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“A Law Embedded Then Civil War-Era”: Restoring Voting Rights To Felons Is The Right Thing To Do

Of all the consequences of the nation’s decades-long infatuation with building more and more prisons and locking up more and more citizens, perhaps the most curious is this: More than 4 million Americans who have been released from prison have lost their right to vote, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project.

Even after men and women have served their time — after they have paid their debt to society, as the cliche goes — most states restrict their franchise. It’s an odd idea: Those men and women are harmless enough to release onto the streets, but they can’t be trusted to vote. They have finished serving their sentences, but they are barred from full citizenship.

A disproportionate number of those second-class citizens are black. Because black Americans, particularly men, are locked up at a higher rate than their white peers, this peculiar practice falls heavily on them. Nationwide, one in every 13 black adults cannot vote as the result of a felony conviction, as opposed to one in 56 non-black voters, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for alternatives to mass incarceration.

It’s undemocratic, it’s unfair and it’s un-American. While ancient Greek and Roman codes withdrew the franchise from those who had committed serious crimes, most Western countries now see those codes as outdated.

Recognizing that, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, used his executive power earlier this month to sweep away his state’s laws limiting the franchise for felons. With that action, about 200,000 convicted felons who have completed their prison time and finished parole or probation are now eligible to vote.

McAuliffe noted that Virginia’s law — one of the nation’s harshest and embedded in a Civil War-era state constitution — didn’t hobble the voting rights of black citizens through mere coincidence. That was its purpose. McAuliffe’s staff came across a 1906 report in which a then-state senator gloated about several voting restrictions, including a poll tax and literacy tests, that, he said, would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years,” according to The New York Times.

You’d think that McAuliffe’s fellow Virginia politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, would celebrate his decision. Eliminating barriers to the franchise — especially those with obviously racist roots — can only polish the state’s image and strengthen the civic fabric.

But GOP leaders have objected, accusing McAuliffe of “political opportunism” and a “transparent effort to win votes.” Well, OK. Let’s stipulate that politicians are usually in the business of trying to win votes.

Having conceded that, though, isn’t restoring the voting rights of men and women who have served their time a good idea? If a crime renders a man beyond the boundaries of civilized society, he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life. Otherwise, his crime shouldn’t place him in an inferior caste, without the privileges of full citizenship.

Curiously, though, many conservatives seem to disagree. After Democrat Steve Beshear, then Kentucky’s governor, issued an executive order last year similar to McAuliffe’s, his Republican successor, Matt Bevin, overturned it. Bevin signed a law allowing felons to petition judges to vacate their convictions — a bureaucratic hurdle not easily overcome. Maryland’s GOP governor, Larry Hogan, vetoed a bill to restore voting rights to felons, but the Democratically controlled legislature overrode him.

Those Republican governors are simply following the party’s script, which has focused for the last several years on ways to block the ballot, starting with harsh voter ID laws. While advocates of such laws claim they are meant to protect against voting fraud, the sort of in-person fraud they would prevent hardly exists.

The real motivation for GOP lawmakers is to restrict the franchise from people unlikely to vote for them — especially people of color and millennials. Rather than campaign on a platform that attracts support, they rely on barriers to voting.

That’s wrong. The strength of American democracy depends on persuading more citizens that their votes count; carelessly — or intentionally — disenfranchising those with whom you disagree rends the civic fabric, distorts the political process and stokes the flames of discontent.

We surely don’t need more of that in this political season.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, April 29, 2016

April 30, 2016 Posted by | Citizenship, Criminal Justice System, Terry McAuliffe, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Let’s Look At The Crime Bill”: Doing What You Can, When You Can, While Recognizing That The Job Is Never Done

Watching Bill Clinton bickering with Black Lives Matter activists in Philadelphia recently, I had several conflicting, and not entirely praiseworthy responses. One was that the longer an American political campaign continues, the dumber and uglier it gets.

Another was, why bother? People holding up signs saying “Hillary is a Murderer” aren’t there for dialogue. The charge is so absurd it’s self-refuting. Certainly nobody in the audience was buying.

That woman who shouted that Bill Clinton should be charged with crimes against humanity? He probably should have let it go. Bickering over a 1994 crime bill has little political salience in 2016, particularly since Hillary’s opponent, the sainted Bernie Sanders, actually voted for the damn thing. She didn’t.

Instead, Clinton briefly lost his cool. The next day, he said he “almost” wanted to apologize, which strikes me as slicing the bologna awfully thin even for him.

You’ve probably seen the ten-second clip on TV. “I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” Clinton said angrily. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens, [Hillary] didn’t. You are defending the people who killed the people whose lives you say matter! Tell the truth. You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns.”

Many Democratic-oriented pundits found this shocking. Evidently political journalism is where Freudianism—or Maureen Dowdism anyway—has gone to die. Even as astute an observer as Slate’s Michelle Goldberg went all psychoanalytical on Clinton.

“It is somehow only when he is working on his wife’s behalf that he veers into sabotage,” she wrote. “What is needed here is probably a shrink…Either he doesn’t want her to overtake him, or he doesn’t want her to repudiate him. Regardless, Hillary should shut him down. She can’t divorce him, but she can fire him.”

Fat chance. Anyway, who says the outburst hurt her? Sure Bill Clinton can get hot defending his wife. I suspect more voters find that admirable than not.

It’s also unclear whom Clinton’s tantrum offended. “If you read some intellectuals on the left, they’d suggest there should be a grudge against the Clintons,” Michael Fortner, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York told the Christian Science Monitor “but I think the primary results show there isn’t a grudge at all.”

Fortner, author of the book “Black Silent Majority,” argues that contrary to Black Lives Matter, many in the African-American community understand that the tough-on-crime aspects of the 1994 law weren’t foisted upon them by white racists. Devastated by a veritable Tsunami of violence and gang warfare, “political leaders, mayors, and pastors played an important role in pushing for these policies.”

In Little Rock, where I lived, it was common to hear fusillades of gunfire in black neighborhoods at night. During Clinton’s first term, the city’s homicide rate was nearly triple today’s—the vast majority of victims young black men. Teenagers I coached on Boys Club basketball teams needed to be careful what color clothing they wore en route to practice. People got shot to death for wearing Crips blue in Bloods neighborhoods.

Businesses closed, jobs dried up; anybody with the means to get out, got out. Including, one suspects, the parents of some Black Lives Matter activists. There’s a reason two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus joined Bernie Sanders in supporting the 1994 legislation.

Clinton told them about all that, along with a recitation of the bill’s Democratic virtues: a (since rescinded) assault-weapons ban, the Violence Against Women Act, 100,000 new cops on the beat. Then he made some probably insupportable claims about the crime bill’s good effects:

“A 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate—and listen to this, because of that and the background-check law, a 46-year low in the deaths of people from gun violence. And who do you think those lives were, that mattered? Whose lives were saved, that mattered?”

But then it’s also a stretch to say the bill’s responsible for America having more citizens in prison than Russia and Iran. Eighty-seven percent are in state penitentiaries, not federal lockups. Fifty-three percent of those for violent crimes. Those numbers Clinton didn’t dwell upon, although he did in a speech last year. “The bad news,” he said “is we had a lot of people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”

Hillary Clinton herself has regretted resorting—one time, 20 years ago—to a comic-book term like “super-predators” to describe drug gang members.

Lost in all the hubbub was Bill Clinton taking the protesters seriously enough to engage them about what the dread “triangulation” really signifies. It’s not an ideological label, but a philosophical inclination: doing what you can, when you can, while recognizing that the job is never done.

 

By: Gene Lyons, Featured Post, The National Memo, April 13, 2016

April 14, 2016 Posted by | Bill Clinton, Black Lives Matter, Crime Bill 1994, Law and Order | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Cuddling Up To Criminals”: Criminal-Justice Reform At CPAC

Attendees wait in line to vote in the presidential straw poll at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on Thursday, March 3, 2016.

On Thursday, conservatives of all stripes descended on the Gaylord National Convention Center at the National Harbor in Maryland, just a few miles south of Washington, D.C. In recent years, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference has featured presentations on topics ranging from the future of the Republican Party to voter engagement to criminal-justice reform, which lately has gained support from the right side of the aisle.

This year’s panel on criminal-justice reform featured a debate pitting reformers Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union and Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, against lock-’em-up apostle David Clarke, the sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, who’d famously compared Black Lives Matter protesters to ISIS terrorists.

“Folks,” Clarke began, “you’re not being told the truth when it comes to this criminal-justice reform and sentencing reform.” Clarke went on to tout the policies from the tough-on-crime era. “This led to record low numbers of crime, violent crimes, in your communities,” he said.

For conservatives who favor reducing the prison population, a popular talking point has to do with costs. The United States spends approximately $80 billion each year keeping people behind bars. For those fond of fiscal conservatism, that’s just more government spending that can be cut.

But Clarke dismissed the idea in his opening remarks. “All this is going to do, at best, is shift the cost from the federal government down to the state level,” he said. Citing high recidivism rates, he argued that re-offenders would be put into state prisons, forcing states to incur the costs. Of course, the overwhelming majority of prisoners are in state, not federal, prisons to begin with, so cost-shifting from the federal to the state level isn’t really an issue in the criminal-justice reform discussion—not that Clarke seemed to understand that.

Cuccinelli, who is a part of of the Right on Crime initiative—a campaign for conservative solutions to criminal justice—sang a different tune. “Over the last ten years, [Texas] has reduced both their budget for prisons and their crime rate by double digit percentages,” he said.

“It’s not the Californias and the New Yorks of the world, it’s the Texases, the Georgias, the Dakotas,” that are reforming their criminal-justice systems, he said—even though Texas and Georgia are in the top ten states with the highest incarcerations rates.

Nolan delivered a semi-impassioned defense of why the government should only prosecute certain crimes like rape, murder, and robbery and should target major drug traffickers as opposed to street dealers. Clarke interrupted him to demonstrate why nonviolent drug offenders deserve to be in prison for as long as possible.

“If you’re a struggling mom living in a slum or a ghetto in a city in the United States of America,” Clarke said, “and you’re doing everything that you can to keep your kid away from that dope dealer standing on the corner who’s out there every day … do you know that to get that guy off the street for as long as we can be allowed by law is a big deal for her?”

Though Nolan and Cuccinelli continued to make the case for shorter sentences for certain crimes as well as ways to reduce prison spending—a case that other Republican legislators are making as well—Clarke made clear that there was plenty of pushback from other conservatives. He name-checked four Republican senators who agree with him on the need to stick with the status quo. “Tom Cotton is right on this. Jeff Sessions is right on this. Orrin Hatch is right on this. Ted Cruz is right on opposing this Trojan horse.”

“I find it unfathomable that we would cede this [issue] back over to the left and to the Democrats,” said Clarke, “by cuddling up to criminals.”

 

By: Nathalie Baptiste, The American Prospect, March 4, 2016

March 7, 2016 Posted by | Conservatives, CPAC, Criminal Justice Reform | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Deferred Prosecution Agreements”: Criminals Should Get Same Leniency As Corporations, Judge Says

For years, when corporations paid big fines to escape prosecution for their misdeeds, critics fumed. Why, they asked, shouldn’t big companies be treated like common criminals?

A federal judge turned that question on its head this week as he lamented being asked to approve yet another corporate settlement. Perhaps, he said, common criminals ought to be treated more like big companies.

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, took aim at a favorite tool of the Obama administration for addressing corporate wrongdoing: a form of probation known as a deferred prosecution agreement. If companies behave for the length of the agreement, the matter is closed without any criminal record.

The judge said individual defendants should enjoy the same opportunities. While it is not uncommon for judges to criticize outcomes that they see as unjust, it is highly unusual for them to so explicitly advocate — and at such great length — a change in approach.

Judge Sullivan’s 84-page opinion — in what could have been a short, straightforward decision — is the latest influential voice to join a growing chorus of both liberals and conservatives who see the American criminal justice system as fundamentally unfair.

The ruling comes amid a rapidly changing environment: The White House is approving clemency applications at historically high rates; support is coalescing on Capitol Hill to ease sentencing laws; and law enforcement leaders around the country have declared that too many Americans are in prison for too long. Though the federal prison population has declined for the first time in decades, America remains the world’s largest jailer by far; its prison population nearly equals China’s and Russia’s combined.

Justice Department officials agree in principle with Judge Sullivan’s critique and have encouraged Congress to ease tough sentencing laws that were passed at the height of the crack epidemic. Emily Pierce, a department spokeswoman, noted that under an initiative begun in 2013, prosecutors were already ordered to prioritize more serious crimes, while looking for alternatives to prison for low-level offenders. Fewer low-level criminals being charged means fewer people eligible for deferred prosecution. The department has also strongly supported drug courts, which essentially offer the same second chance that companies are given.

At the same time, the Justice Department recently promised to get tough on corporate executives after years of criticism in the aftermath of the financial crisis that bankers, in particular, escaped punishment because their companies agreed to pay big fines. It was that promise, followed days later by a deferred-prosecution agreement with General Motors, that ignited Judge Sullivan’s fury.

Judge Sullivan was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton. He previously served as a municipal judge and a local appellate judge in Washington, having been appointed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

He called G.M.’s $900 million settlement “a shocking example of potentially culpable individuals not being criminally charged.” G.M. admitted that it misled the public about auto defects, but neither the company nor its executives were prosecuted, “despite the fact that the reprehensible conduct of its employees resulted in the deaths of many people.”

“The court is disappointed that deferred-prosecution agreements or other similar tools are not being used to provide the same opportunity to individual defendants to demonstrate their rehabilitation without triggering the devastating collateral consequences of a criminal conviction,” Judge Sullivan wrote.

Justice Department figures show deferred-prosecution agreements are rare for both individuals and companies. But the number of cases against organizations and companies is so tiny — 150 or so each year, compared with 160,000 or more individual prosecutions — that these deals occur at a much higher rate in corporate cases, which also tend to be higher profile.

Deferred-prosecution deals are attractive because they spare companies the consequence of criminal convictions, such as stock collapse and a loss of contracts. For people, the effects can be even more severe. The American Bar Association has identified tens of thousands of consequences of criminal conviction, which demonstrates how a single arrest can cost people their jobs and homes.

President Obama has indicated that he will make a criminal justice overhaul one of the most important issues of his remaining time in office. He became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. On Thursday, he defended the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been criticized by police unions in particular as being anti-police. Mr. Obama plans to speak about changing the criminal justice system next week at the annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago.

Much of the public debate has focused on reducing the prison population by cutting sentences for those serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. Lost in the debate, Judge Sullivan said, has been the importance of keeping people out of jail in the first place. “This oversight is lamentable, to say the least!” he wrote.

He said criminal justice reform should offer people “the chance to demonstrate their true character and avoid the catastrophic consequences of felony convictions.”

While Judge Sullivan cannot make policy from the bench, the opinion shows the momentum behind efforts to improve the system, said Norman L. Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“It has finally seeped into the public consciousness that there is something wrong,” he said. “All of a sudden, a nation wakes up and realizes we’ve created this unbelievable cadre of second-class citizens.”

 

By: Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times, October 23, 2015

October 25, 2015 Posted by | Corporate Crime, Corporations, Criminal Justice System, Deferred Prosecution Agreements | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Real And Tangible Atrocity”: The Groveland Four, Justice Denied For 66 Years… And Counting

It was the road sign that made it real.

Josh Venkataraman was returning to the University of Florida, where he is a senior, from Orlando earlier this year when he saw it. “Groveland,” it said.

He had read what happened there in Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove, for a class a few years before “and it touched me.” But seeing that sign did more; bringing home to him that Groveland was a real and tangible place where a real and tangible atrocity unfolded beginning in 1949. That, he says, was when he knew “I really wanted to get involved and change history, essentially.”

So Venkataraman, who, as a high-school student, won a Silver Knight, a service award given by The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, sought out Carol Greenlee, a 65-year-old consultant in Nashville. Her father, Charles Greenlee, was the last of the so-called “Groveland Four.” He died in 2012.

She admits she was skeptical of this 21-year-old kid and questioned him closely. But when Venkataraman asked for her support in mounting a petition drive on behalf of her father and the other men, she gave it. “I’m in the mode of trying to get my father exonerated,” she explains, “and I need all the help I can get.”

The two of them want one thing from you: your name on their petition. It’s at www.change.org/p/richard-scott-exonerate-the-groveland-four. To reiterate: They’re not asking Florida Gov. Rick Scott for a pardon. They want exoneration — recognition that these men were not just innocent of the crime for which they were charged, but that the “crime” itself never happened.

King details in his book how a young white woman named Norma Lee Padgett concocted a tale of gang rape by four black men. A doctor’s exam turned up no evidence of sexual assault. Neighbors who saw Padgett right after the alleged attack said she was neither disheveled nor panicked. They scoffed at the idea she was raped, but refused to testify for the defense. “Wouldn’t do to be called n—-r lover,” one said.

In Klan-infested postwar Florida, Padgett’s flimsy claim was enough for police to essentially start rounding up black men en masse: Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, Ernest Thomas, and Charles Greenlee. The men didn’t all know each other. No forensic evidence tied them to the “crime.” But again, this was Florida in 1949.

Before it was over, a white mob would rampage through an African-American community, one man would be killed trying to escape, three would be beaten and tortured, the sheriff would summarily execute one man, and the remaining two would be convicted.

Carol, born shortly after her father’s arrest, says she grew up feeling a “cloud” over the Greenlee name. When she was young, her mother used to take her to visit him weekly “until he couldn’t take it to see me anymore and he told my mother not to ever bring me back there again.” She didn’t see him again until he was paroled. She was 11 by then.

Here’s why this matters: Some people like to pretend the world sprang into existence yesterday. In an era of mass incarceration and epidemic police misbehavior, they earnestly wonder why African-Americans often don’t trust law enforcement. Here, then, is an instructive reminder, past tapping present on the shoulder — justice denied for 66 years and counting.

“You still have innocent people,” says Carol Greenlee, “innocent black men, every day being rejected, being dejected and being put in prison for things they have not done. So we’ve got to find a way to correct the injustice that a group of people have been experiencing for years. I’m 65 years old and I’m still looking for justice for my father, who was wrongfully imprisoned for something he didn’t do and really didn’t happen. Why don’t you correct that?”

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, September 28, 2015

September 29, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Racial Injustice, The Groveland Four | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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