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Report Sheds Light On The Pattern Of Over-Policing That Led Cops To Pull Over Daunte Wright

The criminal legal system “relies heavily on collecting money from the very people targeted by the system,” in the process incentivizing police to punish as many people as possible, the authors of the ACLU report write.

(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Report Sheds Light On The Pattern Of Over-Policing That Led Cops To Pull Over Daunte Wright

The criminal legal system “relies heavily on collecting money from the very people targeted by the system,” in the process incentivizing police to punish as many people as possible, the authors of the ACLU report write.


When Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop on April 11, his name joined a growing list of Black drivers killed after being pulled over for an infraction that constituted no threat to public safety. 

In Wright’s case, he was pulled over for driving a car with an expired registration—an issue many drivers experienced as Minnesota’s motor vehicle department adjusted to limited services during the COVID-19 pandemic—and for an air freshener dangling from his rear-view mirror, which is illegal in Minnesota. 

According to a report from the ACLU released today, Wright’s experience is more than just common; the policing of minor infractions, including nonpayment of fines or fees, is considered a significant source of revenue for local governments. The criminal legal system, the authors write, “relies heavily on collecting money from the very people targeted by the system,” in the process incentivizing police to punish as many people as possible. For the victims of such police activity, however, the fines and fees extracted from these kinds of stops themselves can create an unmanageable burden, and the failure to pay often results in a cycle of increased fees or warrants. 

“You see it over and over again. Governments are strapped for cash, the first thing they do is create either new categories of fines and fees, or increase the dollar amounts attached to existing fines and fees,” said Emily Dindial, advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU and co-author of the report. For example, the report refers to a study by the Department of Justice in 2015, which found that 23 percent of Ferguson, Missouri’s total municipal revenue came from fines and fees. The Florida Clerk of Courts Operations Corporations estimated that at least $20.8 million of its revenue came from the payment of license suspension debt. “The creation of all these offenses … create these regulations that have to be enforced; they make it so everyone is constantly breaking the law or out of regulation. They generate revenue by over-policing,” Dindial said.

According to the report, not being able to pay a fine frequently sets off a snowball effect of mounting fees that can end in thousands of dollars of debt or the suspension of a driver’s license. Many people are forced to choose between driving anyway (thereby committing a new crime) or trying to get by without a car. For instance, the authors of the report found that each year, over 100,000 Coloradans lose their licenses because of unpaid traffic debt or failure to appear in court. In 2019, Florida issued 1.2 million license suspension notices, 70 percent of which stemmed from the failure to pay fines and fees. “The system itself is self-defeating,” said Emily Greytak, the ACLU’s director of research and co-author of the report. “Most people use their cars as part of their work, or to drive to work—a suspended license takes away their livelihood, yet that’s what they need to pay the fees.”

In one case cited in the report, Dario, from Colorado, was pulled over for driving with windows that were tinted too darkly, fined $75, then given a $150 ticket for driving without a registration. But with 13 additional fees, Dario ultimately owed $1,032. “The ability to pay competes with the cost of rent and cost of food and daily expenses,” Dario told the researchers. “So it’s like, either pay the traffic fines, or pay for food.” 

According to Greytak, the interviewees were well aware that not having money was the actual crime. “At least 11 million people are not allowed to drive simply because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees, while people who can afford to pay are spared,” the report reads. “The brunt of these policies falls disproportionately on people of color, contributing to existing racial disparities in the criminal legal system.”

Daunte Wright had a warrant out for his arrest because he did not show up for a court appearance for two misdemeanors, which were not related to driving. Skipping court appearances is common for people who are unable to pay fines and fees. For anyone with a warrant hanging over them despite committing no dangerous or serious crimes, minor infractions often become dangerous and sometimes deadly.

In 2016, according to the report, 95 percent of all arrest warrants issued in Texas were for unpaid fines and fees, sending more than 640,000 people to jail. In 2020, the report reads, one out of every seven adults in New Orleans had open warrants; the city vacated about 55,000 warrants that year, most of which were issued for nonpayment or failure to appear in court for a fine-only offense. Thirty-six percent of those with warrants were Black. And last year, the Las Vegas Justice Court in Clark County, Nevada, reported 270,000 open warrants for unpaid traffic tickets and failure to appear in court to resolve those tickets.

According to Dindial and Greytak, these policies do not improve public safety. Moreover, the report questioned if such policies, after accounting for the costs of enforcement and collection, generate that much revenue. “It makes no logical sense if you’re talking about public safety; it makes no logical sense if you’re talking about fiscal concerns,” Dindial said. “So ‘Why are they doing it?’ is a natural next question.”

Oakland Takes First Steps Toward Directing Some 911 Calls To Community Responders

It will be months before the pilot program is implemented in part of East Oakland, but activists say it’s a move in the right direction.

Oakland City Hall
(Photo via Getty Images)

Oakland Takes First Steps Toward Directing Some 911 Calls To Community Responders

It will be months before the pilot program is implemented in part of East Oakland, but activists say it’s a move in the right direction.


The Oakland City Council in California is expected to finalize approval today for a pilot program that would replace police with trained civilian responders for a host of 911 calls that often involve people struggling with mental health issues and homelessness. 

The year-long pilot called MACRO—Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland—is still in its infancy. It is expected to take months before being implemented in an area in East Oakland, but activists say the pilot is a major step toward eliminating law enforcement responses to 911 calls that risk escalation into police shootings of people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises. 

“We don’t want [police] involved in these calls because we’re sick of the death count,” said Cathy Leonard, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, which has been pushing the city for a MACRO-like program since 2019. “We need resident-centered responses.” 

Other mental health-oriented emergency response programs already operate in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, but those programs are staffed by licensed clinicians who respond in tandem with police. MACRO will function as a police-free program within the Oakland Fire Department. It will be staffed by two-person teams of emergency medical technicians and trained community members who advocates say are more equipped to respond to 911 calls about matters like public urination, erratic behavior, and welfare checks. The final structure of the program remains unclear, as the fire department and stakeholders hash out the details over the coming months.

Because the city of Oakland faces a pandemic-fueled budget crisis, the $1.85 million in MACRO funding is far smaller than the original vision, which was outlined in a report by the Urban Strategies Council and called for $3.09 million to employ 24 people. But City Council members say this new pilot is an important part of Oakland’s goal of reducing the over $300 million police department budget by 50 percent. 

“The intent and the goal is that there be sort of three phases of the program, and within three years that about 20 percent of the low-level, nonviolent 911 calls would receive this response,” Nikki Fortunato Bas, the City Council president, said in an interview. 

MACRO is inspired by Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, a long-standing emergency response service that saves the city an average of $8.5 million annually and diverts an estimated 5 to 8 percent of 911 calls away from police. The Oakland City Council commissioned a report in 2019 to examine the feasibility and implementation of a CAHOOTS-like program locally, forming the foundation for MACRO. 

According to one national study, people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police interaction. Oakland’s pilot program follows several fatal police shootings of people experiencing mental health crises in the Bay Area, including Joshua Pawlik in 2018 and Miles Hall in 2019. Last summer’s racial justice protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis also added to the momentum to create the program. 

Oakland community members have long said that police are ill-equipped to deal with people in mental and emotional crisis, not in small part because the primary response for law enforcement is to put someone in a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold known as a 5150. Alameda County has the highest rate in the state for police use of 5150s, despite the fact that 75 percent of those held did not need acute psychiatric care. Meanwhile, people in the midst of a mental health crisis that do not qualify for an involuntary hold “receive essentially no services,” according to the county’s behavioral health care service.

“I think the worst way to provide mental health care is with an ambulance and a 911 call because we can really only be with somebody for five minutes and then they get taken to the emergency room,” said Zac Unger, who is union president for Oakland firefighters and often provides emergency medical care. “The hope is that there is somebody who actually has the resources and the skills to connect people in crisis with more long term resources.” 

Loren Taylor, an Oakland City Council member, said MACRO is meant to respond to a range of community needs, beyond people experiencing mental health crises. He cited family disputes where relatives are seeking intervention and de-escalation. “They don’t want the person arrested. They don’t want them to be part of the criminal justice system,” said Taylor, who was co-chairperson of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety task force. “The only resource they know or they have is to call the cops right now.” 

The pilot received unanimous support from the City Council yet it still faces uncertainties surrounding its bureaucratic structure and relationship with the police. The program was originally designed to be implemented by a nonprofit, but during a contentious City Council process, the nonprofits rescinded their bids and the council ultimately reversed course to place MACRO within the fire department.

According to David Harris, CEO of the Urban Strategies Council, which authored the initial MACRO report, the switch from a nonprofit to the fire department will help ensure that the program is sustainable and not “dumped” at a later stage. But the move adds a layer of bureaucracy and liability concerns that threaten to make implementing the pilot more complex. Already, the fire department indicated in a March memo that MACRO might not operate around the clock, which was a key component of the program. 

Another outstanding issue is exactly how many of the over 240,000 annual 911 calls to the police will be transferred to MACRO responders once the program is running or expanded. One study of 911 calls from eight cities found that up to 38 percent of the calls can be handled by community response teams. But a report commissioned by the city identified only 7.5 percent of local 911 calls eligible for a non-police response and many of those calls, including traffic accidents, likely will not fall under MACRO’s jurisdiction. 

The Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), a local activist group working to abolish the Oakland Police, said MACRO is an important step toward its goal, but contend that the service needs to also be accessible through a non-911 number. “Large swaths of our community don’t call the police to begin with,” said Cat Brooks, one of the group’s founders. “So the fact that you can only access MACRO through 911 is a problem.” APTP has been running a non-police response service in Oakland since August, meeting the pent-up demand for an alternative to police with a dedicated phone line and access through social media channels. “Our phones ring off the hook from the time we open to the time that we close,” said Brooks. 

Austin Uses Money From Police Budget to Fund Substance Use Care

The city will use $1 million in funds diverted from its police budget to expand substance use treatments and harm reduction services for low-income people in Austin and Travis County.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Austin Uses Money From Police Budget to Fund Substance Use Care

The city will use $1 million in funds diverted from its police budget to expand substance use treatments and harm reduction services for low-income people in Austin and Travis County.


The Austin City Council approved a measure last month to expand substance use care in the city by providing nearly $1.5 million in funding to three social service agencies. The money will be used to hire additional social and healthcare workers, expand evening and weekend hours at a drop-in clinic, create a new mobile outreach clinic, and fund a residential treatment program for pregnant and parenting women seeking help with substance use. 

About $1 million in funding for the initiative comes from the police department’s budget. In August, Austin voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for supplies like license plate readers. 

At that time, Councilmember Greg Casar introduced an amendment to provide $350,000 in one-time funding and $650,000 in ongoing funding for substance use treatment in Austin. 

“There are widespread substance use challenges in our community, and we know that we can’t arrest away addiction,” said Councilmember Casar. “Through this vote, we will do things differently. We’re expanding street medicine teams, developing health plans for residents experiencing homelessness, and establishing long-term recovery programs. For too long, we’ve measured public safety by how many people we can put in jail. With this change, we’re actually making Austin safer.”  

Under the proposal, the city will award contracts to three social service agencies to provide substance use treatment to low-income individuals. 

About $203,000 will be awarded to CommUnityCare to expand the organization’s street medicine team by hiring an additional social worker, community health worker, and medical assistant. The street medicine team works with people experiencing homelessness.

Another roughly $1 million in funding will be awarded to the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. Over $684,000 will be used to fund more counseling and expand drop-in clinic hours. The remaining $350,000 will be used to create a new mobile outreach clinic.

The remaining $230,000 will be awarded to Austin Recovery and will be used to expand access to substance use treatment at the Austin Recovery Network’s Family House Program. The residential treatment program serves uninsured pregnant and parenting women. It allows women to bring a child with them into treatment for 90 days and provides on-site daycare and case management services. The treatment involves group counseling, education programs, individual counseling, and other services.

Earlier this year, the council also agreed to buy two hotels and turn them into permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. The city will use some money from a $6.5 million fund taken from the police department’s budget to provide services to the residents of the hotels. At full occupancy (which wouldn’t happen this year), services and operating costs for these two hotels are expected to be about $3.8 million annually.

The city’s Homeless Services Division will contract with nonprofit service providers to cover operating costs and set up wraparound services for residents, like case management, support for mental health or substance use issues, workforce development programs, and job placement services. In total, the purchases will create about 140 units of low-barrier permanent supportive housing with these kinds of wraparound services.

In addition to the $20 million in immediate cuts, the Austin City Council agreed in August to take another $80 million from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab—though that money will still be spent on those functions, just not within the department.

Austin has now begun the process of separating the forensics lab from the police department. About $13 million taken from the police budget will be used to create an independent forensics lab that carries out the same functions. Under the leadership of the Austin Police Department, the forensics lab had a decades-long rape kit backlog and was shut down after auditors found employees were mishandling evidence.

“Cities that have stepped up and tried to reallocate police budgets have faced backlash usually driven by misinformation for the past few months, but I believe in the next few months, cities that reallocated police funds can start showing results, can start showing what cities can do when we reduce police overspending,” Casar previously told The Appeal. “It’s only possible if we keep rethinking our priorities instead of continuing to over-invest in policing.”

Tishaura Jones Wins St. Louis Mayoral Race

Jones’s election is the latest in a string of progressive victories in the region.

Tishaura Jones Wins St. Louis Mayoral Race

Jones’s election is the latest in a string of progressive victories in the region.


Tishaura Jones won the race for St. Louis mayor tonight with 51.68 percent of the vote. 

It was a close race between city treasurer Jones and her opponent, Alderperson Cara Spencer, who took 47.77 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. Both candidates had cast themselves as progressives and campaigned on promises to lead St. Louis in a new direction. The general election was unusually competitive this year thanks to the city’s new nonpartisan approval voting system, where voters can approve of as many candidates as they like in the primary election. 

The stakes for the race were especially high, given the half a billion in federal aid St. Louis is set to receive in the coming months. Jones says the city is now at a crossroads. 

“Our city is constantly shrinking in population, and the biggest thing at stake is our growth,” she previously told The Appeal. If St. Louis doesn’t elect a mayor who is dedicated to “changing the reputation of our city and bringing everybody to the table to do it,” she said, it will only continue to decline.

To make the city more liveable for everyone, Jones says she would take steps to prevent evictions, boost funding for homeless services, and invest in public safety beyond increasing the police budget.

“We have constantly increased our police budget over the last several decades and crime keeps getting worse,” Jones said. “We cannot keep throwing money at the same thing and expect different results. How do we look at other cities who have been where we are and adapt some of those things and tweak them for our city?”

St. Louis’s current mayor, Lyda Krewson, chose not to seek a second term. She’s leaving some controversy in her wake after repeatedly dismantling homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic and doxing police reform protesters on Facebook Live, which led to calls for her resignation. Before the primary, polling had cast Jones and Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Alders, as the likely victors. But in the end, Reed, a more moderate Democrat who backed tax incentives for developers and supported privatizing the city’s airport, didn’t win a single one of the city’s 28 wards—not even his own.

“Over the past five years or so we’ve seen a shift in St. Louis politics, away from the old guards like Lyda Krewson and Lewis Reed,” Anita Manion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, previously told The Appeal. “They come from decades of Democratic politics in St. Louis that have been very business-friendly, sort of pro-police, and some of the attitudes that, I think, doesn’t resonate with progressive voters or younger voters anymore. This is a changing of the guard that we’re seeing.”

About six-and-a-half years ago in St. Louis County, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. Brown’s death, and the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Trayvon Martin in Florida, gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Since then, former public defender and Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell has ousted the longtime St. Louis County prosecutor who failed to charge Brown’s killer. Former Missouri state representative Kim Gardner also won her 2016 bid for St. Louis circuit attorney by pledging to move away from the office’s punitive practices and hold police officers accountable for use of force. And Cori Bush, a pastor, nurse, and activist who marched in the streets of Ferguson following Brown’s death, has toppled a decades-long political dynasty and become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress. 

Jones’s victory is the latest progressive win in the region, though local activists will be keeping a close eye on how Jones’s policies get implemented. She campaigned on promises to reimagine public safety and reign in policing, though she also supports bringing a focused deterrence strategy to St. Louis to drive down violent crime. The strategy identifies people who police suspect are likely to commit violent crime and offers them social services couched in the threat of harsh prosecution if they break the law. Some local organizers who spoke with The Appeal expressed concern that the approach could lead to more over-policing, while national criminal justice reform advocates familiar with focused deterrence stressed that the program must involve members of the community and offer robust social services in order to be effective. 

Local organizers and community groups who spoke with The Appeal hope St. Louis’s next mayor will be willing to try something different when it comes to solving the problems that have plagued the city for decades. A coalition of 38 grassroots organizations signed on to a comprehensive policy agenda, The People’s Plan. It puts forth a framework for how the city can move away from policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity and endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and keep people in their homes. 

Jones has said the current system of policing is ineffective and fails to address the root causes of violence. She told The Appeal she would review the police department’s functions, look at what other cities are doing, and see where she might be able to transform some of the police department’s current operations into functions carried out by civilians. She also endorsed changing the city’s 911 system so that dispatchers send the appropriate professional to respond to the call, since, she said, people who call 911 do not always require a uniformed officer. And Jones pledged to close the Workhouse, the city’s notorious jail, within 100 days of taking office and use money saved from the closing to fund public programs, like those that help people struggling with substance use.

In an interview with The Appeal, Jones said she supports providing rent relief and mortgage relief to St. Louisans and would work with the courts to extend the local eviction moratorium in order to keep people in their homes. She plans to increase funding for the city’s affordable housing trust fund, expand support to the city’s homeless service providers, and ensure that more low-barrier housing options are available for people experiencing homelessness. On her campaign website, Jones said she would work with the Board of Alders to help pass a strong Tenant Bill of Rights.

“The first time I ran [for treasurer], it was an open seat, and I believed St. Louis needed a change,” said Jones. “Not just incremental. We’ve been making incremental changes. I want to do some really transformational changes. And that’s evidenced by the way I transformed the treasurer’s office.”

Cara Spencer Is Running To Lead St. Louis Through A Time Of Crisis And Opportunity

The mayoral candidate said she wants to drive down violent crime, stimulate economic growth and development, and reinvest in the city’s struggling schools and neighborhoods.

(Photo via Cara Spencer's Facebook page)

Cara Spencer Is Running To Lead St. Louis Through A Time Of Crisis And Opportunity

The mayoral candidate said she wants to drive down violent crime, stimulate economic growth and development, and reinvest in the city’s struggling schools and neighborhoods.


Cara Spencer is running for St. Louis mayor at a moment when she believes the future of the city and the region are at stake. The city is struggling with rising violent crime and a declining population. At the same time, St. Louis will be receiving half a billion in federal aid in the coming months. 

“We’re facing a moment of crisis and opportunity,” said Spencer, alderperson of the 20th ward. “We have crises on a lot of fronts. But we have a lot of opportunity in front of us as well with the enormity of the federal aid package coming to St. Louis.” With it, Spencer said, the next administration can invest in the long-term growth of St. Louis and begin to reverse decades of population decline.

To do that, Spencer said she wants to drive down violent crime, stimulate economic growth and development, and reinvest in the city’s struggling schools and neighborhoods. 

“The most important issues I see facing the city of St. Louis are extraordinarily high rates of violence, the racial segregation, and the stagnant, depressed regional economy and population loss,” Spencer told The Appeal. “I’ve been a big supporter of good government, transparency, and policies that move the needle forward. … Until we have real change, we’re not going to be able to move our community forward.”

Spencer got into politics in 2015, when the city shut down a public pool near her neighborhood. “That was what a lot of families here relied on in the summer for a healthy thing for kids to do,” Spencer said. So she decided to run against the 20-year incumbent in her ward and won. “The first thing I did was get the pool reopened,” Spencer said.

Since then, she has fought to transfer city-owned vacant buildings to private ownership in order to reduce the number of vacant lots in St. Louis and led the fight against privatizing the St. Louis Lambert International Airport. 

Spencer and city treasurer Tishaura Jones, the two progressive candidates in the March primary, will face each other in the general election on Tuesday. Jones and Spencer were approved by 57 percent and 46 percent of voters respectively in the city’s first election under a new approval voting system, where voters can approve as many candidates as they like. Polls show Jones has a slight lead over Spencer, but it’s close. 

St. Louis’s current mayor, Lyda Krewson, chose not to seek a second term. Before the primary, polling had cast Jones and Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Alders, as the likely victors. But in the end, Reed, a more moderate Democrat who backed tax incentives for developers and supported privatizing the city’s airport, didn’t win a single one of the city’s 28 wards—not even his own.

Some local organizers and community groups who spoke with The Appeal say they are hoping St. Louis’s next mayor will be willing to try something different when it comes to solving the problems that have plagued the city for decades. A coalition of 38 grassroots organizations signed on to a comprehensive policy agenda, The People’s Plan. It puts forth a framework for how the city can move away from policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity and endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and keep people in their homes. 

Spencer has said she supports rethinking public safety by changing the city’s 911 system to direct some calls to health professionals instead of police, and expanding St. Louis’s Cops and Clinicians program, which sends health professionals to respond to crisis calls alongside police officers. In a candidate forum, Spencer said the city has “some gross inefficiencies in our police department” and that the budget “has to be reoriented.” She indicated that funds should go to a broader range of safety measures, including non-police emergency responders. 

At the same time, Spencer has also pledged to bring a focused deterrence policing strategy to St. Louis to drive down violent crime. The strategy identifies people who police suspect are likely to commit violent crime and offers them social services couched in the threat of harsh prosecution if they break the law. Some local organizers who spoke with The Appeal expressed concern that the approach could lead to more over-policing, while national criminal justice reform advocates familiar with focused deterrence stressed that the program must involve members of the community and offer robust social services in order to be effective. 

“It certainly should not be an enforcement-only strategy or enforcement-mostly strategy,” said David Muhammad, who is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and who has worked with cities across the country to implement violence reduction programs. “It’s not carrot and stick. It’s not if you don’t take services you get enforcement.”

Spencer has previously described the focused deterrence strategy as a “carrot and stick” approach, though she told The Appeal she does not intend for her model to be a punitive one. She has repeatedly cited Oakland as a model she would base her administration’s focused deterrence strategy on and has said she would not use the threat of turning off people’s utilities to force compliance.

Activists in St. Louis want the next mayor to close the Workhouse, one of the city’s notorious jails. Both Jones and Spencer have pledged to do so, with Jones saying she will do it in the first 100 days of taking office and Spencer saying she will try to do it by the end of the year.

Spencer has also said if she were elected mayor she would prioritize swiftly dispersing federal funds to the renters who need it to keep people in their homes and would continue funding the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund at least the current level. She did not respond when asked by The Appeal if she would work with the courts to extend local eviction moratoriums. At the same time, campaign finance filings show that Spencer has taken plenty of money from real estate developers. 

“We’ve seen this failure to actually invest in the people who live here right now,” said Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective. “We’ve seen continued excuses around keeping an incarceration site open. We’re seeing excuses as to why people can’t access this rental assistance. … We need a mayor who will address these issues in a serious manner and in a manner that treats people with dignity and respect.”

What The St. Louis Mayoral Candidates Would Do To Close The City’s Notorious Workhouse Jail

Tishaura Jones wants to decriminalize offenses and transfer people out of the Workhouse. Cara Spencer wants to end the contract to house federal detainees.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Getty Images.)

What The St. Louis Mayoral Candidates Would Do To Close The City’s Notorious Workhouse Jail

Tishaura Jones wants to decriminalize offenses and transfer people out of the Workhouse. Cara Spencer wants to end the contract to house federal detainees.


Both candidates vying to become the next mayor of St. Louis have promised to close the Workhouse, one of the city’s notorious jails. But just how that will happen—and how soon it will close—depends on who gets elected April 6.

City treasurer Tishaura Jones has said she would close the Workhouse within 100 days of taking office if elected. Alderperson Cara Spencer has said she believes the jail can be closed before the end of this year. Both say they want to reinvest money saved from the closing into initiatives like job training, substance use programs, and mental health services. 

“The conditions [at the Workhouse] have always been horrendous,” said Jae Shepherd, an organizer with Action STL who has also worked with the campaign to close the jail. “Folks are in there legally innocent for a year or longer in hellish conditions, not being tested for COVID, with rats and roaches, and not being fed when they speak out.”

Activists have been pushing to close the Workhouse for years. In 2018, the facility held about 450 people on average, and almost everyone there was awaiting trial. Now, after years of pressure from activists, and policy changes from St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, only about 200 people remain incarcerated at the Workhouse. 

To close the jail, Jones told The Appeal she would work with local prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the city by supporting policies like ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses and expanding diversion programs. Jones also said she would direct the St. Louis Metro Police Department to “prioritize enforcement of violent crime, and set out clear guidelines limiting the enforcement of misdemeanors like loitering, panhandling, and prostitution.”

Jones said she would work with the city comptroller to stop funding the facility, conduct mass vaccinations at both city jails, and transfer any remaining detainees to neighboring correctional facilities. Jones’s campaign did not respond when asked whether she would consider ending the contract to house federal detainees. 

Spencer, meanwhile, told The Appeal that most people held in the city’s jails are there on state or federal charges, not municipal charges. So in order to reduce the Workhouse’s population enough to close it, Spencer said she would prioritize reviewing the city’s contract to house federal detainees and ensuring that people who are incarcerated in the city’s jails aren’t awaiting trial for long periods of time.

In July, the city’s Board of Alders unanimously passed a bill to close the Workhouse by Dec. 31, 2020. That didn’t happen. Instead, departing mayor Lyda Krewson’s corrections commissioner, Dale Glass, said the bill only required them to make a plan to close the jail by the end of the year, which he said he did. Yet the Workhouse now holds over 100 more people than it did when the bill to close it passed.

Board of Alders president Lewis Reed has said it would be irresponsible to close the Workhouse now because of COVID-19. But the bill for its closure, which he sponsored, was introduced and passed during the pandemic. This fiscal year, the city is spending about $8 million to keep the Workhouse open.

“Time and time again, folks are treated inhumanely because they’re incarcerated,” said Shepherd. “The new administration needs to really look at our city budget,” they added, noting that St. Louis has spent an outsize portion of its budget on police and jails for years, yet violent crime rates remain high. “Obviously arresting and incarcerating people isn’t working.”

Closing the Workhouse would require reducing its population to zero, which could be done by ending the city’s contract to hold federal detainees, releasing people who are being held pretrial only because they could not afford bail, and moving anyone who cannot be released to another jail.

Those opposed to closing the Workhouse now have said moving people to the city’s other jail, the City Justice Center (CJC), would lead to overcrowding and unsafe conditions. But supporters say the CJC’s population would also be reduced if the city stopped incarcerating people who can’t afford bail and ended the contract to house federal detainees. Data shows that of the 935 people held in the city’s two jails, 34 are there for technical probation violations, while 13 people are being held for misdemeanors and two are confined for ordinance violations. 

“Closing the Workhouse doesn’t mean [all the] people need to be moved from one place to another,” said Madison Orozco, community collaborations associate at ArchCity Defenders. “Cutting that federal detainee contract is one step, examining our pretrial practices is another. … That could help get rid of people who are held in CJC who shouldn’t be there as well.” 

If elected, Jones said she would also expand access to substance use services, fund sobering centers where people struggling with substance use can have a safe and supportive environment to get sober, and support decriminalizing “some crimes committed as a result of drug seeking behavior.” Jones has said she wants to reinvest money saved from closing the Workhouse into substance use programs and other “community focused solutions to crime.”

Organizers who spoke with The Appeal said they plan to continue fighting to close the Workhouse by pressing the city to stop funding the facility during this year’s budget negotiations. Jones told The Appeal in an email that she plans to “work with the St. Louis City Comptroller to zero out the budget for the Workhouse and close it for good.”

Jones also said she will appoint a new public safety director who is committed to closing the Workhouse and “who will inform Corrections Commissioner Glass that, starting on July 1st (the first day of the FY21-22 budget) he no longer has a budget to operate the workhouse.”

By supporting policies that reduce the jail population, Jones said she hopes to get the  numbers down to a level where it would be safe to transfer any remaining detainees to neighboring correctional facilities. To avoid creating a dangerous situation by overcrowding jails during the pandemic, Jones said she would “conduct a mass vaccination and education campaign in the city jails” and “negotiate a contract with a correctional facility within 25 miles of the city that meets basic federal standards to transfer vaccinated detainees we are unable to house at the City Justice Center.”

Spencer, on the other hand, believes that ending the federal detainee contract would do more to reduce the city’s jail population.

“Our Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is a reform prosecutor,” Spencer told The Appeal. “Everyone who is in the Workhouse is there at her recommendation and I trust that she’s not putting people there without a substantive reason.”

While state law requires the city to hold people on state charges, Spencer said, the federal contract is voluntary.

“Both the state and federal governments reimburse a fraction of the cost of housing people, which means the city is subsidizing the housing of both sets of folks waiting for trial to the tune of tens of millions of dollars,” Spencer told the St. Louis American, adding that eliminating the federal contract will free up enough space to close the Workhouse and save the city money.

Spencer said that she believes the Workhouse can be closed before the end of the year, but cautioned against rushing the process given the recent issues at the city’s other jail. 

“We need to close the Workhouse because it’s not only harming the people who are inside every day, it’s really harming the community of St. Louis as a whole,” said Orozco from ArchCity Defenders. “Millions of dollars are being held hostage. That money could be used to help St. Louis thrive. … We need to move forward with transformative change, not just stick with what is because that’s the way it is and the way it’s always been.”

Arizona Man Faces Decades In Prison After Not Returning a Rental Car on Time

Brian Stepter, a 61-year-old Black man, has struggled with substance use for decades. Now, prosecutors are leveraging his record against him—and forbidding references to racial justice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Stepter’s potential sentence, or his health problems at his trial.

Brian Stepter at his barber shop in 2015.
(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo courtesy of Brian Stepter)

Arizona Man Faces Decades In Prison After Not Returning a Rental Car on Time

Brian Stepter, a 61-year-old Black man, has struggled with substance use for decades. Now, prosecutors are leveraging his record against him—and forbidding references to racial justice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Stepter’s potential sentence, or his health problems at his trial.


In June, Brian Stepter will go to trial for four charges stemming from his failure to return a rental car on time in 2016 and errors he made in court paperwork in 2019. Stepter is facing a presumptive sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of over 50 years.

Stepter, who is 61, moved from California to Arizona to be closer to his family in 2006. In 2010 he opened a barbershop, where he worked with high schools to hire at-risk youth as apprentices and teamed up with the Salvation Army to provide free haircuts to people struggling with homelessness.

But he has also struggled with substance use for decades, and has a record for drug possession and petty theft—something prosecutors are leveraging against him. Prosecutors with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office have filed motions that enhance the penalties if Stepter, who is Black, is convicted, and to forbid any mention at trial of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, racial justice, Stepter’s potential sentence, or his health problems.

“It’s all a nightmare,” Stepter previously told The Appeal. “At this stage in my life, at 61, it’s almost a life sentence. And to bring up situations in the 1980s that I dealt with to crucify me. … I lost my dad since I’ve been in here. My mother is 80 years old. It’s scary. You never want to lose a parent while you’re in here.”

Stepter’s prosecution began under Bill Montgomery, who resigned in 2019, but it continued under Allister Adel, who was appointed to replace him and was elected to the position in November. 

Adel has said she is “different from [her] predecessor,” who had a reputation for fighting criminal justice reform and encouraging prosecutors to be as punitive as possible. But in recent months, Adel’s office has come under fire for the political prosecutions of Black Lives Matter protesters. The office was forced to drop some of the charges after Arizona’s ABC affiliate exposed misconduct and deception from law enforcement officials involved in the cases. 

Adel said in 2019 that she might review cases of overcharging in her office if she was made aware of them. The Appeal asked the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to explain why it finds the proposed sentence to be fair and reasonable in this case, and whether it might fit the criteria of overcharging. The office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Stepter’s latest legal troubles started with an anonymous tip to Scottsdale police: a photo of a Black man with a white woman. The tipster alleged there may be some “criminal activity” related to prostitution or drugs occurring at the location where the photo was taken, and provided police with the license plate of the pair’s vehicle. 

Scottsdale police ran the plate and found it belonged to a vehicle rented by Stepter, the man in the photo. The car was six days past due, so police began surveilling Stepter. They later surrounded him at a 7-Eleven parking lot and arrested him. When police patted him down, they found .13 grams of crack and 4.6 grams of heroin. For comparison, a teaspoon-size rock of crack cocaine would weigh roughly 50 times more than the amount found on him.

Stepter was arrested on five felony counts: theft of means of transportation, unlawful failure to return rented property, possession of drug paraphernalia, and two counts of possession of narcotic drugs.

The rental agreement Stepter signed stated that he would be charged a $59 per day late fee. Stepter had left his credit card on file and said he thought keeping the car for longer wouldn’t be an issue.

“They said if you kept it later, there’d be a fee charge to extend it out past your agreement time,” Stepter said. “So that’s what I was thinking the whole time—that I had 30 days to return it and so long as I paid the late fees, I’d be fine.”

For years after his arrest, Stepter fought the charges against him while out on bond. But he suffers from chronic pain, chronic respiratory problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder since being the victim of a violent crime nearly 20 years ago, when he was shot 10 times on his way home from Thanksgiving dinner at his then-girlfriend’s house. The bullets blew out his larynx and his airway. Reconstructive surgeries have repaired some of the damage, but the incident has left him with a restricted airway and mental health issues.

In February 2019, Stepter was admitted to a psychiatric unit at a local hospital and diagnosed with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and hallucinations. He continued to fight the charges after he was released from the hospital. In July, Stepter filed an application to set aside his conviction for a drug offense from 2011. He made several mistakes on the form, like checking both yes and no because he didn’t know the answer to a question. 

Police and prosecutors alleged Stepter’s error-riddled paperwork was willful deception, not an honest mistake. In September, Maricopa County Superior Court approved a search warrant from Scottsdale police that authorized officers to collect precision location data from Stepter’s cell phone, stating that probable cause exists to believe Stepter committed perjury. The warrant also allowed police to track Stepter’s phone location data and call records in order to identify any “co-conspirators” or “patterns of criminal activity.” 

Five days later, Scottsdale police arrested Stepter again, this time for perjury and forgery, both Class 4 felonies. Police alleged that he had “submitted false information” regarding the status of his prior convictions and active warrants. 

Since Stepter was accused of committing another felony while out on bond for the 2016 case, the court determined that Stepter was not eligible for release and could not be bailed out. He’s been in jail ever since.

“He has an addiction that he has tried to overcome many times, once succeeding for over 10 years,” Brian’s mother, Kathaleen Stepter, wrote to a judge in July. “I beg you to have mercy on my son.”


The prosecutors in Stepter’s case, Tessa Hustead and Stephen Walker, have taken numerous actions to ensure that he receives the harshest sentence possible for his crimes. In both the 2016 car rental case and the 2019 perjury case, they filed motions that alleged over a dozen aggravating circumstances (which enhance the penalties if convicted) and brought up all of Stepter’s prior convictions, which also permit prosecutors to seek a longer sentence.

In June, Hustead filed motions to exclude certain evidence at trial. She asked the court not to permit: any reference to Stepter’s potential punishment (including saying he is facing a long sentence or a 12-year sentence), any reference to his physical and mental health issues, any reference to the fact that he was shot and subsequently hospitalized and diagnosed with PTSD, and any argument that he had committed “minor crimes” or a possessed only a “small amount” of cocaine.

Hustead even asked the judge to “preclude any and all mention of George Floyd, Dion Johnson, Breonna Taylor, and/or any other person shot by police officers,” arguing that references to racial injustice “have no place in the Defendant’s trial.” 

In June 2020, Stepter was convinced by an attorney to take a plea deal, since he was facing the threat of a far longer sentence at trial. He pleaded guilty to unlawful failure to return rented property, possession of narcotic drugs, and perjury. 

Under the agreement, Stepter would have been sentenced to a total of eight years in prison. But Stepter and his supporters hired a new attorney who filed a motion to withdraw the plea. In October, the judge allowed it, noting that Stepter had added the initials “BC” next to his actual initials, “BS,” in every paragraph of the plea agreement. 

“According to the defense, Vi Coactus (V.C.) is a Latin term meaning ‘having been forced’ or ‘having been compelled,’” Judge Rosa Mroz wrote in a judgment granting the motion to withdraw the plea. Stepter’s lawyer claimed that Stepter had written “BC” because he did not know it was supposed to be “VC” and was trying to indicate that he entered the plea agreement under duress. 

“The Court notes that no one at the change of plea proceeding questioned Defendant about these extra initials,” Mroz wrote. “The Court finds that the Defendant’s plea was not entered into voluntarily.”

With Stepter’s plea revoked, he is now facing a significantly longer sentence at trial. He’s been in jail awaiting trial for almost a year and a half. 

“To me, it’s a modern day lynching,” said Marlene Thompson, a friend of Stepter who has been helping him fight the charges. “Honestly, I had to look at the American flag hanging in the courtroom to remind myself this is America.”

Phoenix Wants To Shift Crisis Response Away From Police—While Also Increasing The Police Budget

The trial budget includes a proposal to expand a crisis response program under the fire department, but also includes a $3.7 million increase to the Phoenix Police Department’s $745 million budget.

Police after a Trump rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on August 22, 2017.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Phoenix Wants To Shift Crisis Response Away From Police—While Also Increasing The Police Budget

The trial budget includes a proposal to expand a crisis response program under the fire department, but also includes a $3.7 million increase to the Phoenix Police Department’s $745 million budget.


In the past year, members of the Phoenix Police Department have threatened to shoot the mayor, said they want to “gas” and “stomp” Black Lives Matter protesters, and come under fire for a commemorative coin with neo-Nazi symbolism made in 2017 that celebrates shooting a protester in the groin. Now, the city wants to give them another $3.7 million to add 75 more civilian positions to the department.

On Tuesday, the City Council met to discuss a few of the items in this year’s trial budget, including the $3.7 million increase to the police department’s budget and a measure to expand the fire department’s civilian crisis response program. Under the proposal, the city would add about 130 employees and invest an additional $15 million in the fire department’s Community Assistance Program over the next three years. 

While several behavioral health professionals and community members supported the move to expand non-police crisis response during Tuesday’s meeting, some said the proposal fell short and criticized the move to once again increase the police budget. The city said the additional police department positions would help “to improve accountability, transparency and relationships with the community,” but activists countered that giving the police department additional funding and staff to do that is unnecessary. 

“After everything that’s happened this year with police, all the sexual violence, the anti-Black violence, and the white supremacy that’s been exposed, how can we be proud to increase the police budget by millions of dollars?” said Ben Laughlin, policy coordinator for Poder in Action. “It’s really messed up that y’all are trying to twist the demands to end police violence and use it instead to grow the police department.”

The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year fueled calls to scale back America’s reliance on policing. Across the country, cities are beginning to reconsider requiring armed officers to also play the parts of homeless services worker, mental health and substance use counselor, school safety agent, and traffic enforcer. In June, Denver launched a pilot program to divert some 911 calls to health professionals. In the first six months of the program, over 700 calls have been diverted from the police department. None required police intervention, and no one was arrested.

Cities like Oakland, California, Albuquerque, New Mexico and St. Petersburg, Florida are all exploring ways to divert some emergency calls to non-police first responders in order to improve outcomes for people in crisis. It’s something the city of Eugene, Oregon has been doing for decades with a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets or CAHOOTS. In 2019, 24,000 calls were diverted to the CAHOOTS program, which sends out a medic and a crisis worker instead of an armed police officer. That means about 20 percent of all 911 calls in the city were diverted away from police. Only 150 of those calls required police assistance, a CAHOOTS employee told NPR.

Phoenix currently has a small crisis intervention program that operates under the fire department. The city wants to expand the number of crisis response units from 5 to 10, and add 9 new behavioral health units that will work with a third party behavioral health provider to help connect people to long-term case management. 

At the meeting on Tuesday, city officials said they hope that expanding the crisis response program will improve health outcomes for people struggling with behavioral and mental health conditions by providing them with ongoing case management and counseling services. The expansion will also allow police officers to spend more time responding to other types of calls for service.

In 2020, Phoenix police received over 660,000 calls for service, according to data made public by the city. Over 60,000 of those calls were welfare checks. Another 6,545 involved mentally ill people who needed to be transported. The data lists tens of thousands of nonviolent, noncriminal calls that other responders could tend to instead of police.

“This seems like a great start, but there are several items that need to be addressed,” said Samuel Merten, a member of the Neighborhood Organized Crisis Assistance Program (NOCAP), a community group working to bring civilian crisis response to Phoenix. “I’d like to stress the importance of community involvement and engagement from the ground up for this type of program.”

At the City Council meeting, Merten and other NOCAP members said that the proposed crisis response budget is too low and should be increased to $20 million. They also emphasized that the program should eventually be made independent from the fire department. 

Merten and others also stressed that crisis responders should not report drug use by those in crisis to the police, nor should they report undocumented individuals to the police or perform background checks on people they are supposed to be assisting.

Each year since Mayor Kate Gallego took office in 2019, community members have demanded the city not increase the police department’s budget. Each year, the city has given Phoenix police millions more. During that time, Phoenix police have shot about 79 people since 2018, killing 55 of them.

In recent years, the department’s clearance rate for violent crimes like rape and homicide has dropped. In 2019, the most recent year for which full data is available, 1,139 rapes were reported in Phoenix, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only 123 of those were cleared, or closed through arrest or “exceptional means,” which could include cases where police allege the victim no longer wished to proceed.

During Gallego’s tenure, members of the Phoenix Police Department have been caught sharing racist and Islamophobic content on Facebook, threatened to shoot an unarmed Black man in the head in front of his pregnant fiance and children, and repeatedly targeted protesters for participating in Black Lives Matter marches, even going so far as to create a fictional gang called “ACAB” and lie in probable cause statements.

“Their rape clearance is a nationally laughable 11 percent and for a decade y’all have proved that increased police funding does not equal increased clearance rates or decreased crime,” said Amy Meglio, a volunteer coordinator with Grassroots Law Project and a member of NOCAP. Meglio said there’s no reason for the police budget to increase if the crisis response program is properly funded. “Because these programs free up money from the police, this funding should be taken from the already overfunded police budget.”

The St. Louis Mayoral Race Reflects a Progressive Shift In Local Politics

Two progressive candidates will move on to the general election, while Lewis Reed, a figure in St. Louis’s Democratic party establishment since 1999, couldn’t carry a single ward.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty images.)

The St. Louis Mayoral Race Reflects a Progressive Shift In Local Politics

Two progressive candidates will move on to the general election, while Lewis Reed, a figure in St. Louis’s Democratic party establishment since 1999, couldn’t carry a single ward.


The two candidates championing progressive policies won the mayoral primary in St. Louis, meaning that in a few weeks, voters will elect a mayor who has promised to run the city differently. 

City treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderperson Cara Spencer were approved by 57 percent and 46 percent of voters respectively on March 2 in the city’s first election under a new approval voting system, where voters can approve as many candidates as they like. Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Alders and a figure in the city’s politics since 1999, was approved by 39 percent of voters, while utility executive Andrew Jones trailed even further behind with 14 percent.

St. Louis’s current mayor, Lyda Krewson, chose not to seek a second term. She’s leaving some controversy in her wake after repeatedly dismantling homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic and doxing police reform protesters on Facebook Live, which led to calls for her resignation. 

Before the primary, polling had cast Tishaura Jones and Reed as the likely victors. But in the end, Reed, a more moderate Democrat who backed tax incentives for developers and supported privatizing the city’s airport, didn’t win a single one of the city’s 28 wards—not even his own.

“Over the past five years or so we’ve seen a shift in St. Louis politics, away from the old guards like Lyda Krewson and Lewis Reed,” said Anita Manion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They come from decades of Democratic politics in St. Louis that have been very business-friendly, sort of pro-police, and some of the attitudes that, I think, doesn’t resonate with progressive voters or younger voters anymore. This is a changing of the guard that we’re seeing.”

About six and a half years ago in St. Louis County, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. Brown’s death, and the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Trayvon Martin in Florida, gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, former public defender and Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell has ousted the longtime St. Louis County prosecutor who failed to charge Brown’s killer. And Cori Bush, a pastor, nurse, and activist who marched in the streets of Ferguson following Brown’s death, has toppled a decades-long political dynasty and become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress. 

During his decades in office, former St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch embraced a tough-on-crime approach and never indicted a single police officer for killing a civilian while on duty. Since taking office in 2019, Bell has departed from his predecessor’s policies by directing his prosecutors to stop prosecuting possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana, end cash bail requests for misdemeanor cases, and stop overcharging people in order to pressure them into plea deals. 

In August, Bush ran against Representative William Lacy Clay for a second time and won. Clay had held the seat since 2001. His father, Bill Clay, had held the seat for 32 years before that, meaning Missouri’s First District had been represented by the Clays since 1969.

This is a changing of the guard that we're seeing.Anita Manion, assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

In the years since Michael Brown’s death, former Missouri state representative Kim Gardner also won her 2016 bid for St. Louis circuit attorney by pledging to move away from the office’s punitive practices and hold police officers accountable for use of force.

“A lot of that came on the heels of the shooting of Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve seen activists in that movement elected, not just Cori Bush but folks to the state legislature and Ferguson City Council,” Manion said. “I think there has been a real shift to grassroots politics in St. Louis making concrete changes.”

Now, with Jones’s and Spencer’s victories over Reed in the primary, that shift is set to continue. No matter who wins in April, the next mayor of St. Louis will be a single mother who supports reimagining public safety, changing the way the city uses tax incentives to spur development, and providing rent relief to St. Louisans who are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Across the country in recent years, candidates like Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and Ayanna Pressley have ousted the moderate incumbents they ran against by campaigning on promises to buck the political establishment and back policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and reforming the criminal legal system. The incumbents had all been in office for more than a decade.

“In Boston, in Michigan, in New York, these left-wingers are coming in and winning in an upset, picking off establishment politicians, because people are sick of establishment politicians,” said Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. “I think they’re winning—and part of the reason Reed lost was because of this movement, which was too much for him or Lacy Clay to overcome.”

Where neither Reed nor Mayor Krewson have made it a priority to quickly close the Workhouse, the city’s notorious jail, both Spencer and Jones support closing the facility and reinvesting the money saved into social services. Reed has been wary of reforms that would shrink the criminal legal system and is open to expanding policing with aerial surveillance, while both Jones and Spencer support rethinking the police department’s budget and reducing the scope of policing in favor of alternatives, like non-police emergency responders. Jones and Spencer have also both said they support moving certain functions, like internal affairs and use-of-force investigations, out of the police department.

“Jones is simply part of a new wave in politics, and that wave is supported by a lot of younger voters that are opposed to old established type of politics where people really don’t see any changes that have been good for them,” said Warren. “So Cori Bush, Gardner, Jones, Bell and so forth—throughout the United States but particularly in St. Louis—these are all people that were not supported by the establishment … but they win, and they win against what I would say were pretty big odds.”

California Governor Commutes Sentence of Abuse Survivor, Grants Clemency to Several Others

Advocates have been urging Governor Gavin Newsom to make greater use of his clemency power, especially for older prisoners who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

California Governor Gavin Newsom
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

California Governor Commutes Sentence of Abuse Survivor, Grants Clemency to Several Others

Advocates have been urging Governor Gavin Newsom to make greater use of his clemency power, especially for older prisoners who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.


Teresa Paulinkonis had her sentence commuted today after spending 31 years in prison for the 1989 murder of her stepfather in Alameda County. At the time, Paulinkonis was 24 years old. She was sentenced to 25 years to life. Paulinkonis’s attorney, Lilli Paratore, told The Appeal that Paulinkonis was sexually abused by her stepfather for a number of years. 

“Given her history of sexual violence and status as a survivor, which the [parole] board hadn’t given the appropriate weight or consideration to, we were able to convince the governor that it was time for her to come home,” said Paratore. “I think it’s a great step in the right direction, but I think Governor Newsom has the power to commute many more people, especially those who have already served very long sentences, and he should.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the commutation, which makes Paulinkonis immediately eligible for release on parole, on Friday. 

“While in prison, Ms. Paulinkonis has worked hard to better herself,” Newsom wrote in a letter commuting Paulinkonis’s sentence. “I have carefully considered and weighed the evidence of Ms. Paulinkonis’ positive conduct in prison, the fact that she was a youthful offender, and her good prospects for successful community reentry. I have concluded that Ms. Paulinkonis is ready to be released on parole.”

Newsom also granted 10 medical reprieves, which allow people with health issues to be temporarily released from prison, and pardoned 9 people who had finished serving their sentences.

One of the people Newsom pardoned was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in 1996 because she cut her work supervisor with a piece of glass during a fight. The pardon prevents her from potentially being deported and separated from her family.

Advocates applauded the clemency moves but said they were too modest, particularly one year into a deadly pandemic that has spread rapidly behind bars. “At any point, given that mass incarceration is a crisis at all times—and on top of that we have the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated people in prison—these numbers are not nearly enough,” said Colby Lenz, an organizer with Survived and Punished. “It’s significant that they’ve expanded the number of medical reprieves. They should be applauded for these ten medical reprieves today, but they need to do more, and soon.”

Rickie Blue-Sky, 75-year-old transgender Native American elder, was among those granted medical reprieve today. He was sentenced to 27 years to life for murder in 1984, and has been incarcerated for 37 years. Blue-Sky was also one of Paratore’s clients. She said the reprieve “addresses some of the unfairness in how he was convicted in the first place.” 

Blue-Sky has maintained he is innocent, and though he has been eligible for parole for years, he has long been denied. At one point, a deputy district attorney for the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office said Blue-Sky posed a threat to public safety if released because he “for whatever reason, denies constantly that she is a woman or a female.”

“It appears that he is the first incarcerated trans person that certainly Newsom has granted clemency to, but possibly in California history,” said Lenz. “It has taken a long time to get here and we need this to be the first of many more.”

The state prison population has decreased by more than 24,000 since March 2020, in part because of releases to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. There are currently over 91,000 people incarcerated in California state prisons. While efforts have been made to reduce the state’s prison population in the past year, only about 10 percent of those released were 55 years old or older—a category of people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are at significant risk of death or serious complications from the virus.

As of Friday, 215 people in California prisons have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and more than 49,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

Newsom has granted 72 pardons, 79 commutations and 20 medical reprieves during his tenure, which began in 2019. His predecessor, Jerry Brown, issued 404 pardons and one commutation during his first tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983. Brown ultimately set a record in the state for the use of clemency between 2011 and 2018 during his second tenure as governor, issuing 1,189 pardons and 283 commutations.

Advocates have been urging Newsom to make greater use of his clemency power, especially for older prisoners who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

“I think the big misconception is that people feel you’re releasing the same people that were arrested right after their crime,” said Earlonne Woods, who helped create and host the podcast Ear Hustle while he was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. “People don’t put in consideration that most of the people are getting released 15, 20, 30 years later. People have worked on themselves.”

Woods received a commutation from his life sentence from Brown in 2018.

State Senator Nancy Skinner applauded the governor for granting medical reprieves. “This is particularly important during this deadly pandemic as there are so many in our prisons who are elderly and medically vulnerable,” she said. “I hope that more such clemency and medical reprieves are offered in appropriate circumstances.”

Newsom’s clemency announcement comes as he is facing a potential recall campaign, largely for his handling of COVID-19 lockdown measures. 

The clemency announcement comes at a time when opponents of criminal justice reform have taken up recall campaigns against San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. Both Boudin, who took office in 2020, and Gascón, who was elected in November and took office in December, ran on reforming the criminal justice system and have instituted policies like eliminating cash bail to reduce the carceral footprint in their cities. Gascón, who has only been in office a few months, is facing recall efforts before many of his policies have even played out. 

CORRECTION: This story initially misstated the number of commutations former Governor Jerry Brown granted during his final two terms.

A Florida Lawmaker Introduced Legislation to Remove Traffic Enforcement From Police

Cities across the country have begun exploring traffic enforcement without police. This bill proposes doing so statewide.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.)

A Florida Lawmaker Introduced Legislation to Remove Traffic Enforcement From Police

Cities across the country have begun exploring traffic enforcement without police. This bill proposes doing so statewide.


Florida state lawmaker Omari Hardy has introduced a bill that would shift some traffic enforcement away from armed police officers and instead hire trained traffic monitors. The bill, dubbed the Public Safety Innovation Act, would limit when law enforcement officers may initiate traffic stops and also calls for the creation of non-police crisis intervention teams.

The measure is unlikely to pass or even get a hearing in the Republican-controlled state legislature. But this may be the first time in the country that such a statewide proposal has been raised. Many cities have begun exploring traffic without police, but a review by The Appeal of state legislation aimed at reducing the roles and responsibilities of police did not find any other bills with this scope.

“I think that police officers play much too large a role in public safety in America,” Hardy told The Appeal. “We’re putting too much on our police officers, and we’re asking them to do things outside of their core competencies. … There’s no special ability that police officers have that [makes] them more capable of writing a ticket than somebody without a gun. This is about making sure that police can focus on doing the things that they’re good at and occupying the role that police ought to play.”

Under Hardy’s proposal, each city and county in Florida would be required to create a Public Safety Department by July 1, 2023. The department would have distinct operational divisions with different public safety functions, including law enforcement, traffic enforcement, crisis response and intervention, and emergency call answering and dispatch. The bill also seeks to hire civilian crisis responders.

The traffic enforcement division would employ traffic monitors responsible for “monitoring vehicular and pedestrian traffic, enforcing applicable state and local traffic laws, and investigating vehicular crashes.” Trained traffic monitors would not have guns (though they may have stun guns or pepper spray to use in self-defense) and would be responsible for enforcing traffic laws and writing tickets for moving violations. Police may still be called to assist traffic monitors in their enforcement duties when necessary under certain circumstances under the measure. 

Traffic monitors would not be permitted to detain, search, or arrest people or conduct criminal investigations in most circumstances. They would also not be allowed to chase drivers simply for refusing to stop or fleeing after a stop, unless the traffic monitor has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has hit a person or property or committed a non-traffic related felony involving violence or the imminent threat of violence.

The bill would prohibit law enforcement officers from initiating traffic stops for moving infractions and would only allow them to initiate stops if the officer knows that the driver or passenger of the vehicle has an outstanding felony warrant for a violent offense, has proof that the driver or passenger is involved in an ongoing non-traffic related felony, or observes the driver excessively speeding, racing, driving recklessly, or driving under the influence. 

In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there have been more calls to rethink America’s reliance on police as a cure-all to societal issues they are ill-equipped to deal with. Traffic stops are the most common way people come into contact with police, and those encounters can often turn deadly. Cities across the country are beginning to reconsider requiring armed officers to also play the parts of homeless services worker, mental health and substance use counselor, school safety agent, and traffic enforcer

Removing some traffic enforcement from police departments would significantly reduce the number of interactions people have with police. Over 24 million people each year come into contact with police during a traffic stop, according to data from the Department of Justice. Such stops can be especially dangerous and discriminatory for people of color, who are more likely to be stopped and searched than white drivers. According to a Washington Post database of police killings, 11 percent of all fatal shootings by police in 2015 occurred during traffic stops.

“To me it’s a simple math problem,” Hardy said. “People have a number of interactions with sworn law enforcement officers, a percentage of those are going to go south. Reduce the number of interactions and you’re likely to reduce the number of negative interactions between law enforcement officers and the public.”

Cities across the country have introduced legislation aimed at reducing the amount of traffic enforcement that is handled by police. In February, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion to explore removing armed police officers from traffic enforcement. The city plans to conduct a study examining whether it would be possible to civilianize traffic enforcement.

Berkeley, California, passed a proposal in July that will create a department of transportation (BerkDOT) to shift traffic and parking enforcement away from the Berkeley Police Department. Unarmed BerkDOT agents will instead be responsible for carrying out traffic stops. In February, the city moved forward with the proposal by passing additional policy changes to iron out some of the details of the measure. Under the measure, Berkeley police will no longer be able to stop drivers for only minor traffic violations like expired vehicle registration or not wearing a seatbelt. Police will be directed to conduct traffic stops only for violations that endanger public safety, like excessive speeding or driving under the influence.

Proposals similar to the one passed by Berkeley were explored in Cambridge, Massachusetts; St. Louis Park, Minnesota; and Montgomery County, Maryland, last year. Elsewhere, bills have been proposed that would bar police from pulling people over for minor traffic infractions, like tinted windows, faulty brake lights, or dangling air fresheners. New York’s attorney general recommended that the NYPD stop handling traffic stops. And in 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., moved the city’s automated traffic enforcement away from the jurisdiction of the police department to the Department of Transportation. 

A Stanford Law Review article by Jordan Blair Woods, a criminologist and legal scholar at the University of Arkansas School of Law, puts forth a framework for how local governments can disentangle traffic enforcement from the police department. Hardy’s bill follows much of that proposed framework. Under Hardy’s bill, traffic enforcement divisions would not be allowed to require traffic monitors to meet ticket quotas, and any funds generated by tickets could only be spent on public transit or pedestrian or cycling safety infrastructure.

“Florida needs this legislation, even if the Republicans that control the legislature aren’t willing to hear it,” Hardy said. “I hope this bill gets a hearing. … I hope that this will move the conversation forward so that others who want to unbundle the police have a decent model to start with and improve upon.”

“Rather than persisting in this broken status quo in which police officers are asked to do things that they really aren’t equipped to do … we should devise a new system that addresses the full range of public health issues,” Hardy said.

Rochester Police Tackle and Pepper-Spray Woman With 3-Year-Old Child

It is the latest incident of violence from a police department already under fire for pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl and fatally injuring Daniel Prude.

(Screen grab from security camera footage)

Rochester Police Tackle and Pepper-Spray Woman With 3-Year-Old Child

It is the latest incident of violence from a police department already under fire for pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl and fatally injuring Daniel Prude.


Rochester police officers were caught on camera pepper-spraying a woman and 3-year-old child, members of the city’s police accountability board said during a virtual press conference on Friday.

The footage reviewed by the board showed officers stopping the woman and child on Feb. 22 after someone at a drug store called police and accused the woman of stealing something, board members said. The Rochester Police Department posted some footage of the incident to its YouTube account as an unlisted video.

In that footage, an officer can be seen driving up to a woman who is walking along the side of the road carrying a young child in her arms.

The officer stops next to her, gets out of the car and says “Did you steal from that store? Oh come on they said you stole what’d you take? Tell me the truth!” She says she didn’t steal anything and the officer says, “I don’t have time for BS so you better be quick with me.”

She puts the child down and shows the officer everything in her purse.

Holding the contents of her purse in front of him, she says, “Nothing, right?”

The officer says, “Well we’ve got to talk with them and see, so I need you to hop in the back of my car with your kid really quick and we’re going to go check.”

“No, see—sir, sir—” the woman says.

“If you didn’t steal you’re out of here, but you have to stay with me,” the officer says.

“What?” the woman says as a second police car pulls up. She runs to a nearby store and tries to enter, saying she didn’t do anything. 

The officer then grabs the woman from behind, takes the child from her arms and puts the child on the ground.

The camera is shaking and out of focus and it is difficult to see what happens next, but the officer appears to force her onto the ground with her arms behind her back. He yells “Relax! Turn around so I can cuff you! … I have to cuff you!” The woman continues to yell “I did not do anything!”

“It should have stopped” when the woman showed the police she did not have anything in her purse, Board Member Arlene Brown said. “It was the officers’ actions from then on that escalated the situation, clearly putting the mother and child in stress.”

Board Member Conor Reynolds said security camera footage from the store appears to show the woman holding the child by the hand when she was pepper-sprayed.

The woman, who has not been named, was “charged with trespassing and issued an appearance ticket as the store confirmed she knocked a number of items off the shelf and refused repeated requests to leave,” Reynolds said, quoting a statement from Rochester’s chief of police.

Two officers who were involved in the recent pepper-spraying of a 9-year-old were also involved in this incident, Board Chair Shani Wilson said during the conference.

Board members did not specify what role the officers involved in the two incidents played in each. Wilson did say that one of the officers who was present at both incidents intimidated a bystander.

“We would hope that … the supervisors of these officers would have recognized after the first incident that perhaps their behavior shows they have some more training or some more work to do before being in a situation like this again in a few weeks,” said Board Member Reverend Matthew Nickoloff.

The incident comes in the wake of other instances of excessive force from the city’s police department: over the past year, officers have also handcuffed a 10-year-old child during a traffic stop, and pushed Daniel Prude’s head into the pavement until he stopped breathing then tried to cover it up.

The Rochester Police Department and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren did not immediately respond when contacted about the incident.

The Police Accountability Board was established by ballot measure in 2019 as an independent police oversight body. It is made up of nine volunteer residents and one staffer. During the press conference, Board Chair Wilson criticized the lack of power the board has been given by the city, noting that it hinders the boards ability to carry out its voter-approved mandate.

“The only offense I saw is that the young woman was tackled to the ground by officers and pepper-sprayed while desperately trying to keep hold of her daughter,” City Councilmember Mary Lupien told The Appeal in a text message. “The trauma inflicted on this little girl and her mother will be a permanent scar and will ripple out into the community for years to come.”

“I’m calling for the complete dissolution of the Rochester Police Department and reformation with a mission to provide peacekeepers to serve our community,” she said.

Ravi Mangla contributed reporting.

Tishaura Jones and Cara Spencer Win St. Louis Mayoral Primary

The two candidates will move on to the April 6 general election after securing the most votes under the city’s new approval voting system.

Tishaura Jones, left, and Cara Spencer, right, will face each other in the April 6 mayoral election.
(Photos courtesy of candidates' campaigns)

Tishaura Jones and Cara Spencer Win St. Louis Mayoral Primary

The two candidates will move on to the April 6 general election after securing the most votes under the city’s new approval voting system.


City Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderperson Cara Spencer have secured the most votes in the St. Louis mayoral primary election today, and will go on to the April 6 general election. The other candidates—Board of Alders President Lewis Reed and utility executive Andrew Jones—didn’t make the cut in the city’s first election using an approval voting system.

Final unofficial returns showed Jones ahead with nearly 57 percent of the vote and Spencer with more than 46 percent. Behind them were Reed, with 39 percent, and Andrew Jones, with 14 percent of the vote.

The departing mayor, Lyda Krewson, chose not to seek a second term. She’s leaving some controversy in her wake after repeatedly dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic and doxxing police reform protesters on Facebook Live, leading to calls for her resignation. She also initially resisted calls to close the Workhouse, a detention facility that houses mostly people awaiting trial and has what activists have called “unspeakably hellish” living conditions like infestations of black mold, rats, and cockroaches. The facility has yet to close, despite a bill from the Board of Alders promising to do so.

Now the city will choose between two candidates who are both a departure from the status quo. Jones and Spencer have both championed re-envisioning public safety and changing the way the city uses tax incentives to spur development.

During the 2017 Democratic mayoral primary, Jones came within just 879 votes of Krewson. This is the first time Spencer is running for mayor.

Spencer has earned the endorsement of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board. Jones appears to be the favorite among unions and community groups, having earned the endorsements of Democracy for America, Service Employees International Union Missouri State Council, the Organization for Black Struggle, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and a variety of other groups and elected officials.

Public safety is a central issue in this year’s mayoral race. Two-hundred sixty-two people were murdered in St. Louis last year, bringing the city’s homicide rate higher than it’s been in 50 years. Only about 30 percent of those cases have been closed

But in a city that’s been reckoning with racial justice following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, many are saying that ramping up policing isn’t the answer. 

“We need to divest from harmful systems like the criminal justice system that has been used to cage, control, and surveil communities, largely Black communities … and put that money into resources that make communities safe,” said Jae Shepherd, an organizer with Action STL. “The new administration needs to really look at our city budget,” Shepherd added, noting that a significant portion goes to policing, yet crime is still high. “Obviously arresting and incarcerating people isn’t working.”

Shepherd and others say the city’s decades-long trend of investing heavily in policing has not had the desired effect when it comes to reducing crime or improving clearance rates for violent crimes like murder. Instead, organizers say they would like to see the next administration take a second look at the police department’s budget and see where funds could be redirected to non-police crisis response teams and violence interrupters. 

Both Jones and Spencer support reducing the scope of policing in favor of alternatives and closing The Workhouse. Jones has also supported ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses and the decriminalizing of sex work. 

Cities across the country have begun to shrink the roles and responsibilities of police by shifting traffic enforcement, forensic analysis, and response to mental health calls to other departments. Jones and Spencer have both said they support moving certain functions, like internal affairs and use-of-force investigations, out of the police department. 

Asked if she would consider reforms like one passed in Berkeley, California, which shifts traffic enforcement away from the police, Jones said she would “absolutely” consider such a proposal. She said that if she is elected, she would review the police department’s functions to see what “could be enforced by civilians” because the city needs “to transform and reimagine how we respond to citizens.” 

Both candidates have expressed support for rethinking the police department’s budget. Currently, the St. Louis Police Department has an operating budget of over $200 million. Jones said she thinks that figure is “too much” and said resources within the city’s Public Safety Department need to be reallocated. Spencer said the city has “some gross inefficiencies in our police department” and that the budget “has to be reoriented.” Both were in favor of funds going to a broader range of safety measures, including non-police emergency responders.

Another top issue for St. Louisans is the looming eviction crisis. Once federal and local eviction moratoria expire, thousands of people could lose their homes—and the city already lacks affordable housing and can’t adequately care for its unsheltered population.

“We need a mayor who will address these issues in a serious manner and in a manner that treats people with dignity and respect,” said Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action STL and a member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective. Williams said the next administration needs to “pass a stimulus package that puts money in people’s hands, not to a large nonprofit or anyone overseeing this CARES Act money” and work with the Circuit Court to extend the local eviction moratorium.

Jones has said she would work with the courts to extend the local eviction moratorium, which expires April 5. She and Spencer both said during a recent forum that they support using federal funds to provide rent relief to people who are struggling to pay rent during the pandemic. 

Jones and Spencer have both said they support a Tenant Bill of Rights (which would need to be passed by the Board of Alderman or state Legislature), and would continue to fund the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund at at least the current level. Both have also said they would work to increase the amount of funding the trust receives. The city currently budgets over $6.5 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which helps create more affordable housing in the city and provides funding for rent, utility, and mortgage assistance programs.

Both candidates said they wouldn’t continue the current administration’s policy of sweeping homeless encampments during the pandemic. 

Spencer has said the city ought to pursue a housing-first approach to homelessness, which prioritizes giving people housing without requirements that can create barriers for people experiencing homelessness, like requirements that people come alone or be substance free. Jones has said she would prioritize low-barrier housing, and that she would work with the city’s service providers to ensure that there are enough shelter beds and temporary shelters available for emergency situations, like the recent extreme cold weather.

The Future of Housing in St. Louis Hinges on the Mayoral Race

Whether the city will do more to keep people in their homes or simply do more of the same depends on who voters elect as the next mayor.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

The Future of Housing in St. Louis Hinges on the Mayoral Race

Whether the city will do more to keep people in their homes or simply do more of the same depends on who voters elect as the next mayor.


Like so many cities across the country, St. Louis is facing a looming eviction crisis. Once federal and local eviction moratoria expire, thousands of people could lose their homes—and the city already lacks affordable housing and can’t adequately care for its unsheltered population.

Whether the city will do more to keep people in their homes or simply do more of the same depends on who voters elect as the next mayor. St. Louis’s current mayor, Lyda Krewson, isn’t seeking a second term, so voters will choose between four candidates—city treasurer Tishaura Jones, Board of Alders president Lewis Reed, Alderperson Cara Spencer, and utility executive Andrew Jones (no relation to the treasurer)—in a primary election tomorrow. For the first time this year, St. Louisans can vote for as many candidates as they like in the primary. The two candidates with the most votes will go on to a runoff to decide the next mayor on April 6.

“We need a mayor who will address these issues in a serious manner and in a manner that treats people with dignity and respect,” said Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective. Williams said the next administration needs to “pass a stimulus package that puts money in people’s hands, not to a large nonprofit or anyone overseeing this CARES Act money” and work with the Circuit Court to extend the local eviction moratorium.

Tishaura Jones is the only candidate who has said she would work with the courts to extend the local eviction moratorium, which expires April 5. Andrew Jones said he doesn’t support extending an eviction moratorium out of concern that it could cause landlords to lose income. Spencer and Reed did not respond when asked for their stances on the issue. 

Williams said that, while extending the moratorium is crucial at a time when people must stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the next mayor needs to go further to help renters. “Passing a recurring stimulus would help so many people out,” he said.

Spencer, Tishaura Jones, and Andrew Jones all said during a recent forum that they supported using federal funds to provide rent relief to people who are struggling to pay rent during the pandemic. Reed did not respond and does not specify on his campaign website if the rental relief efforts he supports would be federally funded.

Spencer said if she were elected mayor she would prioritize swiftly dispersing federal funds to the renters who need it. Andrew Jones told The Appeal that he thinks using emergency relief funds to prevent evictions “could be very helpful,” but emphasized that he thinks that funding cannot come from the city. Tishaura Jones told The Appeal the city has “previously invested in programs that provided rent relief directly to individuals, and I’d continue to fund [that].”

A coalition of 38 grassroots organizations in St. Louis, including Action STL, signed on to a comprehensive policy agenda that offers a framework for how the city can move away from policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity. The agenda, called The People’s Plan, also endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and keep people in their homes. 

The plan asks city leadership to treat housing as a human right by providing rent relief to tenants who have been unable to make rent payments during the pandemic, passing a strong Tenant Bill of Rights, increasing funding for the region’s continuum of care, homeless services, and temporary shelters, and fully funding the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. 

All four candidates running to become St. Louis’s next mayor have said they support a Tenant Bill of Rights (which would need to be passed by the Board of Alderman or state Legislature), and would continue to fund the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund at at least the current level, though Reed and Tishaura Jones have said they would work to increase the amount of funding the trust receives. The city currently budgets over $6.5 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which helps create more affordable housing in the city and provides funding for rent, utility, and mortgage assistance programs.

Krewson’s administration has gone against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by repeatedly dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic, forcing residents to disperse throughout the city. When the city recently experienced freezing weather, local advocates rushed to set up temporary no-barrier shelters to help keep hundreds of people out of the cold. When advocates requested funding for such shelter from the city months earlier, they were reportedly told they were “not your personal piggy bank” and sought private funding instead.

Spencer, Tishaura Jones, and Andrew Jones have said they wouldn’t continue the current administration’s policy of sweeping homeless encampments during the pandemic. Reed did not respond to several requests for comment and did not address the issue on his campaign website.

Reed, who has said that he experienced homelessness as a teenager, said that he would create permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities and other special needs. Spencer has said the city ought to pursue a housing-first approach to homelessness, which prioritizes giving people housing without requirements that can create barriers for people experiencing homelessness, like requirements that people come alone or be substance free.

Tishaura Jones has also said she would prioritize low-barrier housing, and said she would work with the city’s service providers to ensure that there are enough shelter beds and temporary shelters available for emergency situations, like the recent extreme cold weather.

Krewson’s administration spent about $600,000 in federal relief money on 50 tiny homes for people experiencing homelessness. Some housing advocates have criticized the move, saying that money could have been spent on shelters without such restrictions. And the tiny home village does not provide residents with any assistance to manage substance use issues or behavioral health problems.

Jones says she would prioritize making sure people at the tiny home village receive wraparound social services—like medical care and financial literacy courses—to help the people living there “rebuild their lives.”

“Over the last year, Krewson has gone on a campaign busting up these encampments, throwing people’s things out, ticketing. It’s bad,” Williams said. “A real solution would be putting more money into solving this issue. … We need money put into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and we need money put into our homeless services to help these people.”

Tishaura Jones Wants to Change St. Louis

Jones says her experience transforming the treasurer’s office will make her an effective mayor. Voters will let candidates know what they think next week.

(Photo via Tishaura Jones's campaign)

Tishaura Jones Wants to Change St. Louis

Jones says her experience transforming the treasurer’s office will make her an effective mayor. Voters will let candidates know what they think next week.


Tishaura Jones is running for St. Louis mayor at a time when she sees the city at a crossroads. “Our city is constantly shrinking in population, and the biggest thing at stake is our growth,” she said. 

If St. Louis doesn’t elect a mayor who is dedicated to “changing the reputation of our city and bringing everybody to the table to do it,” she said, it will only continue to decline.

To make the city more liveable for everyone, Jones says she would take steps to prevent evictions, boost funding for homeless services, and invest in public safety beyond increasing the police budget.

“We have constantly increased our police budget over the last several decades and crime keeps getting worse,” Jones told The Appeal. “We cannot keep throwing money at the same thing and expect different results. How do we look at other cities who have been where we are and adapt some of those things and tweak them for our city?”

Jones got into politics in 2002, when she was appointed as Democratic Committeeperson of the Eighth Ward in St. Louis. She went on to serve two terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. In 2012, she ran for city treasurer and won, becoming the first Black woman to serve as treasurer. 

Jones says moving away from strategies that aren’t working and embracing new solutions is something she’s well-poised to do: After becoming city treasurer in 2013, she reviewed the office’s operations, fired one employee who was accused of not doing his job, and transformed the office into a seat of advocacy and power in the city.

Jones looked to other cities to see what was working there and brought it to St. Louis. The treasurer’s office is the chief custodian of all city funds, and in St. Louis, it also controls the parking division. During her tenure as treasurer, Jones launched an Office of Financial Empowerment to help St. Louisans make better financial decisions, which provides free financial education and credit counseling to residents. 

She also started a program that provides all kindergarten students in St. Louis’s public and charter schools with a college savings account. The program starts the accounts off with a $50 deposit, then provides incentives like matched savings and attendance bonuses to encourage families to save more. Revenue generated from the parking department helps fund the savings accounts.

“The first time I ran [for treasurer], it was an open seat and I believed St. Louis needed a change,” said Jones. “Not just incremental. We’ve been making incremental changes. I want to do some really transformational changes. and that’s evidenced by the way I transformed the treasurer’s office.”

Now Jones will face three other candidates in Tuesday’s mayoral primary: Board of Alders president Lewis Reed, Alderperson Cara Spencer, and utility executive Andrew Jones (no relation to the treasurer). St. Louis’s current mayor, Lyda Krewson, isn’t seeking a second term. Tishaura Jones previously ran for mayor in 2017, when she came within 879 votes of Krewson.

The upcoming primary marks the first time an approval voting system will be used in the city’s history. Under a proposition passed last year, the mayoral election is now nonpartisan, and voters can approve as many candidates as they like. The two candidates with the most votes will go on to a runoff to decide the next mayor on April 6. Recent polling shows Jones and Reed leading over Spencer and Andrew Jones.

Some local organizers and community groups who spoke with The Appeal say they are hoping St. Louis’s next mayor will be willing to try something different when it comes to solving the problems that have plagued the city for decades. 

“My concern is, too many people have walked over us, missed us, don’t hear us, and I want to scream, shout, and holler, ‘We want change!'” said Amanda Davis, an organizer with WEPOWER. 

WEPOWER is one of 38 grassroots organizations that signed on to a comprehensive policy agenda, The People’s Plan, which puts forth a framework for how the city can move away from public policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity and endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and keep people in their homes. The plan asks candidates to prioritize universal housing, ensure taxes are levied equitably, invest in education and youth programs, and re-envision public safety as something that involves more than just police.

In an interview with The Appeal, Jones said she supports providing rent relief and mortgage relief to St. Louisans and would work with the courts to extend the local eviction moratorium in order to keep people in their homes. If she were elected, Jones said, she would prioritize increasing funding for the city’s affordable housing trust fund, give more support to the city’s homeless service providers, and make sure that more low-barrier housing options are available for people experiencing homelessness. On her campaign website, Jones said she would work with the Board of Alders to help pass a strong Tenant Bill of Rights. Her stances on all of these issues are in line with what activists have called for in The People’s Plan.

A few of her proposals on policing and public safety also align with the demands of local organizers. 

To Jones, the current system of policing is ineffective and fails to address the root causes of violence. She told The Appeal she would review the police department’s functions, look at what other cities are doing, and see where she might be able to transform some of the police department’s current operations into functions carried out by civilians. She also endorsed changing the city’s 911 system so that dispatchers send the appropriate professional to respond to the call, since, she said, people who call 911 do not always require a uniformed officer. And Jones has long supported closing the Workhouse, the city’s notorious jail, and using money saved from the closing to fund public programs, like those that help people struggling with substance use.

“The experience I had in the treasurer’s office is really doing a top to bottom review and setting the reset button,” Jones said. “We’re stuck in this horrible cycle where we’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve always done it this way,’ and we don’t challenge why. I want to push back and challenge some of the assumptions on why we’re doing this the same way.”

No Criminal Charges for Cops Involved in Daniel Prude’s Death

New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced today that a grand jury voted not to indict any police officers on charges related to the death of Daniel Prude.

A screengrab from the body camera footage of the events leading to Prude's death.

No Criminal Charges for Cops Involved in Daniel Prude’s Death

New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced today that a grand jury voted not to indict any police officers on charges related to the death of Daniel Prude.


New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced today that a grand jury has voted not to indict any police officers on charges related to the death of Daniel Prude. 

None of the seven officers involved in Prude’s death will face criminal charges for their actions, though the Monroe County Medical Examiner determined Prude’s death was a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”  

“The current laws on deadly force have created a system that utterly and abjectly failed Mr. Prude and so many others before him,” James said. “Serious reform is needed, not only at the Rochester Police Department, but to our criminal justice system as a whole. I will be pursuing a multifaceted approach to address the very issues that have prevented us from holding officers accountable when they improperly use deadly force.”

James said that her office believed there was sufficient evidence surrounding Prude’s death to present the case to a grand jury and that they “presented the strongest case possible.” She said she was “disappointed, extremely disappointed,” with the decision, and that her office would push to change the law so that police officers may only use deadly force as a last resort.

The Department of Justice said in a statement that it would review James’s report and “determine whether any further federal response is warranted.”

“Throughout our city’s history, criminal prosecutions have failed to deliver justice for Black and Brown people harmed by police,” said Shani Wilson, chair of Rochester’s Police Accountability Board, in a statement shared on Twitter. “Every failure to deliver justice for officer wrongdoing proves that the PAB needs to have its disciplinary powers returned, its investigations unimpeded, and its work fully funded.”

The announcement came nearly a year after an encounter with Rochester police left Prude brain dead. On March 23, Rochester resident Joe Prude called the police for help. His brother was acting strangely and had suddenly bolted out the back door wearing nothing but a tank top and long johns despite the snow. 

But when police found Daniel Prude, naked and walking in the street, they handcuffed him, mocked him, put a mesh bag over his head, knelt on his back, and pushed his face into the ground until he stopped breathing. He was declared brain dead, and died in the hospital a week later. 

Prude had complied with the officers’ commands, sitting on the ground and allowing his hands to be cuffed behind his back. He remained on the wet ground, naked as snow fell on him, throughout the encounter. He occasionally spat and repeated the same phrases over and over again. In response, the police officers mocked Prude, asking him if he had AIDS, and put a spit hood over his head.

When Rochester police officer Mark Vaughn put the hood over Prude’s head, Prude’s demeanor changed. His voice began to quiver, and it sounded like he was on the verge of tears. He repeatedly asked officers to take the mask off his face, and told the officers to give him their mace, handcuffs, and guns. 

After about a minute of this, while Prude sat upright but still handcuffed and on the ground, Vaughn and officer Troy Taladay approached Prude and pushed him onto the ground.

Taladay knelt on Prude’s back while Vaughn pushed Prude’s face into the ground. Prude repeatedly asked the officers to get off him. Prude’s speech then became garbled and difficult to understand. He cried and made sputtering sounds, but the officers did not relent.

When two emergency medical technicians arrived, one asked the officers if Prude felt hot.

“Do you want me to take his temperature?” Taladay said sarcastically, pointing to Prude’s buttocks. The EMT laughed. By this point, Prude had already stopped moving and talking.

“At first he’s talking, and then he’s whimpering, and then he goes silent,” Elliot Dolby-Shields, an attorney representing Prude’s family, previously told The Appeal. “And they all laugh. They’re having a good time, and you can see at that moment that his hand stops twitching, and his chest stops going up and down, and he’s dying, and they’re just casually making jokes.”

The EMTs performed CPR and resuscitated Prude, but he had already been deprived of oxygen for too long and was rendered brain dead.

“Again, a black man dead after an interaction with the police,” New York State Assembly Member Demond Meeks said on Twitter after James’s announcement. “Again, a system that finds the police officers not responsible for the actions that led to his death. I’m disgusted by this predictable result. Verdicts like these endorse police brutality, and unchecked racial and implicit bias housed within police departments.”

Since Prude’s death, New York state lawmakers have introduced a bill called “Daniel’s Law” that would send health professionals to respond to mental health and substance use crises instead of police officers. Meeks said the lack of charges for Prude’s death once again shows that “police are not qualified to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.”

“I will fight for the passage of Daniel’s Law,” Meeks said. “I will fight for the investment in preventive programs and initiatives that cause the hurt within our city.”

Leading members of the Rochester Police Department and city officials worked to keep Prude’s death under wraps for as long as they could: As the nation reeled from the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, emails show that police commanders and lawyers for the city agreed to delay the release of body camera video depicting Prude’s death. They managed to stall for more than four months before complying with open records laws and releasing the footage to the Prude family’s attorney, who shared it with the press a few weeks later.  

The footage of American police once again suffocating a Black man quickly spread, prompted protests in Rochester and beyond, and led to the firing of Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and the resignations of several members of the police department’s command staff. It also raised questions about what exactly Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren knew about the incident and when.

Warren has said she first saw the footage on Aug. 4. But it wasn’t until almost a full month later, after Prude’s family made the footage public, that Warren decided to suspend the officers involved in Prude’s death. Warren has maintained that police downplayed the incident to her and made it sound as though Prude died of a drug overdose. 

Police reform activists and police union leaders alike called for Warren to resign after Prude’s killing and the city’s handling of it. Since then, Rochester police have also drawn national scrutiny for handcuffing a 10-year-old child during a traffic stop and pepper-spraying a distressed 9-year-old girl.

Now Warren is running for re-election, and has released a proposal to reform the police department. (All New York cities are required to do so, per an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo, in order to continue receiving certain state funding.) But advocates say the proposal falls short of the sort of changes they hoped to see and even still allows chokeholds at a time when cities across the country have banned the practice.

It includes a goal of reducing the Rochester Police Department’s head count “within the next 5-10 years,” including by identifying tasks handled by uniformed officers that  could be performed by civilians instead. Rochester has more police officers per capita than other similarly sized cities, with 700 sworn officers for a city of about 200,000. Across the country, cities like Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, California, have already passed proposals to civilianize certain police functions, like traffic enforcement and forensics.

“When I think of the five- to 10-year mark, I think of the people who are harmed today, whose lives are at risk,” Stanley Martin, an organizer with Free the People Roc, told The Appeal earlier this month. “It’s unbelievable. A 9 year-old got pepper-sprayed by a bunch of white police officers in her neighborhood and the response is, ‘OK, we’ll make changes in five- to 10-years.’ That’s not enough.”

This Election Could Decide St. Louis’s Future

The four candidates vying to replace the mayor are each promising to build a better St. Louis, and in a little over a week, voters will decide which visions they endorse.

A demonstrator walks outside St. Louis City Hall on July 9, 2020 in St Louis, Missouri.
(Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

This Election Could Decide St. Louis’s Future

The four candidates vying to replace the mayor are each promising to build a better St. Louis, and in a little over a week, voters will decide which visions they endorse.


St. Louis will soon elect a new mayor, and how the city will respond to calls to reimagine public safety, keep people in their homes, and invest in struggling public schools are all on the line.

The departing mayor, Lyda Krewson, is leaving some controversy in her wake: In June, community members and top city officials called on Krewson to resign after she broadcast on Facebook Live the names and addresses of people who had written her letters demanding police reform. Krewson’s administration also went against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic, forcing residents to disperse throughout the city. And she initially resisted calls to close the Workhouse, a detention facility that houses mostly people awaiting trial and has what activists have called “unspeakably hellish” living conditions like infestations of black mold, rats, and cockroaches.

Krewson, who was elected in 2017, isn’t seeking a second term. That leaves voters to choose between four candidates—city treasurer Tishaura Jones, Board of Alders president Lewis Reed, Alderperson Cara Spencer, and utility executive Andrew Jones (no relation to the treasurer)—in the March 2 primary, using an approval voting system for the first time in the city’s history.

The four candidates vying to replace Krewson are each promising to build a better St. Louis, and next week voters will decide which visions they endorse. Under a proposition passed last year, the mayoral election and some other municipal elections are now nonpartisan, and voters can approve as many candidates as they like. The two candidates with the most votes will go on to a runoff to decide the next mayor on April 6.

Reed, Tishaura Jones, and Spencer have all previously run for office as Democrats, while Andrew Jones ran as the Republican candidate in the 2017 mayoral race. The city tends to elect Democrats; St. Louis has not had a Republican mayor since 1949. Reed and Tishaura Jones competed against Krewson in the 2017 Democratic primary. Reed came in third in the seven-way race while Jones came within just 879 votes of Krewson. Spencer has not previously run for mayor but has been a member of the city’s Board of Alders (or City Council) since 2015. Recent polling shows Tishaura Jones and Reed leading over Spencer and Andrew Jones.

While Reed and Spencer have earned the endorsement of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board, Tishaura Jones appears to be the favorite among unions and community groups, having earned the endorsements of Democracy for America, NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri PAC, Service Employees International Union Missouri State Council, Advocates of Planned Parenthood, the Organization for Black Struggle, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Action St. Louis Power Project, and a variety of other groups and elected officials.

A coalition of 38 grassroots organizations in St. Louis, including Action STL and the ArchCity Defenders, put together a comprehensive policy agenda designed to improve education, health, housing, and policing systems in St. Louis. The agenda, dubbed The People’s Plan, puts forth a framework for how St. Louis can move away from the sorts of public policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity in the city and instead endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and distribute resources and taxes equitably.

“For local residents—particularly those who have been ignored, erased, displaced, and at times gaslit by public officials—a new administration could shift policy and budget priorities, and instead of investing in a failed ‘arrest and incarcerate’ public safety model, we could invest in resources that combat poverty [and] racism,” said Z Gorley, communications director for ArchCity Defenders. 

The plan has four pillars: “making St. Louis home” by prioritizing universal housing, environmental justice, and livability; investing in the future of St. Louis by ensuring taxes are levied equitably, and education and youth programs are funded adequately; building a more inclusive democracy in the city by making governmental business more transparent and supporting civic engagement; and re-envisioning public safety as something that involves more than just investing in police.

Local organizers and advocates who spoke with The Appeal said they would like to see the next mayoral administration prioritize keeping people in their homes by providing rent relief to tenants, supporting the passage of a tenant bill of rights, and working with the courts to extend eviction moratoriums. 

“You can’t beat a virus that requires you to quarantine without a house to quarantine in,” said Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action STL, noting that the incremental extensions of the local eviction moratorium aren’t enough to keep people in their homes, since renters will still owe money once the moratorium ends. “Instead we’re seeing consistent duct-taping and quick fixes for a large problem that will come crashing down if people don’t take the right steps to fix it.”

And they’d like to see the city’s next mayor move away from some of the practices of the Krewson administration when it comes to people experiencing homelessness in St. Louis. Instead of dismantling encampments and leaving advocates to secure private funding to shelter people from the fierce winter weather, organizers like Williams want the next mayor to fully fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and increase funding for the region’s continuum of care, shelters, and homeless service providers. 

“We need a mayor who will address these issues in a serious manner and in a manner that treats people with dignity and respect,” said Williams. “You can’t say you’re a mayor for all of St. Louis if you’re only helping some.”

Having a mayor who will review how the city is investing in the safety of St. Louisans is also a priority for organizers, who note that the city’s decades-long trend of investing heavily in policing has not had the desired effect when it comes to reducing crime or improving clearance rates for violent crimes like murder

Instead, organizers say they would like to see the next administration take a second look at the police department’s budget and see where funds could be redirected to non-police crisis response teams and violence interrupters. Cities across the country have begun to civilianize certain police functions, like traffic enforcement, forensic analysis, responding to mental health calls. The People’s Plan names a number of units within the St. Louis Police Department that the city could also consider civilianizing, like internal affairs and traffic enforcement.

“We want less of an emphasis on the arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate model and more of an emphasis on getting to the root causes of violent crime in our neighborhoods,” said Johnson Lancaster from the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, noting that an outsize portion of St. Louis’s budget is spent on policing. “That money should be redirected to social programs that help address some of these needs that we’re talking about.”

Organizers also say they want St. Louis’s next mayor to stop giving tax breaks to developers while failing to adequately fund public education and invest in the everyday people who live in St. Louis. 

“I had to get involved, our children are suffering,” said Amanda Davis, an organizer with WEPOWER. “We want the mayor to ensure the developers’ tax breaks are no longer taking money away from our schools. The developers come in, and they give them a TIF [subsidizing their taxes for a set number of years], then they leave after the 10 years and we don’t get any tax money. I’d like for the mayor to take a look at all those TIFs, future TIFs, and make sure that the schools get a portion of that.”

Seeking community input and adhering to community benefit agreements is another priority for organizers, as is earmarking money for early childhood education. Organizers from WEPOWER and the People’s Plan call for a 2 percent budget set-aside for early childhood education, which would provide about $22 million annually.

“It’s hard to separate educational equity from the economic development,” said Charli Cooksey, founder and CEO of WEPOWER. “If the strategy remains the same, for decades and decades and decades there’s been no investment in North St. Louis City. It has led to a population decline and Black folks who are here not having the opportunities they deserve. It has led to school closures. … We want to make sure the mayor leans on their power to make sure economic development happens the right way.”

Police Violence Puts the Heat on Rochester Mayor as She Seeks a Third Term

Months after footage emerged of officers fatally suffocating Daniel Prude, police were caught on video pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl. Advocates say the incident highlights the shortcomings of Mayor Lovely Warren’s crisis response team.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren addresses members of the media on Sept. 6, 2020.
(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Police Violence Puts the Heat on Rochester Mayor as She Seeks a Third Term

Months after footage emerged of officers fatally suffocating Daniel Prude, police were caught on video pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl. Advocates say the incident highlights the shortcomings of Mayor Lovely Warren’s crisis response team.


In Lovely Warren’s past year as mayor of Rochester, New York, members of the city’s police department have handcuffed a 10-year-old child during a traffic stop, pepper-sprayed a distressed 9-year-old girl, and pushed a man’s head into the pavement until he stopped breathing then tried to cover it up.

Now, Warren is running for a third term, despite calls for her resignation and an indictment for two felony campaign finance charges hanging over her head. Her only challenger so far for the June primary is Rochester City Councilmember Malik Evans, who is campaigning on a promise to “build bridges” and isn’t promising to be that different from Warren when it comes to reining in the police department. The last day to file to enter the primary is March 25.

The high-profile incidents of police brutality have brought nationwide scrutiny to the upstate New York city of about 200,000 and ignited calls to cut the police department’s budget and reinvest that money in public safety alternatives, like violence prevention initiatives and a fully funded crisis response team independent from the department. 

Warren has previously opposed shifting resources away from the police department. Though she launched a crisis intervention system for people experiencing mental health issues after Daniel Prude’s death at the hands of police in March, advocates say its implementation has been flawed and needs more funding. 

Asked via email if he supports expanding mental health crisis response teams and shrinking the size, budget, and/or responsibilities of the Rochester Police Department, Malik said “generally yes,” but said he needed more time to elaborate further. He did not provide specifics when given a few more days to respond. Warren did not respond to emails seeking clarification on her stances regarding the same questions.

One of the most significant changes Rochester’s next mayor could make to improve public safety would be to shrink the police department’s budget, responsibilities, and head count, and reinvest that money in mental health programs and an independent crisis intervention team, said Stanley Martin, a parole and re-entry coordinator for VOCAL-NY and an organizer with Free the People Roc. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to fully fund mental health assistance with the [economic] fallout from COVID without defunding the police.”

Warren is “running again so she wants to sound like she’s making these changes,” Martin said, “but she’s been in office for almost eight years and we haven’t seen any substantive changes during her tenure. Even recently she was fighting to build another police station in a poor neighborhood.”


On March 23, Rochester resident Joe Prude called the police for help. His brother was acting strangely and had suddenly bolted out the back door wearing nothing but a tank top and long johns despite the snow. 

But when police found his brother, Daniel, naked and walking in the street, they handcuffed him, mocked him, put a mesh bag over his head, knelt on his back, and pushed his face into the ground until he stopped breathing. The Monroe County medical examiner’s office determined Prude’s death was a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

Leading members of the Rochester Police Department and city officials worked to keep Prude’s death under wraps for as long as they could: As the nation reeled from the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, emails show that police commanders and lawyers for the city agreed to delay the release of body camera video depicting Prude’s death. They managed to stall for more than four months before complying with open records laws and releasing the footage to the Prude family’s attorney, who shared it with the press a few weeks later.  

The footage of American police once again suffocating a Black man quickly spread, prompted protests in Rochester and beyond, and led to the resignations of several members of the police department’s command staff. It also raised questions about what exactly Mayor Warren knew about the incident and when.

Warren has said she first saw the footage on Aug. 4. But it wasn’t until almost a full month later, after Prude’s family made the footage public, that Warren decided to suspend the officers involved in Prude’s death. Warren has maintained that police downplayed the incident to her and made it sound as though Prude died of a drug overdose. She has said she did not know what really happened on the night of Prude’s death until Aug. 4.

But even after the footage came to light, Warren continued to defend Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, stating that “he handled it the way he needed to handle it internally.” Yet about two weeks after the footage came out—after Singletary had already announced his resignation—Warren fired him. Singletary has claimed Warren told him to lie about what city officials knew and recently testified that he told Warren what happened, but she never asked to see the video. Other investigations into Prude’s death are ongoing.

Following Prude’s death, two New York state lawmakers have sponsored a bill called “Daniel’s Law” that would send health professionals to respond to mental health and substance use crises instead of police officers.


Police reform activists and police union leaders alike called for Warren to resign after the police killing of Daniel Prude and the city’s handling of it. Instead, Warren has pledged to reform the police department and has moved crisis intervention out of the department.

But last month, Rochester once again drew national scrutiny when video of police officers handcuffing and pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl emerged. On Jan. 29, officers responded to a family disturbance call. When they arrived, the girl’s mother, who had made the call, said her daughter had threatened to harm herself and had run out of the house, according to Rochester Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson. 

Video shows a police officer running after the 9-year-old, then grabbing her by the arm. While the officer and the girl are talking, the girl’s mother returns and confronts her daughter, prompting her daughter to attempt to run away again. The officer grips her so she cannot flee, then forces her to the snow-covered ground and handcuffs the child as she screams out for her father.

Officers can be seen trying to force her into the back of a patrol car, but the girl continues to scream and cry for her father. By this time, six police vehicles have arrived and at least seven officers are present. At one point, an officer tells her she is acting like a child, to which she responds, “I am a child!”

Police scream at her to stand up and get in the vehicle properly. “Just spray her at this point,” one officer says. Another sprays the girl in the eyes as she shrieks in pain. “Unbelievable,” an officer mutters as they finally get the child in the car.

Warren has said the video shows “we need to do more in support of our children and families” and has suspended three of the seven officers involved in the incident. But advocates say the incident highlights the shortcomings of Warren’s crisis response team.

In January, the city launched a Person in Crisis Team, which is composed of 14 people who will respond to nonviolent mental health calls and calls involving substance use issues. The pilot program is set to run through June and has received about $660,000 in funding. People can call 911 or 211 to get the team.

But the city has said that officers responded because the girl’s mother had called 911 to report that her boyfriend had allegedly stolen her car. As a result, the city says, dispatchers did not divert the call to the Person in Crisis Team, and behavioral health professionals were not sent. But even when the girl’s mother told police her daughter was suicidal, police did not call for mental health assistance instead. There is currently no system in place to send the Person in Crisis Team to a call answered by the police.

“I think it just points to a lack of funding and follow-through on the program,” said Martin “They’re getting $660,000. … So giving a program that’s meant to adequately address all these crises in our community just that amount doesn’t cut it.”

A week after the latest incident of police brutality in Rochester, Warren released a proposal to reform the police department. (All New York cities are required to do so, per an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo, in order to continue receiving certain state funding.) But advocates say the proposal falls short of the sort of changes they hoped to see and even still allows chokeholds at a time when cities across the country have banned the practice.

It includes a goal of reducing the Rochester Police Department’s head count “within the next 5-10 years,” including by identifying tasks handled by uniformed officers that  could be performed by civilians instead. Rochester has more police officers per capita than other similarly sized cities, with 700 sworn officers for a city of about 200,000. Across the country, cities like Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, California, have already passed proposals to civilianize certain police functions, like traffic enforcement and forensics.

“When I think of the five- to 10-year mark, I think of the people who are harmed today, whose lives are at risk,” said Martin. “It’s unbelievable. A 9 year-old got pepper-sprayed by a bunch of white police officers in her neighborhood and the response is, ‘OK, we’ll make changes in five- to 10-years.’ That’s not enough.”

After Man Dies Waiting For Commutation, Pennsylvania Governor Frees 13 People

At the urging of advocates, Governor Tom Wolf signed off on all remaining commutations applications on his desk.

Charles Goldblum's family and friends celebrate the Board of Pardons' decision to recommend him for commutation at a 2019 hearing.
(Photo by Joshua Vaughn/The Appeal)

After Man Dies Waiting For Commutation, Pennsylvania Governor Frees 13 People

At the urging of advocates, Governor Tom Wolf signed off on all remaining commutations applications on his desk.


With the stroke of a pen Thursday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf freed 13 more people serving life without the possibility of parole. 

This brings the total number of life sentences he has commuted since taking office in 2015 to 36—nearly as many as were signed by all other governors combined over the last 40 years.

Thirty-one of Wolf’s commutations have come since Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who chairs the state Board of Pardons and ran on the promise to expand access to clemency, took office in 2019.

We are overjoyed for each person granted commutation this week, and for each family that will be reunited after decades spent separated by prison walls,” Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania state policy director for FAMM, told The Appeal via email. “By approving clemency for this group of people, Governor Wolf supported the return of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, mentors, and leaders to their home communities. Pennsylvania is made stronger when we support second chances.”

The commutations came less than two weeks after Bruce Norris, a 69-year-old man serving a life sentence who was recommended for commutation by the Board of Pardons, died from COVID-19 while waiting for Wolf to take action. 

More than 100 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, and advocates have urged Wolf to do more to prevent more deaths by releasing people who are most at risk from the virus.

With COVID-19 ravaging our prisons, it has never been more critical to use every mechanism possible to quickly reduce our incarcerated population,” Trusty said. “Clemency is just one mechanism that should be expanded and used broadly to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We must also demand immediate action by our General Assembly to enact medical and elderly release legislation.”

Charles Goldblum, whose sentence was commuted Thursday, had been unanimously recommended by the Board of Pardons in September 2019 after spending more than 40 years in prison. 

In 2019, friends and family traveled from as far away as Israel to attend a public hearing for Goldblum, known as Zeke to those close to him. His application sat on Wolf’s desk for more than a year longer than any other person approved for release Thursday.

“We are ecstatic that Zeke will finally be coming home to his awaiting family and friends,” Goldblum’s family, friends and supporters said in a written statement to The Appeal. “We are grateful to all members of the Board of Pardons for unanimously recommending Zeke for Commutation and to Governor Wolf for signing-off. Words cannot express our extreme gratitude for this act of mercy. It is our hope that other deserving inmates are afforded the same opportunity of a second chance.”

Other members of the cohort Wolf freed include two sets of brothers, Reid and Wyatt Evans and Dennis and Lee Horton, who combined have spent more than 135 years in prison despite never intending to kill anyone, and Avis Lee, who has been incarcerated since 1980, when she was 19, because she served as a lookout during a fatal robbery.

In signing the commutations Thursday, Wolf has now approved every life without the possibility of parole commutation recommended to him by the Board of Pardons during his tenure except for Norris’s.

The Board of Pardons will meet again on March 3, 4 and 5 to consider recommending commuting the sentences of another group of people serving life without the possibility of parole.

Choosing Adam Schiff For California Attorney General Would Be Ignoring What Californians Want

The U.S. representative has been a chief architect of mass incarceration in the state and an instigator of racial injustice.

Rep. Adam Schiff on Aug. 18, 2020.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Choosing Adam Schiff For California Attorney General Would Be Ignoring What Californians Want

The U.S. representative has been a chief architect of mass incarceration in the state and an instigator of racial injustice.


As California Governor Gavin Newsom faces a recall effort and a double-digit drop in approval ratings, he is poised to make one of the most consequential decisions of his career: selecting the state’s next attorney general.

California’s attorney general serves as both top cop and lead lawyer representing the Golden State’s 40 million residents in a breathtaking range of cases, including abuses of civil rights, capital punishment litigation, environmental crimes, and voter protection cases. The role also serves as an important political springboard. Consider the state’s last three attorneys general: former Governor Jerry Brown; Vice President Kamala Harris; and Xavier Becerra, whom President Biden nominated to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, creating the opening that Newsom must fill. There have also been historic fighters for justice in this role. Stanley Mosk, who as a Superior Court judge struck down racial covenants denying Black people housing, established the civil rights division in the state Department of Justice during his tenure as attorney general. 

A diverse and impressively credentialed list of potential candidates is circulating around the Sacramento rumor mill: Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton, State Assemblymember Rob Bonta, and California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu are a few examples. There also is one name in the mix who would make a uniquely poor choice for a state that’s facing interrelated policing, incarceration, and racial equity crises: U.S. Representative Adam Schiff.

Most of the country knows Schiff as a resistance icon who spearheaded Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. In California, though, we know Adam Schiff as a chief architect of mass incarceration and an instigator of racial injustice. As a state legislator, Schiff authored over two dozen bills to directly increase the reach and punitiveness of the criminal legal system, including bills to allow children as young as 14 to be tried as adults, expand California’s notoriously racist three-strikes law, and make hiring “unauthorized aliens” a crime that could land a person in prison for four years.

More recently, as a member of Congress, Schiff supported the 2017 Thin Blue Line legislation, siding with the bill’s 21 Republican co-sponsors and against most Democrats in the House. The bill, which sought to expand use of the federal death penalty, was opposed by prominent civil rights and racial justice groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Schiff also crafted and championed a congressional resolution commending then-Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton—under whom “stop and frisk” policing surged, resulting in widespread racial profiling, increased arrests for minor infractions, and use of force against civilians.

Schiff’s retrograde record stands in stark contrast to the voice of California voters, as expressed more clearly through the passage of Propositions 36, 47 and 57, all of which rolled back extreme sentences issued as part of the same “tough on crime” style legislation that Schiff championed when he served in the state legislature. In November, California voters roundly rejected a well-funded measure aimed at watering down the reforms these ballot measures ushered in. 

This reform-minded energy in California does not mean that its criminal legal system operates in a fair and just manner. In fact, quite the opposite. Most of the state’s prisons are over maximum capacity. The Los Angeles County jail population has risen over its capacity limit again. Police shootings of unarmed people, especially Black men, occur with alarming frequency. And racial inequities define every step of the justice process. Black people make up 6 percent of California’s total population, but 27 percent of its prison population. Black residents are stopped at 2.5 times the rate of white people and searched at three times the rate of white people. In San Francisco, Black residents are stopped at a rate five times higher than their share of the population.

Against this backdrop, the next attorney general of California will inherit the broader public mandate to dismantle mass incarceration, root out racial injustice, and create real community safety. Adam Schiff’s unconscionable record on criminal and racial justice issues is disqualifying. That’s why I, along with 40 key racial justice leaders and organizations throughout the state, penned an open letter to Governor Newsom, urging him to reject Schiff for the job and making clear that Schiff’s appointment would be viewed, especially by Black and Latinx communities, as a betrayal of the governor’s expressed commitment to equal justice.

Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California.

Austin To Buy Second Hotel That Will Become Permanent Supportive Housing

The city will use funds diverted from its police budget to set up wraparound services for the people who will live at the hotel.

(Screenshot from Google Maps)

Austin To Buy Second Hotel That Will Become Permanent Supportive Housing

The city will use funds diverted from its police budget to set up wraparound services for the people who will live at the hotel.


The Austin City Council voted today to purchase a second hotel and turn it into about 80 units of permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. Austin purchased the first hotel last week but delayed the vote on purchasing the second one after a city council member asked for more time to gather feedback from her constituents, as the hotel would be in her district.

Under the measure, the city will spend approximately $9.5 million from its Housing and Planning Department’s general obligation bonds to acquire one hotel and use some money from a recurring $6.5 million fund taken from the police department’s budget to provide services to the residents of the hotel. At full occupancy (which wouldn’t happen this year), services and operating costs for the hotel are expected to be about $2.2 million annually. 

“In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, we made a significant cut to policing dollars and reinvested that in things like this,” said Council Member Gregorio Casar, who led the effort to cut police funding and sponsored an amendment last August that set aside $6.5 million in recurring funding to be used for permanent supportive housing and services. “That’s how we’re paying for this. That’s the only reason we’re able to do this.”

In August, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for things like license plate readers. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab—though that money will still be spent on those functions, just not within the department.

The council also voted to separate the forensics lab from the police department on Thursday. About $12 million will be moved out of the police budget and will be used instead to create an independent forensics lab that is separate from the police department. The move does not eliminate any of the functions of the lab, but it does ensure that the lab is not run by the police department. Under the leadership of the Austin Police Department, the forensics lab had a decades-long rape kit backlog and was shut down after auditors found employees were mishandling evidence.

Austin will now move ahead with negotiations to buy a hotel from Candlewood Suites in District 6 for $9.5 million. The hotel was built in 2018 and has 83 rooms, all with full kitchenettes and air conditioners. The property also includes amenities like a computer room, onsite laundry, a fitness room, and outdoor patio space. Some of the current guest rooms may be converted into additional common areas or office space. The property will still provide roughly 80 units of permanent supportive housing once it’s complete.

Last week, the council agreed to buy the Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites in District 7 for $6.7 million. The property was built in 2018 and has 65 rooms (41 with kitchenettes), onsite laundry, and a front desk with controlled entry. Some of the rooms will be converted to add more office and common space, like a community kitchen, leaving the building with about 60 permanent supportive housing units. 

The city’s Homeless Services Division will contract with nonprofit service providers to cover operating costs and set up wraparound services for residents, like case management, support for mental health or substance use issues, workforce development programs, and job placement services.

In total, the purchases will create about 140 units of low barrier permanent supportive housing with these kinds of wraparound services.

“The city’s goal has traditionally been 100 permanent supportive housing units a year, and sometimes wouldn’t even reach that. And here we are in January and we’ll blast through the goal,” Casar previously told The Appeal. “This is funding that was previously going to over-policing every single year and will now go to getting folks off the street.”

The vote on purchasing the second hotel was delayed to allow the council’s newest member, Mackenzie Kelly, to spend more time hearing from community members and businesses near the hotel, which is in her district. 

“We have a homelessness crisis, but treating every proposal as an out-of-context emergency is not great policy and silences stakeholders,” Kelly said at last week’s council meeting. “We need to provide housing to the unhoused, but we can do so in a way that creates good feelings throughout the community. … We want to educate the community on this important project and continue to get feedback.”

Kelly replaced former city council member and public safety chair Jimmy Flannigan after winning a runoff election in December. Kelly is the president of Take Back Austin, a pro-law enforcement group and has denounced the council’s move to decriminalize homelessness and pledged to bring back a ban on public camping.

Some constituents in Kelly’s district protested the hotel purchase and signed a petition voicing their opposition to the proposal, citing concerns over “safety” and that the location wouldn’t provide people with “opportunities for employment, case management, medical and mental health treatment, and access to transportation,” despite the fact that the proposal very clearly states that all of those things will be provided onsite by providers the city will contract with. A comment on the petition is more candid: “I for one don’t want any of this riff raff in my zip code.” 

About 2,500 people were experiencing homelessness in Austin at the start of last year, according to the 2020 Point-in-Time Count. Nearly 1,600 of those people were unsheltered.

“Cities that have stepped up and tried to reallocate police budgets have faced backlash usually driven by misinformation for the past few months, but I believe in the next few months cities that reallocated police funds can start showing results, can start showing what cities can do when we reduce police overspending,” Casar previously told The Appeal. “It’s only possible if we keep rethinking our priorities instead of continuing to over-invest in policing.”

This Biden Nomination Is Extremely Important For Everyday People

The Office of the Comptroller of Currency is responsible for ensuring the safety, soundness, and broad accessibility of financial institutions. President Biden must choose someone to lead the agency who brings expertise and relevant lived experience to the job.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Getty Images)

This Biden Nomination Is Extremely Important For Everyday People

The Office of the Comptroller of Currency is responsible for ensuring the safety, soundness, and broad accessibility of financial institutions. President Biden must choose someone to lead the agency who brings expertise and relevant lived experience to the job.


Today, we find ourselves in dual public health and economic crises—a situation exacerbated by the Trump administration’s cruel and callous policy decisions, which padded the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of essential workers and other historically marginalized communities. It’s going to take a coordinated, whole-of-government approach to mitigate the unprecedented damage done to the millions of people in America who are struggling to weather these crises. This is not a job for President Joe Biden alone, but the entirety of his administration, including the powerful but little-known Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC). Without a doubt, personnel is policy.

We were elected to Congress by constituents who demanded representation that would legislate equity and prosperity—not hurt and harm. The OCC is an agency responsible for ensuring the safety, soundness, and broad accessibility of financial institutions. To lead the agency, Americans deserve someone with both expertise and a firsthand understanding of the struggles of the people the OCC serves. That’s why we urge President Biden to nominate Mehrsa Baradaran to lead the office. 

Professor Baradaran is a first-generation American whose family came to the United States seeking asylum when she was 9 years old. Baradaran’s own experiences make her uniquely qualified to understand what many Americans living on the margins are going through. Today, Baradaran is a law professor specializing in banking law who has dedicated her life to understanding how financial regulation affects everyday people, including its central role in perpetuating and exacerbating the racial wealth gap. A renowned expert, she testified in front of Congress about inclusive banking options that can uplift communities and families that are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” As 1 in 4 American households have little to no access to bank accounts, she has proposed innovative solutions like FedAccounts, and postal banking to bridge the banking divide.  

We know that equal access to credit is critical when people are looking to buy a home or start a business; the head of the OCC can guide the agency in helping make that possible. The office also charters new federal banks and creates banking regulations with significant implications for racial and environmental justice. The OCC monitors bank practices to verify that financial entities are treating their customers fairly and complying with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a landmark civil rights statute, passed as a response to redlining, that is meant to ensure financial institutions are not refusing to lend in low- to moderate-income communities. It is critical that the Biden Administration, which has promised to prioritize racial equity in the economic recovery, put the right leader in this position. Baradaran understands the inextricable link between the history of racism and banking in the United States and will protect historically marginalized communities from predatory financial practices and products.

The disparities in wealth and opportunity that the CRA was designed to address have only worsened during the Trump administration. In fact, the OCC recently released a rule allowing lenders to evade state-established interest rate caps and charge consumers exorbitantly high interest rates. At the height of the economic downturn in 2020, the OCC unilaterally “gutted” the CRA, stripping remaining protections for the communities that banks have decided are simply not worth their time or business to serve. 

The pandemic has only further exacerbated income inequality in the United States, and the government’s inadequate response has done little to alleviate it. At a time of alarmingly high unemployment rates, President Biden’s choice to lead the OCC can help ensure families have the financial options and support necessary to weather this storm and thrive long after. Professor Baradaran is simply the best person for the job.

President Biden has pledged to address systemic racism in our institutions and bring about racial and economic equity for all. Nominating Professor Baradaran to lead the Office of Comptroller of the Currency would be a demonstrable step in turning these promises into action. Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, who serves as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee on House Financial Services, has expressed support for Baradaran, along with many of our colleagues. That’s because we know she will work to uplift the historically marginalized and confront the racial wealth gap. The early days of the Biden Administration have focused on the need to address the damage done under the Trump administration. Not only does Professor Baradaran have the background, experience, and expertise to undo the banking deregulation rampant under recent Comptrollers, she has the resolve to tackle the historical policies and practices of financial oppression against Black and brown communities.

There is no one better than Professor Baradaran to serve as our next Comptroller of the Currency. Our communities deserve her advocacy and leadership.

Jamaal Bowman is a former middle school principal and the Democratic Representative for New York’s 16th congressional district. Ayanna Pressley is the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district.

A Florida Senator Wants to Exclude People With Felony Convictions From the State’s Minimum Wage Increase

It’s the latest bill in the state legislature’s long history of meddling with voter-approved amendments.

Florida State Senator Jeffrey Brandes
(Florida House of Representatives)

A Florida Senator Wants to Exclude People With Felony Convictions From the State’s Minimum Wage Increase

It’s the latest bill in the state legislature’s long history of meddling with voter-approved amendments.


Just months ago, Florida residents overwhelmingly voted to approve Amendment 2, a ballot initiative that raised the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by September 2026. Today, State Senator Jeffrey Brandes of St. Petersburg—a well-connected veteran of the Florida GOP—filed SJR 854, a measure that will, if enacted, exempt some Floridians from the increased minimum-wage protection. 

The Florida legislature has long treated grassroots ballot initiatives with open contempt. In 2017, after more than 70 percent of state voters elected to legalize medical marijuana, state lawmakers responded by temporarily making it illegal to smoke medicinal weed. In 2018, when a supermajority of Floridians voted to return voting rights to at least 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people, the GOP-dominated legislature passed a glorified poll tax that made sure that 800,000 of those people remained ineligible to vote. This week, the state Republican Party—dominated by pro-Trump apparatchiks and a smaller Libertarian-minded wing—has launched its plan to kneecap the minimum wage increase, which passed with over 60 percent approval.

Brandes is now proposing amending the state Constitution once more, to allow state lawmakers to “reduce the Minimum Wage rate for prisoners in the state correctional system, reduce the Minimum Wage rate for employees convicted of a felony, reduce the Minimum Wage rate for employees younger than 21 years of age, [and] reduce the Minimum Wage rate for other hard-to-hire employees …”

Given Brandes’s connections within the party, as well as the state GOP’s general antipathy toward raising the minimum wage, it’s quite likely the measure could reach voters by November. (More than 60 percent of Florida voters must approve amendments to the state Constitution for changes to take effect.) The state GOP has prioritized a number of other draconian bills, including a much-criticized proposal from Governor Ron DeSantis that would crack down on peaceful protesters and make it legal, in some cases, to run demonstrators over.

That this proposal targets both currently and formerly imprisoned people is something of a shock for those following Brandes’s career: Over the last handful of years, there has been arguably no more successful justice reform champion in Tallahassee than Brandes. He has leaned on his professed small-government Libertarian ethos to try to reform the state’s mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, force cops to get warrants before monitoring citizens’ cell phone data, push more people into pre-arrest diversion programs, and reduce the state’s reliance on cash bail. While there have certainly been Democratic members of the state legislature who have proposed justice reform measures, Brandes has been able to use his pull as a member of the state’s dominant party to pass significant reforms.

This week’s measure shows exactly how far the state will get by relying on someone like Brandes to fix its problems. What’s more, it could provide a new push for progressive members of the U.S. Congress to pass a $15 minimum wage hike, rather than leaving the matter up to individual states. 

Brandes spent the day defending his bill on Twitter by claiming that lowering the minimum wage for teens or formerly incarcerated people will somehow help, rather than hurt, them. He cited multiple right- or Libertarian-leaning think tanks, which allege that minimum wage hikes would lead to a spike in unemployment for those groups. A significant amount of research contradicts those claims.

Brandes told The Appeal that he believes a lower wage for “hard-to-hire” groups would help them gain job skills before moving on to a higher-paying job. Asked directly if he believes the proposed exceptions could permanently trap the formerly incarcerated in low-paying jobs, he said he didn’t believe so.*

“This is really about allowing the legislature to offer a training wage and about recognizing that for the formerly incarcerated, it’s sometimes difficult for them to compete with much more skilled workers for jobs,” he said.

If voters pass the amendment, Brandes said he would be willing to propose a follow-up bill that would place a time limit on the “training wages.” Under that idea, “hard-to-hire” groups could only be paid less than the minimum wage for a set period of time, perhaps a year or a set amount of hours.

“The key is not to hurt them, but to help them get a leg up,” he said.

Others, however, vehemently disagree with the proposal.

“Pretty clear higher wages keep people out of prison, too,” progressive State Representative Anna Eskamani of Orlando tweeted in response to an article about the bill on Wednesday.

“…once they get a job,” Brandes replied, adding later that, in his opinion, the bill will help formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet after leaving prison.

In a text message to The Appeal, Eskamani said that instead of forcing the recently incarcerated into low-paying jobs, the state should focus on jobs training programs to help people leaving prison.

“Instead of carving out ‘hard to hire employees’ from benefiting with an increase to the minimum wage we should help hard to hire employees be hirable!” she said. “Automation is already here and yet we face many talent gaps in areas like construction and manufacturing. Let’s get folks trained and hired there, where they are needed. But hand picking select groups of people to be exempt is not to the spirit of Amendment 2, and won’t help is reducing recidivism rates either.”

*This article has been updated with quotes from State Senator Jeffrey Brandes.

Austin Will Use Money Cut From Police Budget To Establish Supportive Housing

The City Council voted to buy one hotel and use funds diverted from its police budget to set up wraparound services for the homeless people who will live there.

(Paul Bradbury/Getty Images)

Austin Will Use Money Cut From Police Budget To Establish Supportive Housing

The City Council voted to buy one hotel and use funds diverted from its police budget to set up wraparound services for the homeless people who will live there.


The Austin City Council voted today to purchase one hotel and turn it into 60 units of permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. The vote to purchase a second hotel has been postponed to next week after a city council member asked for more time to gather feedback from her constituents.

Under the measure, the city will spend approximately $6.7 million from its Housing and Planning Department’s general obligation bonds to acquire one hotel and use some money from a recurring $6.5 million fund taken from the police department’s budget to provide services to the residents of the hotel. At full occupancy (which wouldn’t happen this year), services and operating costs for the hotel are expected to be about $1.6 million annually. 

“In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, we made a significant cut to policing dollars and reinvested that in things like this,” said Council Member Gregorio Casar, who led the effort to cut police funding and sponsored an amendment last August that set aside $6.5 million in recurring funding to be used for permanent supportive housing and services. “That’s how we’re paying for this. That’s the only reason we’re able to do this.”

In August, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for things like license plate readers. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab—though that money will still be spent on those functions, just not within the department.

Austin will now move ahead with negotiations to buy the Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites in District 7. The property was built in 2018 and has 65 rooms (41 with kitchenettes), onsite laundry, and a front desk with controlled entry. Some of the rooms will be converted to add more office and common space, like a community kitchen, leaving the building with about 60 permanent supportive housing units. 

The city’s Homeless Services Division will contract with nonprofit service providers to cover operating costs and set up wraparound services for residents, like case management, support for mental health or substance use issues, workforce development programs, and job placement services.

The purchase will create about 60 units of low barrier permanent supportive housing with these kinds of wraparound services.

The council was supposed to vote on proposals to purchase two hotels today, but ultimately only voted on one after some council members agreed to postpone the vote to allow the council’s newest member, Mackenzie Kelly, to spend more time hearing from community members and businesses near the hotel, which is in her district. 

“We have a homelessness crisis, but treating every proposal as an out-of-context emergency is not great policy and silences stakeholders,” Kelly said at the council meeting. “We need to provide housing to the unhoused, but we can do so in a way that creates good feelings throughout the community. … We want to educate the community on this important project and continue to get feedback.”

Kelly replaced former city council member and public safety chair Jimmy Flannigan after winning a runoff election in December. Kelly is the president of Take Back Austin, a pro-law enforcement group and has denounced the council’s move to decriminalize homelessness and pledged to bring back a ban on public camping.

Ninety-five people signed up to give public comment on the proposals. The vast majority of community members spoke in favor and urged the council to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness as soon as possible. Only five people signed up to speak in opposition of the proposals, citing concerns about crime and safety.

“Voting in favor of both of these items today confirms your commitment to humanely and sustainably ending the homelessness crisis we face, not just hiding it away,” said Chris Harris, director of the criminal justice project at Texas Appleseed, during the council meeting. “Voting in favor of this housing today is one less week that upwards of 150 folks will have to live unsheltered. It’s one less week of trying to survive the elements and the constant peril associated with living outdoors.”

The vote on the proposal to purchase a hotel from Candlewood Suites in District 6 for $9.5 million will be postponed until next week. The hotel was built in 2018 and has 83 rooms, all with full kitchenettes and air conditioners. The property also includes amenities like a computer room, onsite laundry, a fitness room, and outdoor patio space. If the city goes ahead with the purchase, some of the current guest rooms may be converted into additional common areas or office space, though the property will still provide roughly 80 units of permanent supportive housing once it’s complete.

About 2,500 people were experiencing homelessness in Austin at the start of last year, according to the 2020 Point-in-Time Count. Nearly 1,600 of those people were unsheltered.

“Cities that have stepped up and tried to reallocate police budgets have faced backlash usually driven by misinformation for the past few months, but I believe in the next few months cities that reallocated police funds can start showing results, can start showing what cities can do when we reduce police overspending,” Casar previously told The Appeal. “It’s only possible if we keep rethinking our priorities instead of continuing to over-invest in policing.”

The Prosecutors’ Union That’s Suing George Gascón Has A History Of Zealous Opposition To Reform

A look at the organization’s past actions suggests that this lawsuit is part of a longstanding pattern of ideologically motivated advocacy and commitment to tough-on-crime policies, rather than a show of blind allegiance to the law.

LA County District Attorney George Gascón.
(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

The Prosecutors’ Union That’s Suing George Gascón Has A History Of Zealous Opposition To Reform

A look at the organization’s past actions suggests that this lawsuit is part of a longstanding pattern of ideologically motivated advocacy and commitment to tough-on-crime policies, rather than a show of blind allegiance to the law.


On Dec. 30, the union representing Los Angeles County’s deputy district attorneys sued their new boss, DA George Gascón, who ran on a platform of criminal justice reforms. It claimed his order to forgo sentencing enhancements violates California law.  

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County (ADDA) framed its opposition to Gascón’s order as an ethical imperative to “neutrally and impartially enforce and apply” existing law. In California, that includes the STEP Act and the Three Strikes law, which allow the state to pursue harsher sentences if the defendant is accused of gang affiliation, or has been convicted of prior serious or violent crimes.

Gascón’s office contends that moving away from these laws is a moral issue, and that their enforcement has until now been anything but neutral—the directive notes that 45 percent of people currently serving a life sentence in California are Black. Prosecutors have discretion on how to handle individual cases, the directive argues, and studies have exposed wide racial disparities in their charging and sentencing decisions.

And a look at the ADDA’s history suggests that this lawsuit is part of a longstanding pattern of ideologically motivated advocacy and commitment to tough-on-crime policies, rather than a show of blind allegiance to the law.

Over the past several years, the union has made clear its position on reforms to the criminal legal system—and, by extension, the organizations and leaders who promote them. It has promulgated its views in writing, funded and lobbied hard for the propositions and candidates it supports, and expressed vocal opposition to the ones it doesn’t. Throughout, it has remained committed to the notions that criminal justice reform endangers communities, the death penalty is a useful tool, and harsher sentences are synonymous with justice.


The ADDA is led by Michele Hanisee, a deputy district attorney who frequently represents the union in the news media, is listed as treasurer on campaign contribution filings, and appears to be a member of every committee listed on its website.

Hanisee has taken to the ADDA’s website to champion a proposition that would expedite the death penalty, argue that a bill meant to cut down on racial bias in jury selection will prevent “sleeping, hostile, and unintelligible jurors” from being struck, and suggest that criminally minded people flock to California because of its lenient parole laws. In a 2019 New York Times article on the death penalty, she shot back against criticism that death sentences are racially biased. “Of the 24 or so who are presently eligible for execution [in California], half of them are white men,” Hanisee told the Times. “So let’s execute them.”

With this lawsuit, Hanisee is taking a more restrained rhetorical approach, striving to present her organization as a neutral vessel for the law. “This is a classic separation of powers issue,” she said on KFI-AM’s “Gary and Shannon” show. “The legislature gets to enact laws, or the voters … the judicial branch is authorized to rule on the legality of laws, and the executive—elected officials—aren’t authorized to do either.”

University of Southern California professor Jody Armour, an author and commentator on prison and policing matters who endorsed Gascón during the 2020 election, is skeptical of this reasoning. “Discretion is the stock-in-trade of any prosecutor’s office,” Armour said. “DAs tell their offices, ‘We’re going after these kinds of crimes, not those kinds of crimes,’ all the time.” 

The practices of the Los Angeles DA office in the last 30 years has provided plenty of evidence of this prosecutorial discretion—though it has often been used to zealously enforce criminal justice laws rather than temper them. Ira Reiner, the DA from 1984 to 1992 and a liberal Democrat, was described as a “maverick DA” by the Los Angeles Times for using the weight of his office to lobby for a panoply of harsher criminal laws. Gil Garcetti, a Democrat who served as DA from 1992 until 2000,  was criticized by the Republican prosecutor he ultimately lost to, Steve Cooley, for his inflexible interpretation of the Three Strikes law. Gascón won the race against incumbent DA Jackie Lacey after campaigning on bringing criminal justice reforms to Los Angeles. During his campaign, Gascón told The Appeal that sentences over 20 years are “pretty worthless in terms of public safety,” with “very few exceptions,” and should be rare.

Armour told The Appeal: “It is absurd, really, to say that an incoming DA, with a voter mandate to take a different approach to blame and punishment matters, cannot order the enforcement priorities of his office in such a way as to reflect the will of the voters.” 

“In this particular case,” he added, “[voters] put someone who ran on a progressive prosecutor’s platform, who made it abundantly clear who he was and how different he was from the law and order DA who had been in the office for eight years. The voters had a clear choice.”

In response to a request for comment, the ADDA said it is “not going to respond to every outlandish claim or statement made in this case,” and referred The Appeal to a statement on its website. Hanisee did not respond to requests for comment. 


At stake in this lawsuit are a set of laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s that extended sentences and contributed to California’s skyrocketing prison population. ADDA Vice President Eric Siddall has said that Gascón’s desire to stop seeking gang enhancements and stop applying the Three Strikes law is “prosecutorial institutionalism” influenced by “certain fringe groups.” But advocates and scholars across California and the country have pointed to these laws as racially biased, overly punitive, and ultimately ineffective in stopping crime.

Michael Saavedra and James Nelson, organizers with Dignity and Power Now, have experienced the effect of these laws firsthand. Nelson remembers back in the early 1980s when police began labeling people in his neighborhood as gang members on Field Interview index cards. When the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act passed in 1988, those cards were used to give people longer prison sentences—even though the information was often wrong. “Once [you] get arrested, it’s so easy to attach a gang enhancement to any crime,” Saavedra said, “and it’s very limited in terms of due process in challenging it.”

By 1988, Nelson was already in prison, locked away at 19 for a gang-related murder in which he has always maintained his innocence. He still remembers how things changed: “People were getting more time for enhancements than the crime they were being charged for.” In 1994 came the Three Strikes law, which mandated a sentence of 25 years to life for third-time offenders. “You started seeing folks come in for stealing a pair of socks or stealing food,” Nelson recalled. “You had people sitting in there with life sentences for things that shouldn’t have been life sentences.”

In 1999, at the age of 17, Saavedra had 10 years added on to his sentence because of a gang enhancement. The label meant that he spent 15 of his 19 years in prison in solitary confinement. “I did not have access to any type of educational resources or tools, any type of rehabilitative programs,” Saavedra told The Appeal. “It had a huge effect not only on my stay inside but my transition coming home.”

Today, Nelson and Saavedra facilitate peace work in their communities and advocate for the rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in California. After teaching himself law in prison, Saavedra is studying to be a lawyer. He knows the gang enhancement he got at 17 is going to follow him right up to his application to the state bar.


Hanisee’s separation of powers argument has not stopped the ADDA from speaking out against laws that the group finds ill-conceived, even after they have gone through the legislature or have been voted for by a majority of Californians. (The California District Attorneys Association, consisting of elected and appointed prosecutors from across the state, has taken similar positions with respect to reform efforts.)

Proposition 47, which was co-written by Gascón and passed with 59 percent of the vote in 2014, reduced many nonviolent felony convictions to misdemeanors. On the ADDA’s website, Hanisee wrote that Prop 47 had wrought “a vast landscape of devastation.” Last year, the union was active in the fight to pass Prop 20, which would have rolled back aspects of Prop 47, Prop 57, and Assembly Bill 109 . (Prop 57 was a 2016 ballot measure that expanded parole eligibility, and AB 109 was legislation passed in 2011 that intended to reduce the state prison population.) Prop 20  was ultimately defeated by nearly 24 percentage points statewide. In Los Angeles County, the margin was even wider.

Much of the ADDA’s rhetoric around Props 47, 57, and 20 relied on the figure of the crime victim, who has, in their telling, been abandoned by soft-on-crime politicians. That framing doesn’t sit right with Tinisch Hollins, the state director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. CSSJ’s sister organization, Californians for Safety and Justice, was instrumental in the passage of 47 and 57, and also worked to defeat Prop 20.

Proponents of Prop 20, Hollins told The Appeal, “egregiously exploited the voices and experiences of crime victims. … This conversation around criminal justice and public safety is always pitting victims against folks who have had contact with the system.”

For Hollins, those tactics are especially hard to countenance because she is a crime survivor herself. “I lost two brothers to gun violence,” she told The Appeal. “It’s sometimes a challenging space to navigate as a survivor whose family has been victimized, who lost someone, and who wants justice and accountability.” Many victim advocacy groups promote tough-on-crime policies; a number have vocally opposed Gascón’s new sentencing directive. In response, Gascón announced that he will continue to seek enhancements for hate crimes, sexual assault, child and elder abuse, sex trafficking, and certain financial crimes, but this has not proved an acceptable compromise for many.  

“All survivors have the right to decide for themselves what justice feels like for what happened to them or to their family members,” Hollins told The Appeal. “I will never take that from them. But we have to acknowledge that the current criminal justice system doesn’t really give the majority of us justice. Most crime victims can’t get the response, or even access to the system, to give them the justice and closure that they really want or need or deserve.”

Hollins said that her group’s research on Prop 20 found that it would not have meaningfully changed investment in victim services, which she described as “less than 1 percent” of the state’s $50 billion annual budget for law enforcement, incarceration, and the criminal legal system. Meanwhile, Hollins says, savings from Prop 47 have funded trauma-informed victim services and prevention and treatment programs across the state.


Gascón’s November win against incumbent Lacey was fueled by intense organizing by Black Lives Matter LA and other racial justice organizations, and likely boosted by the uprising for Black lives last summer. Law enforcement unions across Los Angeles County  strongly opposed his campaign—and the ADDA was no exception.

The ADDA’s PAC donated $70,000 to a pro-Lacey PAC. (It also joined in the fight against Measure J, with Hanisee acting as a spokesperson for the “No on J” campaign.) In the months and then weeks leading up to the election, the ADDA’s Facebook page was a cacophony of anti-Gascón press. It shared article after article critical of Gascón and other “Soros-backed” candidates, including pieces by Ben Shapiro’s media site The Daily Wire and the Falun Gong-backed Epoch Times.

Mark Debbaudt, Hanisee’s predecessor, penned an editorial detailing the iniquities he believed would come about if Gascón or former public defender Rachel Rossi were to win the election. In the piece, entitled “Felons, come one, come all,” Debbaudt qualified his argument by writing: “I am obliged to say that it is not necessarily the opinion of the District Attorney’s Office, and it certainly won’t be if felons and morons vote for Gascón and Rossi.”

Now, after Lacey’s loss, the ADDA is carrying on the fight. Its lawsuit represents an early test for Gascón, and prosecutors on both sides of the issue have stepped into the ring. On Jan. 12, the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) announced it would file an amicus brief in support of the ADDA after Hanisee asked the association to weigh in. (The CDAA has come under fire in recent days after an audit revealed that it had misspent millions in funds on its lobbying efforts, which are similar in priority to those of the ADDA. That longtime commitment to tough-on-crime politics led a small group of reform-minded DAs, including Gascón, to form an alternative association last year.) 

Three days later, Fair and Just Prosecution countered with an amicus brief in support of Gascón’s directive, signed by 65 current and former prosecutors around the country. Reiner and Garcetti, the Los Angeles DAs who served when Nelson and Saavedra were sent to prison, both added their names to the brief—a sign that attitudes around criminal justice and punishment are shifting at the very heart of the system. 

But the ADDA’s lawsuit, which none of its members appear to have spoken against, indicates that there’s also a vast portion of that system that feels very differently. Armour, the prison and policing expert, said that divide represents “the existential threat to real reform and transformative change.” 

To Armour, the lawsuit’s chances in court are emblematic of this opposition. “We’re going to have some judges who are former prosecutors and conservative law-and-order types making judgments about whether there’s any merit to this action by the DAs,” he told The Appeal. “There’s always a possibility that they will do something that is very partisan, rather than jurisprudentially sound.”  Ultimately, Armour said, “I think it’s showing us what a monumental task it will be to turn around our addiction to the carceral state.”

CORRECTION: This piece originally mischaracterized Michael Saavedra and James Nelson’s work in their communities.

Austin May Use Money Cut From Police Budget To Establish Permanent Supportive Housing

The City Council will decide whether to buy two hotels and use funds diverted from its police budget to set up wraparound services for the homeless people who will live there.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown, photo by Getty Images)

Austin May Use Money Cut From Police Budget To Establish Permanent Supportive Housing

The City Council will decide whether to buy two hotels and use funds diverted from its police budget to set up wraparound services for the homeless people who will live there.


On Wednesday, the Austin City Council will vote on whether to purchase two hotels and turn them into permanent supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. 

If the measure passes, the city will spend approximately $16 million from its Housing and Planning Department’s general obligation bonds to acquire the two properties and use some money from a $6.5 million fund taken from the police department’s budget to provide services to the residents of the hotels. At full occupancy (which wouldn’t happen this year), services and operating costs for these two hotels are expected to be about $3.8 million annually.

“In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, we made a significant cut to policing dollars and reinvested that in things like this,” said Council Member Gregorio Casar, who led the effort to cut police funding and sponsored an amendment last August that set aside $6.5 million in recurring funding to be used for permanent supportive housing and services. “That’s how we’re paying for this. That’s the only reason we’re able to do this.”

In Austin, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for things like license plate readers. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab, though that money will still be spent on funding those civilian functions, just not within the department.

Some council members have asked to postpone the vote so they can spend more time hearing from community members and businesses near the hotels. At a council meeting on Monday, some council members suggested the city explore opening up more sanctioned campgrounds where people experiencing homelessness will continue to live outside instead.

Under the proposal, Austin would buy a property from Candlewood Suites in northwest Austin and another property from Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites, according to a memo sent to the mayor and council by the city’s Office of Real Estate Services and a homeless strategy officer with Austin Public Health. Both hotels are near retail services and public transit.

The Candlewood Suites hotel was built in 2018 and has 83 rooms, all with full kitchenettes and air conditioners. The property also includes amenities like a computer room, onsite laundry, a fitness room, and outdoor patio space. If the city goes ahead with the purchase, some of the current guest rooms may be converted into additional common areas or office space, though the property will still provide roughly 80 units of permanent supportive housing once it’s complete.

The Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites property was also built in 2018. It has 65 rooms (though only 41 currently have kitchenettes), onsite laundry, and a front desk with controlled entry. If purchased, some of the rooms would be converted to add more office and common space, like a community kitchen, leaving the building with about 60 permanent supportive housing units. 

“The city’s goal has traditionally been 100 permanent supportive housing units a year, and sometimes wouldn’t even reach that. And here we are in January and we’ll blast through the goal,” said Casar. “This is funding that was previously going to over-policing every single year and will now go to getting folks off the street.”

About 2,500 people were experiencing homelessness in Austin at the start of last year, according to the 2020 Point-in-Time Count. Nearly 1,600 of those people were unsheltered.

The city’s Homeless Services Division plans to negotiate contracts with nonprofit service providers Caritas of Austin and Integral Care to cover operating costs and set up wraparound services for residents, like case management, support for mental health or substance use issues, workforce development programs, and job placement services.

Altogether, purchasing the hotels would create about 140 units of low barrier permanent supportive housing with these kinds of wraparound services.

“Cities that have stepped up and tried to reallocate police budgets have faced backlash usually driven by misinformation for the past few months, but I believe in the next few months cities that reallocated police funds can start showing results, can start showing what cities can do when we reduce police overspending,” said Casar. “It’s only possible if we keep rethinking our priorities instead of continuing to over-invest in policing.”

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to reflect that the measure would only use a part of the $6.5 million fund.

Joe Manchin’s Voters Aren’t Letting Him Stop $2,000 Checks

The intense backlash to his recent comments criticizing $2,000 stimulus checks signal the growing momentum for guaranteed income programs—and the emerging power of voters who care more about substantive results than partisan skirmishes.

(Photo by Toni Sandys-Pool/Getty Images)

Joe Manchin’s Voters Aren’t Letting Him Stop $2,000 Checks

The intense backlash to his recent comments criticizing $2,000 stimulus checks signal the growing momentum for guaranteed income programs—and the emerging power of voters who care more about substantive results than partisan skirmishes.


On the same day President Joe Biden sketched out the first details of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus proposal earlier this month, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a fellow Democrat, dunked its most important component in a bucket of cold water. “Absolutely not. No,” he told The Washington Post, when asked if the party’s top priority should be sending out $2,000 stimulus payments—a pledge that Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and a multitude of other Democratic politicians made repeatedly on the campaign trail. “Getting people vaccinated, that’s job No. 1.”

When the interviewer pointed out that this position placed him directly at odds with party leadership, Manchin more or less shrugged. “That’s the beauty of our whole caucus,” he said. “We have a difference of opinion on that.”

Manchin went on to explain that he might back a more narrowly targeted round of checks, if he could be persuaded that the money would bring back some of the millions of jobs that evaporated during the pandemic. Even under this hypothetical set of self-imposed conditions, though, he seemed to remain philosophically opposed to the notion of giving people money, and wistfully invoked the New Deal championed by President Franklin Roosevelt almost a century ago. “I don’t know where in the hell $2,000 came from,” Manchin later said, a statement that could only be true if he had not watched TV or listened to any member of his party for the last several months. “Can’t we start some infrastructure program to help people, get ‘em back on their feet? Do we have to keep sending checks out?”

For Manchin, this question is apparently rhetorical. For the 1.8 million West Virginians he represents in Washington, it is assuredly not. An infrastructure job soon is of little use to a family that needs to buy groceries last week. Already among the nation’s poorest states before the pandemic hit, more than half of West Virginians are now struggling to cover their basic expenses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Since Manchin is the most conservative member of a Senate Democratic caucus that must remain united to act without Republican support, his opposition to sending out checks signaled to many that Biden’s proposal was effectively dead before members of the 117th Congress would even have the chance to vote on it.

Manchin’s constituents wasted little time expressing their feelings on the subject. The backlash was “swift and vocal,” said Stephen Smith, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and co-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait. “People of all stripes and all over the state were saying, ‘This is the difference between whether or not my family gets to stay in their home. This is the difference between whether my small business gets to stay alive. This is the difference between whether or not I get glasses.’”

In Beckley, a billboard went up portraying a bewildered-looking Manchin next to “HEY JOE! WHERE’S MY $2,000?”—and, just as importantly, next to his office’s phone number. Radio ads mocked him for accomplishing the rarest of feats in Washington these days: being out of step on an issue with both Trump and his Democratic counterparts. “Our senator, Joe Manchin, thinks he knows better than both our president and the Democrats in Congress,” the narrator said. “I guess Joe just don’t know what it’s been like to live through the pandemic.” 

(Photo courtesy the Income Movement)

I think that it was important that we not equivocate on something that was core to the message that won us Georgia and the Senate,” says No Excuses PAC co-founder Corbin Trent, whose group paid for the ads that he narrated himself. “And not to look like Democrats, right out of the gate, are full of shit.” 

The message, in some form or another, got through. During an appearance on Inside West Virginia Politics last weekend, Manchin again emphasized the importance of embedding trillions in infrastructure spending in a stimulus bill. But the precise distribution of direct payments, it seems, is no longer among his principal concerns. “Is there a way to target it? Maybe there’s not,” he said. “But we gotta get more money out.” 

Manchin’s reversal here is a product of both West Virginia’s unconventional political landscape and the unique position he occupies within it. Voters in the state are less Democrat or Republican than independent and anti-establishment; although Trump won every single county in 2020 and beat Biden by nearly 40 points, registered Democrats actually outnumber registered Republicans, and nearly a quarter of voters are unaffiliated with any particular party. And after some four decades in state politics, Manchin is now the lone Democrat elected to statewide office, a skilled retail politician who prides himself on eschewing the labels by which many of his colleagues define themselves. (Re-elected most recently in 2018, Manchin was the only Democrat to vote to confirm Republican justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, and memorably made headlines by flirting with the idea of endorsing Trump’s re-election bid.) In an evenly-divided Senate, Joe Manchin’s penchant for refusing to toe the party line makes him arguably the most powerful lawmaker in Washington.

As the backlash to his comments illustrates, however, moderate politicians who overthink the inside-the-Beltway partisan machinations risk whiffing badly when it comes to delivering what voters actually want. Polling conducted by Data for Progress and The Appeal found that about 80 percent of all voters, including nearly three-quarters of Republicans, support a one-time distribution of $2,000 payments, and more than half support making such payments retroactive and recurring until the pandemic is over. As it turns out, the economic devastation wrought by a disaster that brought large swaths of American society to a grinding halt does not discriminate based on party preference. For lawmakers, performing bipartisanship when people are suffering doesn’t burnish your independent bona fides; it just makes your constituents furious.

With stakes this high, the emergence of independent, nonpartisan coalitions like the one banging on Manchin’s office door could redraw entrenched political battle lines in a hurry, even in this hyperpolarized version of Washington, D.C. “The thing that’s going to move Joe Manchin or anyone else positioning themselves on the fence … is the existence of a populist movement,” said Smith. “That is something that Manchin can’t control, and therefore has to listen to.”

Manchin’s objections to direct stimulus payments are as substantively unfounded as they are strategically unwise. For one, endless tinkering with eligibility criteria ignores the fact that the government has tools available to recover money that might flow to unintended beneficiaries—the annual tax filing process, for example. And although preemptive means-testing might sound like a sensible component of a massive cash distribution scheme, experts caution that it often does far more harm than good. “The moment you start to really apply means testing, there’s just a lot of people that fall through the cracks,” says Income Movement president and founder Stacey Rutland, whose organization paid for the billboard in Beckley. “Usually it’s the people who need it the most.” 

The high-profile fights over COVID-19 stimulus payments have been a boon to the guaranteed income movement, which has already been the subject of high-profile pilot programs over the last several years. (A coalition of 34 mayors is now running ads in The Washington Post calling on Congress to make those stimulus payments a monthly occurrence: “ONE MORE CHECK IS NOT ENOUGH,” it reads.) Many people who were previously skeptical of “government handouts” now have firsthand knowledge of the woeful insufficiency of the existing social safety net. And the longstanding insistence on tying receipt of assistance to employment—a reliable staple of “welfare reform” language used by Republicans and Democrats alike—loses its rhetorical force when a global emergency prevents so many people from working at all. As Smith points out, the pandemic has not created economic precarity so much as it has democratized it. “People who are not sure how they’re going to put food on the table don’t need a crisis to remind them that things need to change in a fundamental way,” he says.

As Democrats in Washington prepare to tackle the stimulus bill—among the many, many urgent items on their agenda—conventional wisdom dictates that they have to act quickly to accomplish their legislative priorities, but also cautiously, to preserve the majorities that make those successes possible. The parties of incumbent presidents usually lose seats in Congress in the midterm election that follows. Given the narrow margins by which Democrats currently control both chambers, getting too ambitious might lose them the unified Democratic government they worked so hard to earn in 2020.

But Manchin’s rapid about-face here reveals just how shortsighted and obsolete this conventional wisdom really is. As Trent points out, Roosevelt, whose New Deal leadership Manchin cited approvingly to the Post, is the rare incoming president who actually expanded his party’s legislative majorities two years later. “It’s because they were producing,” Trent says. “That led to a generation of majorities and trifectas from the Democratic Party, and we were able to do some amazing shit because of that.” In this moment of crisis, voters are far likelier to punish their lawmakers’ failures to deliver than they are to reward knee-jerk partisan intransigence. Lawmakers who don’t learn this lesson will quickly find themselves out of office. 

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.

Members of Congress Call on Biden to Commute Everyone on Federal Death Row

More than 35 members of Congress signed a letter asking Biden to commute the sentences of the remaining 50 people on federal death row.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Members of Congress Call on Biden to Commute Everyone on Federal Death Row

More than 35 members of Congress signed a letter asking Biden to commute the sentences of the remaining 50 people on federal death row.


Reps. Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley released a letter today asking President Joe Biden to commute the sentences of the remaining 50 people on federal death row, following his predecessor’s last-minute execution spree. At least 35 other members of Congress have also signed on to the letter.

“President Obama halted federal executions and commuted the sentences of two federal prisoners on death row,” Bush and Pressley wrote in the letter. “However, the Obama administration’s reticence to commute more death sentences has allowed the Trump administration to reverse course and pursue a horrifying killing spree over the final seven months of his presidency.”

Since July, the federal government has executed 13 people on death row, breaking a 17-year hiatus on federal executions and killing roughly one-fifth of all federal prisoners sentenced to death. Among those executed was Brandon Bernard, who at 18 participated in the carjacking and murder of two youth pastors, though he was not the one who shot the pastors. In the decades since his conviction, five of the jurors from his case said they no longer believe Bernard should be killed for his crimes—and so did one of the prosecutors who sought the death sentence in the first place. Also killed was Lisa Montgomery, who strangled a pregnant woman and whose traumatic childhood filled with rampant sexual abuse left her so seriously mentally ill, her lawyers contended it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to execute her. 

Biden has the power to commute the sentences of anyone on death row, meaning he could have them re-sentenced to life in prison instead of death if he so chooses. Biden has said he wants to work to pass legislation eliminating the federal death penalty, but has not said publicly whether he will commute any of the remaining 50 federal death sentences.

“Death penalty opponents are hoping Joe Biden learns from history,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “He was one of the authors of the federal death penalty act that expanded the federal death penalty from [applying to] a relatively small number of murders to one that encompasses thousands of murders each year.”

Now, Biden says the death penalty must be eliminated “because we can’t ensure we get these cases right every time.” Since 1973, at least 174 people who have been sentenced to death were later exonerated, meaning some people killed by the government were almost certainly innocent.

“There is a myth that death row is reserved for the worst of the worst crimes and the worst of the worst criminals. It’s false, it is not supported by the facts,” Dunham said, noting that whether or not a person gets sentenced to death has more to do with the political leanings of the prosecutors where the crime occurred and the quality of legal representation the defendants receive.

“Half of death row comes from fewer than two percent of all counties in the United States,” said Dunham. “Do proponents of the death penalty want a system that is based on the randomness of where you’re accused of committing a crime? Do they want a system where there is one exoneration for every nine people who are executed? Do they want a system that is based in large part on the race of the victim?”

Support for the death penalty has dropped in recent years and is currently at its lowest level in nearly 50 years. Twenty-two states and D.C. have abolished the death penalty. Governors in three states—California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—have imposed a moratorium on the death penalty.

Rep. Pressley and Sen. Dick Durbin, incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have also introduced a bill to ban the federal death penalty and require the people on federal death row to be re-sentenced. The bill has nearly 60 sponsors.

The death penalty is used more frequently in cases where the victim is white than it is in cases where the victim is a person of color. And though the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it violates the Eighth Amendment to execute an intellectually disabled person, some research indicates people on death row have much higher rates of mental illness than the general public: 43 percent of people executed in the United States between 2000 and 2015 had been diagnosed as mentally ill at some point during their lifetimes, a review by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Frank Baumgartner found.

“We hope to advocate for a justice system that seeks to rehabilitate and restore rather than penalize and execute,” Bush and Pressley wrote. “Like slavery and lynching did before it, the death penalty perpetuates cycles of trauma, violence and state-sanctioned murder in Black and brown communities. We urge the Biden-Harris administration to correct these injustices using every tool available, including the extraordinary power to grant clemency. With the stroke of the pen, you can end the death penalty and establish a clear commitment to justice and equity.”

Republican Lawmakers Are Using the Capitol Riot to Fuel Anti-BLM Backlash

Some lawmakers are citing the violence in Washington as a reason to pass laws that criminalize protesting, but far-right extremists aren’t the target.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
(Photo from Getty Images. Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.)

Republican Lawmakers Are Using the Capitol Riot to Fuel Anti-BLM Backlash

Some lawmakers are citing the violence in Washington as a reason to pass laws that criminalize protesting, but far-right extremists aren’t the target.


In September, Florida governor and Trump ally Ron DeSantis proposed a bill dubbed the Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act to create new criminal penalties for offenses commonly committed during protests. He said it was needed to stop the “professional agitators bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities” following months of largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. 

Hours after a far-right mob stormed the Capitol at the behest of the president, Florida Republicans introduced a version of the bill. That night, DeSantis said the violence in Washington shows that lawmakers “have no time to waste to uphold public safety” and must “swiftly pass this bill.”

DeSantis isn’t alone. Within the past year, lawmakers in 24 states have introduced at least 45 bills to create new penalties or increase criminal penalties for offenses related to protesting, discourage cuts to police funding, and provide protections to people who drive their cars into protesters or shoot protesters in an alleged act of self defense. Six of those bills—one in Utah, one in Mississippi, one in West Virginia, one in Tennessee and two in South Dakota—have been signed into law. 

But the bills aren’t aimed at reining in the kind of violent insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, and federal prosecutors already have a litany of charges at their disposal to hold the perpetrators accountable. The bills seek to criminalize conduct typically associated with Black Lives Matter protests, like blocking streets or highways and camping out at state capitols. Provisions of DeSantis’s bill seek to discourage local governments from cutting police budgets, but what happened on Jan. 6 can’t be pinned on a lack of police funding or intelligence—the FBI knew extremists were planning to commit violence in Washington days before, and Capitol Police rejected offers for additional manpower from the National Guard. While some police officers were brutally attacked or took action to protect the lives of others, others shook hands with a member of the mob. One police officer even took a selfie with the insurrectionists.

After the violence at the Capitol, some lawmakers have renewed calls to expand domestic terrorism laws. President-elect Joe Biden has proposed working for a domestic terrorism law “that respects free speech and civil liberties.” But many others have cautioned against harsher laws, noting that police and prosecutors already have all the tools they need to go after white supremacists and other domestic terrorists, and that expanding their powers would only harm communities that are already over-policed and over-prosecuted. Similarly, experts say laws creating new criminal penalties for protesting are sure to be used mainly against minority groups—not far right extremists.

“Laws like these have historically been used to penalize communities of color and communities with unpopular views,” said Elly Page, legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which tracks laws that restrict the right to peaceful assembly in the United States and abroad. “Rioting charges were used widely last summer to target Black Lives Matter protesters, and that’s the big fear—that that’s how those tools would be used if they’re enacted.”

Adding more crimes to police and prosecutors’ arsenal would only support “the kind of disparate treatment that was on display at the Capitol last week,” said Page. 

Over the summer, police in D.C. tear gassed Black Lives Matter protesters just to clear the way for a Trump photo op, but it wasn’t until the rioters had breached the barricades and were storming the Capitol that police tear gassed them. 

And while people across the country have faced serious charges after taking part in Black Lives Matter protests, many members of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol and killed a police officer are so far being charged mainly with low-level offenses like disorderly conduct and unlawful entry (and were allowed to simply return to their hotel). The man photographed with his feet on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk faces three charges that carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison. 

Meanwhile, two lawyers who allegedly set fire to an empty NYPD cruiser during a Black Lives Matter protest are facing life in prison—and a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 years—because federal prosecutors chose to seek such a sentence. Prosecutors in Maricopa County, Arizona are charging 15 people who attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest where traffic cones were knocked down with rioting, aggravated assault, and assisting in a criminal street gang, all serious felonies that could land them in prison for decades. 

“With Black Lives Matter, particularly protests in streets and highways, we’ve definitely seen a pattern in bills that create or enhance penalties for blocking traffic,” said Page. “They’re draconian, because in many states it’s already a crime and they’re making them even harsher.”

At the same time, last week, an Iowa man who deliberately drove into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters and injured several people was given a deferred judgment, meaning he will serve no prison time and the arrest will be expunged from his record, so long as he does not commit any more crimes in the next three years. 


So far in 2021, lawmakers in six states have filed at least eight bills cracking down on protesting. In Washington, lawmakers want to make it a felony to deface public monuments. In Indiana, lawmakers are hoping to make it illegal to camp near the state capitol, increase the criminal penalties for rioting and disorderly conduct, and create mandatory minimum sentences for rioting. 

In Nebraska, a state senator introduced the First Responders and Public Protection Bill to “address some of the concerns that emerged surrounding officer and public safety during riots this past summer.” The bill would make it a felony to damage property belonging to a police officer, make it a misdemeanor to obstruct a public highway, street, or sidewalk, and increase the criminal penalties for assaulting a police officer and damaging government property. 

Meanwhile in Missouri, lawmaker Rick Brattin has filed a sweeping bill that would shield drivers who hit protesters with their cars from criminal and civil liability and add “Stand Your Ground” protections to people who shoot protesters, but enhance the criminal penalties for rioting, looting, and crimes against police officers. The bill would also withhold state funds from local governments that cut police budgets by more than 12 percent. State representatives in South Carolina pre-filed a similarly sweeping bill that seeks to prohibit camping on state-owned land, make it illegal to obstruct streets and sidewalks, and create criminal and civil liability for people who use deadly force “when confronted by a mob.” 

Republican lawmakers in Mississippi are looking to pass a bill that mirrors the legislation proposed by Ron DeSantis in Florida. The proposed legislation broadly defines “violent or disorderly assembly” as a gathering of seven or more people that creates a danger to property or people or obstructs government functions. It makes it a felony to obstruct traffic while participating in a violent assembly. It would let drivers off the hook for injuring or killing protesters with their cars if the protesters are obstructing traffic—and renders anyone who pleads guilty to the crimes outlined in the bill ineligible for unemployment benefits.

At least two states—Mississippi and Indiana—have introduced legislation to block municipalities from defunding police departments. And lawmakers in New York have introduced a slew of bills increasing the penalties for assaulting a police officer, despite the fact that police officers themselves were the ones responsible for committing much of the violence during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. In Mississippi, Republican state representative Becky Currie wants to create a registry of people accused of committing crimes against police officers. 

“In the past six months, there has been a very clear uptick” in laws criminalizing protesting, said Page from the ICNL. There has been “a new wave of legislation that targets demonstrators often by broadly criminalizing conduct that can occur during peaceful protest and creating draconian penalties for that conduct. We’ve seen at least 21 bills since last May. … We’re especially concerned that the attack on the Capitol will be used to supercharge that crack down.”

Why Goodwin Liu Should Be California’s Next Attorney General

The California Supreme Court Justice is motivated not by politics but by making equal justice under the law a reality for all Californians.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Why Goodwin Liu Should Be California’s Next Attorney General

The California Supreme Court Justice is motivated not by politics but by making equal justice under the law a reality for all Californians.


I was sent to juvenile hall for the first time when I was around 14 years old and ended up being incarcerated for a total of 27 years. Starting in 2015 and since my release in 2018, I have documented the experiences of people in California’s prisons and life after incarceration in the podcast Ear Hustle. Many people close to me are in prison, and I, like all Californians, care about public safety. It should come as no surprise, then, that I have a strong opinion about Governor Gavin Newsom’s pick for California’s next attorney general.  

I urge Governor Newsom to appoint California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. He is the strongest candidate to lead the state’s Department of Justice. 

Justice Liu is the right person to be attorney general because he is motivated not by politics but by making equal justice under the law a reality for all Californians. When Justice Liu is required to apply an unjust law, he has the moral courage to address it frankly, as when he recently criticized the expense and injustice of California’s capital punishment system and called on voters and lawmakers to find a better path forward.

I met Justice Liu in 2017 in the media center at San Quentin where I was incarcerated.  He was visiting the prison with his staff. He takes them to San Quentin every year to meet with prison staff and incarcerated people because he believes decisionmakers should put themselves in close proximity to people impacted by their decisions.

I was deeply moved that a busy judge took seriously the obligation to understand the impact of his decisions, and modeled that attitude for his clerks and staff. And I was reminded of this recently when he invited me and John “Yahya” Johnson, another formerly incarcerated person, to speak to California Supreme Court attorneys and staff. He did not invite us as a gesture or performance; he really wanted to hear from us.  

This does not mean I have agreed with every decision Justice Liu has made on the bench. He has voted to affirm death penalty and Three Strikes sentences, which I find inherently unjust. It was because of the Three Strikes Law that I received a disproportionate 31-years-to-life term for attempted second degree robbery, and I was released after serving 21 years only when Governor Brown commuted my sentence. So I expect I will not agree with every decision Justice Liu might make as an attorney general.

But Justice Liu has been the California Supreme Court’s leading voice on racial justice and criminal justice reform. He called out abusive policing in Black communities last year in a case about Darren Burley, a Black man in Los Angeles who was suffocated to death during an arrest long before George Floyd. And Liu spoke out in defense of a 13-year-old Black girl last month who was charged with resisting police. He has written opinions that curb excessive sentencing and facilitate parole. He has denounced the erosion of Miranda rights, particularly those of children, inspiring lawmakers to enact stronger protections for juveniles in law enforcement custody. And he has criticized the school-to-prison pipeline and racial discrimination in jury selection—opinions that again prompted the legislature to act

When he ran for office in 2018, Governor Newsom promised to lead on criminal justice reform. Appointing Justice Liu as attorney general would fulfill that promise, and the governor would be rewarded by an electorate that has repeatedly shown its appetite for addressing the many unjust and unsustainable features of our current system.

More than most people, I know the importance of having a good attorney. All of us would be fortunate to have Justice Liu represent us as our state’s top lawyer.

Earlonne Woods is the co-creator and co-host of the award-winning podcast Ear Hustle, which has been downloaded nearly 50 million times.

Gavin Newsom’s High-Stakes Choice For California Attorney General

By appointing a reformer to replace the outgoing Xavier Becerra, Newsom has the chance to begin dismantling a sprawling, bloated system of prisons and jails that incarcerated nearly a quarter-million people as of 2018.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gavin Newsom’s High-Stakes Choice For California Attorney General

By appointing a reformer to replace the outgoing Xavier Becerra, Newsom has the chance to begin dismantling a sprawling, bloated system of prisons and jails that incarcerated nearly a quarter-million people as of 2018.


California Governor Gavin Newsom may soon be charged with hand-picking the next chief law enforcement officer of the most populous state in the country.

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Xavier Becerra, a longtime congressman who became the state’s attorney general in 2017, to serve as the administration’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. In the aftermath of the Democratic victories in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs, it seems likely the Senate will confirm Becerra sometime in the coming weeks.

Like many Democratic attorneys general, Becerra spent most of the last four years dealing with the Trump administration’s myriad attacks on people, democracy, and/or the planet. Among the initiatives Becerra’s office opposed in the courtroom were the president’s efforts to build a border wall, undermine California’s cap-and-trade program, implement a Muslim ban, hollow out the Affordable Care Act, limit reproductive rights, and end the DACA program in which hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people participate. His office has spent at least $43 million to sue the Trump administration more than 100 times. 

Without an overtly hostile federal government to deal with, Becerra’s replacement will have a considerable amount of time and resources to dedicate elsewhere—and a real chance to overhaul a sprawling, bloated system of prisons and jails that incarcerates more people than any state not named Texas.

Becerra will leave office with a spotty record on issues of police misconduct and accountability. Although he voiced support for some reforms after the police killing of George Floyd in May, he declined to investigate the police killing of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa, who was shot to death in June by Vallejo police officers who purportedly mistook a hammer at his waistband for a gun. A month later, Becerra backtracked slightly, saying he’d look into allegations that members of the notoriously violent department had destroyed evidence related to Monterrosa’s death, but not their substantive role in causing it. In 2019, Becerra’s office declined to file charges against two Sacramento police officers who shot 22-year-old Stephon Clark at least seven times in his grandmother’s backyard, killing him. Police said they thought an object he held in his hand was a gun; it was, in fact, a cell phone. 

Becerra also made headlines for fighting to conceal information about police misconduct, despite a state law that took effect in 2019 that specifically required him to make some of this information available for public disclosure. He even threatened a pair of journalists with legal consequences unless they destroyed a list of thousands of cops across the state who have been convicted of various crimes—a list the reporters obtained via a public records request. (Becerra’s office insisted that its inclusion was an accident; the list, according to KQED, identified officers who stole from their departments, filed false reports, committed perjury, and even one who donned a fake beard to rob a bank.) Spending by law enforcement-affiliated organizations on Becerra’s 2018 re-election campaign—a reliable barometer of a prosecutor’s bona fides as a reformer—exceeded $200,000.

In California’s rapidly shifting political landscape, however, traditional prosecutorial politics aren’t playing as well as they used to, as voters look for leadership from DAs who understand that the tasks of keeping people safe and putting people in prison are not synonymous with one another. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, recently-elected district attorneys George Gascón and Chesa Boudin ran for office on explicitly pro-reform platforms, defeating incumbents whose performances were insufficiently progressive for their constituents’ liking. In Contra Costa County, Diana Becton was appointed as the district attorney in 2017 and re-elected to a full term the following year. Becton, Boudin, Gascón, and San Joaquin County DA Tori Verber Salazar recently formed the Prosecutors Alliance of California as a progressive counterpart to the California District Attorneys Association. Together, its members represent four counties that are home to about a third of the state’s population.

Voters are also increasingly receptive to policy ideas that treat courtrooms as more than a system for meting out punishment. In 2020, Los Angeles paired the election of Gascón with the passage of Measure J, requiring the county to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to housing, mental health treatment, and other social services while prohibiting officials from spending that money on policing or incarceration. In San Francisco, voters chipped away at the power of the police department by repealing an archaic law that prescribed a minimum size for the city’s police force. Statewide, Californians restored the franchise to people convicted of felonies who are on parole, and rejected a proposition that would have boosted incarceration by reclassifying certain misdemeanors as felonies. Although they rejected an effort to replace cash bail with a controversial “risk assessment” system, reformers continue to explore alternatives to a cruel, regressive system in which one’s ability to get out of jail before trial is contingent on wealth. 

Lawmakers have certainly taken notice of this trend. The new attorney general will take office with Assembly Bill 1506, which requires state prosecutors to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians, now in effect. Already, legislators are working on another bill that would make it easier to revoke the certifications of police officers who are convicted of serious crimes or fired for misconduct, thereby preventing them from getting hired elsewhere. Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, wants to see the new attorney general embrace this legislative push for transparency. “We’re hopeful the governor will select someone that’s up for that challenge and opportunity,” she said.

Historically, candidates for state attorney general have been less ambitious would-be reformers than candidates for local prosecutor, since conventional wisdom dictates that winning a statewide race requires appealing to a broader and more ideologically diverse electorate than, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles. But given the demands for change from both lawmakers and the voters who elect them, the power to appoint Becerra’s successor allows Newsom to temporarily solve for this lingering electoral skittishness, expanding the reform movement’s visibility and viability outside of the more traditional bastions of progressivism. In a state that incarcerated nearly a quarter-million people as of 2018, the prospect of long-overdue criminal justice reform should not be attainable only in those counties where progressive DAs already happen to work.   

Newsom’s choice will also reveal a lot about his priorities as he eyes re-election, since his appointee, presumably, will appear alongside him on the ballot in 2022. Among those rumored to be in the mix are U.S. representatives Ted Lieu, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Eric Swalwell; state lawmakers Rob Bonta, Lorena Gonzalez, and Scott Wiener; Becton, the Contra Costa County DA; San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg; and Goodwin Liu, an Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court. Although the federal lawmakers are perhaps the biggest names, given the narrow Democratic majority in the House, Newsom would have to think hard about picking an attorney general who would create a congressional vacancy, especially in a purple district like Porter’s. (Two of Biden’s nominees, Marcia Fudge to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Deb Haaland to the Department of the Interior, are also members of Congress, but sit in safe Democratic districts unlikely to flip.)

Some members of the state’s criminal justice reform community have already voiced their support for Becton, a former state court judge, pointing to her track record of pushing for changes to the juvenile justice system, among other things. “She’s shown a desire to engage in criminal justice reform in meaningful ways for the people who need it most,” says Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, who represents parts of Becton’s Contra Costa County. 

Others have singled out Liu as especially well-suited for the job in this particular political environment. Writing in the Sacramento Bee, UC Berkeley School of Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky calls Liu “the court’s leading voice on criminal justice reform,” noting that several of his opinions spurred state lawmakers to address racial discrimination in jury selection, expand the availability of Miranda rights for juveniles, and reform the availability of post-conviction relief for people convicted of crimes based on false evidence. 

Newsom’s choice of a new attorney general is also important because of how frequently the office serves as a springboard to bigger things for its occupants. His predecessor, Jerry Brown, began his second tenure as governor after serving as attorney general from 2007 to 2011; Becerra’s predecessor, Kamala Harris, won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2016 and, of course, became Vice President of the United States four years after that. (If you want to go back even further, Earl Warren went on to serve as governor for a decade and, after that, as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.) By replacing Becerra as attorney general with a proven, committed reformer, Newsom would seize a golden opportunity to meaningfully address mass incarceration and the policing crisis that fuels it—and perhaps empower his appointee to be even more impactful in the not-so-distant future.

CORRECTION: This commentary originally misstated the number of active DACA recipients in the United States. There were around 645,000 as of June 30, 2020, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

They Took Umbrellas to a Black Lives Matter Protest. The D.A. Hit Them with Gang Charges

Police and prosecutors routinely treat white domestic terrorists with kid gloves, but use the full force of the law against protesters calling for an end to police violence against Black people.

(Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

They Took Umbrellas to a Black Lives Matter Protest. The D.A. Hit Them with Gang Charges

Police and prosecutors routinely treat white domestic terrorists with kid gloves, but use the full force of the law against protesters calling for an end to police violence against Black people.


In Washington, D.C., members of a pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol and killed a police officer are so far being charged mainly with disorderly conduct and unlawful entry. The man photographed with his feet on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk faces three charges that carry a maximum penalty of one year in prison. After the violent siege, some members of the mob simply returned to their hotel.

Many were quick to point out an apparent double standard when compared to the way police in D.C. treated Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer—like when they tear gassed protesters to clear the way for a Trump photo op, or when row upon row of National Guard troops stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in anticipation of the sixth day of George Floyd protests. A similar double standard is now on display in Arizona.

In Maricopa County, 15 people who attended a Black Lives Matter protest where traffic cones were knocked down are being charged with rioting, aggravated assault, and assisting in a criminal street gang, all serious felonies that could land them in prison for decades. The gang charges are based only on the fact that the group carried umbrellas, wore black, and used the phrase “all cops are bastards.” The 15 Black Lives Matter protesters were forcibly arrested on the night of the protest. One was shot with pepper bullets; another spent two weeks in jail.

The 15 protesters are facing serious consequences. They now have an arrest for serious felonies on their records. They’re living with the specter of prison hanging over them. Some are spending money on lawyers to fight the charges. They could spend years in prison and could suffer all the collateral consequences of having a criminal record, which makes it harder to obtain jobs, housing, and some government assistance. And if convicted of a felony, they would lose the ability to vote.

“It’s outrageous,” said Paul Gattone, an attorney for three of the protesters. “I was shocked when I came on the case and saw they had charged them with organized street gang activity. They are trying to say that ACAB is an organization like the Crips and the Bloods, that they have an organization and they’re prone to violence. This is not an organization. These are just individuals that came together to protest.”

It's hard to come away with any other realization than public safety isn't likely the driving principle of policing in America.Jared Keenan, ACLU

But when a large group of armed far-right protesters descended upon the Maricopa County Elections Office night after night in November to “stop the steal,” the police presence was noticeably less intense. No tear gas was deployed and no arrests were made. The group included Infowars host Alex Jones, U.S. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Jake Angeli, who was seen wearing a fur hat, horns, and no shirt during the storming of the Capitol that resulted in the deaths of five people. Angeli, whose real name is Jacob Anthony Chansley, has since been arrested and faces unlawful entry and disorderly conduct charges.

“Throughout the summer and into more recent anti-lockdown and election protests,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, “it became shockingly clear that the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the police are going to take two different approaches to protesters that they view as their political enemies and those who they have sympathy toward.”

It’s a pattern that has played out across the country. Time and again, police and prosecutors have treated white, right-wing protesters with kid gloves, but responded to Black Lives Matter protesters with the full force of the law. In D.C., a police officer posed for selfies, others shook hands with a member of the mob. At least 28 current law enforcement officers even attended the rally that sparked the invasion of the Capitol. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where people were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, officers were filmed giving water to armed militia members, including Kyle Rittenhouse, and saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” Moments later, Rittenhouse killed two people. Last week, an Iowa man who deliberately drove into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters and injured several people was given a deferred judgment, meaning he will serve no prison time and the arrest will be expunged from his record, so long as he does not commit any more crimes in the next three years.

Meanwhile, police were caught on video after video this summer violently attacking peaceful Black Lives Matter activists: Officers shot multiple people in the eye, leaving several blinded in one eye. They pushed an old man down to the ground with such force that he bled from his ears, and rammed vehicles into protesters. In New York, two lawyers who allegedly set fire to an empty NYPD cruiser during a Black Lives Matter protest are facing life in prison—and a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 years—because federal prosecutors chose to seek such a sentence. Prosecutors in Utah also raised the threat of life in prison against Black Lives Matter protesters in Salt Lake City who allegedly smashed windows and put red paint on the district attorney’s office.

“In Phoenix, local police muster overwhelming numbers to quash Black assembly, censor Black activism, and criminalize Black leaders with mere hours of notice before a peaceful protest,” said Lola N’sangou, executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona. “But in D.C., with weeks to prepare, local police sat idly by as the violent crowd scaled walls to occupy the Capitol building.”


On Oct. 17, about 20 people gathered in downtown Phoenix to march for justice for victims of police violence. The group was made up mostly of young people, including three 17-year-olds, an honors student from Arizona State University, and a Harvard student. The group marched down the streets of Phoenix chanting “Black lives matter.” Some of the protesters moved traffic cones and signs into the middle of the street. Some carried umbrellas, which protesters have used to protect themselves from tear gas and projectiles.

Eventually, police officers donning helmets and bulletproof vests closed in on the group. With a weapon drawn, an officer told them to get on the ground, which they did. Police ripped away the umbrellas. Dozens of officers surrounded the protesters, video footage shows. Police handcuffed the kneeling protesters, yanked them to their feet, and put them in the back of cruisers. Police used pepper bullets on at least one of the protesters.

In arrest forms, police officers said the protesters belonged to “a group known as ACAB All Cops Are Bastards.” Police said some of the group members threw smoke devices. They submitted charges for felony aggravated assault on a police officer (one protester allegedly dug his nails into one officer’s left thumb while being arrested), obstructing a public thoroughfare, hindering prosecution, unlawful assembly, and rioting.

The case was assigned to the first responder bureau, which was established by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel after she took office and handles crimes against first responders. The bureau was created with the help of former Phoenix police officer Tom Van Dorn. The lead prosecutor on the case, April Sponsel, is married to an Arizona state trooper. Sponsel brought gang charges against the protesters, in addition to many of the charges submitted by police.

Last month, Sponsel filed motions to allege at least six aggravating circumstances against the protesters, which enhances the criminal penalties the protesters will face if convicted. Prosecutors allege that the protesters committed offenses that “involved the infliction or threatened infliction of serious injury,” involved the use or possession of a deadly weapon, “specifically umbrella and/or smoke bombs,” and wore a mask during the offense.

While police and prosecutors claim the protesters are part of a gang called “ACAB,” protesters and their attorneys say many of the people who attended the Oct. 17 protest didn’t even know each other.

“The only person at the protest who I previously knew was my boyfriend,” one of the protesters, Amy Kaper, said in an affidavit submitted to the court. “I had no contact by and through social media, texting, or in any other manner with any of the protesters before that evening.” Kaper is a healthcare worker studying to get her master’s degree and has no criminal record, according to the affidavit. Her boyfriend was also arrested. 

Ryan Tait, a defense attorney who represents one of the protesters and previously worked for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said that he and his client strongly dispute the gang charges. “Assisting a criminal street gang is a charge that enhances a sentence,” Tait said. “It has serious consequences. It puts you in a category” where the penalties are enhanced and opportunities for a reduced sentence are cut.

“Ryder is a nurse who lives in Prescott who has never been a member of a gang, is not a member of a gang, and does not know anyone who is involved in this case,” attorney Katie Gipson-McLean said of her client, Ryder Collins. “He didn’t go downtown to participate in the protest, nor did he participate in any protest. He’s an amateur photographer, which is what brought him downtown that day.”

In a statement, the county attorney’s office said the prosecution was not political and that it supports everyone’s First Amendment rights, but “will not allow violence to take over our streets.” 

“While some will attempt to describe these defendants as ‘protestors,’ a grand jury found probable cause to charge this group with crimes, including the planning of violence,” the MCAO said. “As County Attorney Adel has publicly stated numerous times, MCAO is committed to protecting the safety of everyone in this community, law enforcement and demonstrators alike.”

After the deaths of George Floyd and Dion Johnson, who was killed by an Arizona state trooper last May, Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched in the streets of Phoenix to demand justice and change. During the first four nights of protests in Phoenix, police arrested nearly 350 people, including four undocumented people who then faced deportation. Police used tear gas and non-lethal projectiles on protesters, in one case breaking a man’s arm. They targeted protest leaders and accused them of committing crimes the activists say they did not commit. Local police have surveilled police reform activists and victims of police violence in Maricopa County, but have not extended the same monitoring to far-right groups.

Last week, Adel’s office declined to bring charges against the Phoenix police officer who threatened to shoot Mayor Kate Gallego, stating that they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer’s statements constituted a true threat. According to a police report, Officer Steve Poulos, a 22-year veteran with the department, said “If the mayor defunds the police, I’m going to shoot her.” When his sergeant told Poulos he was not going to shoot the mayor, Poulos doubled down on his threat. “That’s a promise,” he reportedly said.

“Overall, when you look at the way police and prosecutors have reacted to people protesting government killing of black and brown people—the mob was not treated by police the same way at that time,” said Jared Keenan with the ACLU. “It’s hard to come away with any other realization than public safety isn’t likely the driving principle of policing in America.” 

Several of the defendants have been offered plea deals, but it’s unlikely any will take it. According to an attorney familiar with the case, the plea requires the defendants to plead guilty to two felony offenses, including the street gang charge. In Arizona, those charges cannot be expunged or later downgraded to a misdemeanor, and if they ever got in trouble with the law again, they’d be put in a higher sentencing category with harsher penalties.

Some of the defendants have trials set for early March and April, though that date is likely to be pushed back as their attorneys fight the charges against them. 

“We cannot remain silent when the disparate impact of our criminal punishment machine is laid bare,” said N’sangou from Mass Liberation. “In 2020, peaceful protesters were criminalized by the thousands merely for calling to end generations of police violence. But in the first week of 2021, we watched a violent insurrection breach the halls of Congress with almost no opposition.”

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated Tom Van Dorn’s relationship to the First Responders Bureau. Van Dorn helped create it, but now oversees the agency’s Investigations Bureau and the Public Safety Liaison Team, which reviews police shootings and in-custody deaths. Sherry Leckrone leads the First Responders Bureau.

What Traffic Enforcement Without Police Could Look Like

Because traffic stops all too often escalate into deadly incidents, calls have grown to disentangle traffic enforcement from police—and a measure to do so has already passed in Berkeley, California.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.)

What Traffic Enforcement Without Police Could Look Like

Because traffic stops all too often escalate into deadly incidents, calls have grown to disentangle traffic enforcement from police—and a measure to do so has already passed in Berkeley, California.


Traffic stops are the most common way people come into contact with police, and those encounters can often turn deadly. A Minnesota police officer pulled over Philando Castile for a broken taillight, then shot at him seven times when Castile tried to provide the officer with his license and registration, killing him. A Texas state trooper pulled over Sandra Bland for not signaling when she changed lanes. Three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. A New Jersey state trooper pulled Maurice Gordon over for speeding, then shot him six times, killing him.

In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there have been more calls to rethink America’s reliance on police as a cure-all to societal issues they are ill-equipped to deal with. Some cities are beginning to reconsider requiring armed officers to also play the parts of homeless services worker, mental health and substance use counselor, school safety agent, security guard, and traffic enforcer. 

In November, San Francisco launched a program to send behavioral health and medical professionals instead of police to respond to 911 calls involving nonviolent people experiencing mental health crises or substance use issues. The Seattle City Council voted to disband a team of police and outreach workers tasked with responding to homeless people and instead reinvest the team’s funding in community programs to help the homeless. In Portland, Oregon, the mayor and superintendent agreed to remove police officers from the city’s schools and put the $1 million budgeted for school resource officers back into the community. And in Austin, Texas, the City Council voted to cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget to open a family violence shelter and fund violence prevention programs, housing services, substance use and mental healthcare services, and more. The council intends to shrink the department’s budget and responsibilities even further by civilianizing many of its current duties, like dispatch and forensics.

Of all the functions that could be separated from the police department, one of the most significant would be the removal of traffic enforcement. Over 24 million people each year come into contact with police during a traffic stop, according to data from the Department of Justice. And traffic stops can be especially dangerous and discriminatory for people of color: Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, and as much as twice as likely to be searched, according to a study of 100 million traffic stops conducted by the Stanford Open Policing Project. And 11 percent of all fatal shootings by police in 2015 occurred during traffic stops, according to a Washington Post database of police killings.

“It’s one of the most common ways we see policing situations unfold into disturbing and scary consequences for over-policed communities,” said Jordan Blair Woods, a criminologist and legal scholar at the University of Arkansas School of Law. That’s why, Woods said, it’s important to consider ways to provide a non-police alternative to traffic enforcement.

In an article in Stanford Law Review, Woods puts forth a framework for how local governments can disentangle traffic enforcement from the police department. Under the framework, local governments would reassign most traffic enforcement to separate traffic agencies that are independent from the police department. The agencies would employ unarmed monitors to enforce traffic laws, though exceptions would be made for violations that involve certain crimes that police would still investigate, like hit-and-runs or driving a stolen vehicle. Traffic agencies would also handle any automated traffic enforcement, taking the responsibility to review red light cameras and issue tickets away from the police.

Under the proposed framework, police would no longer be able to make routine stops for minor traffic violations, like speeding or failing to signal. This would mean tens of millions of stops that are conducted each year would be carried out by unarmed traffic monitors, rather than armed police officers who have escalated benign situations to the point of death time and again. Police wouldn’t be able to pull over men like Phil Colbert, who was driving to get lunch with his dad when an Arizona police officer tailed him for 10 minutes, then pulled him over, interrogated him, and demanded to search his vehicle—all for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.

The traffic monitors would not be able to detain, search, or arrest people like police can, and wouldn’t conduct criminal investigations—they would simply enforce traffic laws by conducting stops and issuing citations. Monitors could, in limited circumstances, request police assistance when they uncover a more serious offense, like a DUI, while making a stop. This proposal wouldn’t bar police from conducting felony vehicle stops if they had sufficient evidence that the vehicle was involved in non-traffic related felonies, like robbing a bank, nor would it stop police from being able to investigate crimes that jurisdictions deem serious traffic offenses, like ones that pose imminent harm to people.

“What we have now is a system where traffic enforcement has really been co-opted for criminal enforcement, even though we know from empirical data traffic stops aren’t really good for crime control like drug or weapon interdiction,” Woods said.

Although any proposal to limit the power of police is bound to draw pushback, particularly from powerful police unions, Woods posits that leaving traffic enforcement to monitors would actually benefit police by freeing up their time and resources to concentrate on serious criminal investigations, like rape and murder, and improving public perceptions of police. 

Removing police from traffic enforcement may sound revolutionary, but it’s not unattainable—the city of Berkeley, California, has already passed a proposal to do so. The proposal, passed in July, calls for the creation of a department of transportation (BerkDOT) to shift traffic and parking enforcement away from the Berkeley Police Department. Unarmed BerkDOT agents would instead be responsible for carrying out traffic stops, though the details and funding still need to be ironed out. 

“If we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on Americans’ most common interaction with law enforcement—traffic stops,” Rigel Robinson, the Berkeley City Council member who proposed the initiative, said on Twitter. “Driving while Black shouldn’t be a crime.”

Proposals similar to the one passed by Berkeley were explored in Cambridge, Massachusetts; St. Louis Park, Minnesota; and Montgomery County, Maryland, last year. Elsewhere, bills have been proposed that would bar police from pulling people over for minor traffic infractions, like tinted windows, faulty brake lights, or dangling air fresheners. New York’s attorney general recommended that the NYPD stop handling traffic stops. And in 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., moved the city’s automated traffic enforcement away from the jurisdiction of the police department to the Department of Transportation. 

“The goal is to make traffic stops about traffic,” Woods said of the move to decouple traffic enforcement from police. “And in doing that, address the disparity we currently have in traffic enforcement, disparities that can lead to people of color losing their lives.”

Democrats’ Win in Georgia Shows What Voters Really Want From Government

It’s time for political leaders, no matter their party, to listen to voters—and provide financial relief from the pandemic.

Voters enter a polling station at the Zion Baptist Church on Jan. 5 in Marietta, Georgia.
(Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Democrats’ Win in Georgia Shows What Voters Really Want From Government

It’s time for political leaders, no matter their party, to listen to voters—and provide financial relief from the pandemic.


The thing about quarantine is that it’s expensive. Rent was still due. Medicines didn’t cost any less. Grocery bills probably rose, and with schools closed there were most likely more meals to put on the table. And for many people, the COVID-19 pandemic meant income disappeared. Ordinary people felt the cost of quarantine; the same cannot be said for Republicans in Congress.

The urgent need for more aid—delivered regularly as long as the pandemic lasts—made the outcome of Tuesday’s contest in Georgia feel obvious. People are hurting. A $600 check, nine months after a $1,200 relief payment is an insufficient lifeline for many. Republicans, led in the Senate by Mitch McConnell, heard people asking for help and still refused to offer enough cash to keep American families afloat. This meant that, in the closing days of the Georgia runoff, the election became in many ways a referendum on whether more direct payments would be coming. 

We elect our government, ostensibly, to work for us. To ensure we have access to basic services and infrastructure, to fight for fairness, and, yes, to protect us from harm. After four years of watching our government largely do the opposite—inflicting immeasurable damage and abandoning principles of fairness while methodically destroying basic infrastructure—it’s easy to forget what government is really for. Four years of public malfeasance can instill a feeling that being not just abandoned but often actively harmed by our elected officials is inevitable. When we feel divided and alienated, we doubt the enforceability of even our most basic rights.

Despite our apparent division, recent polls showed that people on the left and right were quite unified about wanting their government to do more to alleviate the financial pain of the pandemic. Americans overwhelmingly supported larger relief payments, with 81 percent of likely voters wanting $2,000 checksincluding 80 percent of Republicansand nearly two-thirds in favor of monthly payments.

This polling turns the common narrative about progressive Democrats on its head. Although the policies of Senator Bernie Sanders and “The Squad” are often described as fringe or extreme, their position on large stimulus payments is in line with the opinion of most Americans. 

People are hurting, and they not only want but need their government (which they’ve been funding out of their own pockets year after year) to give something back. When the government failed to do so, many people didn’t have a hard time identifying who was responsible for that failure: Senate Republicans and, specifically, McConnell. It was McConnell and his Republican supporters who took a position wildly out of step with the stated desires of the American people. Try as they might to cast themselves as middle of the road, these Republicans were, in fact, acting as extremists, in conflict even with their own president. It’s hard to imagine people more out of touch than those who ignored public demand for aid. 

Now that Democrats have most likely won both Senate seats in Georgia, there is hope that Congress can do something for the people who have been hurting. The last four years have given many the impression that the American public is easily duped—that leaders can harm those they have promised to protect while claiming the mantle of heroes. That what those in power actually do once elected no longer matters if they are skilled enough at lying. This election showed that the people aren’t so readily fooled anymore. There was a policy at issue—relief payments—and the people overwhelmingly wanted one thing but watched their elected leaders do the opposite. Those Republican candidates are now set to be booted out of office; even though they belatedly got behind larger relief checks, they were carrying the intransigent McConnell as a liability rather than a standard-bearer. 

Moving forward, as Democrats ascend to power, there are many lessons to be taken from Georgia. One quiet but essential takeaway is especially vital, though: We can no longer play by traditional party-line rules and must move more boldly into the world of big ideas. When you ask people for their party affiliation, the answer might not give you a clear sense of what they really want out of their government. In this recent polling, we saw self-declared Republicans nationwide taking a position more in line with Sanders than McConnell. Elected officials who stick to outdated models of party-line policy and don’t remain rooted in the public mood also risk losing their footing. But those who listen to what their constituents are asking for—even if those requests are big—will be rewarded by a more enthusiastic voter base. People will vote on the issues that keep them up at night, the issues that make them grip the steering wheel a little harder and worry about their kids. They don’t care if these problems are hard to solve, or require creative, unprecedented solutions. They are looking for leaders who are uninterested in traditional, lazy platitudes and half-truths. Leaders driven by the real challenges American families face. 

It shouldn’t be groundbreaking to point out that voters are firing politicians who refuse to follow the will of the people. But in 2021, this feels like a vital and important milestone. We are moving out of years of degradation, and toward a new future in which the challenges to come will require leaders bold enough to meet them. 

Emily Galvin-Almanza is co-founder and executive director of Partners for Justice, a program focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration. She is also a senior legal analyst at The Appeal and an anchor of “The Appeal Live.” You can follow her on Twitter at @GalvinAlmanza.

Sean McElwee is a co-founder and the executive director of Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter at @Sean McElwee.

Ethan Winter is an analyst at Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @EthanBWinter.

The Future of Voting Rights Is at Stake in the Georgia Runoffs

By winning a narrow majority in the upper chamber, Democrats could at last stop the Republican assault on voting rights—if its centrist members have the courage to do so.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, wave to the crowd during an outdoor drive-in rally on Dec. 5 in Conyers, Georgia.
(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The Future of Voting Rights Is at Stake in the Georgia Runoffs

By winning a narrow majority in the upper chamber, Democrats could at last stop the Republican assault on voting rights—if its centrist members have the courage to do so.


The presidential election is over and Donald Trump’s term is sputtering to an ignominious end, but whether the federal government can do anything of significance after he leaves the White House remains very much in doubt. Republicans are one seat away from maintaining control of the U.S. Senate, and it is a safe bet that another two years of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership would render all but the most anodyne planks of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda irrelevant. Since no Georgia Senate candidate won a majority of the vote on Election Day, the fate of the Democratic agenda now rests on a pair of winner-take-all runoffs between two Republican incumbents and their Democratic challengers: Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock in one race, and David Perdue and Jon Ossoff in the other. 

The stakes could not be higher: A Democratic sweep would yield an evenly divided Senate of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties, this split would unify the House, Senate, and White House under Democratic control—albeit by the slimmest of margins. Just nine weeks after Biden managed to win Georgia by a mere 12,000 votes, polling shows that the runoffs, too, are very, very close. As money pours into the state, some observers believe that ad spending alone could eclipse half a billion dollars by Election Day, Jan. 5, making these among the most expensive races in Senate history.

Of the many looming battles that hinge on the results, the chance for Democrats to finally halt the conservative movement’s relentless campaign of voter suppression might be most consequential. Just as Barack Obama’s landslide presidential win a decade ago prompted a disastrous wave of voter ID laws and voter roll purges, especially in the historically red states where he made inroads, GOP lawmakers are already signaling their intent to roll back many of the pro-democracy measures that led to the highest voter turnout in more than a century in 2020. Republican fearmongering about “rigged” elections is not just about pacifying Trump; it sets the stage for reactionary opposition to pro-democracy reforms well after he leaves office. 

Determining who can participate in elections is tantamount to deciding them, and in the aftermath of an election plagued by Trump’s baseless allegations that widespread voter fraud determined the outcome, America’s ambitious experiment with representative democracy more or less hangs in the balance. The Georgia runoffs give Democrats a fighting chance not only to put this crisis front and center, but to actually do something about it. 


In 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision, the civil rights icon and Georgia Representative John Lewis excoriated the justices for confusing improvements in nonwhite representation with an absence of racist attempts to suppress it. “Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote,” he said. “I want to say to them, ‘Come and walk in my shoes.’”

In the sudden absence of federal backstops to prevent discrimination, Republican lawmakers quickly began working to disenfranchise constituencies whose participation in politics they found inconvenient; in 2016, a federal court found that North Carolina’s post-Shelby County reforms targeted Black people with “almost surgical precision.” A 2018 Brennan Center for Justice analysis found that jurisdictions covered by the scuttled aspects of the Voting Rights Act went on to purge their rolls at a significantly higher rate than noncovered jurisdictions. Shelby County, the authors concluded, has had a “profound and negative impact.”

In March 2019, after winning the House of Representatives for the first time since 2008, Democrats made addressing the voter suppression crisis their first order of business by passing the For the People Act, a landmark election reform bill to expand mail-in voting and early voting, streamline the 50-state patchwork of voter registration procedures, and crack down on voter roll purges. More than five decades after fighting for the Voting Rights Act as an activist, Lewis took to the House floor to make the closing argument. “We all know that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an American one,” he said. “Today, we are able to do our part in this long fight for the very soul of our nation.”

Last December, Democrats passed a separate bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, to reinvigorate those provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Court’s decision in Shelby County. After Lewis’s death in July, the bill was renamed in his honor.

Republicans, evidently, did not agree with Lewis’s assessment. The For the People Act received zero Republican votes in the House, and its counterpart earned just one. Neither bill went anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tellingly castigated the For the People Act—legislation that made voting easier for everyone—as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Georgians are especially well-acquainted with the consequences. In the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race, Republican Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams, who was vying to be America’s first Black female governor, by less than two points amid a host of controversial election irregularities that disproportionately affected Black voters. Kemp was the incumbent secretary of state at the time, meaning that he was, incredibly, in charge of administering the same election he sought to win, and his work as secretary helped shape the 2018 results: Between 2012 and 2018, Kemp oversaw the purging of more than 1.4 million names from the state’s voter rolls. During a period of intensive statewide voter registration efforts by activist groups—including the New Georgia Project, which Abrams, then a state lawmaker, founded in 2013—his office froze the applications of more than 50,000 would-be new voters, almost 70 percent of whom were Black.

Shortly before Election Day 2018, Kemp even published a statement on the secretary of state’s website accusing Democrats of trying to hack Georgia’s election systems, recycling a centuries-old ploy for casting doubt on the integrity of elections. In March 2020, the state attorney general’s office closed its investigation of this purported “hacking” episode after finding no evidence of wrongdoing.

Together, the narrow margin of Kemp’s victory and his actions that likely contributed to it drew national attention, turning Georgia into a modern-day poster child for voter suppression. Two years later, residents are paying attention as the runoff approaches: According to a poll conducted by The Justice Collaborative Institute and Data for Progress, 53 percent of all likely voters, including 72 percent of Democrats, say they’re more likely to back Senate candidates who support passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative).

Federal judges, in theory, are supposed to police states that interfere with their residents’ right to vote. But the Shelby County decision hamstrung their ability to do so, and Trump and McConnell have spent four years stocking the bench with more conservative ideologues who are inclined to look the other way. In a series of alarming decisions this year, the Supreme Court bent over backward to thwart state-level efforts to make it safe and easy to vote during the pandemic. Even more troublingly, although its conservative supermajority ultimately declined to overturn the election on Trump’s behalf, it left open the door to intervene in future elections that are perhaps more competitive than this one. 

By winning two more Senate seats, Democrats could reverse this trend and confirm judges who will take seriously their obligation to protect voting rights from self-interested politicians intent on entrenching themselves in power. A unified Democratic government could also pass legislation to make anti-democratic stunts like Brian Kemp’s a thing of the past, and the already ambitious bills the Democratic House passed during this Congress could serve as a floor for reform, not a ceiling, in the next one. A new and improved version of the For the People Act might, for example, explicitly limit the Court’s authority to strike it down; as U.S. Representative-elect Mondaire Jones of New York has argued, it could also address the danger posed by the Court’s conservative supermajority by expanding the Court itself. 

The issue of voting rights is especially personal for Warnock, a reverend who previously served as chairperson of Abrams’s New Georgia Project—and whose Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist, Lewis regularly attended before his death. Warnock and Ossoff have made honoring the late congressman’s legacy central to their campaign trail pitch. “We can pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act,” Ossoff tweeted on Nov. 16. “But only if we win the Senate.” 

Sweeping the Georgia runoffs would also give Democrats control over the confirmation process for Cabinet members, who under Trump were happy to abuse their powers in service of Republican politics. Attorney General William Barr, for example, helped promote conspiracy theories about the purported dangers of mail-in voting. And as his defeated boss railed about the perils of a “rigged” election, Barr fueled this sense of grievance by encouraging prosecutors to investigate “specific instances” of alleged voter fraud that may come to their attention. In 2017, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross began working to add to the census a question about respondents’ citizenship—part of a broader conservative effort to use the census results to shift political power from Democrat-leaning Hispanic communities to whiter, more Republican ones. The Department of Justice authored a letter to provide a purported rationale for this choice, and the explanation on which they settled—that collecting this information was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act—was so absurd that not even the Supreme Court’s conservative majority was willing to buy it. 

Simply redirecting the executive branch’s time and resources to the task of protecting voting rights will be a significant improvement over the status quo, even absent sweeping legislation to further that effort. Biden’s Cabinet has the power to undo much of the damage the Trump administration did to this country’s fragile democracy, and if Democrats win the Senate, their Republican counterparts will be powerless to stop it.


Victories in Georgia would hardly guarantee victories in Washington, of course. Unless a Democratic majority is also willing to abolish the Senate filibuster, a committed minority of Republicans would still be able to block most legislation they don’t like. (Cabinet and judicial nominees are not subject to filibuster.) And for now, the party’s centrist coalition remains publicly leery of this prospect. “That’s bullshit,” said Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, when asked about abolition in June. “The whole intention of Congress is basically to have a little bit of compromise with the other side.” Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Jon Tester of Montana have also expressed reluctance to ring this bell that cannot be unrung. 

Perhaps Manchin and company are as committed to preserving archaic Senate rules as they say. But it’s easier to defiantly take positions like theirs when McConnell’s status as majority leader shields them from having to answer for it. Winning the Georgia runoffs would hold up a mirror to the Democratic Party, shifting accountability for government’s failures from McConnell’s obstructionism to lawmakers who care more about burnishing their moderate bona fides than using their power to make people’s lives better.

Even if the caucus’s more stubborn members cannot be pressured to eliminate this supermajority requirement, the agenda-setting power that comes with Senate control also matters: With Democrats in charge, voting rights legislation that the Senate never considered under McConnell could receive committee hearings, a debate on the Senate floor, and perhaps even a cloture vote. All of these could be prime opportunities for Democrats to make clear to Americans which party and which lawmakers care about protecting democracy, and which don’t.

Whatever the fate of voting rights legislation in the upcoming Congress, a Democratic Senate can still make voting rights a priority for the other two branches of government. At the very least, the ability to confirm Biden’s judicial and Cabinet nominees would soften the blow of the possibility of failing to overcome an anti-democracy filibuster, and ensure enforcement to the greatest possible extent of those protections that are already in place. 

All of these lofty ambitions depend on what happens in Georgia, though. By sending Warnock and Ossoff to Washington, voters in John Lewis’s home state have the chance to repudiate its legacy of voter suppression in dramatic fashion—and, perhaps, to ensure that it doesn’t happen in Georgia or anywhere else again.

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.

The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped Landlords From Evicting Tenants—And It’s About To Get Much Worse

Landlords have continued forcing renters out of their homes, despite a patchwork of protections from federal and local governments. Now, with the CDC moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of Americans could be evicted.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped Landlords From Evicting Tenants—And It’s About To Get Much Worse

Landlords have continued forcing renters out of their homes, despite a patchwork of protections from federal and local governments. Now, with the CDC moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of Americans could be evicted.


One woman got into a car accident, lost her job, and fell behind on rent. Another said she is stuck at home with her children while schools are closed and tried to work out a payment plan with her landlord but never heard back. A man said he had applied to Marshalls, Costco, and Bath & Body Works, but struggled to find work and fell behind on rent. All were told they had to be out of their homes by Dec. 22.

One after another on Wednesday, a judge at the Country Meadows Justice Court in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and 4.5 million residents, ordered dozens of people to leave their homes within five days or be forced out by a constable. Landlords filed for evictions against over 2,300 people in the county last month alone, and nearly 20,000 since the pandemic began, according to data collected by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

Landlords across the country have continued to evict tenants throughout the pandemic, despite a patchwork of protections put in place by federal, state, and local governments. While eviction moratoriums have helped keep millions of people in their homes, loopholes in orders like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s have allowed landlords to continue filing evictions and actually remove people. Now, with the CDC’s moratorium set to expire on Dec. 31, millions of people could soon be forced out of their homes during another wave of the pandemic, increasing their risk of infection or death from COVID-19. Public health experts have linked an estimated nearly half a million COVID cases and roughly 10,000 deaths to evictions nationwide.

In any given year, roughly 1.5 million evictions occur across the United States. Between 2.4 million and 4.9 million households could face eviction once the federal moratorium expires, according to data collected by the Census Bureau.  

“Having that many happen all at once—you could see entire neighborhoods empty out of people,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. “Instead of a handful of homeless people pitching tents together, you could see developing world style favelas or developments cropping up in the U.S. because of the sheer number of people who could be displaced.”

In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which included an eviction moratorium and a requirement that landlords give renters 30 days’ notice before moving ahead with an eviction. The moratorium expired July 26, but the 30-day notice helped keep some people in their homes for roughly another month after that, until Aug. 26. On Sept. 4, the CDC issued a temporary order to stop evictions, recognizing that losing one’s home “increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19.”

To use the protection provided by the CDC’s moratorium, tenants must sign a declaration stating they cannot make full rent payments due to loss of income or extraordinary medical expenses, have made their best efforts to obtain rent assistance and make timely partial payments to their landlord, earn less than $99,000 and would likely become homeless if evicted. 

While the order has helped keep many people in their homes, it left many others unprotected from the start, and was further weakened by an additional guidance issued by the CDC.

“One of the most significant flaws is that the moratorium is not automatic, renters need to know it exists, know they are eligible, and know what steps they need to take in order to get the protection,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And the federal government “hasn’t done anything to enforce the steep penalties in the order against landlords who illegally evict. Landlords are getting away with illegally, in some cases, evicting tenants.”

Renters need to be aware of the CDC’s moratorium—and show up to court—in order to take advantage of the protection. At the Justice Court in Maricopa County on Wednesday, only a handful of the 30 or so renters with evictions filed against them were present, and of those, even fewer tried to use the CDC protection to contest the eviction. Most of the evictions were for nonpayment of rent. The judge ruled against almost everyone who did not show up and signed a judgment against them stating that they need to move out of their home by Dec. 22.

In October, the CDC released guidance allowing landlords to contest declarations from tenants and begin eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent, so long as they do not actually evict tenants protected by the order until Jan. 1. The guidance placed an even greater burden on renters, and created a situation where as soon as the order expires, people may be forced out of their homes. From the beginning, the order only barred landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent, meaning so long as landlords said they were evicting tenants for another reason, they could still proceed. And ultimately the rent is still due: Once the moratorium expires, renters will still be on the hook for mounting debts they cannot afford.

In Houston, landlords have filed for over 18,000 evictions since the pandemic began. Over 1,600 tenants in California have been evicted between March and July, despite state and federal protections. Nearly 3,000 writs of possession were ordered in seven Florida counties in October, meaning sheriff’s deputies have been given permission to remove people from their homes in all of those cases. Landlords in Maricopa County wrongfully moved to evict over 900 tenants who were protected under the CARES Act, according to the Arizona Republic. Overall, in the 27 cities that Princeton’s Eviction Lab tracks, landlords have filed for over 150,000 evictions during the pandemic. In Oregon and California, police have been authorized to forcibly remove people occupying homes. Just before Thanksgiving, California Highway Patrol officers were caught on camera using a battering ram to open the door of a “reclaimed” vacant home and dragging people out of another residence as they screamed in protest.

To prevent people from losing their homes en masse during the pandemic, the CDC could extend the moratorium. Congress could pass a bill that includes $25 billion in rental assistance and a one-month extension of the eviction moratorium. Waiving late fees and court fees accrued by renters would also help, as would passing some form of relief for those who have already been displaced, like limiting a landlord’s ability to deny people housing if they were evicted during the pandemic. And even if the federal government doesn’t step up, state and local governments can still pass their own measures to protect renters and keep people housed.

“The solutions aren’t complicated, they just require the powers that be to have the right priorities,” said Dunn from the National Housing Law Project. “We need eviction moratoria to stop the problem of more people being displaced and put out on the street. Then we also need significant rental relief funding, so [tenants] can apply for grants and use that money to pay their landlords, who have maybe been under financial pressure to pay their mortgages.”

These Cops Lied In Court. But Since The D.A. Isn’t Keeping A Brady List, They Could Testify Again

The case illustrates the importance of keeping lists of police officers with histories of misconduct or dishonesty, the defense lawyer in the case says.

(Photo by Getty Images)

These Cops Lied In Court. But Since The D.A. Isn’t Keeping A Brady List, They Could Testify Again

The case illustrates the importance of keeping lists of police officers with histories of misconduct or dishonesty, the defense lawyer in the case says.


The next time a case is built on the credibility of Brockton Police Officer Derek Scully and Detective Ryan Quirk, the accused may be unaware the officers have been caught lying in the past. 

That’s because the Plymouth County district attorney’s office in Brockton, Massachusetts, does not keep a Brady or Do Not Call list, which notes officers with histories of misconduct or dishonesty. In a case that comes down to the word of the accused versus the word of the officer, a Brady list can mean the difference between freedom and decades behind bars. 

This was the situation for Emmanuel Casseus. In April 2019, Scully and Quirk pulled him over for a traffic violation. 

Claiming they feared for their safety, they ordered Casseus and his passenger, who are both Black, out of the car and frisked them. Scully said he then entered the car on the driver’s side  and shone his flashlight into the gap of the closed center console. When he pressed onto the flaps, he said, he saw a firearm, then lifted the flaps and retrieved the gun. 

But this was not what happened, Superior Court Judge Debra Squires-Lee ruled. And though the judge did not explicitly say the officers had lied, she clearly found that the officers’ testimony included multiple statements that were not truthful. The judge found that, contrary to the officers’ testimony, they exhibited no fear for their safety. The console was closed and locked, making it impossible to see or gain access to its contents as Scully described, according to the judge’s ruling. 

Squires-Lee based her ruling, in large part, on a recording of the incident taken by Casseus’s friend, Frandy Garcon. At the time of the stop, Casseus had been on FaceTime with Garcon, who began recording after the police approached the car. The officers cannot be seen in the video, but it captures what they said during the stop. 

“I was really afraid for my friend’s life,” Garcon told The Appeal. “White officer, my friend is African American. It’s nighttime. Anything can happen.”

Last month, Squires-Lee ruled that ordering Casseus out, frisking him, and searching his car violated his constitutional rights. 

“Everyone’s going to take the police side if there’s no tape,” said Garcon. “They’re more credible. Well, what makes them more credible? Because of the badge?”

Casseus was charged with firearms and traffic violations. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. On Dec. 4, the prosecutor’s office notified the court that, based on the judge’s ruling, they were unable to prosecute the case.

“Knowing that I’m facing time as I’m dealing with everything in my everyday life, it’s like my mind’s not on this, but I can’t forget it,” said Casseus. “It’s in the back of my mind that I’m facing the amount of years that they’re trying to throw at me.”


On April 14, 2019, at about 10 p.m., Casseus went the wrong way down a one-way street, then made a U-turn to correct himself, and continued to drive. Moments later, Scully and Quirk pulled him over. They’d already run his plates, according to the police report and their testimony at the suppression hearing. There were no warrants associated with the car or its owner, Casseus. The car was properly registered, insured, and inspected, and Casseus’s license was active.  

Scully testified that when he approached the car, Casseus and the passenger took their hands from the center console area. Casseus put his hands in his lap, and the passenger put his hands between his legs, according to Scully. Their movements, he said, were “very abrupt.”

“What concerns did that raise in your mind?” the prosecutor asked Scully. 

“Officer safety right away,” he replied. “I wasn’t presented with a license or registration. They were empty-handed essentially. So it makes me believe that they were either retrieving or concealing a weapon that could hurt me.”

They ordered Casseus and his passenger out of the car based on “furtive movements,” Scully and Quirk testified, and frisked them. (In an affidavit submitted to the court, Casseus stated that he had presented his license and registration.) Scully said he then went into the car. 

“I went to the center console and I had illuminated the gap in between where the center console meets, folds together, and I pressed onto it and at that point in time with [sic] illuminating my flashlight through the gap inside, I recognized a firearm inside the center console,” Scully testified, reiterating the account in Quirk’s police report. Scully said he lifted the flaps of the console and saw the gun.

But the statements the officers can be heard making in Garcon’s recording repudiate the officers’ version of events, as do the mechanics of the center console. The defense entered the recording into evidence during the suppression hearing. 

Almost immediately after approaching the car, Quirk ordered the passenger out and frisked him. On the recording, Quirk can be heard saying, “It is what it is.” At the hearing, Quirk could not remember why he said this, but the judge wrote in her ruling that she presumed his statement was in response to the passenger asking why he was being searched.

Scully then told Casseus to put his hands over his head and exit the car. He, too, was frisked. 

On the recording, Scully can be heard saying, “Yo, Quirk, he got the key?” Quirk replied, “He got it?” 

“Yeah, he should,” Scully said. “I think it’s in his pocket.” One of the officers can be heard asking Casseus if he had the key.  

About a minute later, Scully said, “You know you stole something.” One of the officers then asked, “You don’t have [inaudible] the keys to the console?” 

About four and a half minutes after Casseus was ordered out of his car, Scully asked Casseus for his license to carry a firearm. “Woo,” Quirk immediately said. 

“I conclude that the glove box was locked and that it took Scully nearly four minutes to gain access,” Squires-Lee wrote in her ruling. The timing, she wrote, “is consistent with wanting to gain access to a locked glove box, and then somehow forcing the box open.” 

“Neither Scully nor Quirk acted or spoke as if they had any concern for their safety,” she continued. Quirk’s exclamation of “Woo,” she wrote, “conveys excitement and not concern.” 

It was impossible to see inside the console when it was closed, with or without a flashlight, according to her ruling. The console could not be accessed when locked and, when unlocked, it could only be opened by pressing a button on the console, the judge wrote. (Scully testified he did not press this button.) 

The defense had submitted video recordings, according to the transcript, of attempts to gain access to the console and view its contents when it was closed.

“We were pressing on it, banging on it pretty hard and there was no give whatsoever. We were not able to see in,” testified former police officer and former private investigator Michael Giordano. “It had to be unlocked and the button had to be pressed for it to open. We tried every other way to open it and it would not open.”

Brockton Police Department spokesperson Darren Duarte emailed The Appeal: “Although taking an illegal gun off our streets may have saved lives and prevented a future tragedy, it must be done within the bounds of the law and respecting our citizens’ rights.” Neither officer has been disciplined or investigated for their conduct in this case and both officers are still working with the police department, Duarte wrote in response to The Appeal’s questions. The Plymouth County DA’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 


In recent years, police accountability activists have demanded that prosecutors create Brady lists, which have become a touchstone of reform-minded prosecutor’s offices. Acts of dishonesty, such as lying on the stand or in police reports, can land an officer on a Brady list.

The lists are named for the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, which mandates that prosecutors disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. Exculpatory evidence includes information that the defense can use to impeach a witness’s credibility, such as, in Casseus’s case, dishonest statements made by police officers. 

“The fact pattern here shows the importance of maintaining and having Brady lists because it’s important for people in the future to know where investigators or officers involved in cases may have reported untruthful information or engaged in actions that ran afoul of a person’s constitutional rights,” said Casseus’s attorney, Jason Green.  

In October, the DA’s spokesperson told The Enterprise: “All of our prosecutors are aware of their obligations and requirements as members of the Massachusetts Bar to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence.” The story was about Brady lists generally and was unrelated to Casseus’s case. 

Because of systemic racism, people of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal legal system, making the lists a matter of racial justice. Police are more likely to stop and search Black drivers, according to several studies. About 57 percent of Black people who were exonerated since 1989 were the victims of official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. 

The type of injustice Casseus experienced happens all the time, said Garcon, who is Black. 

“A police car gets behind me, I’m scared for my life,” said Garcon. “I see my friend being respectful to officers and [the officer is] still aggressive like that. That’s traumatizing. That’s traumatizing.”

What Biden Can Do To Address The Student Debt Crisis

Civil rights organizations and Democrats in Congress are calling on the president-elect to provide relief to millions of borrowers once he takes office.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.)

What Biden Can Do To Address The Student Debt Crisis

Civil rights organizations and Democrats in Congress are calling on the president-elect to provide relief to millions of borrowers once he takes office.


Hundreds of thousands of borrowers with disabilities already qualify to have their student debt canceled—yet the Department of Education is still collecting payments. 

Approximately 45 million United States residents hold over $1.7 trillion in student debt, and disability rights advocates say the Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) Discharge program is just one of several dysfunctional parts of the system that have contributed to the current student loan crisis. 

But borrowers need not wait for Congress to intervene. When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he and his education secretary can provide relief to millions of borrowers—from reforming existing debt relief programs to granting broad-based debt cancellation. And that’s exactly what borrowers, labor unions, students, and members of Congress are calling on the incoming president to do.

Biden is under increasing pressure to use his executive powers to cancel student debt, especially as the suspension on loan payments is set to expire early next year. The federal CARES Act imposed a moratorium on most federal student loan payments through Sept. 30. President Trump then extended the moratorium through the end of the year; last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the moratorium would be extended through Jan. 31. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommended cancelling monthly federal student loan payments for the duration of the COVID-19 national emergency.

“We should not be collecting from borrowers in this moment, but at the end of the day that just kicks the can down the road,” said Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center. Yu contributed to a report on debt relief released last month by the Student Borrower Protection Center and Dēmos.

More than three-quarters of borrowers do not feel financially secure enough to resume payments on federal student loans until June 2021 or later, according to a survey released last week by the advocacy group Student Debt Crisis and the technology company Savi. 

“Every night I lay awake staring at the ceiling worried about student debt,” a borrower identified as Colleen says in Student Debt Crisis and Savi’s report on the survey. “If it weren’t for food stamps I would not have any food in my home. I cannot live.”  

Another borrower is quoted as saying, “My health has declined and now I have more medical bills. I do not know how I will afford my medical bills and doctor visits and medication once I begin making payments.” 

Borrowers, Biden told reporters last month, are “having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying their rent.” However, he has not publicly provided many details for his debt relief plan. Biden’s website states that he will “include in the COVID-19 response an immediate cancellation of a minimum of $10,000 of federal student loan debt.”

But civil rights organizations, as well as his Democratic colleagues in Congress, are calling on him to do much more. 

More than 200 organizations signed on to a letter to Biden last month, urging him to use his executive powers to cancel federal student loan debt on his first day in office. And in September, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a resolution calling for the next president to use his executive authority to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, the typical borrower owed more than $20,000 and had monthly payments of more than $200. 

“The President of the United States has the power to broadly cancel student loan debt, help close the racial wealth gap, and give a big boost to families and our economy,” Warren said in a statement announcing the resolution. 

Twenty years after starting school, the median Black student borrower has $18,500 in loans remaining, while the median white borrower has $1,000 in loans, according to a report released last year by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University. Of student borrowers who started college in 1995-1996, 49 percent of Black borrowers and 33 percent of Latinx borrowers defaulted, compared with 20 percent of white borrowers.

“Across the board student debt cancellation is a racial and economic justice issue,” Representative Ayanna Pressley said in a statement to The Appeal. In March, Pressley and Representative Ilhan Omar introduced the Student Debt Emergency Relief Act, which would cancel at least $30,000 per borrower. 

“On day one of his Administration, President-elect Biden will have the executive authority to cancel billions in student debt with the stroke of a pen—he must do exactly that,” she said.


The TPD program for students with disabilities is emblematic of the flaws in the existing initiatives that are supposed to help student borrowers. The 1965 Higher Education Act allows debt forgiveness for students with “total and permanent disabilities” that have lasted or are expected to last for five years. But the Department of Education’s onerous conditions for borrowers, which go beyond the act’s requirements, prevent most from receiving any relief. 

As of February, over 400,000 borrowers with qualifying disabilities had not had their debts forgiven, according to a report released last month by the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration

“The Department of Education has created a lot of unnecessary bureaucratic barriers,” said Bethany Lilly, director of income policy at The Arc. Lilly is also an author of the “Delivering on Debt Relief” report.

Once a person is deemed eligible by the Social Security Administration, which determines disability benefits, the Department of Education notifies a borrower of their eligibility. And from there, a bureaucratic maze begins for the borrower, who is already navigating the challenges of living with a chronic and sometimes degenerative disability. The DOE requires the borrower to submit an application online or via a paper form.

“Those folks who, by definition, have challenges working, are being asked, instead, by the Department of Education to fill out complex paperwork,” said Lilly.

For those who are eligible but do not apply, the DOE can still pursue civil actions to collect unpaid debt. Even though Social Security payments cannot be garnished to pay back private debt, the Department of Education can reduce all but $750 of a borrower’s monthly Social Security benefits to collect debts owed on a federal student loan. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommended ceasing this practice, and cancelling student loans through executive action for borrowers with a total or permanent disability.

The Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration estimates that between May 2016 and November of last year, the DOE used the Treasury Offset Program—which collects past-due debts to government agencies—to collect about $20 million from more than 20,000 people receiving Social Security benefits.

“DOE is aware that these people qualify for student loan forgiveness, but they are still collecting garnishment from them,” said Lilly.  

For those who do apply, their loans are suspended during a three-year monitoring period. But their loans can be reinstated during the monitoring period if, for instance, they don’t return required paperwork. Between March 2016 and September 2019, loans were reinstated for nearly 40 percent of people in the monitoring process, according to data obtained by NPR from the Department of Education.

“Lots and lots of people were not able to deal with those bureaucratic hurdles,” said John Whitelaw, who wrote a section of the debt relief report with Lilly. 

“The monitoring period is not statutorily required,” continued Whitelaw, who is advocacy director for the Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. in Delaware. “Get rid of the monitoring period. You don’t need it.”

Biden’s Department of Education can ensure more borrowers receive the relief they’re entitled to, according to a report released in October by the National Student Legal Defense Network as part of its 100 Day Docket Series.  

The DOE can issue an interim final rule, which immediately suspends all debt collections for borrowers deemed eligible by the Social Security Administration, according to the report. It can also begin the administrative process of changing its rules to automate debt relief and eliminate the monitoring period, according to Student Defense’s report. 

“Everything for people with disabilities can be done either by the president directly or by the Department of Education,” said Whitelaw. 

Researchers Estimate Mass Incarceration Contributed To More Than Half A Million Additional Cases Of COVID-19 Over The Summer

The report found that spread inside correctional facilities contributed to community spread, particularly in California, Florida and Texas.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown / Photo by Getty Images)

Researchers Estimate Mass Incarceration Contributed To More Than Half A Million Additional Cases Of COVID-19 Over The Summer

The report found that spread inside correctional facilities contributed to community spread, particularly in California, Florida and Texas.


Between May 1 and August 1, mass incarceration contributed to more than half a million cases of COVID-19 across the country, the bulk of them outside of correctional institutions themselves, a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative estimates.

“Prisons are ongoing super spreader events that are not hermetically sealed from society,” said the report’s coauthor Gregory Hooks, professor of sociology at McMaster University. 

Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 250,000 people incarcerated in state prisons tested positive for COVID-19, according to an investigation by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press. Staff can bring the virus into prisons and jails, and carry it to the outside community. 

The researchers estimated a typical county could expect about 800 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents during the three month period. They found that counties with higher rates of mass incarceration saw large numbers of additional cases over this baseline. This was also true when they examined multicounty areas that are economically connected—for instance, areas where many people live in one county and commute to another. 

“Mass incarceration impacted COVID-19 caseloads in multicounty economic areas and states,” the authors wrote. “Nationally, this impact reached a tragic scale: mass incarceration contributed to more than a half million cases over the summer of 2020.”

During this time period, the report estimates that spread inside correctional facilities contributed to more than 100,000 additional cases of COVID-19 in California alone—more than any other state in the country. Since the start of the pandemic, just over 30,000 prisoners and about 8,800 staff in California prisons have been confirmed to have COVID-19, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Ten staff and 101 prisoners have died from what appear to be complications from the virus, according to the department. 

“How many additional cases do you get from being in an economic area in which people are incarcerated?” Hooks said. “It turns out you get quite a few.”

The report estimates that mass incarceration contributed to more than 90,000 additional cases in Florida; over 50,000 in Texas and Illinois; and almost 40,000 in New York. Seven states were estimated to have more than 200 additional cases per 100,000 residents: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, and New Jersey.

In metropolitan economic areas with less mass incarceration—0.74 incarcerated persons per square mile—there were roughly 60 additional cases per 100,000 residents, according to the report. In the most densely incarcerated areas, this number more than tripled to over 200 additional cases. The hardest hit metropolitan areas were found in Los Angeles/Long Beach/Riverside, California; New York City/Newark, New Jersey/Bridgeport, Conn., and Chicago/Naperville, Indiana/Michigan City, Wisconsin. 

The report’s findings reflect the crisis created by two American policy failures—mass incarceration and an abhorrent response to the pandemic, Hooks said. 

“This was a synergistic policy failure,” he said. “There’s a synergy between the policy failure in criminal justice and the policy failure in this pandemic.” 

Since the pandemic began, prisoners, their families, and attorneys have petitioned courts, legislatures, and governors to release incarcerated people. In March, they warned that the virus would spread rapidly in prisons and jails to both prisoners and staff. But their prescient warnings have been largely ignored.

Elected officials can still act to save lives during the current surge, which is only expected to worsen during the coming winter months, said Hooks. States can decrease the number of people incarcerated through an increased use of clemency and expanding parole, he said. 

“We have too many people held in unsafe places,” said Hooks. “It’s not too late to do some good on this thing.”

In New York, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has refused to use his clemency powers to release thousands of elderly and/or medically vulnerable state prisoners, as well as those held on technical parole violations. 

In fact, Cuomo has contributed to an increase in the state’s jail populations. In the spring, Cuomo and state legislators rolled back the state’s bail reform law, adding more misdemeanor and felony charges that would be eligible for cash bail. According to a report by the Center for Court Innovation, “from July through November 1, the effect of those amendments alone has resulted in a 7 to 11 percent increase in the pretrial jail population.”

“Governor Cuomo continues to ignore the plight of incarcerated, vulnerable New Yorkers as COVID-19 rages through his state prisons,” said Katie Schaffer, Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Center for Community Alternatives, in a statement on Dec. 14, the same day the first person in New York received the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The Governor must act now to save lives behind bars by granting clemency to older and immunocompromised people and ensuring that all vulnerable New Yorkers, including incarcerated people, be prioritized for early, voluntary access to authorized vaccines,” she said.

D.C. May Give People Convicted As Young Adults A Chance At Resentencing

The D.C. Council is set to vote on a bill aimed at giving people who committed serious crimes before their 25th birthday an opportunity to petition a judge for resentencing.

Halim Flowers
(Photo by Joshua Vaughn)

D.C. May Give People Convicted As Young Adults A Chance At Resentencing

The D.C. Council is set to vote on a bill aimed at giving people who committed serious crimes before their 25th birthday an opportunity to petition a judge for resentencing.


Where Halim Flowers grew up, drugs and violence were always nearby. His father struggled with drug addiction and left town just before Flowers turned 11, according to a profile of Flowers in the Washington City Paper. At 12, Flowers began selling drugs. He stopped going to school and began using drugs and alcohol.

“It was just a downward spiral,” Flowers told The Appeal. 

One day in 1996, Flowers, then 16, attempted to rob a drug house but was thwarted when the men inside tried to grab his gun. Flowers left. Later, a friend returned to the apartment and shot one of the occupants, killing him. Prosecutors say Flowers went with him; Flowers maintains he didn’t go back to the apartment. He was charged with felony murder.

In 1998, he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison. While incarcerated, Flowers wrote poetry, published books, enrolled in courses at Georgetown University through their Prison Scholars Program, and served as a mentor in the D.C. Department  of Corrections Young Men Emerging Unit

Then, in 2016, the D.C. Council passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which allows people who committed serious crimes before their 18th birthday to petition the court for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years. The law asks judges to consider the defendant’s personal history and circumstances, their commitment to change and rehabilitation in prison, statements from victims and prosecutors, and other factors, before deciding whether the petitioner’s sentence should be modified.

Thanks to the measure, Flowers was released last year after spending 22 years in prison. 

Now, a new bill could allow more people like him a chance at resentencing. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council will vote on the Second Look Amendment Act, a measure to raise the cutoff age for potential resentencing to 25 from 18. The act is part of an omnibus public safety bill and it’s likely to pass—it passed unanimously during the council’s first of two votes on the bill.

The law that freed Flowers and the Second Look Amendment Act both build upon Supreme Court decisions that found it is unconstitutional to sentence people under the age of 18 to death or to mandatory life without the possibility of parole. The rulings were influenced by neuroscience research showing that children and young adults’ cognitive abilities, particularly when it comes to controlling impulses and assessing risks, are not fully developed, and the understanding that young people show a greater capacity for change and rehabilitation.

There is a growing understanding nationwide that the cognitive differences between adults and children mean children should not be held to the harsh sentencing standards as adults, even when they commit serious crimes. But research also shows that emerging adults, ages 18 to 25, are also developmentally distinct from adults: Like children, emerging adults’ brains are still developing. As a result, they are often more impulsive and emotionally immature than older adults, and make poorer decisions—but also have a greater likelihood of changing their behavior as they age.

“The research has been moving in a direction that says 18 is just too young,” said Joette James, a clinical neuropsychologist. James is the chief inpatient and outpatient neuropsychologist at HSC Pediatric Center in Washington, D.C., and has testified as an expert witness in death penalty cases and cases involving children. “This is not contested research. It has been demonstrated over and over and over again.”

“There has been a body of research that shows emerging adults are a distinct developmental group,” said Lael Chester, director of the emerging adult project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab. “The transition takes years. There’s no magic birthday. … It is imperative that the justice system recognize this robust body of research and react accordingly.” 

“We want to evaluate them based on what we know about adolescent development,” Chester continued, “we don’t want to put our head in the sand and say we don’t know anything about this and go on about business as usual.”

The Second Look Amendment Act is part of an emerging trend to extend youth resentencing measures to young adults. In California, people who committed a crime before the age of 26 and have already served 15, 20, or 25 years in prison (depending on the original sentence) are required to receive parole hearings once they become eligible for a hearing. A parole board then determines whether they are eligible for release. Illinois passed a similar measure in 2018. It allows some people who have already served at least 10 years for a crime they committed before they were 21 years old to petition for early release on parole. Lawmakers in Colorado and Florida have also proposed legislation that would give people under the age of 25 a chance to get their sentences reconsidered after they have served a certain amount of time.


If D.C.’s second look bill passes, at least 300 people could be eligible to apply for sentence reduction, according to the Washington Post. The bill has the support of the council and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. Mayor Muriel Bowser initially expressed support for the bill, but has more recently expressed opposition to it. And the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., formerly led by Trump appointee Jessie Liu, has strongly opposed the measure, as has the D.C. Metropolitan Police. Since the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act passed, D.C.’s U.S. attorney’s office has opposed nearly every petition for early release of youth offenders.

“The victims of these crimes and the community at large should not be jeopardized by the Council’s rush to expand the [Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act],” said Liu in a press release issued last year that pinned her office’s opposition to the bill on a perceived threat to public safety and what she considers a lack of consideration for the victims of the people who could petition for release.

While some victims may wish to keep those who harmed them or their loved ones incarcerated, others feel differently

In a letter to the editor published by the Washington Post, April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, took issue with what she called the “fearmongering” and “weaponizing of some survivors’ experiences” from one of D.C.’s advisory neighborhood commissioners and Liu.

“As a black woman and mother who has survived sexual assault and intra-community violence, I will not tolerate being spoken for,” Goggans wrote. “I support the Second Look Amendment Act without any reservations. Keeping people in jail does not make us safer.”

Research has shown people are less likely to commit crimes as they grow older. By the time people are eligible to potentially get their sentences reduced under D.C. law, they will have already aged at least 15 years and will be out of the adolescent or emerging adult phase of cognitive development and into their 30s.

Charles Allen, the Ward 6 council member and chairperson of the judiciary committee, said in late November that 55 people have been given reduced sentences under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, and none of them have reoffended, DCist reported

“What the U.S. attorney’s office is recommending is contrary to the goal of public safety,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. “Long sentences are not a deterrence to crime. We’re now at a time in our society where there’s more willingness to realize that we need to invest in ways other than long prison sentences to make our community safer.” 

Since Flowers was released from prison, he has received fellowships from the Halcyon Arts Lab and Echoing Green which allow him to continue creating visual art and worked with Kim Kardashian West on a documentary about America’s justice system.

“Now, as a 40-year-old adult, I find it to be very inhumane,” Flowers said of lengthy or life sentences for children and emerging adults. “I think it runs afoul of our Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. But I also found it to be as American as apple pie. That’s what America does to Black people.”


Ghandnoosh—and the Model Penal Code, a proposed criminal code created by the American Law Institute to standardize U.S. penal law—say that ideally, the opportunity to get one’s sentence reviewed by a judge or parole board after serving part of the sentence ought to be extended to everyone, not just people under 25.

“This is a really exciting piece of legislation, but given the scale of the problem that mass incarceration is, we should always ask, is it enough?” Ghandnoosh said. “Half of the prison population [nationwide] is convicted of a violent offense,” she added, noting that the population of people who would be considered older or elderly in prison is rapidly growing because many are stuck serving long sentences in prison with little to no chance for release. “If we want to end mass incarceration, we have to revisit these long sentences we’ve put on people for these violent crimes.”

Some lawmakers and elected officials have already taken steps to allow more people to get a second look at their sentences. State legislatures in New York, Maryland, and West Virginia have all introduced bills to allow incarcerated people to get their sentences re-examined after serving a significant portion. At the federal level, U.S. Senator Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would allow people who have served 10 years in prison to petition a federal court to get their sentence reviewed by a judge. Like D.C.’s second look act, the bill gives judges the final say on whether the petitioner is ready to leave prison and re-enter society.

Newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón issued a special directive to his deputy DAs on Dec. 7, changing the office’s sentencing policies and requiring that they reevaluate and consider resentencing people who have already served 15 years in prison. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby also recently announced she has launched a similar sentencing review unit. Across the country, district attorneys like Gascón and Mosby have created review units designed to give lengthy past sentences a second look.

“If we really are going to do anything about mass incarceration, decriminalizing marijuana isn’t going to do it,” said Barbara Fedders, an assistant professor at the UNC School of  Law, where she directs the Youth Justice Clinic. “It’s going to be these sort of things—taking a second look at people who have been convicted of violent crimes.”

CORRECTION: This article initially mischaracterized Muriel Bowser’s position on the Second Look Amendment Act.

Terry McAuliffe’s Record on the Death Penalty Is Out of Step With National Trends

McAuliffe is running to become Virginia governor a second time. If he wins, he would be the only active Democratic governor to have carried out executions in office.

Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks at a Biden campaign event on March 1.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Terry McAuliffe’s Record on the Death Penalty Is Out of Step With National Trends

McAuliffe is running to become Virginia governor a second time. If he wins, he would be the only active Democratic governor to have carried out executions in office.


On July 6, 2017, William Morva was killed by lethal injection in a Virginia prison. He had been convicted of killing Derrick McFarland, a hospital security guard, and a sheriff’s deputy, Eric Sutphin. No one in Virginia has been executed since. 

State legislators, the U.N. special rapporteur for arbitrary executions, the European Union, the U.N. special rapporteur for mental health, and one of Sutphin’s daughters asked then-governor Terry McAuliffe to stop the execution. 

Morva, who was severely mentally ill, was suffering from delusions at the time of the murder, according to his attorneys. When he was not incarcerated, he ate raw meat and pine cones, believing he suffered from an intestinal disorder. 

But McAuliffe refused to intervene. “I personally oppose the death penalty,” he said in a statement, announcing his decision to decline Morva’s clemency petition. “However, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views.”

After Morva’s execution, Sutphin’s daughter, Rachel, told local news outlet WTOP News, “A lot of people, they want families to have this moment that heals them or makes things completed. And for me, it did not.”  

“It was instead, more hurt,” she said. “I felt, well, now there are two people dead.”

On Wednesday, McAuliffe announced he’ll be running for governor for a second time. During his first term, from 2014 to 2018, he oversaw three executions, including Morva’s, putting him out of step both with his democratic gubernatorial colleagues and growing opposition to the death penalty. 

“In my personal opinion I think he was the worst governor we had on the death penalty since George Allen,” said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Allen, a Republican, was governor of Virginia from 1994 to 1998. Twenty-four people were executed during his term, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

Between 2014 and 2020, 160 executions were carried out by state governments, according to DPIC. Of those, only two Democratic governors oversaw any executions—the other was former Missouri governor Jay Nixon, who oversaw 17 of them. Republican administrations carried out the remaining 140. 

McAuliffe’s website does not state his current position on capital punishment, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment by publication. On Friday, gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy tweeted, “As a former public defender, I have seen the inequities in our criminal justice system firsthand. As Governor, I will repeal the death penalty in Virginia.”

In 2016, McAuliffe led efforts to keep secret the pharmacies that provide drugs used in lethal injections. “These manufacturers will not do business in Virginia if their identities are to be revealed,” McAuliffe said at the time, the Washington Post reported

“He repeatedly tried to manipulate the legislature into passing execution drug secrecy despite significant opposition within his own party,” said Stone. “It was maddening for us in the organization for someone who said he was personally opposed to the death penalty. He was just as agressive in his public policy work on the death penalty as any pro-death penalty governor we’ve had.”

Executions are on the decline in Virginia overall, reflecting national trends. Since 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, the second most in the nation, according to DPIC. But today, it’s on the precipice of abolition. Next year, the state legislature is expected to consider a bill to repeal the death penalty. A death sentence has not been handed down since 2011, and there are only two people on Virginia’s death row. 

“We are very close to death penalty abolition in Virginia,” said Stone. “We think we’ll be significantly set back if Terry McAuliffe is the next governor of Virginia. We just don’t think he would support abolition based on our prior experience.” 

Twenty years ago, only twelve states, plus the District of Columbia, had abolished capital punishment and one state had a governor-imposed moratorium, according to DPIC. As of today, 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, have banned capital punishment, and in three states, governors have imposed a moratorium, which pauses executions during the governor’s term. 

Even in the 28 states with a death penalty, few executions occur, according to DPIC. Between 2016 and 2019, 90 people were executed. Almost that many people were executed in 2000, when states put 85 people to death. Of those, 40 were executed in Texas under then-Governor George W. Bush. 

“The death penalty has been fading at the state and local level for several years now,” said Brandon Garrett, author of the book, “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” “Death sentencing rose for a decade beginning in the 1970s and by the late 1990s all of a sudden death sentencing started to collapse.” 

Up until July, the federal death penalty system reflected the punishment’s increasing unpopularity. Before this year, the last federal execution was carried out in 2003, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Between 1970 and 1999, no federal prisoners were executed. 

But then on July 14, the federal government—under President Trump and Attorney General William Barr—executed Daniel Lewis Lee. Two days later, they executed Wesley Ira Purkey. On July 17, they executed Dustin Lee Honken. On Aug. 26, they executed Lezmond Charles Mitchell. On Aug. 28, they executed Keith Dwayne Nelson. On Sept. 22, they executed William Emmett Lecroy, Jr. On Sept. 24, they executed Christopher Andre Vialva. 

“What we’re seeing from the Trump administration is a historical aberration,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of DPIC. “No president in the 20th or 21st century has ever carried out this many civilian federal executions in a single year.”

On Nov. 19—after President Trump’s defeat—the federal government executed Orlando Cordia Hall. President Grover Cleveland, in 1885, was the last president to oversee a federal execution during a presidential transition, according to DPIC. Several more executions are scheduled to occur before President-Elect Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty, takes office: Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10, Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11, Lisa Montgomery on Jan. 12, Cory Johnson on Jan. 14, and Dustin Higgs on Jan. 15. 

“That’s the case of a repudiated presidency trying to carry out executions before another president who disagrees with that policy takes office,” said Dunham. “These executions are an intent to kill, not an intent to carry out justice.”

Four years ago, advocates tried to stop this macabre scenario from playing out. They urged President Barack Obama to commute the sentences of all federal death row prisoners before President Trump, an ardent supporter of capital punishment, took office, according to Natasha Minsker, a member of District Attorney George Gascón’s transition team on the death penalty. “When President Obama left office many people were pleading with him to clear the federal death row,” she said. “People remained hopeful until the moment Trump was sworn in.”

But during his lame duck period, Obama only commuted the sentences of two people on death row.

“President Obama took no steps to forestall the kind of mass execution that we’re seeing now,” said Dunham. “The administration knew or could have known about the significant defect in the trials of all the people who are currently being executed or have been executed.”

Montgomery, who’s scheduled to be executed next month, has been diagnosed with severe mental illness. As a child she was sex trafficked and sexually and physically tortured

Brandon Bernard, who was executed Thursday, was only 18 when his co-defendant shot the two victims. Several jurors in his case spoke out to oppose his execution. Campaigns to commute Montgomery and Bernard’s sentences have attracted thousands of supporters. 

While it would take congressional action to repeal the federal death penalty, Biden can still commute the sentences of the remaining people on death row. Federal prosecutors can also choose not to seek the death penalty and Biden’s administration can choose not to seek execution dates, said Garrett. “Federal death sentencing and executions can come to a grinding halt,” he said. 

This piece has been updated with additional quotes and context.

Historic Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Passes House of Representatives

It’s the first time a full chamber of Congress has approved such a measure.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Historic Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Passes House of Representatives

It’s the first time a full chamber of Congress has approved such a measure.


Today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decriminalize marijuana, voting 228 to 164 in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. It is the first time that a full chamber of Congress has approved such a measure.

The companion bill in the Senate, sponsored by Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, has not been put up for a vote. 

Prior to today’s vote, the bill’s sponsor in the House, Representative Jerry Nadler, urged his colleagues to support the MORE Act.

“This long overdue legislation would reverse the failed policy of criminalizing marijuana on the federal level and would take steps to address the heavy toll this policy has taken across the country, particularly on communities of color,” he said in a statement

Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, but Black people are more than three times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana, according to FBI data

The bill would create an office to fund services “for individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs including … legal aid for civil and criminal cases, including expungement of cannabis convictions,” the bill states. The bill also prohibits the denial of federal public benefits on the basis of certain cannabis-related convictions.

In November, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted in favor of marijuana legalization ballot initiatives. And earlier this week, the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs removed cannabis from Schedule IV, which includes some opioids. 

“The nationwide wins this cycle demonstrate a strong mandate for progressive marijuana legislation,” Barbara Lee wrote in The Appeal earlier this week. “The chance that this legislation passes the Senate and is signed into law is no longer a pipe dream.”

Biden’s Attorney General Needs to Think Like an Immigrant Rights Activist

With aggressive legal maneuvering, the incoming head of the Justice Department can reverse some of Trump’s most lasting harm and take steps toward a more humane immigration system.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty Images.)

Biden’s Attorney General Needs to Think Like an Immigrant Rights Activist

With aggressive legal maneuvering, the incoming head of the Justice Department can reverse some of Trump’s most lasting harm and take steps toward a more humane immigration system.


This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised that he will “end the Trump Administration’s draconian [immigration] policies … and restore America’s moral leadership.”

It’s hard not to be skeptical about that, given Biden’s propensity for masking tepid platforms in ambitious language. And Biden’s promise ignores that the United States’s immigration system was a human rights disaster before Trump (Biden’s former boss holds the title of “