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“An Outlier For All The Wrong Reasons”: What America’s Gun-Toting Cops Look Like To The Rest Of The World

From protests in Washington, the police shooting of an unarmed teen in suburban St. Louis looks tragic. From rallies in Los Angeles, the death of a man caught selling cigarettes in New York City looks baffling. From inside churches in Chicago, the police shooting of a black child with a toy gun in Cleveland looks heartbreaking.

Still, there’s often a weariness to these responses, a sense that excessive police force is both shocking and predictable at the same time. Which is why it’s helpful, every now and then, to remember what all of this looks like from abroad.

The Economist this week has penned a blunt editorial that captures how much of the rest of the developed world views the American criminal justice system and our particular brand of policing: “In many cases,” the U.K.-based magazine writes, “Americans simply do not realise how capricious and violent their law-enforcement system is compared with those of other rich countries.”

We forget that other countries (the U.K. included) often police without firearms at all. We don’t realize that other parts of the world maintain public safety without the high costs of over-incarceration. We don’t know — in a country where we’re bad at keeping such stats ourselves — that police killings of any kind are exceeding rare elsewhere.

From that foreign perspective, this is what our system looks like:

Bits of America’s criminal-justice system are exemplary—New York’s cops pioneered data-driven policing, for instance—but overall the country is an outlier for all the wrong reasons. It jails nearly 1% of its adult population, more than five times the rich-country average. A black American man has, by one estimate, a one in three chance of spending time behind bars. Sentences are harsh. Some American states impose life without parole for persistent but non-violent offenders; no other rich nation does. America’s police are motivated to be rapacious: laws allow them to seize assets they merely suspect are linked to a crime and then spend the proceeds on equipment. And, while other nations have focused on community policing, some American police have become paramilitary, equipping themselves with grenade launchers and armoured cars. The number of raids by heavily armed SWAT teams has risen from 3,000 a year in 1980 to 50,000 today, by one estimate.

Above all, American law enforcement is unusually lethal: even the partial numbers show that the police shot and killed at least 458 people last year. By comparison, those in England and Wales shot and killed no one.

The U.S. is an international model in a lot of ways, the magazine points out. But this is decidedly not one of them.

 

By: Emily Badger, Wonkblog, The Washington Post, December 12, 2014

December 15, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Police Shootings, United Kingdom | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Where Anger And Fear Have Brought Us”: Children Are Children, No Matter Their Race Or Ethnicity

Darren Wilson made if very plain in his testimony before the grand jury that he was afraid of Michael Brown. As a matter of fact, his entire case is based on whether or not people believe that to be true. We also know that the officers who shot and killed 12 year-old Tamir Rice assumed that he was about 20 years old.

This is all part of a pattern that was recently the subject of research published by the American Psychological Association.

Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research.

Beyond the Michael Brown’s and Tamir Rice’s, those assumptions also lead to this:

Fourteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults. Children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults. Some states set the minimum age at 10, 12, or 13…

Some 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day in America. Children are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities and face increased risk of suicide.

Whether they are being shot on the street, tried as adults, or locked up in adult prisons, Jonathan Capehart is right.

In America, black children are just that, children. It’s a damned shame people’s fears and prejudices blinds them to that fact. It’s a crying shame black kids must suffer because of it.

A lot of people are thinking that the one area where bipartisanship is possible in the next Congress is on criminal justice reform. But anything meaningful in that arena has to include the premise that children are children – no matter their race or ethnicity. A system that fails to treat them as such can never call itself “just.”

Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, brings it all together when he says that these kinds of policies are the result of “a political vision that is fueled by fear and sustained by anger.” He echoes President Obama in suggesting that we have to find a “voice of hopefulness to turn these things around.”

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, December 6, 2014

December 9, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Police Shootings, Race and Ethnicity | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Acting On Our Collective Fears”: Darren Wilson; America’s ‘Model Policeman’

Truth is stranger than fiction; it is also most certainly harder to accept.

In a nearly hour-long interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday, a day after thousands of protesters took to the streets from coast to coast, expressing outrage that yet another white police officer got away with the murder of another unarmed black person, Wilson stuck to his story: “I just did my job. I did what I was paid to do. I followed my training…. That’s it.”

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to doubt his account. If he knew Michael Brown was a robbery suspect, why did he politely stop him and Dorian Johnson for jaywalking only to “have a conversation,” as he described to Stephanopoulos? If the West Florissant section of Ferguson is “really a great community,” why did he testify that it was a not very “well-liked community” and a hotbed of anti-police sentiment?

And yet, despite all the equivocations, the shooting death of the teenager on August 9 and Monday’s grand jury decision not to indict Wilson were entirely unsurprising. They are the predictable outcomes of a criminal justice system doing exactly what it was meant to do. For all the dissecting and debating of the veracity of Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony this week, one thing seems crystal clear. He was in fact doing his job.

Indeed, by this standard, isn’t Darren Wilson actually a model police officer?

He certainly thinks so. When asked by Stephanopoulos if he could make “something good” come of this experience, he said he would “love to teach people” and give them “more insight in uses of force.” That he may have logged more time on first-person shooters—emptying clip after clip to take down demonic super-villains who “run through shots”—than actual police work is beside the point. Darren Wilson has the kind of experience that many Americans value.

Evidence abounds that the United States is the world’s most punitive nation. More people are behind bars and incarcerated at higher per capita rates here than anywhere in the world. African-Americans are the nation’s prime suspects and prisoners. White police officers are our chosen protectors, enforcing the law in the name of public safety.

In a Pew research poll conducted shortly after Ferguson made national headlines this summer, researchers found that most Americans have a “fair amount of confidence in local police.” Eighty-five percent of respondents, white and black, gave a fair to excellent rating on police “protecting people from crime.” And on “using the right amount of force,” 66 percent of respondents gave a fair to excellent rating; white support stood at 73 percent and blacks at 42 percent. Though a clear racial divide exists, African-Americans are only 13 percent of the population nationally. Everyone is therefore implicated in police performance writ large, if not by choice, certainly through political representatives.

Critics and protesters of police violence among African-Americans and on the political left, as polling data suggests, see things differently. They are organizing against the routine killing of unarmed men and beating of helpless women on an unprecedented scale not seen since the anti-lynching movement of the last century. Even with such evidence in hand that black men are twenty-one times as likely to be killed by law enforcement than white men, as analyzed in a recent report by ProPublica, today’s movement like the one before it might fail to overcome deeply entrenched fears of black criminality without a massive shift in white public opinion and a new model for law enforcement.

Most whites do not realize they are reading from very old racial scripts. When Ida B. Wells, the world’s leading anti-lynching activist and black social worker of the early twentieth century, tried to explain to a wealthy suffragist in Chicago that anti-black violence in the nation must end, Mary Plummer replied: blacks need to “drive the criminals out” of the community. “Have you forgotten that 10 percent of all the crimes that were committed in Chicago last year were by colored men [less than 3 percent of the population]?”

Like Mary Plummer, Darren Wilson is emphatic that the issue is not racism. Brown’s African-American neighborhood is “one of our high-crime areas for the city,” he said during the interview. “You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you. I help people. That’s my job.” On that day, “the only emotion I ever felt was fear,” before my training took over. “We are taught to deal with the threat at hand.”

Implicit bias research tells us that most Americans are afraid of black people and subconsciously associate dangerous weapons and animals with them. They see things often that are not there. Stanford psychologists Rebecca Haley and Jennifer Eberhardt note in a study last month that the more people perceive blacks as criminals or prisoners, “the more people fear crime, which then increases their acceptance of punitive policies.”

The truth is that Wilson has no regrets. He wouldn’t do things differently. He’s looking forward to a new chapter in his professional journey as a teacher, trainer or a consultant. He’s our representative figure—a model policeman—acting on our collective fears.

 

By: Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Nation, November 29, 2014

 

December 3, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Need More Ferguson-Style Grand Juries”: A Model For How To End The Over-Incarceration Of African-Americans Today

We need more grand juries like the Ferguson grand jury. In an ironic twist, Ferguson’s grand jury provides a blueprint for a radical civil rights revolution that could help end the worst racial injustice in America today. Here’s why.

Many observers have noted that the grand jury result in Darren Wilson’s case is highly unusual. Federal grand juries indict in more than 99 percent of cases; state grand juries aren’t quite at that level, but still indict in an overwhelming number of cases. The grand jury deck is heavily stacked to favor prosecution. For instance, prosecutors have no obligation to present all of the evidence in a case, just enough evidence to get an indictment. The old adage is that if a prosecutor asked them, a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.

Other than sandwiches, who are grand juries indicting, and how? They disproportionately indict young African-American men, and they usually do it very quickly. Grand juries often hear dozens of cases in a single day, and may hand down an indictment based on ten minutes or less of testimony. As one news article notes, “Prosecutors present as many as 40 cases a day to grand juries,” who in turn “indict most suspects in less time than it takes to brew a pot of coffee.”

This is why the grand jury in Darren Wilson’s case was so unusual. It isn’t just that the result was out of the ordinary— the process was also unique. The grand jury heard an incredible 70 hours of testimony from 60 witnesses over a three month period. In another unusual move, the grand jury considered not only the basic elements of the crime, but also affirmative defenses. Ashby Jones writes at the Wall Street Journal blog that “It’s not disputed that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown on August 9. The question jurors were likely asked to consider went beyond that: whether Mr. Wilson was justified in shooting Mr. Brown.” And in yet another atypical move, prosecutors presented this grand jury not just a cherry-picked case for prosecution  but “absolutely everything … Every scrap of paper that we have. Every photograph that was taken.”

This approach should not be condemned; it should be expanded upon. While cases like the Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin killings receive media attention, they aren’t actually representative of the way that most African-American young men interact with the justice system today. Instead, today’s criminal justice system mostly interacts with young Black men by putting them behind bars at an alarming rate. In recent years nearly one million African-Americans have been incarcerated at the federal, state or local levels. As many as one in three Black men born today will spend time incarcerated.

When they do leave prison, these men are largely unemployable and ineligible to vote, and often end up back in the system. This mass incarceration is destroying the Black community — it is, as Michelle Alexander writes, the New Jim Crow. And it depends on grand juries who act as a conveyor belt, quickly funneling tens of thousands of young Black men into prison.

The contrast with the Wilson grand jury is a stunning illustration of the racial double standards in criminal justice. We should undo that double standard by offering similar protections to every young Black man who is arrested in this country. If grand juries across the United States regularly deliberated for twelve weeks rather than twelve minutes, it would become physically impossible to incarcerate a million African-Americans. If every grand jury heard seventy hours of testimony from sixty witnesses over three months, it would mean the end of mass incarceration in America.

Of course, racial double standards have been lived reality throughout American history. But perhaps the sheer visibility of the grand jury in this case will call attention to the problems of how grand juries usually operate. Ironically, the Ferguson grand jury provides a model for how to end the over-incarceration of African-Americans today. I hope that a thousand more grand juries will follow its lead.

 

By: Kaimipono Wenger, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California; The Daily Beast, November 30, 2014

 

December 3, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Ferguson Missouri, Grand Juries | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Meaningful Change”: Eric Holder Transformed The Attorney General Into An Advocate For The Poor

On September 25, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. He made history as the nation’s first African American attorney general and will most likely be remembered for his vigorous enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws. He deserves equal accolades for his leadership in working to reform the nation’s broken criminal justice system. Since his appointment as attorney general, he has consistently criticized the draconian federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases and has decried the unwarranted racial disparities in the criminal justice system, calling the phenomenon “a civil rights issue … that I’m determined to confront as long as I’m attorney general.” And he certainly kept that promise.

Before becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer, there was no indication that Eric Holder would ultimately become an advocate for poor people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. After all, Eric Holder spent most of his professional career as a criminal prosecutor. He started out as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section where for 12 years he worked to put away corrupt public officials. During his five years as a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, he earned a reputation as a tough sentencer, locking up countless young African American men for long periods of time.

Eric Holder left the bench to become the first African American United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. When Holder was appointed to be D.C.’s chief prosecutor, I was the city’s chief defender. As Director of the Public Defender for the District of Columbia, my interactions with Holder’s predecessors were very adversarial. Holder was determined to change that. Soon after his appointment, he visited my office and promised a change in policies and practices. Although he instituted a number of programs in his office, he did not make efforts to reduce the prison population or address racial disparities. He was more polite than his predecessors, but there was absolutely no indication that he would ultimately lead the charge to reverse the nation’s shameful record of incarcerating more of its citizens than any western nation in the world.

In 1997, Holder continued his career as a prosecutor when he became the nation’s first African American deputy attorney general under Janet Reno during the Clinton administration. As second in charge at the Justice Department, Holder supported and championed Reno’s positions on criminal justice issues. At that time, sentencing laws required judges to sentence those in possession of five grams of crack cocaine to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison while that harsh sentence could only be imposed in cases involving powder cocaine when the amount was 500 grams. The enforcement of these laws resulted in much harsher sentences for African Americans. Although Reno was in favor of narrowing the disparity, she strongly opposed eliminating it, and, as her deputy, so did Holder.

At the end of Clinton’s second term, Holder went into private practice before returning to lead the Justice Department that he’d worked in for most of his career. From the beginning of his term as attorney general in 2009, Eric Holder began to champion vigorous reform of the criminal justice system. The vast majority of criminal cases are prosecuted in state courts, and the Attorney General has no supervisory power over state and local cases. However, Holder consistently used his bully pulpit to advocate for criminal justice reform and took direct action to order reforms in the federal system throughout his tenure as attorney general.

As early as June 2009, Holder spoke at a symposium on reforming federal sentencing policy sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. In his remarks, Holder announced that he had ordered a review of the department’s charging and sentencing policies, consideration of alternatives to incarceration, and an examination of other unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing. He stated that “the disparity between crack and powder cocaine must be eliminated and must be addressed by this congress this year.”

The following year, Holder gave remarks at the Justice Department’s National Symposium on Indigent Defense, where he spoke passionately about how the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was not being fulfilled for poor people charged with crimes. He pledged his commitment to improving indigent defense, stating that he had “asked the entire Department of Justice … to focus on indigent defense issues with a sense of urgency and a commitment to developing and implementing the solutions we need.” And he fulfilled that pledge. In October 2013, the Justice Department awarded a total of $6.7 million to state and local criminal and civil legal services organizations that provide defense serves for the poor. Most recently, Holder filed a statement of interest expressing his support for a lawsuit against the state of New York that challenges the deficiencies in New York’s public defender system.

Holder’s most comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts were announced in a speech he gave at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting in 2013. In these remarks, Holder said, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law-enforcement reason.” He also decried the unwarranted racial disparities, stating that “people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. … [b]lack male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptableit is shameful.” Holder then went on to announce sweeping reforms, including ordering federal prosecutors to refrain from charging low level nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences; a compassionate release program to consider the release of nonviolent, elderly, and/or ill prisoners; the increased use of alternatives to incarceration; and the review and reconsideration of statutes and regulations that impose harsh collateral consequences (such as loss of housing and employment) on people with criminal convictions.

We have yet to witness the positive effects of Holder’s criminal justice legacy, and some may suggest that he didn’t go far enough. But few will disagree that his efforts surpass those of any previous attorney general. Did Holder’s views on criminal justice evolve over time? Or did he always believe that the system was broken and in need of reform? Perhaps both statements are true. What matters is that at the end of the day, when he was in a position to effect meaningful change in our criminal justice system, this former prosecutor became a champion of liberty. And for that, this former public defender will forever be grateful.

 

By: Angela Davis, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law; The New Republic, September 27, 2014

September 28, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Eric Holder, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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