opportunity for parole as someone convicted a few months later. HB 585 made moral and fiscal sense, and there’s no reason to unfairly limit its benefit to a few.

Disturbingly, it’s not just that legislators aren’t expanding on HB 585, but there are active bills that would actually chip away at the progress made. Before HB 585, far too many people in our prisons were there for technical violations while on probation or parole, but in 2014 we joined a national trend away from those policies. HB 107 would have us return to that overly harsh and costly practice of over-incarcerating people for minor supervision violations.

In 2014, the legislature decided that enough was enough. Mass incarceration within our state had become financially unbearable. We shamefully had the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and the most recent statistics ranks us at fifth. We made progress because we rationally raised thresholds for when someone should serve serious time. HB 574 seeks to lower that threshold for a petty property offense. Doing so would needlessly impose a felony conviction for a shoplifting offense that would be a misdemeanor in most other states. Moreover, evidence does not suggest that there is added deterrence. Essentially, HB 574 exemplifies the “tough on crime” policies that filled our prisons and did little to reduce crime.

CPR’s platform also advocates for amending three house bills. HB 705 intends to add rehab facilities to the list of buildings that trigger enhanced penalties, and CPR is pushing for an amendment to limit the scope of drug-free enhancement zones that arbitrarily increase punishment for drug crimes. Either the radius of these zones should be reduced, or there should be a mens rea element to ensure that the enhancement zone isn’t just another tool prosecutors use to overcharge defendants.

CPR is also advocating for an amendment to HB 701 that would correct an oversight in the law that provides harsher punishment for conspiring to commit a drug crime than for actually committing that same crime.

Finally, CPR has called for an amendment to HB 783 to provide judges—rather than prosecutors —the discretion to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence imposed by the “little” habitual offender statute.


The deadline for the House and Senate committees to address these issues and heed the thoughtful advice of CPR is rapidly approaching. CPR has presented the legislature with a reasonable and fair policy agenda, and passing it into law is the right thing to do. 

See: Jackson Free Press Coverage of CPR Press Conference

Biloxi and ACLU Settle Lawsuit Over Jailing of Indigent People

March 15, 2016

BILOXI, Miss. — The American Civil Liberties Union and the city of Biloxi have settled a federal lawsuit that alleged the jailing of people unable to pay court-ordered fines and fees in traffic and other misdemeanor cases. As part of the settlement, Biloxi has initiated policies that both parties agree are a model for courts in Mississippi and across the country. Under the settlement, Biloxi and the other defendants denied all liability.

Biloxi has agreed to adopt sweeping reforms to protect the rights of people who cannot afford to pay fines and fees imposed by Biloxi’s municipal court for minor offenses. They include:

- Private probation companies will not be used to collect fines and fees after June 1, 2016.
- A full-time public defender has been hired to represent indigent people charged with nonpayment.
- No additional fees will be imposed on people who enter payment plans or are required to perform community service.
- A "bench card" detailing municipal court procedures will be used to protect constitutional rights in the fine/fee collections process. The card explains how the municipal court will conduct additional ability-to-pay hearings and lists the legal alternatives to jail.

"Being poor is not a crime, and these reforms will help ensure that people's freedom will not rest on their ability to pay court fines and fees they cannot afford," said ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury. "Biloxi's reforms serve as a critically important model for courts across Mississippi and in other states to help ensure that our poorest and richest citizens are treated equally and fairly. Biloxi has set an example other cities should follow."

"Biloxi’s old procedures should have required ability-to-pay hearings not just at the first appearance, but at each stage of the process," Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich said. "The biggest change that the city court is making is to guarantee indigent defendants will have a public defender and receive follow-up hearings on ability to pay if the defendant fails to comply with the sentence. We will continue these and other court reforms that we had already begun making since I became mayor 10 months ago."

“We know that other courts across this state are penalizing the poor with similar practices,” said ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director Charles Irvin.  “These reforms are steps that courts all over Mississippi should implement.  It is our hope that the courts will help us educate the Bar regarding the rights of the poor.”

The federal court has dismissed the lawsuit without ruling on liability or wrongdoing on the part of defendants Biloxi, Police Chief John Miller, and Judge James Steele. The settlement also provides for a one-time monetary payment of $75,000 for damages and legal expenses associated with the case.

The lawsuit was filed last October on behalf of indigent people, including Qumotria Kennedy and Joseph Anderson, who were arrested and jailed on warrants charging them with nonpayment of fines and fees. The ACLU charged that the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to counsel, an indigency hearing, and freedom from unreasonable seizures were violated by Biloxi, Chief Miller, Judge Steele, and Judicial Corrections Services, Inc., (JCS) a for-profit company that handled fine collections for Biloxi prior to the current Biloxi administration.

The plaintiffs’ claims against JCS have also been mutually resolved.

The case, Kennedy v. City of Biloxi, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in Gulfport. The ACLU of Mississippi and Simon & Teeuwissen PLLC are co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

This press statement is at: https://www.aclu.org/news/biloxi-and-aclu-settle-lawsuit-over-jailing-indigent-people

The settlement is at: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/kennedy-v-city-biloxi-stipulated-settlement-agreement-exhibits-b

Read the plaintiffs' accounts here.

Criminal Justice Reforms

February 17, 2016

 

Published in The Opinion Pages of the New York Times

To the Editor:

To Convict, Prove a Guilty Mind,” by Gideon Yaffe (Op-Ed, Feb. 12), highlights a tiny element of proposed criminal justice reforms, the reform of “mens rea” provisions. These plans, if implemented, would require prosecutors to prove that a defendant was aware of the illegal nature of his or her actions and intended to cause them. Proving such intent would be nearly impossible for many financial, environmental and regulatory crimes but relatively simple for drug and property crimes.

The reality is that at present, we know little about how this reform would affect our laws. What we do know is that its passage will do little to help the vast majority of the 2.2 million people behind bars in America and those soon to be incarcerated.

Republican lawmakers who insist on making this issue a quid pro quo are likely doing so not out of concern for the lives, families and communities torn apart by our broken system, but rather to please white-collar and corporate polluter interests who stand to gain the most.

Advocates of all political persuasions working to bring meaningful criminal justice reform would do well to keep our eyes on the prize of getting meaningful legislation passed and not let mens rea become the poison pill for the solutions our country so desperately needs.

ANTHONY D. ROMERO, Executive Director

American Civil Liberties Union

Why did Mississippi police release two versions of fatal shooting report?

February 09, 2016

By  in Oxford, Mississippi

Since 26-year-old Ricky Ball was shot and killed by police in October, the black community in Columbus, Mississippi, has grappled with questions that don’t have clear answers.

Why did police shoot Ball that night? Why did a string of police officials resign in the months that followed? And why did police claim Ball stole a gun from a police officer’s home only after his death?

Attempts to obtain police documents about the case have raised a new question: why did police release two different versions of events from the shooting?

Documents obtained by the Guardian show police altered a document labeled “uniform incident report” in Ball’s death. An initial version published by the Commercial Dispatch said an officer “tased” Ball before he fled. A new version of the incident report released to the Guardian does not include any mention of Taser use.

“One of these two reports is not true,” said Philip Broadhead, director of the criminal appeals clinic at the University of Mississippi law school. Broadhead said he’s never seen an incident report altered the way the document was in this case. “For police officers to offer up this type of information in the form of an incident report as sworn law officers … It’s a violation of their oath.”

City attorney Jeff Turnage said in an email the “documents created after the incident clearly were not incident reports, though that was the caption at the top”. He said “the city was not going to produce those because they were investigative in nature and exempt from production.”

An incident report is an official piece of evidence in the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation’s ongoing inquiry. It could also be used in a grand jury proceeding for officer Canyon Boykin.

Community members have held marches, vigils and launched a website seeking justice in Ball’s name in a case they have flagged as suspicious since it happened on 16 October. Ball was shot by Boykin after he and two other officers stopped a Mercury Grand Marquis in which Ball was the passenger. Ball jumped out of the car and fled. A coroner at the Baptist Memorial hospital declared Ball dead from a loss of blood at 11.12 pm.

But the details are hotly disputed.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Ball family
 
The Columbus police department contends that Ball fled the scene of the crime and evaded police officials for 20 minutes. When the K-9 unit found Ball, the police say he possessed narcotics and a stolen handgun. He was stabilized at the scene and then died at the hospital.

According to Kamal Karriem, former city councilman and community leader, many members of the black community believe police fired shots without justifiable cause and planted the gun on Ball’s body.

That alternative theory is the basis for a website, Justice For Ricky Ball, which has been meticulously documenting the twists and turns of the case over the past four months. It has also served as a sounding board for members of the community who feel ignored by the city government and local media.

“Ricky didn’t deal with guns,” said Ernesto Ball, uncle of Ricky and organizer of the vigil and march. “That’s one thing he never dealt with. He never owned a gun. He never dealt with people that owned guns.”

Suspicion in Columbus grew as police did not release any information about the incident until five days after Ball’s death, and then only in small increments.

At a city council meeting on 20 October, former police chief Tony Carleton said the car was pulled over for a faulty tag light and a “lack of insurance”. He then said body camera footage existed, but that he had not reviewed it. This drew derisive heckling from citizens in attendance.

The next day Carleton said he viewed the footage on former councilman Karriem’s radio show, but would not elaborate.

On 28 October 2015 – almost two weeks after the shooting – the police department issued an incident report, its first official account of events, as well as a press release that stated that a handgun, marijuana, narcotics and a scale were found within arm’s reach of Ball’s body. The press release said the three officers failed to activate body cameras during the incident, and only one officer activated a camera after the shooting.

Police also said the handgun was stolen from the house of Columbus police officer Garrett Mittan, one of the first officers to arrive at the scene.

The very same day, police issued two reports for alleged burglaries at officer Mittan’s house. Although one alleged burglary occurred more than a year earlier, in September 2014, and the other occurred several months earlier in August 2015, police did not report them until after Ball’s death.

The September 2014 report claims that the robbery occurred while Mittan was at work. But a police schedule obtained by the Guardian says he was not at work that day.

In the days that followed, there were a string of departures in the police department. First, the city fired Boykin, the officer who shot Ball, for unrelated reasons. The department said Boykin violated department policies by using derogatory language on Instagram, and allowing his girlfriend to ride in his patrol car.

The day after that, the chief of police, Carleton, resigned. He took a position as a training officer with the the police department in Oxford, Mississippi. The voluntary demotion raised eyebrows.

The assistant police chief Tony McCoy and narcotics officer Joseph Strevel also resigned before the end of 2015.

In January, the Guardian requested a copy of the incident report and received one that looked different from the earlier version published in the Commercial Dispatch, omitting a report that police “tased” the suspect.

Turnage claims that the second version of the incident report was given to the Guardian erroneously. He said in a follow-up email: “You can very well take my word as the City Attorney for Columbus that the incident report that says Boykin tased Mr Ball is the ONLY official incident report.”

The Columbus district attorney chose not to comment on a pending investigation.

Columbus police use the Taser X26, which stores data on an electronic control device). So if police did use a stun gun, it should be impossible to alter or delete this information.

Broadhead was alarmed by the two copies of the incident report, and said the altered incident report further discredits the police department’s account. Typically, he said, if police receive new information, they would indicate that the report had been changed. They would not, however, simply replace an old report with a new one.

“The series of events are not the same,” he said. “For this incident report to bear the same serial number … I’ve seen police reports supplemented. But I’ve never seen one that’s completely substituted.”

Blake Feldman, advocacy coordinator at the ACLU of Mississippi, says that the credibility of the document has been compromised.

An incident report is considered to be archival evidence and most police departments do not allow them to be altered, but the Columbus department has no standard operating procedure for them.

According to Broadhead: “For a city not to have a written policy concerning incident reports, that’s very unusual. But unfortunately it’s very common. Because if you don’t have a stated policy then you can’t be called for not following your stated policy.”

“When police make up rules as they go along,” former councilman Karriem said, “it creates blatant mistrust between the police and the communities that they are policing.”

The ACLU believes the state’s body camera policy is to blame.

“The circumstances of this incident, based on the information available, understandably invite suspicion of the officer’s version of events,” Feldman said. “Had audio and video been recorded from the time Boykin initiated the traffic stop, we wouldn’t be wondering if evidence was planted or whether a Taser was used. We wouldn’t be wondering why another young black man was fatally shot by a law enforcement officer.”

Click here to see copies of the Incident Report.

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ACLU of Mississippi Responds to Attorney General’s Legislative Agenda

January 27, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Jackson, MS -The ACLU of Mississippi applauds Attorney General Hood's restorative justice efforts via creation of the re-entry pilot program, which would promote principles of restorative justice and rehabilitation. Mississippi must continue to evaluate its prison system to ensure that former offenders have a fair chance at living a crime-free life beyond bars. This will in turn reduce recidivism rates and decrease our prison population.

However, we strongly oppose his intent to exempt from the Public Records Act the identities of the state execution team as well as the lethal injection drug supplier.  Citizens have a right to this public information.  Too often, states have been allowed to conduct executions cloaked in secrecy and free of public and judicial scrutiny, to rely on drugs from unknown and untested sources, and to employ personnel of unknown and unverifiable qualifications—with disastrous results. This pattern should be unacceptable in a civilized society dedicated to transparency and the rule of law. 

We vehemently oppose the articulated alternative barbaric means Attorney General Hood proposes.  The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we believe that the state should not give itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.

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