Dear Santa (Regarding the Criminal Justice System)
Dear Santa (Regarding the Criminal Justice System)
Last night I was going to send you this past year’s "naughty or nice" list of people, organizations, and movements related to the criminal justice system, but figured that since you read DMI’s blog every morning before you set out for a day’s work, and were probably pretty busy last night, I would just post the list here for you to read over your morning coffee.
Oh, and as a reminder, the gifts I would like are a reduction in our prison population, an end to the war on drugs, nationwide abolition of the death penalty, closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and all CIA-run secret prisons, the right of detainees to challenge their detentions in federal court through writs of habeas corpus, repeal of the Patriot Act, an end to the Iraq War, funding for public school education, public defender offices, and programs focusing on alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation, and reentry, the decriminalization of poverty, and a new president and vice president who are the polar opposite of the despots we have had for the past eight years. Thanks!
Deserving of Santa’s Presents
The State of New Jersey
For becoming the first state whose legislature abolished capital punishment since the Supreme Court declared it constitutional in 1976.
The Coalition to Raise the Minimum Standards at New York City Jails
For refusing to let the New York City Board of Corrections implement detrimental changes to its Minimum Standards for New York City Correctional Facilities without first hearing from those most affected by such policy changes — prisoners, their families, and the organizations that work with them. In the end, the Coalition convinced the Board to abandon a number of its ill-conceived ideas.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist
For signing a bill that made it easier for ex-offenders to reclaim their right to vote. In some states, that right is permanently lost with a criminal conviction, and in most others there are numerous unnecessary bureaucratic impediments to regaining it.
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins
For responding to an appalling 13 exonerations in Dallas County by (1) instituting an open file policy to encourage competent, effective, and prepared defense counsel for poor people, (2) offering to test earlier convictions for possible DNA evidence to verify whether the right person is in prison; and (3) supporting improvements to police procedures to reduce the risk of wrongful conviction. DA Watkins, as the invited speaker at DMI’s Marketplace of Ideas event on October 29, 2007, spoke passionately about these issues, as well as voiced his opposition to the drug war’s stubborn and shortsighted reliance on mass imprisonment.
For fighting on behalf of either the Jena Six, a group of African-American teenagers subjected to a racist criminal justice system in Louisiana, or on behalf of Troy Davis, who sits on Georgia’s death row, with plausible claims of innocence, awaiting a decision from Georgia’s Supreme Court as to whether he lives or dies at the hand of the state.
Peter Wagner and the Prison Policy Initiative
For demanding that the Census Bureau cease counting incarcerated individuals as residents of the counties in which they are imprisoned, which gives certain communities voting power disproportionate to their actual voting populations while simultaneously diluting the voting strength of the communities from which the majority of inmates come.
The Innocence Project
For the exoneration of Jerry Miller, the 200th DNA-based exoneration since the Project began in 1992, and which has now exonerated 210 people, exonerating people at a rate of around 20 per year (not including hundreds more non-DNA-based exonerations), and for seeking policy changes throughout the criminal justice system, including that states properly preserve forensic evidence, that police reform their eyewitness identification procedures, that states compensate every individual they wrongfully imprison, and that states enact or reform laws permitting prisoners to DNA testing of biological evidence. These reforms are as badly needed in New York as anywhere in the country.
The Bronx Defenders
For standing up for the rights of poor people, mostly of color, in the Bronx, one of the poorest counties in the nation, year after year, who are caught up in our oppressive criminal justice system, who have been either ignored or targeted by society’s powers-that-be, people who are the victims of New York’s zero tolerance over-aggressive policing and incarceration policies, who are forced to spend hours in jail for acts such as possession of marijuana (thanks to New York’s assault on poor people’s use of marijuana), trespassing, hopping the turnstile, or for the mere concoctions of the police, who have to miss work, wait on line for court, wait hours for their cases to be called, for a lawyer to call their name while in jail, whose lives are simply not deemed by society as equally important or valuable, people that the system wants, and tries, to treat like second-class citizens, but who, with the help of the Bronx Defenders, refuse to be treated that way.
Who persevered through drug addiction, alcoholism, jail, depression, and humiliation, to complete a two-year intensive drug program, overcame many obstacles, and is now clean, reunited with her daughter, and trying hard to find work.
Undeserving of Santa’s Presents
The California State Prison System
For overcrowding its prisons through its drug war, longer sentences, and three-strikes-you’re-out laws, then seeking to alleviate its burden by shipping inmates to other states’ prisons, far away from the prisoners’ families, and then announcing last week that up to 33,000 prisoners may be entitled to release earlier than scheduled because the state has miscalculated their sentences and then failed, for nearly two years, to recalculate those sentences despite a series of court rulings, including one by the California Supreme Court.
Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Sharon Keller
For turning away the last appeal of a death row inmate, Michael Richard, because his lawyers, who were having computer problems, needed 20 additional minutes to file their appeal, taking them beyond the court’s 5 p.m. closing time. Mr. Richard’s lawyers wanted to argue that the lethal injection procedure to be used to kill him was cruel and unusual, based on the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision to review the same question in Kentucky. But since Judge Keller would not take their appeal after 5 p.m., Mr. Richard’s appeal was incomplete and the state court was not able to issue a definitive ruling, thus prevented Mr. Richard from properly appealing to the United States Supreme Court to stay his execution. Two days after the state killed Mr. Richard, the Supreme Court blocked another lethal injection in Texas based on the question of whether lethal injection as administered is cruel and unusual, and there have been no executions since.
Alabama Governor Bob Riley
For refusing to grant DNA testing to death row inmate Tommy Arthur, testing which would likely either confirm Mr. Arthur’s guilt or prove his innocence.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
For running a politically-driven Justice Department, hiring and firing attorneys based on party affiliations and in order to protect Republicans from legitimate investigations, authorizing torture of detainees held in American custody, giving untruthful testimony to the Senate, and being nothing more than a toady of the Bush Administration.
Any Active Proponent of the War on Drugs
For contributing to the incarceration of nonviolent offenders for shockingly long prison terms, and to America’s unparalleled (and racially and economically disproportionate) prison population of 2.3 million, which has destroyed communities, cost taxpayers’ millions of dollars, and filled the coffers of prison builders.
President George W. Bush
For doing nothing of note in the realm of criminal justice except pardon Scooter Libby, not pardon thousands of others, waste trillions of hard-earned taxpayers’ dollars on a disingenuous, misguided war instead of on important domestic programs (including programs to improve schools, health, and alleviate poverty), create torture-filled detention centers, known and unknown, around the world, from Guantanamo to Bagram to Abu Ghraib to secret prisons in Europe and elsewhere, and held detainees, uncharged, for over six years, while arrogantly proclaiming that they are outside the reach of American or international law (as he and Dick Cheney also clearly consider themselves).
The American Prison System
For increasing our state and federal prison population eightfold since 1970 (from 196,429 to 1.5 million, not including another 750,000 in our jails), despite numerous studies that have found that there is no consistent relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates; for a projected growth of almost another 200,000 over the next five years, increasing our incarceration rate from its already excessive 491 per 100,000 population to 562; for the $60 billion spent each year on corrections, projected to increase $27.5 billion over the next five years; for incarcerating blacks and Latinos at a rate six times greater than whites; for crippling poor and working-class neighborhoods through the mass incarceration of young men; for being the world’s leader in imprisonment, both in sheer number (ahead of China, despite China’s size) and in rate (far ahead of the country next in line, Russia); for incarcerating people twice as long as England for the same crimes, three times as long as Canada, four times as long as the Netherlands, and five times as long as France and Sweden; and for increasing the amount of time people serve on their sentences. According to a recent report by the JFA Institute titled "Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population," the prison system is "our own American apartheid."
Thank you, Santa, safe travels, and Happy Holidays.