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As Support For The Death Penalty Plummets, The Trump Administration Embraces Executions

While bans on capital punishment progress at the state level, the federal government is racing to carry out three more executions before President Trump's term end. Ten people have been put to death since July, the first such executions since 2003.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

As Support For The Death Penalty Plummets, The Trump Administration Embraces Executions

While bans on capital punishment progress at the state level, the federal government is racing to carry out three more executions before President Trump's term end. Ten people have been put to death since July, the first such executions since 2003.

Support for the death penalty has reached its lowest level in nearly 50 years. Twenty-two states have abolished capital punishment. Another 12 states have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report for 2020. Yet, at the federal level, the Trump administration has executed 10 people since July with three more scheduled before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

Last year, Colorado became the latest state to ban the death penalty. And voters not only elected a president who opposes capital punishment, but in at least nine major counties they elected chief prosecutors who said they would never or rarely seek a death sentence, according to DPIC’s report. 

In Los Angeles County, death penalty opponent George Gascón defeated incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey. During Lacey’s tenure, of the 22 people sentenced to death from Los Angeles County, nearly all are people of color.

Last month, Gascón issued a directive stating his office will never seek a death sentence or execution date, and will not defend existing death sentences. For the more than 200 people already on death row who were sentenced in Los Angeles County, his office, according to the policy, will review each case “with the goal of removing the sentence of death.” The overwhelming majority of people on death row who were sentenced in Los Angeles County are people of color. 

On Monday, 12 chief prosecutors in Virginia sent a letter to legislative leaders calling on them to pass a number of criminal justice reforms, including a ban on the death penalty. A death sentence has not been handed down in Virginia since 2011, according to DPIC

“The death penalty is unjust, racially biased, and ineffective at deterring crime,” the prosecutors wrote. “It is past time for Virginia to end this antiquated practice.”

Opposition to the death penalty was once considered a political liability. In fact, the path to death row for many of those facing execution was paved by Republican and Democratic lawmakers. 

During the 1988 presidential campaign, CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked democratic nominee Michael Dukakis if he would support the death penalty for a person who raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis, a lifelong death penalty opponent, said he would not. Pundits have lambasted his answer, declaring that it effectively ended his presidential run. 

Such scruples would not be an issue for the Democratic party’s next nominee, Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas. 

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton returned to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. More than a decade earlier, Rector, who was Black, shot and killed a white police officer, and then shot himself in the head, effectively lobotomizing himself. At his last meal, Rector told a guard he was saving his pecan pie for later, according to news reports.  

Two years later, then-President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, colloquially known as the 1994 crime bill, which then-Senator Joe Biden championed. Included in the bill was the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which expanded the types of crimes eligible for the death penalty. 

President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice sought and secured death sentences for more than a dozen people. During his lame duck period, Obama commuted the sentences of just two people from death row.

“Their failure to act certainly empowered the Trump administration to carry out these executions,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Federal prosecutors with Obama’s Department of Justice also fought appeals from death row prisoner Lisa Montgomery, who is scheduled to be executed Tuesday.

Thousands of people have signed petitions calling for Montgomery’s sentence to be commuted, and some are advocating for her release from prison. In 2004, Montgomery went to the home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Skidmore, Missouri, killed her, and used a knife to remove the fetus from her body. Montgomery, who has been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, was sexually and physically tortured as a child and adult. 

Dustin Higgs is scheduled to be executed three days later. Higgs was prosecuted under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 for the murders of three women in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the last weeks of Clinton’s presidency, on Jan. 3, 2001, Higgs received nine death sentences. 

The government’s case against Higgs was largely based on the testimony of Victor Gloria, who testified pursuant to a plea agreement. In the early morning hours of Jan. 27, 1996, Tanji Jackson and Higgs got into an argument. As Jackson and her two friends left Higgs’s apartment, she threatened to have them “f—ed up or robbed,” Gloria testified. Higgs put his gun in his coat, and he, Gloria, and Willis Haynes pursued the women, according to Gloria’s testimony. They found them walking on the side of the road. They got into Higgs’s minivan, and Higgs drove them to the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge. There, the women exited the minivan. Gloria testified that Higgs passed the gun to Haynes, who followed them and fired the fatal shots.

Haynes was tried and convicted. The prosecution sought a death sentence, but the district court sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. Higgs then went to trial, was convicted, and sent to death row. Gloria pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact, and was sentenced to 84 months’ imprisonment and three years’ supervised release. 

In 2012, Haynes wrote in a sworn declaration that Higgs did not tell him to shoot the victims. He had previously told authorities that Higgs ordered him to kill the women, according to the Washington Post.  

“Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever,” he wrote in 2012. “So many times since that night I’ve wished that I hadn’t got out of [the vehicle]. The girls got out and I went after them. I wasn’t thinking at all that night. … I shot the girls because I thought they were a serious threat to Dustin’s life. … Maybe I was taking out all the abuse and problems I had been through in my life. I was angry from what I had been through. But that’s no excuse.”

Haynes’s mother physically and emotionally abused him when he was a child, according to the Washington Post. He began drinking when he was 7 and at 11, he tried to kill himself. During his teenage years, he lived in foster homes. 

After Haynes shot the women, he and Higgs dropped off Gloria and got into an argument, Haynes wrote in his declaration. “He was upset that I shot the women,” he wrote. “Dustin screamed at me about it.”

More than a million people have signed a petition to free Higgs, who they say was wrongfully convicted. His son has pleaded for his father’s life to be spared. 

“From a child to adulthood, my father was always there for me to confide in, to laugh with, to cry with, and even get upset with,” he wrote in a letter included in his father’s clemency petition. “He was always there and has been my number one supporter, showed me what love is, and taught me to be a better man. I cannot imagine or think of where I could’ve ended up without the love and encouragement of my father.”

Like many of those on death row, Higgs’s childhood was marred by violence, abuse, and trauma, according to his clemency petition. At school, he struggled with a learning disability. Other students mocked him, calling him ableist epithets. His father was largely absent other than to beat his mother. He hit Higgs when he tried to protect her. 

In 1981, Higgs’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, according to his clemency petition. He stayed by her bed for hours, and brought her food and water. Less than a year after her diagnosis, when he was 10, she died in their home. His father was incarcerated at the time. Soon after, he began wetting the bed, and continued to do so for about the next three years. 

Last month, Higgs, who has asthma, tested positive for COVID-19. The disease has caused severe damage to Higgs’s lungs, according to his attorney Shawn Nolan, chief of the capital habeas unit at the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The government plans to execute Higgs using pentobarbital which, because of his lung damage, may result in his lungs filling with fluid, causing him to experience a drowning sensation, which Nolan compares to waterboarding.

“He does not want to be executed,” said Nolan. “He’s very hopeful that the courts are going to see this for what it is and put a stop to this execution.” 

Cory Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed the day before Higgs, has also tested positive for the disease. (Johnson’s first name is spelled Cory and Corey in court records.) In 1993, he was convicted of seven counts of capital murder and was sentenced to seven death sentences for killings that the prosecution claimed were linked to Johnson’s drug selling activities. According to his attorneys, Johnson is intellectually disabled and, therefore, exempt from execution. Thousands have signed a petition to stop his execution. 

“Corey Johnson had three childhood IQ scores placing him in the range of a person with intellectual disability,” his attorneys wrote to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a motion filed today, requesting a stay of his execution. “He has significant, well-documented, deficits in virtually every aspect of daily living, including nearly all skills necessary for independent living.”

Momentum is building to end the federal death penalty, buoyed by an improbable ally—Biden, who boasted in 1992 that a crime bill he sponsored does “everything but hang people for jaywalking.” But on last year’s presidential campaign trail, Biden said he would work to pass legislation to abolish the federal death penalty. 

“All indications are that he has learned from history,” Dunham said of Biden. However, he cautioned, “Words are just words until they’re acted on so we have to wait to see what he believes versus what was just rhetoric.”

Boston Mayor Vetoes Restrictions on Police Force Against Protesters Despite Controversial Body Camera Video

‘It’s an insult to the activism and organizing that defined 2020, and falls far short of the transformational leadership that Boston deserves,’ one City Council member said.

Police confront protesters in Boston, Massachusetts, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd on May 31, 2020.
Getty Images

Boston Mayor Vetoes Restrictions on Police Force Against Protesters Despite Controversial Body Camera Video

‘It’s an insult to the activism and organizing that defined 2020, and falls far short of the transformational leadership that Boston deserves,’ one City Council member said.

Police body camera footage showing Boston police officers bragging about attacking protesters in May was not enough to convince Mayor Marty Walsh to sign an ordinance this week restricting the department’s use of force against demonstrators. 

Walsh on Tuesday announced that he had vetoed legislation that would have imposed strict regulations on police use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray against protesters. 

“Mayor Walsh’s veto to this legislation is a failure of leadership when this is an opportunity to establish clear restrictions on lethal crowd control weapons and greater accountability in policing,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, an outspoken advocate for police reform in the city. “I’ll keep pushing to pass this ordinance because this is the kind of action and leadership this moment requires.”

In a letter dated Dec. 31, the mayor told the City Council that although he vetoed the ordinance, there is “broad-based agreement” between his administration, the council, and the department that “only appropriate and necessary measures ever be employed to prevent violence or rioting and ensure that people can safely and peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.”

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo wrote the bill Walsh vetoed. He intends to work with the council—which voted 8-5 in favor of the measure, one short of a veto-proof majority—to override the mayor’s rejection. Arroyo noted that councilors could be pressured by constituents ahead of municipal elections to help the effort.

“We will certainly be moving to have it passed and to override the veto,” Arroyo said. “We need one vote and it’s an election year.”

In a statement to The Appeal, City Councilor Michelle Wu echoed Arroyo’s comments.

“After weeks of urging from City Councilors and community members to sign this legislation protecting the public at demonstrations, Mayor Walsh has chosen to veto these protections,” Wu said. “It’s an insult to the activism and organizing that defined 2020, and falls far short of the transformational leadership that Boston deserves.”

The mayor’s office said Walsh vetoed the bill because it infringed on Police Commissioner William Gross’s authority to make rules for the department and regulations would be legally questionable to apply to outside departments or State Police helping in the city. State law already requires officers from outside the city to abide by laws and regulations within the city, Arroyo said. 

Nick Martin, the mayor’s chief communications officer, told The Appeal in an interview that Walsh believes the city should ask the department to adhere to a statewide criminal justice reform bill signed into law on Dec. 31 and that the ordinance from the council was too restrictive. 

”In practice, the police commissioner here and the command staff need the authority to make decisions on the ground level that aren’t necessarily feasible based on the parameters that the City Council ordinance was putting forward,” Martin said.

While rejecting the regulations on police behavior, Walsh celebrated a second bill he signed this week creating an Office of Police Accountability and Transparency. That legislation, “together with the statewide police reform bill recently signed into law, will further advance our work to build a more equitable and just city for everyone,” the mayor said in a statement provided to The Appeal.

Martin cited that bill’s signing, a promise that Gross would meet with the council to discuss the department’s policies, and the ongoing police investigation into officers’ behavior the night of May 31 as indications that the city was taking the revelations from the videos seriously. He declined to detail any concrete changes that would occur in the absence of the ordinance’s passage.

“I don’t want to presuppose outcomes,” Martin said. “But there could be a new sort of ordinance that comes out of that conversation, there could be some method for codifying the parameters that are within the statewide police reform bill in Boston.”

Copies of the body camera videos, exclusively released to The Appeal by attorney Carl Williams, showed a chaotic scene from the May demonstrations where police officers attacked protesters and bragged about running them down. 

“I think the footage just confirms there’s still much work to be done,” Campbell told The Appeal. “Of course, I didn’t need to see the footage to know that our department needed to do a lot more in terms of accountability and transparency.”

Williams, who is representing a number of demonstrators arrested that night, obtained over 66 hours of body camera video as part of a discovery file. 

The May 31 protest was organized by local activist group Black Boston. Co-founder Toiell Washington told The Appeal in late December that although she welcomed the potential for change from city government, she was skeptical of how far any reform efforts would go. 

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a huge shift because everyone already knew what type of crime the police were on and what they would do—we all knew,” Washington said. 

Walsh, days after publication of The Appeal’s report on the footage, told WBUR’s Tiziana Dearing that “officers were hurt that night and it got way out of control,” one of several comments seen by Campbell and others as implying the police were at least partially justified in their behavior. 

“He got that terribly wrong.” Campbell said of the mayor’s comments to WBUR. 

 Walsh’s office did not make the mayor available for an interview for this article.

In one clip provided to The Appeal from the May 31 protest, a sergeant is seen bragging to other officers about hitting demonstrators, a story he changed once he realized he was being recorded.

That sergeant, the Boston Globe reported on Dec. 30, is Clifton McHale, a 23-year member of the force. It would not be the sergeant’s first brush with controversy. According to the Globe, McHale was found to have “sexually assaulted a highly intoxicated woman” in 2005 and served a one-year suspension after an investigation. 

In a statement provided to The Appeal, Gross confirmed a sergeant had been suspended after the video’s release, but did not disclose the identity of the suspended sergeant.

“I have placed a Sergeant involved in this incident on administrative leave and I will take any additional action as necessary at the conclusion of the investigation,” Gross said. “I want to encourage people to bring these matters to our attention so that we can investigate them appropriately.”

To Arroyo’s dismay, other portions of the footage haven’t been met with the same sort of proactive response, and language excusing the police continues to come out of City Hall.

“This is what I’ve been so upset about with the public commentary around this,” Arroyo told The Appeal in December. “There’s no justification for describing in detail somewhat gleefully the act of hitting multiple people with your vehicle. There’s no justification for that. You’re not going to find it even with more context, because it does not exist. That’s not justifiable contextually.” 

To Wu, the fact that it took The Appeal’s report and the release of the footage to get action on well-documented abuses from the summer is not a ringing endorsement of the city’s approach to policing. Wu noted that the footage lines up with contemporaneous allegations of misbehavior that were suppressed by the city’s resistance to releasing video and police reports.

“It took investigative journalism and lawsuits and external forces to force what should have been leadership and accountability from the top,” Wu told The Appeal in December.

“Accountability alone does not solve the issue,” Wu added. “This is about the need for structural changes and cultural change within public safety to really ensure that we are focused on the ways in which the city can affirmatively create safety and health for every community.”

Reform advocates and other activists have used the footage and reporting to continue their efforts to change the city’s approach to policing by targeting the misconduct captured on tape. The sheer breadth of misbehavior captured in the videos is forcing city leaders to take action.

“I think what people in the streets, what organizers, what organizations have done with this is really great,” Williams said. “It looks like there’s going to be more potential legal action, possibly administrative action from the attorney general’s office or legal action probably from the attorney general’s office and from the district attorney’s office. And I’m not super hopeful of it, but possibly from the Boston Police Department itself.”

Williams cited the systemic issues around policing and a culture that permits violence against the public as challenges ahead. 

“This is always an uphill battle because we’re fighting against legal structures, institutional and cultural structures that are white supremacist, that defend the idea that it’s OK, it’s acceptable—or that it’s excusable,” Williams said. “And those are difficult things to fight against because they’ve existed in this country since its founding.”

Bodycam Video Shows ‘Mob Mentality’ Of Boston Police Who Responded To George Floyd Protests, Lawyer Says

Hours of video given exclusively to The Appeal show police officers bragging about attacking protesters and multiple instances of excessive force and the liberal use of pepper spray.

Police shoot pepper spray toward a protester during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd in Boston, Massachusetts on May 31, 2020.
Getty Images

Bodycam Video Shows ‘Mob Mentality’ Of Boston Police Who Responded To George Floyd Protests, Lawyer Says

Hours of video given exclusively to The Appeal show police officers bragging about attacking protesters and multiple instances of excessive force and the liberal use of pepper spray.

As demonstrations against police brutality and abuse of Black Americans spread across Boston on the night of May 31 and early morning of June 1, the city’s police department was out in force

Many officers wore body cameras. During the unrest, the cameras recorded hours of footage that the department subsequently stored. 

That footage was given to attorney Carl Williams, who is representing some protesters arrested that night, as part of a discovery file encompassing 44 videos and over 66 hours of footage. Williams assembled a team of volunteer lawyers and law students to pore over the videos to find exculpatory evidence for his clients. What they found, however, was something more. 

The hours of video, given exclusively to The Appeal by Williams, show police officers bragging about attacking protesters, targeting nonviolent demonstrators for violence and possible arrest, discussing arrest quotas and the use of cars as weapons, and multiple instances of excessive force and liberal use of pepper spray. 

“It’s this mob mentality,” Williams said of the police behavior. “And I use ‘mob’ as a sort of a double entendre—mob like the mafia and mob like a group of a pack of wild people roaming the streets looking to attack people.”

The Appeal shared sections of the footage with Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who said that in her view, police behavior in the videos is indicative of the very issues that demonstrators were marching to bring attention to. 

“I have not watched the entire video, but the snippets that I have seen are incredibly troubling,” said Rollins, adding that she has sent the clips to her special prosecution team. 

The Boston Police Department has opened an investigation into the revelations in the videos, Sergeant Detective John Boyle told The Appeal. Citing the investigation, Boyle declined further comment.

The May 31 Boston demonstration, part of a nationwide movement that was sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, officially wrapped up around 9 p.m., Black Boston co-founder Toiell Washington told The Appeal. Washington said that her group was one of the main organizers of the event and made a conscious choice not to work with police because of the nature of the protest. 

“We didn’t work with any city officials and we definitely didn’t work with the police,” said Washington. “We didn’t have that conversation with them.”

To Black Boston, working with the department on a protest against police brutality would have been hypocritical and counterproductive. The group did not encounter any resistance from police during the march and demonstration, Washington said, but that changed as the night wore on.

“As soon as it got dark, they started things,” Washington said of the police. “I have many friends that were attacked, and they did nothing to provoke anyone.”

Washington said that police turned the city into a “war zone,” barricading protesters and passersby alike and causing destruction and terror. 

Activist Yaritza Dudley and other people The Appeal spoke to backed up that version of events. Dudley, who is Black Boston’s director of events, was not officially involved with the group at the time. She told The Appeal that she and her friends endured a harrowing escape from downtown Boston as police attacked them and everyone around them with tear gas, pepper spray, and physical violence. That behavior wasn’t surprising to the young activist—but it was a major moment nonetheless.

“It just goes to show that Boston is no different, is no better than any other city that you see with open attacks and police brutality,” said Dudley.

Lauren Pespisa, a Boston activist, told The Appeal she remembered seeing “more cops that night than any other, except shortly after when the National Guard came out.”

“The daytime march was extremely peaceful and the cops held back, then once the sun went down there was a lot of tear gas and police cars driving haphazardly into crowded streets,” said Pespisa. “They shut down the MBTA and had battalions of riot cops around every corner gassing us.”

“Start spraying the fuckers,” says one officer, wearing camera X81416368, at 1:21 a.m. UTC on June 1. (Times are set for UTC on the cameras referred to in this story—five hours ahead of Eastern time.)

Over and over in the videos, police officers are seen deploying plumes of pepper spray at demonstrators, often without warning or provocation. Crowds of protesters with their hands raised are regularly attacked and sprayed by officers on bikes and on foot. At times, demonstrators are rushed by surprise by officers spraying at will. 

In one clip, when a man with a gray beard approaches a crowd of officers with his hands raised, an officer to his right sprays him with pepper spray from close range directly in the eyes. In another, a woman with blue hair is surrounded by officers and sprayed in the face at close range by one officer.

Rollins called the liberal use of pepper spray on display in the videos “disturbing” and said her team was looking into it. She added that she hoped the woman with blue hair had filed a complaint. 

The officers appear enthusiastic about using the chemical weapon and unconcerned with whether to arrest demonstrators. In one clip, timed at 1:52 a.m., officers advancing on a crowd are pushing one young man standing with his hands raised. 

“We gotta start spraying more,” the officer wearing camera X81417350 says. 

“You out?” he asks another police officer offscreen, holding up a can of pepper spray. “I got a little left.”

“I want to hit this asshole,” he says, gesturing toward the young man being pushed back. “I’ve used two of these already—I’ve got a little left, I want to hit this kid.” 

Williams cited those comments in particular as indicative of the attitude police in Boston take toward demonstrators and the community.

“This is not law enforcement,” he said. “That’s not what they’re doing right there in the streets, ganging up on people using weaponry.”

“And they’re enjoying it,” he added.

Officers assaulted demonstrators in various ways throughout the evening, often without any clear sense of purpose or reason. Using batons to compel crowds back, officers with cameras are seen pushing down people trying to get out of the way and comply with commands. 

One officer, wearing camera X81329588, rushes a person on a moped who is trying to comply and clear the area. The officer charges him, shoving him off of the vehicle, for no discernible reason and with no provocation. The attack came at 2:08 a.m.

In another clip, outside Boston Common at 2:44 a.m., the same officer charges a young Black woman holding her hands up and shoves her violently to the ground with a baton. The officer says nothing when he does this and does not arrest her. 

In the aftermath of the attack, the officer and his cohort push back other demonstrators expressing concern for the victim, who they say is still lying on the ground. The officers do not respond, instead marching forward with batons pushing demonstrators out of the way. 

Marchers were exercising their First Amendment rights, Rollins said, and for the police to attack them with such ferocity is disturbing. Police behavior should be held to a higher standard, she added, and protesters expressing anger at officers is no excuse for violence.

“These are people exercising a constitutional right to be out,” said Rollins. “And there is no requirement that they be pleasant or silent when they are out.”

Those not wearing cameras are also seen assaulting demonstrators. One police officer, wearing a fluorescent jacket, looks back at camera X81417350 and then hits a young man in the stomach. The victim of the attack had been complying, walking backward with his hands up in front of his attacker.

The officers also appear to target certain demonstrators for violence. In one clip from 1:26 a.m. near the Common, a group of officers on bikes react strongly when a demonstrator kicks a tear gas canister back at them. 

“Let’s get this fucker,” says the officer behind camera X8141668. “Let’s get him, lock him up.”

Although most of the abuse on camera happens without arrests, there are some instances of demonstrators being taken into custody. One video suggests that the reason for this was to meet arrest quotas. 

At 4:52 a.m., the officer behind camera X8142975 gathers with other police officers, including a sergeant, at a rendezvous point. The conversation between the officer and the sergeant is revealing for what it implies about arrest quotas—a policy that has caused controversy in Massachusetts in the past, particularly around State Police ticket quotas. 

“How many ya got?” asks the officer as the cameraman exits his vehicle. 

“Just one, female,” he replies, lifting his hand. 

The sergeant, after an unintelligible exchange, declares, “then we’re done” as he walks over to the vehicle. “That’s 10.”

The officers then realize the number is only nine, but the superior officer appears to think that number is satisfactory. 

“I mean, theoretically, we could take one more,” he says, appearing to dismiss the idea. 

Officers repeatedly appear to not realize they are being recorded. 

In one instance, a commanding officer approaches the man behind camera X81413955 and hands him a necktie with a price tag still on it, presumably from a store looted during the unrest. 

“It’s pretty nice,” replies the cameraman, adding that it’s a “$50 tie.”

The commanding officer quickly leaves the area, turning his back on the camera. Meanwhile, the officer with the camera appears to pocket the item. The Boston Police Department did not provide a case number, evidence log, or any information about the tie. 

In another clip, a sergeant approaches the officer behind camera X81331058 and begins telling him about using a police vehicle to attack demonstrators. 

“Dude, dude, dude, I fuckin’ drove down Tremont—there was an unmarked state police cruiser they were all gathered around,” says the sergeant, laughing.

“So then I had a fucker keep coming, fucking running,” he continues. “I’m fucking hitting people with the car, did you hear me, I was like, ‘get the fuck—'”

At this point the officer behind the camera pushes the sergeant’s head away and walks off in the other direction. He comes back a few seconds later, saying, “it’s on,” about the camera.

The sergeant quickly changes his story.

“Oh, no no no no no, what I’m saying is, though, that they were in front, like, I didn’t hit anybody, like, just driving, that’s all,” he says. “My windows were closed, the shit was coming in.”

The officer then apologizes. 

“This thing just fucking went on automatically,” he says. 

The comments about the car indicate a callousness on the part of the officer—regardless of whether he actually did it—considering the use of cars as weapons in recent years, Rollins said. She singled out a car attack at the Charlottesville, Virginia, counterprotests to the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in 2017 that killed left-wing activist Heather Heyer as an example of what vehicles can do when used in that way. Hearing a police officer laugh about it, she said, was not a good feeling.

“This individual appears to be taking pleasure in the fact that this happened or is gloating,” said Rollins. “I’m a member of law enforcement now as an elected district attorney, and I’m not proud of that when I see that. And I want to be proud of the behavior that we see with law enforcement moving forward.”

Not all officers are comfortable with the department’s approach to dealing with demonstrators. Criticism pops up at 3:38 a.m. from the officer wearing camera X81329486 as he and other officers take stock of the night. 

“You know what was fucked up?” he says. “We’re pushing the one way, someone’s pushing them the other way.” 

“There was no plan,” he says. 

Another officer, wearing camera X8145069, says at 2:21 a.m. that the city is in an “absolute war.”

“This is insane,” he says, adding, “I didn’t think Boston would be that bad.”

To Washington of Black Boston, the police behavior shows the ineffectiveness of armchair commentary on how people of color “should” or “shouldn’t” protest police violence. Civil disobedience doesn’t come with an instruction manual—people can protest how they want—and to suggest that the reaction is inappropriate without applying empathy to the plight of the victims of the situation is the opposite of solidarity. 

“They cannot tell us how to channel our emotions during situations like this,” said Washington.

Today, Washington and Black Boston are concentrating on continuing their efforts to ensure that the way things are done in Boston and around the country with respect to Black and brown people are changed for the better. The old way isn’t working, Washington said, and solidarity depends on unlearning the paradigms of the past. 

A similar conversation is taking place nationally. Leaders in Washington and around the country are debating the ramifications of the acts of police violence that led to the new civil rights movement that erupted over the summer.

A number of local, state, and federal leaders in Massachusetts have been outspoken in their support for the movement. On Wednesday, the Boston City Council voted 8-5 to restrict the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against demonstrators—a measure with roots in the protests in late May and early June. 

Representative Ayanna Pressley, whose district encompasses three-quarters of the city of Boston, has been an indefatigable voice in Congress favor of police reforms. The Appeal showed her office portions of the above videos, particularly the ones focused on use of pepper spray and physical violence.

“The inexcusable actions of officers in these disturbing videos make painfully clear why our communities are standing up, speaking out and demanding decisive action to combat the public health crisis that is police brutality in our nation,” Pressley said in a statement. “We can and must advance bold and systemic policy change at all levels of government to bring an end to the toxic culture of police impunity that has fueled these abuses and begin to legislate true justice and healing for our communities.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts has been trying to obtain the videos from that night and other nights of protest since June. The Appeal shared a compilation of clips from the file with the organization before the publication of this article. 

“We have seen a compilation of BPD body cam footage dated from June 1; if accurate, the footage raises concerns about excessive force,” Ruth Bourquin, ACLU of Massachusetts’s senior and managing attorney, said in a statement. “We are grateful that the body camera footage brought these incidents to light. We note that BPD has failed to produce these body cam recordings to the ACLU, in spite of a request from the summer that is the subject of pending public records litigation.” 

Bourquin added that the behavior of the officers in the videos is antithetical to the principle of free assembly and the right of people to go out in the streets to demand justice. That right should not be infringed, she said.

For her part, Rollins promised change is coming. She issued an appeal to Bostonians that they trust her with information about the police. 

“I want people to feel comfortable sending that information to me,” Rollins said. “I want people to feel comfortable enough filing a complaint with the Boston Police Department if that is the entity that engaged in, you know, problematic at best, criminal at worst behavior,. And if they don’t feel comfortable, I want them to file it with me or one of their Boston city councilors to get it to my attention. And we will review everything.”

Advocates Call On Biden To Change the Narrative on Immigration and Then Change Policy

President-elect Biden has a tough road ahead in reversing the Trump administration’s damage to the immigration system. Advocates say they’ll make sure he fulfills his promises.

People rally in support of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in San Diego, California June 18, 2020.
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Advocates Call On Biden To Change the Narrative on Immigration and Then Change Policy

President-elect Biden has a tough road ahead in reversing the Trump administration’s damage to the immigration system. Advocates say they’ll make sure he fulfills his promises.

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he will have to address more than 400 problems at once. And that’s only counting the ones involving immigration policy.  

For the nation’s leading and weary immigrant advocates, the Trump administration’s push to restrict all avenues of immigration left a scorched path of cruelty and a daunting to-do list. They include: giving permanency to so-called Dreamers, and those with other temporary protections from deportation; jumpstarting the refugee program; reinstalling asylum protections and eliminating the “remain in Mexico” program; reuniting separated children; ending the Muslim and African travel bans; expanding employment visas and easing the backlogs; reversing public charge; rethinking immigration enforcement; undoing citizenship barriers; rebuilding immigration courts. 

The incoming Biden administration has committed to many of these, on Day One, or within the first 100 days. But for many advocates, that won’t be enough.

“Rolling back the worst of the Trump administration—that’s not the goal, we can’t just get back to 2016 status quo,” said Todd Schulte, president of, an advocacy group galvanizing business and grassroots support for immigrants. 

The Appeal conducted interviews with leaders of prominent advocacy groups about their expectations of the Biden administration. They disagree on immigration enforcement—notably whether to dismantle or reorganize the agencies responsible—but they all were united on three points: 

  • The narrative around immigrants has to change to be more affirmative. 
  • Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latinx nominated to lead the Department of Homeland Security, is the right pick because of his experience not only as an immigrant, but as the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who helped implement Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).   
  • If Biden doesn’t uphold his promises, including sending a bill to Congress in the first 100 days to give the 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, advocates say they will put him on notice. 

“We will continue to partner with them because we believe they are starkly different from the Trump administration—we know how bad things can get in this country,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said of the incoming Biden administration’s work. 

But, Hincapié added: “When they are overstepping the law, when they are violating immigrants’ rights, we are going to sue them. When they are not following through on commitments, we are going to criticize them publicly.”

Hincapié was a member of the unity task force that hashed out immigration goals after Biden won the Democratic nomination over Senator Bernie Sanders. Javier Valdés, a co-executive director of Make the Road New York, was also a member. Valdés, who supported Sanders, said he was encouraged by how progressive their recommendations were. He pointed to Biden’s promise for a moratorium on deportations for the first 100 days as a crucial time in discussing what to do with the agencies that detain and deport immigrants—ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

“That will help start creating a cultural change,” Valdés said.

Make the Road wants to abolish private prisons and, eventually, all immigration detention. Valdés added: “We have to rethink how we do reinforcement in a real way. … We won’t stop until our community is free.”

This week, groups across the country, including Make the Road’s political action group, marched in communities from Wilmington, Delaware, to California to remind Biden of his promises. Even they were surprised when the president-elect responded with a letter acknowledging their role in his election and that he respected their voice in shaping a “humane” immigration system.

Many advocate groups seek a realistic, more moderate short-term solution. Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, said that Biden should return to the late-Obama era priority enforcement only of undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes. “That’s a smart use of law enforcement resources,” he said. 

Just as much of the country discovered that the Latinx vote is not a monolith, immigrant advocates should also realize their own community is diverse, with room for many voices, Noorani cautioned. “This is a deeply divided country and those of us outside government have a responsibility to find points of consensus,” he added.  

President Trump politicized the topic by portraying immigrants as criminals, or as people who are poor and disease-ridden. That narrative doesn’t have to swing to portraying all immigrants as extraordinary. Ordinary is fine, said Wendy Feliz, the founding director of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council. 

“I like to joke that we need to ‘Make Immigration Boring Again,’” Feliz said

The last time there was comprehensive immigration reform was 1986, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. “We need to get back to a place where passing immigration policy is a bipartisan thing, one that we do every eight, 10 years,” Feliz added. “I want it to be so depolarized that you just update the policies to help the country’s economy and society.” 

Despite it being a flashpoint, immigration is not included among the four public priorities listed on Biden’s transition website: COVID-19, economic relief, racial justice, and climate change. The word “immigrants” appears just once in the text. But Biden can change the narrative on immigrants by highlighting and normalizing their role in helping the country’s economic and pandemic recovery, advocates say.   

“Right now, as the country is going into the phase of a vaccine, it’s yet another opportunity for Biden to be talking about immigrants as farmworkers, grocery store clerks, nursing home staff, doctors,” Noorani said. 

A Gallup poll in July showed that Americans, for the first time since the question was asked in 1965, want more immigration. The two issues that helped spur this change, say advocates, were the public outrage over family separation at the Mexican border in 2018 and DACA, the 2012 program that has given temporary protection for some 800,000 young undocumented people brought to the country by their parents. A Pew Research Center poll in June showed that 74 percent of adults (representing both political parties) favor a permanent legal status for these young people.  

DACA has been under constant threat despite the 5-4 ruling from the Supreme Court in June that declared the Trump administration’s termination of the program illegal, and, most recently, a New York federal district court that ordered it to be restored to its 2017 protocols.

“DACA is tremendously important,” said Karen Tumlin, founder of the Justice Action Center and a lead lawyer in the New York case. “But we believe that DACA is the floor and not the ceiling.”

Congress has failed to enact a law for Dreamers since 2001, and their reliance on temporary protection could once again be in jeopardy. On Tuesday, a Texas federal district court will conduct another hearing in an ongoing case over whether the program was legal at the outset. In the event that the judge rules DACA was illegal, and an appeal reaches the Supreme Court, advocates know that the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority makes a victory unlikely. 

“We want to see an all-in administrative, legal, congressional approach to protecting DACA recipients,” Schulte of said.  

The Trump administration is racing to make every policy harder to overturn quickly for the incoming administration, especially asylum. 

New federal regulations—including tightening “credible fear” tests at the border, giving immigration judges authority to deny cases outright, and narrowing definitions of persecution—will go into effect nine days before the inauguration. Currently, the southern border is all but closed to asylum-seeking migrants because of a health rule invoking the pandemic. The Biden transition has not yet announced whether it would reverse the rule. 

Advocates for refugees fleeing persecution who are applying for protection from outside the United States also know that a quick fix might be challenging. Biden has pledged to significantly increase the ceiling on refugees to 125,000 from its current cap of 15,000. (The United States admitted only 11,814 in fiscal year 2020.)

But getting to that number, or even back to the historical average ceiling of 95,000 will be challenging because the infrastructure is decimated: from the issuing of visas at closed embassies, to the pipeline of vetted refugees whose documents have expired, to the refugee agencies domestically and internationally who laid off thousands of employees.  

“We can’t let it become a second-tier issue,” said Melanie Nezer, a senior vice president of HIAS, one of the nine government-approved refugee agencies. “Refugee resettlement is not just about helping people fleeing persecution. It’s good for our country, it’s good for rebuilding our reputation in the world, it’s good for our partnership for allies overseas, countries that are important to us. It’s the humane, fair and just thing to do to assist them.”

Biden’s nomination of Mayorkas (a former HIAS board member born in Cuba to a Holocaust survivor mother) sends a strong signal that the United States wants to regain its status as a welcoming nation.  

“It’s not time to sit back and hope for the best,” Nezer said. “The new administration has so many competing priorities. There are so many urgent matters that will need to be addressed. It’s going to take a lot of strong advocacy across the country to make this happen.”

Scandal-Plagued Sacramento Lawmaker and Ex-Cop Considers Run for Sheriff

California Assemblymember Jim Cooper may seek to be Sacramento sheriff once more—despite sexual harassment allegations and a long history of outlandish antics.

California Assemblymember Jim Cooper.
Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from

Scandal-Plagued Sacramento Lawmaker and Ex-Cop Considers Run for Sheriff

California Assemblymember Jim Cooper may seek to be Sacramento sheriff once more—despite sexual harassment allegations and a long history of outlandish antics.

California Assemblymember Jim Cooper announced Tuesday that he is mulling a run for county sheriff. Cooper, a former Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, tweeted that he’s “been asked by many elected officials and citizens across the county to seek the open Sheriff’s seat in Sacramento County in 2022.”

His resume calls into question who would ask him to run at all.

Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove in Sacramento County, spent more than 30 years working his way up the ranks at the sheriff’s office before becoming his city’s founding mayor in 2000 (while still working as a cop) and, finally, an Assembly member in 2014. In that time, he led a scandal-plagued life in public service, including an incident in which he admittedly called the then-mayor of Elk Grove “a bitch.” He also was accused of overseeing a county jail where suicides spiked and deputies forced women to strip and dance for them, and was involved in another incident in which a judge issued a restraining order against him after he allegedly threatened to shoot a man in the back of the head. (Cooper denied wrongdoing in each incident. The restraining order was lifted days later.)

Perhaps most notably, while working as a sheriff’s deputy in 2005, Cooper was reportedly investigated by Internal Affairs after he was anonymously accused of asking a woman who’d recently gotten engaged if she wanted some “jungle love” before getting married. Although Cooper denies any wrongdoing or that the incident constituted sexual harassment, he has stated in the past that he believed the remark was an “off-color joke in the workplace.”

Since winning a seat in the California Assembly as a moderate Democrat six years ago, Cooper has pushed for a series of pro-law-enforcement policies, including a failed 2017 bill opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union that would have made it easier for police and immigration agents to search the phones of Californians. He’s faced near-constant criticism from progressives: In 2019, Lara Bazelon, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, assailed Cooper’s pro-law-enforcement record as a lawmaker and told The Appeal that he “uses charged language to make people feel angry, vulnerable, and reactive, which then promotes the policies he wants. It’s all about propping up mass incarceration and fighting change.”

Cooper faced a strong challenger in the 2020 primary for his District 9 Assembly seat, which may potentially have factored into his consideration of a different office in 2022.

Cooper did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

If Cooper runs, this won’t be his first attempt at the job. In 2010, he lost to current Sheriff Scott Jones, whose own record as a cop seemed somewhat comparable to Cooper’s. In 2018, the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board compared Jones to Bull Connor, the segregationist who was the public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, during the civil rights era. That year, Jones had launched a personal war against the county’s inspector general, who had been investigating his deputies’ killing of Mikel Laney McIntyre, a former Major League Baseball prospect who was shot at 28 times during a mental health crisis. (Seven bullets hit him.) The Bee’s editorial board then flatly stated that Jones was “on the wrong side of civil rights.”

Jones’s deputies also were filmed kneeling on 36-year-old Marshall Miles inside the county jail on Oct. 28, 2018, as Miles screamed for help during a mental health crisis and said he could “feel the oxygen going out of my mouth.” Miles was pronounced dead later that night—an autopsy later said he died, in part, due to the way Jones’s deputies restrained him. Miles’s family is suing Jones in federal court. Although the department has denied the family’s allegations, lawyers for Miles’s wife and children assailed Jones in an interview with The Appeal in June.

There seemed to be a complete ignorance and lack of knowledge about the safe way to restrain somebody on the ground in that manner,” attorney Jeremy Lessem said.

But while the Sacramento County sheriff’s office has had its share of controversy, Cooper’s individual record raises significant questions about his integrity as both a cop and lawmaker. In 2005, when Cooper was both a sheriff’s deputy and Elk Grove City Council member, Sacramento County released a grand jury report stating that he failed to recuse himself from a vote to contract Elk Grove’s police services to the sheriff’s office. The report also alleged Cooper engaged in “shouting matches” with the Elk Grove city attorney in an attempt to get his way. Cooper denied wrongdoing and says he was told by the city attorney that he could take part in the votes.

In 2019, a review of Cooper’s state Assembly record by The Appeal found that he’d taken a significant amount of donations from bail bond agents, law enforcement unions and organizations, and corporate interests during his time as a lawmaker. While serving in the Assembly, Cooper has fought to roll back criminal legal system reforms. In 2017, he announced he was joining a coalition of lawmakers backing a ballot measure called the Keep California Safe Act, which would have forced certain people convicted of misdemeanor offenses to submit DNA to a database and added 22 charges to the list of offenses not eligible for parole. The measure finally went before California voters last monthand failed. In 2018, Cooper, who has taken tens of thousands of dollars from the bail bond industry, fought against Senate Bill 10, which would have ended California’s cash bail system.

A thank you to Assemblyman JIM COOPER for voting NO on SB10,” the Twitter account for Lipstick Bail Bonds, a Los Alamitos company run by two retired, Trump-supporting Los Angeles Police Department cops, tweeted that year. “JIM COOPER Supports Victims NOT the Criminals.”

I Was A Child In An Adult Prison System. Now I Fight For Those, Like Me, Who Deserve A Brighter Future When They’re Released

As a staff member of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, I fight for all children, especially those impacted by systemic racism in our criminal justice system.

Illustration by Anthony Russo.

I Was A Child In An Adult Prison System. Now I Fight For Those, Like Me, Who Deserve A Brighter Future When They’re Released

As a staff member of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, I fight for all children, especially those impacted by systemic racism in our criminal justice system.

“Left Behind,” a collaboration between The Appeal and Oregon Justice Resource Center, presents firsthand accounts of growing up in prison from individuals sentenced as children to 25 years-to-life. Inspired by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits the imposition of a mandatory sentence of death in prison for children, this series reveals the humanity of those given life sentences by asking: What obligations do we have as a community of not leaving them behind? 

I’ve had a long time to think about what I did when I was 13. That was how old I was when I ceased to be a daughter, sister, niece, student, and friend and became instead a murderer, super predator, killer, felon, criminal, and inmate. What little innocence I had I exchanged for an inmate identification number. I was a 13-year-old charged with second-degree murder.

I don’t tell the story of how this came about to excuse what I did. I know nothing can undo the past. I can’t bring back the life I took or ease the pain. I was a broken, abused child using a child’s logic in making a decision with very adult consequences. I want people to understand that I was still a child, despite what I did, and so are the others like me. People are horrified at the thought of leaving a dog in a hot car, but readily allow children to be sentenced to death by incarceration. Until we can all understand that young people who commit these types of crimes are still human, we will not be able to heal the harm caused or offer everyone involved the chance of a better future.

I didn’t keep quiet. I tried to tell people around me what was happening to me, what my uncle was doing to me, but they wouldn’t listen. I told my father, my school counselors, Department of Human Services workers, and even a local preacher about how my uncle was sexually abusing me, but they did nothing. The abuse began when I was about 5 years old and continued right up until I was arrested. I don’t know when I decided the solution was to kill my family, but it seemed to me at the time like it was my only option. But, having murdered my stepmother, I didn’t end up going through with the others. My younger brother and co-defendant saved them.

I don’t have space to tell you every story of the more than 16 years I spent inside the adult prison system. How, for over 10 years, I became a product of my environment: hard, callous, mean. It wasn’t until I met my mentors, Ma Betty and Papa Charles, who saw through my tough exterior and saw my potential, that I realized there was more to life—more to my life—than what was inside the barbed wire. Love, empathy, and compassion changed my life and the lives of everyone around me. I will say that I live every day in repentance. I try to save others every day in the hope it will somehow absolve me of the life I took.

From the moment I was incarcerated, I was working toward my release. In my imagination, when I walked out of those gates, I would be walking into a new beginning. I would have a blank slate and could become anyone I wanted to be. Every possibility would be open to me. It wasn’t easy to keep moving forward while I was in prison. Priority for programs and services inside is given to people who are being released soonest. In the view of the Department of Corrections, it’s a waste to educate someone who won’t be free anytime soon to use the skills they’ve gained. I had to fight for the certifications and training I’ve gotten. When I couldn’t get what I needed from the prison I was in, I took correspondence courses by mail and earned my degree in religious education. I pored over all the information I could find about re-entry and how to successfully transition back into the community. So much so, I even ended up teaching other women in the re-entry class during the last six months I was there. I was ready. 

The day I had been waiting for finally arrived on Aug. 1, 2015. I had been dreaming of that moment for more than half my life. At last it was time for me to put the past behind me and begin fresh. I felt full of hope and excitement about what was ahead as I walked out of the prison gates. On my list: reuniting with my family, going to college to get a degree, finding a good job, getting married, and having a family. I felt ready for anything. Hadn’t I spent years making sure I would be prepared for every part of my life after prison? I even took marriage and parenting classes during my stay, despite not being married or a parent. That’s how certain I was that if I only took the trouble to read one more book, take one more class, I could be ready for anything.

It didn’t take a week for reality to come crashing down. Within days, I saw that the fantasy of life after prison that I had built in my mind wasn’t real. My family who had learned to survive without me for most of my life, couldn’t seem to figure out where I fit in. They had missed my growing up years. I had missed most of their lives. I was essentially a stranger, living in a strange house, confused and unsure where I belonged. 

The biggest reality check came when I checked learning to drive off my list and set out to find a job. With all the preparation I had done, my interview skills were top-notch. I left most places with a job offer. I was upfront about my past and, while it dimmed the light in their eyes a little, most employers told me they were willing to look past it, if the higher-ups said it was OK. By the third or fourth time, I realized that meant I would never get a call back. I can’t tell you how many times I left an interview and sat in my car for an hour crying in disappointment. 

It wasn’t all bad. A highlight was receiving a presidential academic scholarship at the local community college. Another highlight was relationships with people who care about me. My brother, my mentors, and the family I’ve made through ICAN, the Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network, helped me remain grounded and reminded me that I am not defined by my past mistakes. That truth isn’t easy to hold on to when society keeps labeling me a felon and a murderer. With every rejected rental application and failed job interview, I was falling deeper into despair. But I kept going. My worst day out here is better than my best day in prison. Prison time breeds resilience. You learn to take the punches and keep going.

Joining ICAN has been a saving grace for me. This group is made up entirely of people formerly incarcerated as children who had lengthy and even lifetime sentences but are now free due to changes in the law or advocacy efforts. A place for me to belong, surrounded by people just like me, who understand exactly what I’ve been through as a child in prison, and what it’s like to come home almost two decades later to an unfamiliar world. My fellow ICAN members understand my pain, confusion, and struggles and are on the same journey of restoration and redemption. Until I joined this community, I didn’t know the value of a support system. I thought I could do it alone. I now know that a support system is vital.

Four years after joining ICAN, I became a full-time staff member of ICAN’s parent organization, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Now, I had a job I could be proud of that allowed me to pursue my purpose: fighting for those I left behind and creating a brighter future for all children, especially those marginalized and impacted by systemic racism in our criminal justice system. This was a way for me to channel all the emotions I had when I was cast out by the community, my chance to make a difference.

The fantasy I had about freedom may not have come true, but I have realized over the years that it doesn’t need to. I am making a new life for myself that’s better than anything I could have imagined while I was in prison. It’s not all sunny skies and rainbows, but it’s mine, and I’m free to make it whatever I want.

Catherine Jones was in Florida State Prison until her release in 2015. This column was edited by Alice Lundell, director of communication for the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

Supreme Court’s Decision To Bar Restrictions On Religious Services In New York Is An Ominous Sign

The Court’s willingness to infer discrimination against Judeo-Christian religions from poorly articulated remarks that accompanied a public health response to COVID-19 may make other laws and policies vulnerable to claims of religious discrimination as well.

Duncan Lock/Wikimedia Commons

Supreme Court’s Decision To Bar Restrictions On Religious Services In New York Is An Ominous Sign

The Court’s willingness to infer discrimination against Judeo-Christian religions from poorly articulated remarks that accompanied a public health response to COVID-19 may make other laws and policies vulnerable to claims of religious discrimination as well.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo is a harbinger of things to come. The opinion is the first that Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined since Republican senators confirmed her to the Court. And the Court’s reasoning in that opinion makes clear how significant her confirmation will be: The Court ruled on a nonissue, signaling its eagerness to change existing law. The Court also changed the law in ways that will limit government’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to govern more generally as well.

This case involved a challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on in-person gatherings. By executive order, the governor had prohibited in-person gatherings at nonessential businesses that were in COVID hot spots (which the order labeled as red or orange zones). But the order exempted churches and religious institutions from that prohibition; houses of worship could hold 10- to 15-person gatherings indoors.

Several religious institutions sued to prevent enforcement of the order. But by the time the Court acted on their request, the institutions were no longer subject to the limitation. The order’s restrictions depend on whether particular areas were COVID hot spots; in part because the governor’s restrictions helped to reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, conditions had improved to a point where the locations were no longer considered red or orange zones. And once those areas were no longer hot spots, the institutions could hold in-person gatherings at 50 percent of their capacity.

So there was no real controversy regarding the 10- to 15-person restrictions; no one subject to those restrictions had challenged the order. But the Court decided to declare the restrictions unconstitutional anyway. The Court barely bothered to say why; it insisted that the religious institutions “remain under a constant threat that the area … will be reclassified as red or orange.” But that does not explain why the Court had to adjudicate the case now; it could have waited for a reclassification. Given what we know about COVID, when an area becomes a hot spot, it remains that way for at least a few weeks—more than enough time for another expedited challenge to make its way through the courts.     

The Court’s eagerness to invalidate the restrictions is revealing. It suggests that the newly conservative supermajority cannot wait to change the law.

In this case, the Court changed the law in ways both small and large. Under current doctrine, “generally applicable” policies—those that do not explicitly mention religion—are generally constitutional unless the policies are motivated by a desire to discriminate against particular religions. The Court’s opinion signaled a shift in what suffices as proof of discrimination and an even larger change in what it means for a law to be generally applicable.

The more minor change continued a trend in the Court’s willingness to conclude that government officials were motivated by discrimination against Judeo-Christian, particularly Christian, religions. The Court’s opinion concluded that “statements made in connection with the challenged rules can be viewed as targeting the ‘ultra-orthodox [Jewish] community.’” Note the language—the Court said that it was sufficient that the statements can be viewed as targeting a religious group, not that the statements showed the order was actually intended to target a religious group. 

That is not the legal standard the Court has used before. Consider the case involving President Trump’s immigration restrictions on Muslim-majority countries. In that case, the Court applied a different legal test, saying it would uphold the policy “so long as it can reasonably be understood to result from” a legitimate justification. 

The content of the offending statements that allegedly evinced discrimination also make clear how easily the Court will conclude that officials discriminated against religion. When Governor Cuomo announced the restrictions, he observed that one of the identified COVID clusters had happened in the “ultra-Orthodox community”; it was “a predominantly ultra-Orthodox cluster,” he explained. That statement does not evince contempt or animus toward Orthodox Jews; it describes the COVID cases the city had identified.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed in a stinging dissent, the Court had previously concluded that Trump’s immigration restrictions on Muslim-majority countries were not based on hostility toward Muslims even though “President Trump had described the Proclamation as a ‘Muslim Ban,’ originally conceived as a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” As Sotomayor pithily explained, “If the President’s statements did not show that the challenged restrictions violate the minimum requirement of neutrality to religion, it is hard to see how Governor Cuomo’s do.” 

The travel ban is hardly the only case in which this Court has turned the other way when there were allegations of more explicit discrimination against Muslims. In Dunn v. Ray, the Court allowed Alabama to execute a Black, Muslim man after the state refused to allow him to meet with an imam in his final moments. The Alabama prison offered only a Christian chaplain to attend to prisoners in those circumstances.

The Court’s willingness to infer discrimination against Judeo-Christian religions from poorly articulated remarks that accompanied a response to a significant public health crisis may make other laws and policies vulnerable to claims of religious discrimination as well. Consider how the reasoning in the Roman Catholic Diocese case might play out in one of the cases pending before the Court: Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. This case involves a challenge to the city’s rules for awarding contracts to foster care agencies. One of the conditions for receiving a city contract to certify foster parents is that the agency not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or sexual orientation. 

Several agencies wanted to have a contract to certify foster parents but also wanted to refuse to certify same sex couples. The agencies sued, arguing that the condition discriminated against them on the basis of their religion. As evidence of discrimination, they pointed to statements by the city commissioner expressing that “it would be great if we could follow the teachings of Pope Francis.” Is that appeal to common ground enough to convince the Court’s conservative supermajority that city officials were discriminating against private foster care agencies when it asked them not to discriminate against same sex couples? Time will tell.

The other important shift in the Roman Catholic Diocese ruling is what the Court said about why the policy was not generally applicable. The Court reasoned that some businesses designated as essential did not seem, to the Court, more essential than houses of worship. Those “essential” businesses included acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, and garages. But the latter two are outdoors, not indoors. And acupuncture facilities do not involve large gatherings. The Court’s blithe conclusion that those businesses were nonetheless so similar to houses of worship that the distinctions between them evinced religious discrimination is an ominous sign about what other laws the Court will deem insufficiently evenhanded.

Consider how this could play out with respect to policies regarding the coronavirus. All of the shutdown orders and restrictions differentiate between various businesses and organizations. They have to decide which ones can stay open and to what extent. If the Court is truly going to assess for itself, and with such sloppy generalizations, whether religious institutions are treated similarly to other institutions, then the Court is assuming for itself the power to decide how government should respond to the coronavirus. Governments have to draw some distinctions between businesses and organizations, and if the Court is going to second guess all of those distinctions, then all coronavirus restrictions are potentially vulnerable. Indeed, on Thursday, the Supreme Court vacated a lower court ruling that upheld the California coronavirus restrictions applicable to houses of worship. The Court directed the lower court to take another look at the issue in light of its Roman Catholic Diocese decision.

As the country appears to be rounding the corner on the coronavirus, waiting for vaccines to be distributed, now would be a particularly bad time for the Court to start hacking away at the public health responses. Now is the time to try to keep as many people healthy as possible—so everyone can get vaccinated and return to their lives.

If the Court’s opinion itself provided indications of concerning changes to come, one response to the opinion offers some reason to be optimistic. Governor Cuomo dismissively and derisively called the ruling “irrelevant,” a reference to the fact that the restrictions were no longer in place. The statement calls to mind the response of Vermont’s secretary of state to the Supreme Court’s opinion in an election law case. In that case, the Court refused to allow a lower court to expand the receipt deadline for mail-in ballots that may have been caught up in mailing delays amid the pandemic. In a separate writing, Justice Brett Kavanaugh offered several unpersuasive defenses for the Court’s decision, including the claim that states’ ability to respond differently to the pandemic was a virtue, not a disadvantage. As evidence that states responded in different ways, Kavanaugh noted that Vermont had not altered its election rules.

But Vermont had altered its election rules to respond to the pandemic. And the secretary of state, Jim Condos, was none too amused that Kavanaugh said otherwise. In a blistering statement, the secretary noted that Vermont sent mail ballots to everyone, provided prepaid return envelopes, enabled outdoor and curbside voting, and several other changes. Kavanaugh modified his opinion to note that Vermont had not changed its election deadline for mail-in ballots. Vermont was not satisfied with that one-word change. Condos again issued a blistering statement, accusing Kavanaugh of obscuring the facts in service of suppressing votes. 

If the increasingly conservative Supreme Court follows through on the signals it sent in its Roman Catholic Diocese ruling, then state officials should look to Condos and to Cuomo as examples of how to respond. A Court that makes it harder to vote and harder to weather the coronavirus pandemic is not worthy of political deference; it should be challenged, and officials can use these statements to inform the public about what the Court is doing.

Leah Litman is an assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan.

Resentencing Units Can Rectify, Rehabilitate, and Restore

A concerted effort to review, resentence, and release is the right thing to do for those who have been unjustly sentenced. It is also the right thing to do for our community.

Resentencing Units Can Rectify, Rehabilitate, and Restore

A concerted effort to review, resentence, and release is the right thing to do for those who have been unjustly sentenced. It is also the right thing to do for our community.

As a country, we have used our criminal legal system to inflict a tremendous amount of harm on our communities. It is why the nation has seen a wave of “progressive prosecutors” like us elected to office after running on platforms that promise to correct course. It is why state legislatures are decriminalizing marijuana and abolishing the death penalty. And it is why we are taking the first step toward mitigating the ongoing harm of yesterday’s grossly excessive, tough-on-crime sentencing practices by establishing resentencing units within our offices. 

Although prosecutors do not sentence defendants, we play a significant role in the sentences they get. A prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation carries weight in a courtroom, both after trials and in plea bargaining. And prosecutorial objections to post-sentencing relief—like commutations, clemency, and parole—have an outsize effect on whether the request is granted. In sum, we have a lot to do with how long people are locked up. 

So, as prosecutors seeking to right the wrongs of our predecessors and the system we operate within, we must take action. We must take concrete steps toward addressing the disproportionate and inhumanely long sentences so many people are serving. We must do so while being mindful that these extreme sentences have disproportionately harmed people of color. 

We’ll do this by establishing resentencing units within our offices. These units examine sentences that have already been imposed and determine whether they should be reduced because of age, medical condition, rehabilitation, or disproportionality. In practice, this means that a person who commits a crime at 16 years old will not spend the rest of their life in prison. It means we can fix a grossly disproportionate sentence, like the life prison term given to Calvin McNeill in Baltimore for a horrible mistake he made in 1980 when he was a kid. And it means that we can begin to return to our community the many individuals who are serving excessive sentences because of draconian sentencing laws, coercive plea bargaining, and mandatory sentencing enhancements.  

A concerted effort to review, resentence, and release is the right thing to do for those who have been unjustly sentenced. It is also the right thing to do for our community. Two-thirds of voters support both legislation that allows for re-examining old sentences as well as the prosecutors who promise to do just that. Decreasing our prison population also improves public health by reducing the spread of COVID-19 through our prisons and the surrounding communities. And perhaps most important, repairing the harm caused by unjust sentencing practices assures our communities that we are working toward a vision of justice that is worthy of the great responsibility with which they have entrusted us. 

The United States spends millions of dollars to incarcerate elderly people who no longer present a public safety threat. Criminologists have long stated that people “age out” of crime, and as they enter their later years, they are far less likely to commit crime. FBI Crime Statistics bear that out, showing that people over 60 comprise 3 percent of violent crime arrests. 

A number of offices throughout the country have already established sentencing review units that are doing or intend to do similar work such as: State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy’s office in Prince George’s County, Maryland; Dan Satterberg’s office in Seattle; Larry Krasner’s office in Philadelphia; Chesa Boudin’s office in San Francisco; Eric Gonzalez’s office in Brooklyn; and now our offices in Baltimore and Los Angeles.  

In Baltimore and Los Angeles, our resentencing units will prioritize people who have a medical condition that places them at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. We have known from the beginning of this pandemic that those who are incarcerated would be some of the most vulnerable. And that is exactly what has happened. People who are incarcerated are fives times more likely to get the disease and three times more likely to die once infected. 

Our offices will also prioritize the cases of people serving life sentences, including elderly individuals, people with long, demonstrable records of rehabilitation, and people sentenced for crimes committed as minors. There are over 2,300 prisoners serving life sentences in Maryland, and approximately 78 percent of them are Black. In California, there are over 30,000 people serving life, life without parole, and third-strike sentences. To put that number in perspective, in 1980, there were only 23,000 total people in prison in California. The state’s three-strikes laws and unwillingness to treat kids like kids, among other cruel sentencing practices, has resulted in thousands of individuals serving these unnecessarily long sentences. Yet, according to prison evaluations, the vast majority of individuals who have served 20 years are deemed low-risk. Many of these people should be at home, not locked away in prison.

We recognize that reaching into the past will affect those whose lives were altered by the crimes for which we will be seeking resentencing. We fully intend to work with victims and families to ensure the process is sensitive to their concerns and that they are cared for during the process. 

Both of us were moved by a national survey that revealed that crime survivors, by a 2-to-1 margin, say they want less investment in punishment and more investment in rehabilitation. That’s why, in Baltimore, we are creating restorative justice processes that will work in tandem with our sentencing review to accomplish these goals. In Los Angeles, our process includes input from victims, victim advocates, community and social justice organizations, and re-entry services. Moreover, to ensure the success of people who are brought home, the Amity Foundation, in partnership with the Returning Home Well initiative, has pledged assistance to everyone resentenced in Los Angeles.

People grow and change, and a just society must provide incarcerated individuals with an opportunity for redemption. And, just as people grow and change, so does our nation. Laws that seemed wise decades ago are revealed as costly, cruel, and counterproductive mistakes. Our nation’s addiction to extreme sentencing—devoid of justification in public safety, mercy, or humanity—led to an explosion in the number of people behind bars. And yet, too often, once we gain this new wisdom, the people sentenced based on these collective mistakes are denied an opportunity to go home. 

No more. We’ve built our resentencing units to embody the commitment of our offices to stopping yesterday’s mistakes from perpetuating tomorrow’s injustice. We are eager to be leaders in helping our communities rethink what it means to repair harm and seek justice—and in changing the way we approach both of those goals.

George Gascón is the district attorney of Los Angeles County. Marilyn Mosby is the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, Maryland.

The Coming Wave of Evictions Will Significantly Worsen America’s COVID-19 Crisis

The CDC must immediately extend its emergency eviction moratorium to give the Biden administration and Congress time to provide additional emergency rental assistance.

Tenants and housing activists gathered for a rally and march in the streets of Brooklyn, New York, on July 5, 2020.
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The Coming Wave of Evictions Will Significantly Worsen America’s COVID-19 Crisis

The CDC must immediately extend its emergency eviction moratorium to give the Biden administration and Congress time to provide additional emergency rental assistance.

Lost in the pandemic news coverage of risk-laden holiday travel and restaurant dining lies an event that could endanger far more lives: the expiration of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s temporary order to halt evictions. This order, which took effect on Sept. 4 and provided some protections against evictions after the CARES Act temporary moratorium expired, is set to expire on Dec. 31 unless the federal government takes immediate action. We are urging the CDC to immediately extend its emergency order through next spring to give the Biden administration and Congress time to issue a robust moratorium and provide additional emergency rental assistance.

The CDC issued the order earlier this fall, recognizing the danger evictions posed to public health and the spread of COVID-19. Although they’re rarely treated as such, evictions are a public health crisis. As we illustrate in our new article on pandemic housing policy, even the mere threat of eviction can increase stress levels, anxiety, and depression—all of which can weaken the immune system. Eviction disproportionately affects high-risk populations who experience greater rates of illness and infection, and can result in some of the comorbidities that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications and mortality. 

Compounding these underlying health issues, eviction results in transiency, homelessness, and crowded residential environments that increase both the frequency and proximity of contact with others and make it impossible to comply with pandemic mitigation strategies. Many who lose their homes will go to live with friends or relatives, increasing the risk of COVID-19 exposure for everyone in the home. In fact, studies of other contagious diseases have found that adding as few as two new members to a household can as much as double the risk of illness. People who are evicted may also experience decreased access to COVID-19 testing and medical attention because they are forced to move to poorer, underserved, and medically neglected neighborhoods.  

While it has been clear for some time that COVID-19 disproportionately harms communities of color, the looming epidemic of evictions is also likely to most heavily burden nonwhite people. Prior to the pandemic, studies of various cities found that 80 percent of those facing eviction were from nonwhite households. In fact, Black households were more than twice as likely as white households to be evicted. But by far the most vulnerable are Black women, one out of five of whom report having experienced eviction and who, in many states, face eviction filings at double the rate of white renters

We may be about to witness evictions on an unprecedented scale. The estimated rent shortfall is expected to surpass $24 billion by January. A study by the Aspen Institute estimates that 30 million to 40 million people in America could be at risk of eviction in the next several months, with some already being forced from their homes. Princeton’s Eviction Lab has been tracking evictions since the pandemic began and found that moratoriums work, dropping evictions as low as 83 percent below historical averages. In Massachusetts, for example, eviction filings have been on the rise since the state’s moratorium expired in mid-October. Similarly, filings in Richmond, Virginia, spiked as high as 395 percent above historic levels when the federal CARES Act moratorium expired. And emerging alongside these lapsed moratoriums is a foreboding trend: Incidences of COVID-19 have risen in states that lifted moratoriums at 2.1 times the rate of states that maintained them. Deaths increased by 5.4 times. In fact, as state moratoriums lifted, the United States has seen an estimated 433,700 excess cases and 10,700 deaths from COVID-19—due to eviction alone.

As we urge in our article, in order to protect everyone’s health during a pandemic, we must protect those most likely to contract, spread, and die from infectious disease. That means prioritizing people in poverty and people of color, who are more likely to be evicted and more likely to suffer severe health harms from COVID-19. 

While the first step must be an extension of the federal moratorium against evictions, there is much more that we must do. State and local governments need to adopt robust moratoriums coupled with supportive legal and financial measures, such as rental assistance, eviction diversion programs, and civil right to counsel. They also need to embrace Medicaid expansion, which can offer permanent pathways to reducing and preventing eviction and associated public health harms. Local governments need to ensure tenant protections are enforced and implemented properly and that tenants know their rights. 

Finally, the federal government could do much to prevent many individuals already on the knife’s edge of stability from losing their homes, their health, and even their lives by introducing a much-needed new round of assistance to people across the country facing the fallout from this moment. 

Emily Benfer is a visiting professor of law at Wake Forest Law, founding director, Wake Forest Law Health Justice Clinic, and chair of the American Bar Association COVID-19 Task Force Committee on Evictions. Gregg Gonsalves is assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, and an associate (adjunct) professor of law at Yale Law School. Danya Keene is associate professor of public health at Yale School of Public Health.

To Turn Election Wins Into Policy, House Progressives Need More Committee Power

Progressive policies face a committee structure that distorts democracy and favors corporate-backed centrists.

Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., conduct a news conference on July 15, 2019.
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To Turn Election Wins Into Policy, House Progressives Need More Committee Power

Progressive policies face a committee structure that distorts democracy and favors corporate-backed centrists.

This research and analysis is part of our Discourse series, a collaboration between The Appeal and The Justice Collaborative Institute. Its mission is to provide expert commentary and rigorous, pragmatic research especially for public officials, reporters, advocates, and scholars. The Appeal and The Justice Collaborative Institute are editorially independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.

Members of the House of Representatives may each get one vote on legislation, but that doesn’t make their influence on policy equal. The real work of lawmaking in Congress happens not on chamber floors, but in committee rooms. The 20 permanent committees in the House are responsible for crafting bills, overseeing executive agencies, and conducting investigations. Collectively, these groups are the lifeblood of Congress. As a result, committee chairs hold extraordinary power to set policy agendas, and often what blocks a particular policy is not public opinion, but rather who wields the committee gavel. 

This power is further concentrated in the so-called money committees, which have broad jurisdiction over federal taxing and spending: Ways and Means, Financial Services, Energy and Commerce, and Appropriations. Almost any major policy initiative—from affordable healthcare and clean energy investments, to regulating Wall Street and education spending—has to clear one or more of these committees, giving their members critical, outsize influence over lawmaking. 

But if most Americans are in the dark about Congress’s committee structure, corporate special interests have night vision. Each year, representatives on the money committees attract campaign donations from every major industry in the United States. A pharmaceutical lobbyist knows exactly which committee members hold the keys to allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices—something nearly 90 percent of the public supports—and big oil lobbyists know which committee members can cut investments in alternative energy. It’s a dynamic that establishment Democrats have exploited. Like suites in a Manhattan high-rise, the gavels to the top committees are reserved for an exclusive few—the most senior and loyal members of the party—in part because of their potential to influence fundraising. 

The result is a power structure stacked against young progressive members, the very individuals whose surging popularity helped Democrats take control of the House in 2018. These members are more likely to refuse corporate money and less likely to toe the Democratic party line. Members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, known as “The Squad,” were elected on bold, popular ideas like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal—and their ranks are growing

This year, middle school principal Jamaal Bowman unseated 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel to represent New York’s 16th Congressional District. Nurse and activist Cori Bush ousted a 50-year St. Louis political dynasty to become Missouri’s first Black woman elected to Congress. Visionary leaders like Marie Newman (Illinois’s Third Congressional District), Mondaire Jones (New York’s 17th Congressional District), and Ritchie Torres (New York’s 15th Congressional District) ignored dated notions of “waiting your turn” and instead ran and won while pushing transformative generational change. More than breaking individual barriers, their pursuit of racial, economic, and environmental justice—funded by people, not corporations—is broadly supported by voters. 

A well-functioning democracy captures the public’s preferences in policy, yet champions of some of the country’s most popular ideas are underrepresented on the committees with the institutional muscle to push these through. For transformative change to take root in Washington, grassroots, working class, and marginalized communities subject to disinvestment must be represented on the A-list money committees. As Pressley reminded us two years ago, “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

Committee assignments work against progressives

In the House, party leadership and seniority drive committee assignments. The roughly 50-member Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and operating under secret rules, compiles lists and votes on committee assignments. Every committee ranks members by seniority, and by custom, committee chairs are reserved for the more senior members. The money committees are “exclusive,” which means members cannot serve on other committees without a rare waiver from leadership. But no matter the other relevant criteria—such as a member’s policy expertise or geographic parity—leadership always has the final say. 

When it comes to the powerful money committees, the caucus’s campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), also plays a role through member dues and fundraising targets set by leadership. House members gain political capital by raising funds for their colleagues, especially frontline members considered vulnerable in competitive districts. Party leadership and the chairpersons of money committees typically pay a higher price for their elevated status. According to a September 2019 report in The Intercept, party dues for 2020 started at $150,000 and topped off at $1 million for Pelosi. The majority whip, Jim Clyburn, had a dues target of $800,000. Richard Neal, chairperson of Ways and Means, was expected to contribute $600,000 in dues, and, like his fellow money committee leaders, had an additional $1.2 million fundraising target for his gavel. Even freshman members who serve on money committees pay higher dues, despite their low seniority.

Meeting fundraising targets keeps members in the good graces of leadership, helping with future committee assignments and garnering more favorable treatment for legislation they propose. This poses a challenge to progressives who refuse corporate contributions in order to pursue a people-driven agenda. Ocasio-Cortez announced in January that she would not be paying dues, opting instead to fundraise directly for her colleagues. Her stated reason was the DCCC’s refusal to hire any vendors who worked with progressive challengers on primary campaigns against incumbent Democrats—such as those who supported her campaign. 

Money committees in the 116th Congress

The structural disadvantages for progressives are illustrated by the current Congress. 

After the “Blue Wave” of 2018, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), looking to turn its growing membership into political power, secured certain concessions from Pelosi. The caucus would support her bid for the speakership in exchange for representation on the four money committees (plus the Intelligence Committee) in proportion to their share of the whole Democratic caucus (around 40 percent). While that number was more or less achieved, it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

First, CPC membership hasn’t always been an accurate proxy for bold progressive policies. Despite its stated mission of “standing up for progressive ideals,” the bloc doesn’t limit its membership through rigorous policy standards. For example, many CPC members on money committees are also members of the New Democrat coalition—a more moderate caucus that was formed in part to oppose the party’s more progressive wing, especially on financial regulation and taxation. Additionally, only 20 of the CPC’s 96 members have formally pledged to reject corporate PAC money.

This allowed Pelosi to honor the letter of the CPC agreement while tempering its effect. At the start of the 116th Congress, Pelosi named 26 new members to the money committees, including 13 CPC members. But five of those members—Lisa Blunt Rochester, Brenda Lawrence, Don Beyer, Darren Soto, and Brendan Boyle—were also members of the business-friendly New Democrats and had joined the CPC only recently. According to The Intercept, Blunt Rochester was one of only two CPC members to vote for S. 2155, the 2018 law proposed by Senate Republicans that weakened Dodd-Frank banking regulations. Soto was one of nine Democrats who threatened to oppose Pelosi’s speaker bid unless she approved rule changes to give Republicans more legislative power. When the dust settled, progressives saw more favorable math but the same familiar power gap relative to the party’s more centrist factions.  

The jockeying for Ways and Means was particularly intense, as progressives Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, and Ro Khanna all sought a seat but were eventually denied. Although only a freshman, Ocasio-Cortez had a strong regional claim to the committee, having unseated the New York City member who previously sat on it. But Pelosi opted instead for Tom Suozzi, a New Democrat and self-described fiscal conservative who represents a far wealthier district and is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a billionaire-funded coalition of Democrats and Republicans. 

Jayapal, a former immigration activist, asked for, but was refused, a waiver to join Ways and Means while continuing to serve on the Judiciary Committee. Likewise, Khanna wanted to retain his seat on the Armed Services Committee, where he has advocated for things like ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. For both members, the “exclusive” rule, intended to spread out fundraising ability, blocked their path to a money committee. 

Progressive power is also kept at bay through the careful selection of key committee chairpersons. Consider a leading progressive priority like Medicare for All, which has exploded in popularity. According to an October poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, eight in 10 Democrats and a majority of independents support Medicare for All; as of this writing, a majority of Democratic House members have co-sponsored House Resolution 1384—the Medicare for All Act. But that popularity gets diluted in the key committees with the power to advance healthcare reform.

Single-payer healthcare would require a major overhaul of the country’s tax code, which is written by the Ways and Means Committee. Of the committee’s 25 Democratic members, nearly half are co-sponsors of HR 1384. While that may seem like a critical mass, the only real number that matters is one. More often than not, the committee chairperson decides which proposals live and which never see the light of day. And Ways and Means Chairperson Richard Neal not only opposes Medicare for All, but also didn’t want the phrase mentioned in a 2019 hearing tactfully named “Pathways to Universal Coverage.” The American Hospital Association, one of the leading groups opposing single-payer healthcare, spent over $200,000 in digital advertising on Neal’s latest re-election bid, and he took in more corporate campaign money in 2019—over $1.4 million—than any member of Congress. 

But there’s an even simpler reason someone like Neal leads Ways and Means: Pelosi, as she put it last year, is “not a big fan” of Medicare for All. And Democratic leadership is disciplined about designating the gavels of money committees in a way that dampens progressive priorities, viewing them as electoral and fundraising liabilities for the caucus’s more centrist, “frontline” members.

A more democratic House

Congress doesn’t have to work this way. Right now, committee selection prioritizes party careerism and fundraising concerns over the real solutions people need. Progressives who do the painstaking work of democracy—by organizing at the grassroots level—gain the legitimacy that can only be conferred by popular will. That grassroots support ought to be the real political capital that determines committee membership and leadership. Instead, progressives are subject to an undemocratic process that views that support with suspicion. 

To steer back toward democratic accountability, the House could immediately adopt new rules that deem it unethical to choose committee leaders and members based on fundraising prowess, as was proposed last year by Marian Currinder, a professional staff member on the Committee on the Modernization of Congress. This would help ensure that policy expertise, willingness to serve, and respect among one’s peers predominate as criteria for leadership. 

But fundraising targets are only one component of a fundamentally undemocratic process. Because House leadership serves as chairperson of the Steering and Policy Committee, and carefully selects many of its members, committee selection too often reflects that person’s preferences. Instead of concentrating power in the hands of leadership, committee members themselves could choose their chairpersons, as Currinder argues, based on the credentials most relevant to that committee’s jurisdiction. Or the entire caucus could vote on committee leaders without the Steering Committee filtering nominees, and without the secret ballots that currently shroud the process. 

Finally, the House might consider instituting term limits of 10 years for all committee leaders. Committee term limits already exist in some form. Democratic members of the Ethics committee, for example, can serve in a maximum of three out of five Congresses, whereas the Committee on Intelligence limits membership to four Congresses, according to the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center. The exercise of term limits could ensure a healthy circulation of perspectives within the caucus—and Congress as a body—so that opportunities for leadership are available to members of all backgrounds and seniority levels. 

Progressives are leaning into their transformative potential ahead of committee selection for the next Congress. Last month, the CPC approved new rules that will more closely align the caucus with policy goals, requiring members to vote as a bloc most of the time and sponsor a certain amount of progressive legislation. As Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, co-founders of the advocacy group Indivisible, argue in a recent commentary, the pledge to vote as a bloc means that progressives will need to be taken seriously early in the legislative process, when key discussions and amendments can either strengthen popular policies or dilute them with harmful concessions. Their empowered status as a cohesive voting bloc ensures progressives cannot be sidestepped in the governing process. 

Still, the committee selection process must be more democratic, transparent, and accountable. Leadership should cede more of its decision-making power and do away with arcane and arbitrary rules and norms, such as barring freshman membership on certain committees, or insisting on the exclusivity of some committees, and reimagine committee criteria based on the needs of communities rather than the narrow interests of donors. 

As we move to the next Congress, the stakes could not be higher. Facing climate catastrophe, a byzantine and cruel healthcare system, and an ever-widening wealth gap that stifles the dreams of millions, the people’s House should be more inclusive of those who carry the people’s voice. That starts with opening more committee doors to those who can drive real progressive change forward. 

Zephyr Teachout is an associate law professor at Fordham Law School.

A Voter’s Guide To Georgia’s Runoff Election

Control of the U.S. Senate hinges on the results of next month’s runoff.

A supporter waves a sign during a rally for Georgia Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock on November 15, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia.
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A Voter’s Guide To Georgia’s Runoff Election

Control of the U.S. Senate hinges on the results of next month’s runoff.

After voting to elect a Democratic president for the first time in 28 years, Georgians will now decide if Democrats will control the Senate. 

Georgia is holding a runoff election on Jan. 5, with significant national implications: Both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats are on the ballot. A win by one or both of the Republican incumbents would keep the Senate under the control of Republicans and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But two Democratic wins would create an even 50-50 split, and give the tie-breaking vote to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. 

With Democrats holding a majority in the House of Representatives, the outcome of Georgia’s election will be the difference between the Biden administration facing obstruction on everything from cabinet appointments to COVID-19 relief, and actually having the power to govern effectively and pursue its legislative agenda. At stake are major policy initiatives on issues ranging from healthcare and education to climate change and voting rights. In this way, Georgia voters will set the direction of American politics for the next few years. 

The runoff also includes a statewide race for a seat on Georgia’s Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates and ensures accessible, affordable utility services like gas, electricity, and telecommunications.

But despite the clear stakes, another election so soon after the presidential race can be confusing. This guide has everything voters need to know, including key dates, how to vote, and why this runoff is happening in the first place. 

Senate Candidates

Senate Race A

Senate Race B

Public Service Commissioner Candidates

What is a runoff election, and why are we having one now? 

A runoff election is held when no candidate meets the required threshold to be declared the winner. Georgia law requires a candidate to receive the majority of the total votes in order to win an election. If no candidate reaches 50 percent, a runoff is held between the two candidates with the highest number of votes. 

When does the runoff election take place?

Georgia law provides that a runoff for a federal office takes place on the ninth Tuesday after the general election. For this election cycle, that date is Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Georgia officials also decided that the statewide runoff for the Public Service Commission would happen on the same day. 

Who is eligible to vote in this runoff election?

Any Georgia resident who will be 18 by Jan. 5, and is registered to vote by Dec. 7, may cast a ballot in the runoff. That includes the approximately 23,000 young people who were too young to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election but will turn 18 by Jan. 5—a significant number in a closely divided state like Georgia. (In the Nov. 3 election, only about 90,000 votes separated Senate candidates Perdue and Ossoff.) 

I have a felony conviction. Am I eligible to register to vote?

In Georgia, you can register to vote after completing your sentence for a felony conviction, including serving any term of imprisonment, probation, or parole, and paying all fines, unless those fines have been canceled. Your sentence is considered completed even if you have other unpaid legal financial obligations, such as restitution, fees, costs, or surcharges. 

How do I register to vote? 

The voter registration deadline for the January runoff election is Monday. 

You can register to vote, check your voter registration, and make changes to your current registration record at Georgia’s online voter registration system. You will need to provide a state driver’s license number.  

You can also download a fillable, postage-paid PDF registration application. You will still need to provide a state driver’s license number or the last four digits of your Social Security number and, if you are a first-time registrant, a copy of this ID. These forms are also available at a number of local government offices, including schools and public libraries. 

I didn’t vote in the general election. Can I vote in the runoff?

Yes. Any registered voter who will be at least 18 years of age by Jan. 5 may vote in the runoff, regardless of whether they voted in the Nov. 3 general election. 

Can I vote early? 

Yes. Early in-person voting begins on Dec. 14. You can check the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page for information on early voting locations. 

Do I need to have an ID in order to vote? 

Yes. Under Georgia law, you will have to show an ID if you are voting in person. 

Acceptable types of ID include the following:

(With the exception of the Georgia driver’s license, which may be used even if it has expired, all other types of ID must be valid, or non-expired.) 

  • A Georgia’s driver’s license, even if it has expired.
  • Any valid state or federal government-issued photo ID, including the free voter photo ID cards issued by your county registrar’s office and the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS). 
  • A valid driver’s license or photo ID issued from a different state. 
  • A valid U.S. passport.
  • A valid employee photo ID from any branch, department, agency, or entity of the U.S. government, Georgia, or any county, municipality, board, authority, or other entity of the state. 
  • A valid U.S. military photo ID.
  • A valid tribal photo ID.

What if I do not have one of the acceptable types of ID?

Georgia offers a free voter photo ID card. These are issued by your county registrar’s office and the state’s Department of Driver Services. The required documentation differs slightly. 

To obtain a free voter photo ID card from your county registrar’s office, you will need to provide all of the following: 

  • A photo identity document or approved non-photo identity document that includes your full legal name and date of birth.
  • Documentation showing your date of birth.
  • Evidence that you are a registered voter, such as a voter registration card.
  • Documentation showing your name and residential address.

To obtain a free voter photo ID card from DDS, you will need to provide all of the following: 

  • An original or certified document such as a birth certificate or passport.
  • Your Social Security card.
  • Two documents showing your residential address, such as a bank statement or utility bill. 
  • If you’ve had a name change, then you’ll also need to bring a document to prove that, such as a marriage license.
  • A signed affidavit.
  • Evidence that you are a registered voter, such as a voter registration card.

How do I request an absentee ballot? 

Absentee ballots are not mailed automatically in Georgia, but it is easy to request one. You can follow this link to the Secretary of State’s website, or request one from your local registrar’s office by following this link and finding your county. 

The state began mailing absentee ballots on Nov. 18. You can check the status of your returned ballot here

Can I return my absentee ballot to a dropbox? 

Yes. Dropboxes will be available just as they were in the November election. Ballots are due by 7 p.m. on Jan. 5. 

How do I know if my absentee ballot was accepted? 

You can check the Georgia secretary of state’s My Voter Page for the status of your returned ballot. Follow this link for a helpful step-by-step guide. If your absentee ballot is rejected you will have the opportunity to fix, or “cure,” the ballot so that it is counted. Follow this guide to learn how. 

I live in the Fifth Congressional District and voted absentee in the separate runoff election on Dec. 1. Do I need to request separate ballots for the Jan. 5 runoff? 

Probably yes. The congressional runoff requires its own absentee ballot, which means you must request both separately. But if you signed up to receive automatic absentee ballots for the remainder of the election cycle because you are over 65, disabled, or residing overseas, then a ballot will be mailed to you. 

How do I vote in person on Jan. 5?

You will vote at your assigned precinct polling location. You can find your location by checking the secretary of state’s My Voter Page

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

What if I have a problem when I go to vote? 

You can call the Election Protection Hotline at the following numbers. You can also request a provisional ballot. If you vote by provisional ballot, you will need to follow up with your county election board (found here) to make sure your vote is counted. 

English: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683)

Spanish: 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (1-888-839-8682)

Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, and Tagalog: 1-888-API-VOTE (1-888-274-8683)

Arabic: 1-844-YALLA-US (1-844-925-5287)

Any Language: Text “Our Vote” to: 97779

Here is a link to a guide of common problems voters encounter at the polls and what to do about them. 

This is a lot of information. Can you put all the key dates in one place?


Nov. 18: Officials began mailing absentee ballots to those who request them.

Dec. 7: Last day to register to vote.

Dec. 14: Early in-person voting begins.

Jan. 5: Election Day. Polls are open and drop boxes are available until 7 p.m.

Kyle Rittenhouse Bought His Freedom. Kalief Browder Could Not.

The Rittenhouse case raises particularly pointed questions about what we are really talking about when we talk about bail.

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder's name as they rally near the gate of City Hall on Feb. 23, 2016.
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Kyle Rittenhouse Bought His Freedom. Kalief Browder Could Not.

The Rittenhouse case raises particularly pointed questions about what we are really talking about when we talk about bail.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Somewhere in America, right now, as you read this, a personlikely a young Black or brown manis sitting in a jail cell, terrified he’s going to die because he can’t afford a few hundred dollars in bail. There have been tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases reported each week in America’s jails, and those are just the reported cases—actual numbers may be much higher.

He may have asthma or high blood pressure, he may be diabetic or have a disability, and if he’s one of the millions of people who cycle through America’s jails over 10 million times annually, he is sitting in a world where he cannot get more than three feet away from another person. He may be sharing a bathroom with 40 other men. He may have no access to outside air, masks, running water, sanitizer and cleaning supplies, or even medical attention. He may not even be 18 years old. He is frightened for his life. He is frightened he will die in a cage over a few hundred dollars in bail.

Elsewhere in America, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, is home. Accused of killing two men and wounding a third during protests against police violence, Kyle’s $2 million bond was paid by a group of supporters who raised the money online. Bail, you see, isn’t about what you did or whether you’re dangerous. Bail is about whether you can find the money to buy your freedom back from the state. 

As I write this, nearly 400,000 people cannot find that money. And for them and their children, partners, parents, colleagues and neighbors, the Rittenhouse case raises particularly pointed questions about what we are really talking about when we talk about bail. After all, in a world where an accused killer can pay his way out of jail but a father sits behind bars for picking up his kids during a family emergency, we’ve forfeited the right to argue that these releases are somehow about public safety or the severity of charges.  

In Missouri’s First Congressional District, which I am honored to represent starting in January, Black and brown people’s lives are at risk simply because they cannot buy back their freedom. In St. Louis City, Black people are held in pretrial detention three times as often as white people. We are living in poverty. Too often Black and brown people are detained indefinitely for minor offenses like traffic violations, trespassing, and drug possession—conduct that is much less frightening than the charges that stand against Kyle Rittenhouse. And statistically, we are far likelier to die if we catch the virus than he would be. 

The time has come to stop pretending that pretrial detention is about public safety. Even before the pandemic, a few days in jail would cost a person their entire life: lost jobs, disrupted education or mental health treatment, fractured families, and an increased risk of homelessness are just a few of the likely consequences of pretrial detention. When you factor in the significantly heightened risk of COVID-19 death to the list of consequences, it becomes clear: The safety of many more people is put at risk by detention than release.

The hard truth in making smart choices about public safety is that it’s an area where people are prone to mistake emotion for evidence. The evidence shows that releasing more people pretrial generally poses zero risk to public safety. The evidence shows that sending text messages is a proven and more cost-effective method than cash bail in getting people to come back to court. The evidence shows that the ease with which we toss people into prison destabilizes families and destroys the economic mobility of entire communities. When we let our government make policy choices based on fear instead of reason, we get remarkably cruel and horrific consequences. 

Willie Horton arguments fail when you realize that the number of people at risk of dying in a COVID-19-ravaged carceral facility is much higher than the number of people at risk of experiencing violent crime. The math is simple: Jails are now hotbeds of COVID transmission, and every day spent in jail is a risk to the health and life of everyone inside, including those who work there. When you fold how release benefits family unity, education, mental health, housing stability, and the economy of an impacted community, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t Kyle Rittenhouse’s fundraiser. The problem is that we don’t treat everyone like Kyle Rittenhouse. 

Kalief Browder spent three years in jail, most of them in solitary confinement, for allegedly stealing a backpack and because he couldn’t afford his freedom. At 16 years old, he was wrongfully incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. A system that locks innocent children and adults in cages is not just or smart—it’s cruel. When he was released, Kalief Browder tragically died by suicide. In stark comparison, Kyle Rittenhouse has been heralded a hero

This is why we continue to fight. When our freedom and justice are at stake, we cannot be silent. Elected leaders must have the courage to step past the fearmongering and create smarter, stronger, and more humane systems to spur change. The most important thing to keep our communities safe isn’t the local jail. It’s local jobs, housing, schools, and healthcare.  Guaranteeing these building blocks of stability does much more to keep our community safe than needless, perpetual detention. 

Although Congress does not have direct control over America’s thousands of jails, we do have control over funding that, if used to incentivize states and counties, could transform our criminal legal system. The first step is straightforward: We must invest in people and communities by funding affordable housing and child care, better schools, job opportunities, and healthcare. 

We must reward jurisdictions that end cash bail and be mindful that we should not trade one broken system for others such as risk assessment tools and electronic monitoring that are algorithmically biased, privatized, and equally cruel. By making these investments, we can exchange old cages for stronger communities. We can increase both freedom and prosperity for everyday people, instead of reserving these fundamental rights as privileges for the few. 

In Congress, I plan to sit on the House Judiciary Committee and craft policies in partnership with directly affected communities. This is the moment. This is our work to complete, our assignment unto liberation. This fight is in our hands. Standing together, it’s essential that we build a more just and equitable world that centers our voices and recognizes that freedom should never have a price. 

Cori Bush is the incoming United States Representative for Missouri’s First Congressional District.

Report Finds Bail Reform in Chicago Reduced Pretrial Incarceration Without Hurting Public Safety

A growing body of evidence suggests that it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate the use of money bail without increasing crime.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Report Finds Bail Reform in Chicago Reduced Pretrial Incarceration Without Hurting Public Safety

A growing body of evidence suggests that it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate the use of money bail without increasing crime.

Amid a national debate over reducing or eliminating the use of money bail, critics of reform efforts have argued that releasing more people pretrial will lead to increases in crime and other threats to public safety, often relying on high-profile incidents of violence in lieu of comprehensive data. A new report by researchers at Loyola University Chicago published today may help put these claims to rest.  

The report, which was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, examined the effect of Cook County, Illinois’s 2017 bail reform initiative, General Order 18.8A (GO 18.8A), which instituted a presumption of release without bond for most people charged with felonies and required judges to only impose bonds that defendants were able to afford.

The report found that the number of people released without bail—nearly 6,500—was double what would be expected before GO 18.8A in the six months after bail reform, helping defendants and their families save more than $31 million that they otherwise would have paid to secure release from jail. At the same time, crime rates in Cook County remained stable, and people released under GO 18.8A were no more likely to be rearrested after their release than people released before the reforms. According to the report’s authors, these findings add to a growing body of evidence that shows releasing people without bail doesn’t harm public safety.

“Opponents of bail reform may continue to argue that reducing the use of monetary bail and increasing the number of people released pretrial will result in more defendants committing more crimes while on pretrial release,” the report’s authors wrote. “But that is not what happened following bail reform in Cook County, consistent with experiences following bail reform in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.” 

Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans issued GO 18.8A in September 2017 to address concerns that people charged with crimes in the county were being detained pretrial solely because of their inability to afford bail. At the time, Cook County Jail was the largest single-site jail facility in the country, housing nearly 7,000 people on any given day in conditions that critics called overcrowded and unsanitary. In the 15 months after the order was issued, Cook County’s jail population fell by 16 percent as more people were released pretrial without having to pay bail. 

In May 2019, a report by the circuit court declared the reform a success, writing that GO 18.8A “allowed more defendants to remain in their communities prior to trial, where they can work, pursue their education and support their families. The vast majority of released defendants appear in court for all hearings. Bail reform has not led to an increase in violent crime in Chicago.”

But in early June 2019, local law enforcement officials, including Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, argued that bail reform was responsible for spikes in gun violence. A month later, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot raised concerns that too many people charged with gun offenses were being released under the reforms, despite the fact that fewer than 2 percent of people charged with gun offenses since the reform had been arrested for violent crimes after their release.

Skeptics of bail reform also disputed the findings of the circuit court’s 2019 report. They argued that it undercounted the number of violent crimes committed by people released pretrial and failed to account for other factors that may have affected crime rates in Cook County after the implementation of GO 18.8A, such as seasonal changes in crime rates and the hiring of hundreds of new police officers in Chicago in 2017 and 2018.

The new report addressed these issues by adopting a broader definition of violent crime that includes misdemeanors and by using a statistical model to control for extraneous factors that may have impacted crime rates, including weather and policing levels. Even after making these adjustments, however, the researchers confirmed the 2019 report’s initial findings. “GO18.8A increased the use of I-Bonds,” they wrote, “decreased the financial burden on defendants and their families, and increased the percent and number of people released pretrial—all without affecting new criminal activity of those released or increasing crime.” 

Judge Evans said in a press release: “This study confirms what our office has previously determined in our own review—that bail reform furthers the cause of justice and equality by releasing defendants not deemed a danger to any person or the public. Defendants should not be sitting in jail awaiting trial simply because they lack the financial resources to ensure their release.” 

The study’s findings echo the conclusions of researchers who have examined bail reform initiatives in other jurisdictions across the country. An analysis published this week by the Prison Policy Initiative examined data from four states, as well as nine cities and counties, that have enacted bail reform measures. All but one saw no significant increase in crime rates; the lone exception, New York State, implemented its reforms earlier this year before rolling back many provisions in April, so comprehensive data on the effect of the reforms remain unavailable. 

In New Jersey, the largest jurisdiction in the United States to virtually eliminate the use of money bail, jail populations fell by 45 percent between 2015 and 2019, coinciding with a nearly 20 percent drop in the state’s violent crime rate and an 18 percent drop in the property crime rate, according to FBI data

“Like these other reform efforts, GO 18.8A demonstrates that it is possible to decrease the use of monetary bail and decrease pretrial detention—and lessen the financial, physical, and psychological harms that come with pretrial detention—without affecting criminal activity or crime rates,” the Loyola University report’s authors wrote.

Nationwide, nearly half a million legally innocent people are incarcerated in local jails on any given day, often because they cannot afford to pay money bail. Research has found that even short stays in jail can lead to lost jobs and housing, and defendants who are incarcerated pretrial are more likely to plead guilty than those who are able to pay for their release. Additionally, Black and Latinx people are more likely to be incarcerated pretrial than white people charged with similar crimes.

Despite the progress made since 2017, advocates for eliminating money bail altogether say that Cook County still has a long way to go. Despite GO 18.8A’s prohibition of unaffordable bonds, a report published in September by the Coalition to End Money Bond found that roughly a quarter of people detained in the Cook County Jail remained in custody on money bonds. Additionally, data collected by the bond fund’s court-watching program showed that even during the height of the pandemic, the county’s judges have continued to impose unaffordable bonds on defendants, with some judges setting bonds at unaffordable levels in more than a third of all cases.

“Unconstitutional, unaffordable money bonds were the single largest reason people were admitted to Cook County Jail during the pandemic,” the report said.

Additionally, the Loyola University report found that even after the 2017 reforms, nearly 20 percent of all people charged with crimes in Cook County remained in jail for the duration of their cases, which can last months or even years.  

According to Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, these shortcomings are difficult to address on a local level, because GO 18.8A lacks a robust enforcement mechanism, and Illinois state law still allows judges to set unaffordable money bail. 

“As long as state law authorizes judges to use money bond, they’re going to use it,” Grace said. “That’s why we’re focused on statewide legislative reforms that would eliminate the possibility of using money bond.”

Earlier this month, state Senator Robert Peters and state Representative Justin Slaughter introduced the Pretrial Fairness Act, which would eliminate money bond in Illinois. In October, Governor J.B. Pritzker reaffirmed his support of abolishing money bail, saying in a press release, “The governor remains committed to ending a system that disproportionately forces low-income families and people of color into a disruptive cycle of unearned detention and instability.”

Pritzker, however, supports the use of pretrial risk assessment tools, despite the fact that data from Cook County and other jurisdictions show that the majority of “high risk” defendants comply with all conditions of their pretrial release. His office has not commented on whether he will support the Pretrial Fairness Act. 

Until statewide reforms become a reality, Grace says that she and other advocates are focused on encouraging judges and prosecutors in Cook County to release as many people as possible, especially since the county’s jail has been one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the country.

“The number of [COVID-19] cases in the jail has doubled in the last week,” Grace said. “So the fact that not only have we returned to pre-pandemic numbers of people in county jail, but we’ve done so while there are 800 more people on electronic monitoring every day …  is a very disturbing trend.”

It’s Time To Lower The Voting Age To 16

Grown adults have voted their way into the current morass in this country. Now is the time for a younger generation to lead the way.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow

It’s Time To Lower The Voting Age To 16

Grown adults have voted their way into the current morass in this country. Now is the time for a younger generation to lead the way.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

America is witnessing a political and social upheaval with the COVID-19 pandemic and economic turmoil, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the myriad crises facing the nation. The public response to the toxic policies of the Trump administration, its corruption and incompetence, and a government that is unresponsive to the public has been an awakening that has led to a deluge of civic engagement and historic levels of voting before Election Day. Although young people are criticized for apathy and low participation in the electoral process, 2020 promises a surge in young voters.

On the federal level and in states and localities, there is an effort to lower the voting age from 18 years to 16 years, which would fuel further youth involvement in politics and allow them to shape a nation that better reflects their needs and concerns.

Last year, Representative Ayana Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced an amendment to House Resolution 1 to lower the voting age for federal elections to 16. HR 1, which passed the House and stalled in the Senate, would expand voting rights, restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and allow for campaign finance and redistricting reform, automatic voter registration and D.C. statehood, among other measures. Pressley’s amendment failed 126-305, with heavy opposition from both parties.

“From gun violence, to immigration reform, to climate change, to the future of work—our young people are organizing, mobilizing and calling us to action. They are at the forefront of social and legislative movements and have earned inclusion in our democracy,” Pressley said on the House floor, noting the legislation would ensure that young people who have a stake in democracy would have their say in federal elections. “Beginning at the age of 16, young people are contributing to both the labor force and their local economies by paying income taxes, and yet they are deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

America has traveled down this road before. Nothing in the original wording of U.S. Constitution sets age limits on the franchise, and 21 was the nationwide voting age until nearly 50 years ago, when it was lowered to 18.  

In the 1960s, the drive to expand suffrage arose from the Vietnam War draft—on the grounds that people who are old enough to fight are old enough to vote—and heightened youth involvement in political activism. Young people across America were engaged in protests in the streets, facing police repression and sometimes losing their lives fighting against racial oppression at home, and sending young Americans to kill and die in an unjust war. Efforts by young activists resulted in the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which added 10 million new voters for the 1972 election, half of whom voted.

Like half a century ago, today we live in tumultuous times. Young people are faced with pandemic-related joblessness and an economic system working against them, crippling student debt, and a wrecked environment they inherited from older generations. Youth are essential to any revolution or movement for social change. As we see teens taking a stand on climate change, police violence, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, and other issues, civic engagement is crucial. Yet, at a time when so many issues affect youth and their future, they cannot vote.

“When we look down the road, we don’t see a hopeful future. We don’t see a future where we’ll have access to clean water and clean air, and equitable schools,” Tyler Okeke, 19, a student activist at the University of Chicago, and an organizer with Power California, which empowers young voters of color, told NPR. “Voting is just the logical next step in making sure that a generation—that is so passionate about change and is so deeply affected by the decisions that are being made now—that we are inserted into policy-making and have a say in our democracy.”

Voter participation rates among young Americans has been among the lowest in the world, even as they express an interest in political participation, reflecting obstacles that make it more difficult to vote. However, young voters are increasingly galvanized. The TikTok and Instagram generation is surging at the polls. Youth turnout is on the rise, echoing the widespread double-digit increase in turnout among ages 18-29 in the 2018 midterms and reflecting the wave of mass protests taking place this year.

Demographic changes highlight the potential power of the youth vote. While older generations are declining as a percentage of eligible voters, compared to 2016, Generation Z has increased to 10 percent from 4 percent, according to Pew Research Center. Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse and soon-to-be well-educated generation, and its members join millennials in having more liberal social and political views than those who came before them. At over a third of the electorate, millennials and Gen Z together are poised to become the largest voting bloc in the U.S.

A 2013 report from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) recommended lowering the voting age—and requiring civics education as students become eligible to vote—to engage young people and help address dysfunction and polarization in U.S. politics.    

Several countries already have a national voting age under 18. A constitutional amendment would most likely require approval of two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate and three-fourths of the state legislatures, or 38 states. But states and localities are pursuing their own reforms.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. provide for voter participation under the age of 18. Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C. provide some leeway allowing localities to permit younger people to vote or register to vote, and several other states are considering such legislation. An initiative on the ballot today in San Francisco would lower the voting age for local elections.    

In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland, extended the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in municipal elections, becoming the first city to do so. In the few years after the change in policy, teens’ rate of voter turnout far outpaced that of the overall electorate. Hyattsville, Maryland, followed suit in 2015, followed by Riverdale Park, and Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2019.

This year,  approval of the ballot measure Proposition G would make San Francisco the first large city in the nation to permit 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. Berkeley has implemented, and Oakland is considering, a similar measure for school board elections. In 2016, when youth activists first pushed for its passage, the measure was narrowly defeated. 

Proposition 18 would support a state constitutional amendment in California to allow 17-year-olds who will reach 18 by the next election to vote in primary and special elections. And a City Council committee in Northampton, Massachusetts, recommended a change to the city charter that would extend municipal voting to 16-year-olds. The change must be approved by the council, the mayor and the state legislature.

Expanding suffrage for young people will increase voter turnout, create good habits by engaging youth in the political process at an early age, hold elected officials accountable to them, and improve their lives. Such a move could also boost civics education in schools. The argument that voting requires rational, informed decision-making lacking in 16-year-olds does not hold water. Grown adults have voted their way into the current morass in this country, and now is the time for a younger generation to lead the way.  

David A. Love is a Philadelphia-based writer, commentator, and journalism and media studies professor. He writes for CNN, Al Jazeera, Atlanta Black Star, theGrio, and other publications.

Armed Michigan Protesters Fueled Jon Hoadley’s Commitment To Run For Congress

If he wins his bid to represent the state’s Sixth District, Hoadley says he would reallocate police funding, improve health care, and invest in rural communities.

Courtesy of the Jon Hoadley campaign

Armed Michigan Protesters Fueled Jon Hoadley’s Commitment To Run For Congress

If he wins his bid to represent the state’s Sixth District, Hoadley says he would reallocate police funding, improve health care, and invest in rural communities.

When armed protesters—including some of the men who have been charged with conspiring to kidnap and possibly murder Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer—stormed the state Capitol in April, Jon Hoadley was there.

Hoadley, who serves as a state representative for Kalamazoo, told The Appeal that the armed intruders actually strengthened his resolve to continue his bid to become Michigan’s first openly gay U.S. representative. Hoadley is running to unseat Republican Fred Upton in Michigan’s Sixth District.

“These types of experiences really help bolster in my gut why it’s so important that we see change and actually gets me more fueled to then stay committed and continue” working on issues including gun safety and police reform, Hoadley said.

Recent polls show that Hoadley may get a chance to do that work in Congress. While FiveThirtyEight reports that Upton is “slightly favored” to win the district, Real Clear Politics lists the race as a “Toss Up.”

Another recent experience highlighted the need to shift funding away from the 1033 program and other federal initiatives that provide police with military-grade hardware and toward, Hoadley said, “resources … that actually put more effective tools on the table.”

For example, Hoadley said, over the summer both he and a passing motorist noticed a toddler walking down Hoadley’s “very busy” street unsupervised. The motorist put the toddler in her car, pulled into Hoadley’s driveway, and 911 was called.

“It’s nice there’s one number that we know we can call to get help,” Hoadley said. “But even then, the 911 dispatch only sent an officer for an abandoned 3-year-old and [the officer] showed up without even a kid’s seat, a car seat, for the child. We needed a car seat and a social worker.”

Hoadley added that the incident “speaks to this idea that even those that have taken an oath to protect and serve don’t possess the tools to be able to protect and serve,” and he’d like to divert resources toward “dealing with the real problems we’re facing, as opposed to solutions that have been militarizing [the police] and escalating tension.”

In addition to reallocating police resources, Hoadley would like Congress to pass legislation creating local police civilian review boards nationwide. The legislation, he said, could include creating a set of best practices for review boards and tying federal support of local police departments to the creation of the boards.

Hoadley also supports government-subsidized health care, free college tuition, and student loan forgiveness.

“I live in the home of the Kalamazoo Promise,” a 15-year-old program funded by private donors that provides full tuition and fees for graduating seniors who have attended Kalamazoo’s public schools for their entire school career (and provides prorated amounts depending how long a student has been in the district). The promise funds attendance at 58 public and private institutions in Michigan.

“We’ve seen how that has changed people’s aspirations,” Hoadley said. “The idea that financial barriers, or at least tuition, won’t be the barrier that prevents you from going changes the type of aspirations that young people have. And we can live in a country where we remove that barrier for every student.”

“But, as we see time and time again, these are issues that … have gone to die in the U.S. Senate, and this is why we need to see broad-scale change,” he added.

One of those changes would be to unseat Upton, a Republican who has voted against expanding the Affordable Care Act, against extending housing assistance to people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and against allowing the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices. Upton also has a long history of voting to restrict abortion care, including supporting the proposed 20-week abortion ban.

“When it comes to the big decisions, Fred Upton always falls in line with his party’s line when they need it,” Hoadley said. “He does this time and time and time again.”

Upton has also followed the “party line” by refusing to condemn a Republican super PAC’s ad leveling personal attacks against Hoadley that have been condemned by LGBTQ activists as homophobic.

“I think campaigns really show people where you are and what you are,” Hoadley said of Upton’s silence about the ad. “He talks a lot about bipartisanship or civility, [but] he was quiet when the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] and others were running QAnon-like conspiracy theories. So he’s shown us that when the chips are on the table, that he will fall in line with his party’s line.”

Although the current political scene has sometimes been frightening, Hoadley said his lived experience as a gay man “reminds me that everybody has something that they can contribute to public policy.”

“I’ve watched as the country has had an incredible change of heart on LGBTQ equality issues over the last 20 years,” said Hoadley, 37, who came out in high school. “That journey has instilled in me both a deep and profound respect for the idea that when we come together and we tell our authentic stories, that the personal becomes political and we can make very big change.”

Kara Eastman Looks to Represent Nebraska in Congress With An Eye On Improving Healthcare

The Second District candidate, who has been endorsed by more than 50 Black leaders in Omaha, also wants to make investments in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

Courtesy of the Kara Eastman campaign

Kara Eastman Looks to Represent Nebraska in Congress With An Eye On Improving Healthcare

The Second District candidate, who has been endorsed by more than 50 Black leaders in Omaha, also wants to make investments in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, Kara Eastman, a Medicare for All supporting self-described “independent voice,” is seeking to unseat her Republican opponent to represent Nebraska’s Second Congressional District. Eastman, who lost narrowly in 2018, is hoping to appeal to voters with a platform that includes reforms to address racial inequality, help farmers, improve housing, and make healthcare affordable and accessible. 

Eastman entered the race with firsthand experience with the country’s healthcare system. After her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, the doctor prescribed a $2,500 pill that she could not afford to take. “It sent me on a path of trying to understand how this can happen,” Eastman told The Appeal. 

Inspired by her mother, Eastman entered the race to represent Omaha and its surrounding counties. She lost by two percentage points to incumbent Don Bacon and said that the tight election, along with the persisting problems in Nebraska that went unaddressed by Bacon, motivated her to run again in the wake of her mother’s death in 2017. “I decided to run again because the numbers were close and my mom was a fighter and she taught me to never give up,” she said. “We still have the exact same problems. … I believe Nebraskans deserve something better. They deserve an independent voice who’s going to fight for them.” 

Healthcare has been a focal point of contention between Eastman and Bacon. If elected, Eastman wants to cut prescription drug prices, ensure that every person has insurance, and improve medical care for seniors. Before running for office, she worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years helping domestic violence survivors, volunteering in a program for people with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and starting an organization that creates safe housing for children and their families. Through this work, Eastman said she’s seen the need for better and more affordable housing, an increase in the minimum wage, and closing the gap between the poor and the rich. 

“Traditionally it’s been that owning a home is part of the American dream, working one job to support your family is the American dream, but that’s not true anymore,” she said. “The cost of rent has gone up astronomically and yet the minimum wage has not gone up.”

Eastman, who has been endorsed by more than 50 Black leaders in Omaha, also wants to make investments in Black and Latinx neighborhoods that would support small businesses and demilitarize local police forces across the country, which received $5 billion worth of military equipment from the Defense Department since 1990. Along with those changes, she said she wants to abolish cash bail, decriminalize cannabis, and increase funding for public schools.

Asked about her plan to protect Nebraskans and help them rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic, Eastman said she supports a plan that will keep the economy running while also keeping people safe. “It is clear that in the U.S. shutting down our economy doesn’t work for people, Americans are not on board with that, but we do need to shut down the virus,” she said. “We should be looking to scientists and the experts and following protocols. We have to get people back to work but we’ve got to get them back to work safely.” On Wednesday, she said she helped plant flags for the more than 600 Nebraskans killed by COVID-19. 

Though most of Eastman’s district is urban and suburban, she has a plan to help farmers. In Nebraska, one in four jobs is related to agriculture and Trump’s tariffs have proved to be disastrous, she said, vowing to rescind them. “Farmers don’t want government handouts, they want to be sustainable and want to be able to survive off their family business. A lot of dignity and pride is being taken away from them; with tariffs, flooding, and COVID, they’re just being decimated.”

Leading up to Election Day, Eastman has embraced running a socially distant campaign. She said she knocked on thousands of doors in the 2018 election. But this year, she’s dedicated to hitting the phones, making 150 to 250 calls per day to talk with voters about why they should choose her at the polls. Pointing out that her opponent, Bacon, has voted with Trump and the Republican Party more than 90 percent of the time, Eastman said her job will include an important distinction if she goes to Washington, D.C. “What I’ve seen in running for Congress is that Nebraskans are often overlooked and we need someone who votes not with a party or group but rather someone who stands up for the district.”

Francesca Hong Wants ‘Wisconsin to Work Better for More People’

The chef and restaurant owner is running for State Assembly in part to fight for a $15 minimum wage and other pro-worker reforms from within the halls of government.

Courtesy of the Francesca Hong campaign

Francesca Hong Wants ‘Wisconsin to Work Better for More People’

The chef and restaurant owner is running for State Assembly in part to fight for a $15 minimum wage and other pro-worker reforms from within the halls of government.

While industry organizations such as the Wisconsin Restaurant Association are fighting against raising the minimum wage, Francesca Hong—herself a restaurant owner—is running for State Assembly in part to fight for a $15 minimum wage and other pro-worker reforms from within the halls of government.

Hong is running for what is considered a safe Democratic seat in District 76, which serves Madison. If she bests Republican Patrick Hull, Hong, the child of immigrants, would become Wisconsin’s first Asian American state legislator.

For Hong, reforms like a higher minimum wage and labor contracts for hourly workers aren’t just about fairness for workers. They’re also a means to strengthen both small businesses and the communities that depend on them.

“We have to look at ways to incentivize small businesses to invest in their workers, because it’s better for the sustainability of the business,” Hong told The Appeal. Investing in workers, she said, will help with what she called “a huge problem with labor turnover,” by giving employees a reason to want to stay in their jobs.

In addition, she said, “most employees are putting [their] money back into their communities.” Increasing workers’ purchasing power, she added, would make both the businesses they patronize and the communities those businesses are in more self-sustaining.

Hong supports tax credits for small businesses that provide hazard pay and paid sick leave for hourly workers. But while improving workers’ pay and working conditions are important issues for her, she said that she also wants to change what she called “inaction from the GOP leadership” during the COVID-19 crisis.

When Hong started organizing to try to get relief for her workers, fellow business owners, and her community, she told The Appeal that most of the challenges came from “barriers with the state legislature.”

According to an October report by, Wisconsin’s legislature has been the least active full-time legislative body in the United States since states started meeting to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, a legislative committee did meet to block a rule prohibiting landlords from charging late fees on rent during the public health crisis.

Several members of the Republican-led body are landlords, including current Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Since 2011, the legislature has passed a series of Vos-backed bills dismantling tenant rights, including one that allows landlords to put renters’ belongings on the curb immediately after an eviction rather than placing the property in storage.

“I think now we’re having to fight, and folks here in Madison are having to fight for basic human rights, and it’s because of the past 10 years of really regressive policies” beginning when Scott Walker was elected governor in 2011, she said. Walker lost his 2019 re-election bid to Democrat Tony Evers.

In both rural and urban communities, Hong said, “you’re seeing working class people really come out and fight, and not be so tied to political ideology, and more so, we’re coming together with a joint frustration over inaction from the GOP leadership.”

While Hong’s race is likely to succeed, the Wisconsin State Journal reported earlier this month that both the State Assembly and the state Senate are likely to remain under Republican control. But even though continued Republican control may mean that her desired reforms will face an uphill battle, Hong said one of the driving forces behind her decision to run is her desire to answer the question: “What does it mean to have representation matter?”

“I decided to run for the state legislature because it’s really missing representation” from working class individuals and people of color, Hong said, “folks who have most often been harmed by government. I think that I’m learning more about those people. I’m thinking about how government has harmed me, and how I don’t want that to be the story anymore.”

“I’m born and raised in Wisconsin, I’m a daughter of immigrants … and to know that there are so many people who do not feel safe, who do not feel like they have the opportunities I have, has really made me reevaluate what’s going on.”

In Her First Run For Office, Teresa Leger Fernandez Wants To ‘Protect What We Love’ About New Mexico

Leger Fernandez, whose district includes Navajo Nation and several Pueblo reservations, wants to pass universal healthcare and improve infrastructure in tribal and rural communities.

Courtesy of the Teresa Leger Fernandez campaign

In Her First Run For Office, Teresa Leger Fernandez Wants To ‘Protect What We Love’ About New Mexico

Leger Fernandez, whose district includes Navajo Nation and several Pueblo reservations, wants to pass universal healthcare and improve infrastructure in tribal and rural communities.

For the last 30 years, Teresa Leger Fernandez has worked as a public interest attorney in her home state of New Mexico. Now she’s making her first run at public office, vying to represent the Third Congressional District, which encompasses the north half of New Mexico, including Santa Fe and rural areas. If Leger Fernandez is elected, she plans to bring to Washington, D.C., the knowledge she’s acquired working on behalf Native tribes and winning lawsuits over voting inequality. 

“To represent my district you need to know not only its beauty but also its poverty and its promise,” Leger Fernandez told The Appeal. “I’ve done this work for the last 30 years and know its promise and know that federal policy has a great impact. Everything we love is under attack, and I’m wanting to protect what we love.”

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the U.S., Leger Fernandez said she is committed to passing legislation that would help communities protect themselves against the disease and eventually rebuild. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Natives: They, along with Alaskan Natives, have been diagnosed with the diseases at 3.5 times the rate of non-Hispanic white people, according to a report released in August. 

Leger Fernandez, whose district includes Navajo Nation and several Pueblo reservations, wants to pass universal healthcare so that people don’t have to have copayments and high deductibles for doctor visits. She also wants to decrease the prices of prescription drugs. 

”The community is suffering because we don’t have an adequate healthcare system,” she said. Improving healthcare is personal to Leger Fernandez—she is a breast cancer survivor and has lost family members to cancer.  “I’m the only one alive right now because I had insurance and had it diagnosed early,” she said. 

Along with healthcare, she wants to improve infrastructure in tribal and rural communities so there’s access to health clinics, broadband internet, and childcare. The dearth of these services has long been a problem and was further highlighted by the pandemic, she said. “We don’t want to build it back to what we were before because that was unequal. We need to imagine where we want to be and start funding towards that.”

After a convincing victory against seven candidates in the primary, Leger Fernandez is expected to win the race for Ben Ray Luján’s open seat against Republican Alexis Johnson because the district is strongly Democratic. She’s won endorsements from a long list of politicians and organizations including Joe Biden, the Sierra Club, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which champions her platform for reproductive freedom. 

In Congress, Leger Fernandez said she wants to abolish the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits using federal funds to pay for abortions unless it is to save the life of a woman or the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, and increase funding for reproductive healthcare organizations such as Planned Parenthood. “I want to make sure every woman has access …  regardless of how much money you have” she said. Her platform also includes support for a Green New Deal and extending the DREAM Act to immigrants’ families so they can stay together. 

If elected, Leger Fernandez would be part of New Mexico’s all-female House of Representatives delegation. She said her experience living and working in the community she hopes to represent would equip her with the tools to be effective in the Capitol. “When you build something you understand where the roadblocks are, where the difficulties are. We want a politics of opportunity, we want to protect what we love, and we want our beloved community to thrive.”

Raph Graybill Is Running To Be A Better Attorney General For Montana

Graybill’s experience with suing the state’s current AG, Tim Fox, to protect a land easement program “really pushed me over the edge,” he told The Appeal.

Courtesy of the Raph Graybill campaign

Raph Graybill Is Running To Be A Better Attorney General For Montana

Graybill’s experience with suing the state’s current AG, Tim Fox, to protect a land easement program “really pushed me over the edge,” he told The Appeal.

After spending the past three years doing the job he feels his state’s attorney general should be doing, Raph Graybill of Great Falls, Montana, decided it was time to run for the job himself.

The case that “really pushed me over the edge,” Graybill said, happened in 2018 when Graybill, representing the state in his role as chief legal counsel to Governor Steve Bullock, went to court against Attorney General Tim Fox to protect a land easement program that pays for public access and curbs development on private land in the state.

“It was really that experience of having to sue our own state’s attorney general that got me thinking, ‘We can do better in this job,’” Graybill told The Appeal.

The land conservation case is one of several examples in which Graybill says he had to “step up where our attorney general has not.” Graybill has also defended a temporary ban on flavored e-cigarettes against a challenge from the state’s tobacco industry. He partnered with Governor Bullock in a successful lawsuit against the IRS to reinstate disclosure rules on “dark money” funding political campaigns. And he has sought to keep a state tax credit program from being used to encourage taxpayers to fund private religious schools, though he lost the Supreme Court case.

Most recently, on Oct. 14, Graybill successfully pushed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to agree to a federal court settlement that reversed controversial changes to the postal service, which critics maintained had resulted in substantial lapses in service. The settlement applies nationwide.

“In a rural state like Montana, [the Postal Service] is probably the engine of economic life,” Graybill said, affecting everything from delivery of prescriptions to seniors to voting and essential business functions. The decision, Graybill added, is “an incredible win for Montana.”

Whether it’s fighting against the state’s current AG or taking on the Trump administration, Graybill said, “there is a need for advocacy, especially in these challenging times. And if the advocacy won’t come from the attorney general, we either need to have other folks step in, or we need a new attorney general.”

Graybill also sees a “need for advocacy” against his opponent in the race: former speaker of the Montana House and current Roosevelt County Attorney Austin Knudsen. Fox, the current AG, has been term-limited out of office and lost his primary bid to be the Republican candidate for governor.

Graybill calls Knudsen’s “extremist” opposition to the Affordable Care Act “the biggest issue in our race.” From 2013-2016, the number of uninsured Montanans declined by nearly 50 percent, to 8.1 percent. Far more Montanans are also insured through the state’s Medicaid and CHIP expansion—260,212 in May 2017 versus 149,000 before the passage of Obamacare.

Despite the marked increase in the number of people with health insurance under the act, Knudsen said in a 2019 interview that the law has “done vastly greater harm to the state of Montana than it’s done good.” Knudsen has criticized the current AG, Fox, for not joining the Trump administration’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the act.

Graybill said Knudsen’s position on Obamacare “disqualifies him” from becoming the next attorney general. When Graybill thinks about the people in his own life with pre-existing health conditions, he said, “the idea that my opponent wakes up every morning, brushes his teeth, and goes out to campaign in order to rip away their healthcare is astonishing and offensive.”

In addition to protecting Montanans’ access to the Affordable Care Act, Graybill acknowledged both the size and the marked racial disparities in his state’s incarcerated population. Montana has an incarceration rate of 726 per 100,000 people, according to data compiled in 2018 by the Prison Policy Initiative—surpassing the overall national rate of 698 per 100,000. As of 2015, Black Montanans were incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white residents, and Indigenous people were incarcerated at 5.1 times the rate of whites, according to the Vera Institute.

“It’s a huge disparity and a huge issue,” Graybill said, adding that there are two factors contributing to the problem.

“You have to acknowledge it’s a problem, and we haven’t seen that. We haven’t seen that kind of leadership throughout the department.” In addition, Graybill said, the state lacks good data on factors such as sentencing disparities, length of prison sentences, or the way charging or frontline enforcement decisions are being made. “There really is not great data other than just the fact of the incarceration rate,” he said.

Graybill said his approach to the problem would be grounded in the declaration from Montana’s state constitution that “the dignity of the human being is inviolable,” and that “no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws.”

“I try to bring that constitutional value to every conversation I have about disparities in our criminal justice system and the ways that over time, really, a colonial mindset and systemic racism have produced disproportionate outcomes for people of color in our state, particularly indigenous people in Montana,” he said. “I hope to be the kind of attorney general that gives voice to those concerns, that knows how to listen before talking and really makes this a priority.”

Omar Fateh is Running to Bring a ‘Working-Class Agenda’ to Minnesota’s State Senate

The current Democratic state senator, Jeff Hayden, lacks the progressive vision that Minnesotans seek, Fateh says.

Courtesy of the Omar Fateh campaign

Omar Fateh is Running to Bring a ‘Working-Class Agenda’ to Minnesota’s State Senate

The current Democratic state senator, Jeff Hayden, lacks the progressive vision that Minnesotans seek, Fateh says.

Omar Fateh decided to run for state Senate in his Minneapolis district because, in his opinion, current Senator Jeff Hayden, a Democrat, was falling short in two important respects.

“What we learned here in Minnesota is that it’s not enough to just elect Democrats,” Fateh, who is running to represent the 62nd District, told The Appeal. “We needed progressive Democrats at the legislature” who will concentrate on what Fateh calls a “working-class agenda.”

Fateh also said he believes that Hayden “just hasn’t been present, especially in the poorer neighborhoods in the district.” Fateh defeated Hayden by just under 10 points in the August primary.

Running as a Democratic Socialist, Fateh said he received the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and won the primary because “we have a lot of folks in this state that are actually shifting more to a working-class focus.” Those voters, he said, want to elect representatives at all levels of government who “represent a working-class agenda,” including affordable housing and healthcare, a living wage, and other progressive priorities. 

Fateh was one of four progressive challengers who defeated Democratic incumbents in August. Now that he’s the presumptive winner of the Democratic seat, Fateh is planning how to be an effective state Senator as a freshman—particularly as a freshman replacing a nine-year incumbent who also serves as an assistant minority leader.

Without those institutional relationships to call upon, Fateh plans a different approach that involves bringing community organizations to the table to help push for needed reforms “and making sure we bring people power to the Capitol.”

Minnesotans, he added, “should be able to access the folks that are representing us and make sure that they’re partnering with the community.”

In addition to advocating for universal, taxpayer-funded childcare; early childhood education; and a $15 statewide minimum wage, Fateh told The Appeal that housing is an urgent issue in his district, where 31 percent of households are getting by on less than $25,000 a year and nearly 42 percent live on less than $35,000 a year. Forty-one percent of the districts’ renters pay at least 35 percent of their annual income on rent.

“There’s a development right near my house where a studio [apartment] was going for $1,400 bucks,” Fateh said, “and this is in one of the poorer districts in Minnesota.”

Minnesota renters who fall on hard times don’t have the law on their side. Current state law allows landlords to file an eviction action in district court the first day a tenant’s rent is late. The law also allows landlords to wait until just seven days before an eviction hearing before giving tenants notice of the hearing.

Despite Governor Tim Walz’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium, this past summer Minneapolis saw the creation of the largest known homeless encampment in the city’s history at Powderhorn Park in Fateh’s district. Residents of the encampment were forcibly evicted by the city in August.

Walz extended his state of emergency orders, including the ban on evictions, until Nov. 12. The emergency order doesn’t include rent relief, so landlords will be able to start filing eviction actions immediately after the state of emergency is lifted.

To address these issues, Fateh would like to reform eviction laws to ban evictions during the winter, force landlords to provide “adequate notice” before filing eviction notices, and require municipalities to hold an election before enacting rent control.

“What we’re seeing is that, especially in our district, rent has just been skyrocketing while wages have stagnated, and because of that, because they’re priced out, a large part of the homeless population actually do have a job,” Fateh said. “They just can’t make up the gap between staying in the shelter and the most affordable housing unit.”

Protecting renters and making sure people have housing “should be the number one priority,” he added. “Nobody should work a 40-hour week and not be able to afford rent. To me that’s immoral.”

Fateh, the child of Somali immigrants, also wants to continue to “bridge the gap” between the African immigrant community and the American culture in which he was born and raised. In one of his positions before running for office, Fateh worked for the City of Minneapolis as a community specialist to improve outreach to African immigrants. African immigrants are a sizable community in the state—according to an estimate by the city, there are 50,000 immigrants from East Africa in Minneapolis alone. As part of his work in this area, Fateh cites the struggle to force Amazon to allow time for its workers from East Africa, many of whom are Muslim, to pray.

“What we know is that the large corporations are going to take advantage of folks, especially if they’re not well versed on their rights,” Fateh said.

Teens Younger Than 18 Could Soon Have The Right To Vote In San Francisco

A measure on the ballot next month would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, a change that advocates say would crucially expand the voting pool.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Teens Younger Than 18 Could Soon Have The Right To Vote In San Francisco

A measure on the ballot next month would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, a change that advocates say would crucially expand the voting pool.

San Francisco voters will decide next month whether to lower the voting age for local elections. If passed, the ballot measure, known as Proposition G, would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to cast their ballot, a change that advocates say would crucially expand the voting pool.

“This is a great way to strengthen our democracy and increase voter turnout in the long run,” Brandon Klugman, campaign manager for the organization Vote16 USA, told The Appeal. “Beyond that, it would give elected officials a concrete incentive to pay attention to the voices, needs, and concerns of 16- and 17-year-olds.”

Although cities in Maryland and countries such as Brazil, Austria, and Scotland have voting ages lower than 18, no major American cities have made the change. San Francisco would be the first. 

Student activists have been rallying to change the age since 2016, when the measure narrowly missed passing with 48 percent of the vote. Briseis Portillo, 14, who is a spokesperson for the Proposition G campaign, told The Appeal that voting would give her and her peers a much-needed stake in their futures. 

“People act like just because we’re under 18 and not adults yet that we don’t see the things that are going on in the world, but they really affect us,” she said. “I feel like this could help rebuild the system and get our input heard and bring it into the community, our schools, and our jobs.”

In four Washington, D.C., suburbs in Maryland—Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Greenbelt, and Riverdale Park—lowering the voting age has led to high turnouts of 16- and 17-year-olds. According to Vote16, 44 percent of registered 16- and 17-year-olds voted in 2013, the first year after the change took place. Since then, younger teenagers have voted at higher rates than 18- to 29-year-olds, the organization says. 

Responding to critics who argue that young voters will mirror the votes of their parents, Klugman pointed to data from the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which showed that more than 40 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds voted differently than their parents. He also noted that politicians in cities with lower voting ages, such as Takoma Park, engaged with young people in their campaigns more than they would have if they were not voters. 

Along with the local level, there has been movement to change the voting age in federal elections. An amendment that Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced last year that would have made the voting age 16 received 126 votes. “Across this nation, young people are leading the way, which has been the case for every social movement throughout our history,” Pressley said in a House Rules Committee hearing on the amendment. 

To lower the voting age in San Francisco, the ballot measure will need to earn the support of more than half the city’s eligible voters. Portillo is optimistic the proposition will pass. “To me it would mean having more youth involved in politics and having more youth involved in the decisions made,” she said. 

We Can’t Let Our Children Go Hungry

Since the pandemic began, vital programs that enable children to receive free meals, such as the National School Lunch Program, haven’t been reaching the families in need of support.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

We Can’t Let Our Children Go Hungry

Since the pandemic began, vital programs that enable children to receive free meals, such as the National School Lunch Program, haven’t been reaching the families in need of support.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

As roughly half of elementary and high school students across the country have (necessarily) started the year remotely, people are asking whether students will be able to learn through a computer screen. This concern is justified, but it has also overshadowed a far more fundamental question: whether students will be able to eat.  

America’s children are in grave danger of malnutrition and starvation right now. That’s because, for many children, the meals provided through the National School Lunch Program are the only ones they get. But since the pandemic began, these vital programs haven’t been reaching families in need. In fact, a researcher at the Brookings Institution found that only about 15 percent of low income households who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals are actually receiving them. 

While many school districts and volunteers have done heroic work to try and get meals to students, in most areas free school meals still have to be picked up in person—and many parents simply can’t get away from work or caregiving, don’t have access to transportation, or may be too health-compromised to risk leaving the house every day. 

The current crisis in the Bronx is being ignored or—worse—covered up by the Department of Education. Principals are facing thousands of families who have not connected with schools or city agencies, and they desperately need help and support. Principals have a unique vantage point of poverty; I know this because I was in their place less than a year ago. 

This crisis obviously impacts all children from neglected communities, but it is even more pronounced for the 114,000 New York City public school students who are homeless—a population that has been overlooked for decades. In my 20 years as a public school educator and principal in NYC, I saw this neglect firsthand. 

The bottom line is that for many homeless families in New York City, the uncertainty surrounding when public schools would return to in-person instruction, five days a week, has translated to chronic uncertainty about how they will feed their children.

Unfortunately, hunger is not the only challenge that our children are facing. Many children have watched loved ones become infected by the coronavirus and have lost family members. They are coping with the mental health toll of social isolation. And many families are falling deeper into poverty as parents lose their jobs and are at risk of losing their homes.

Schools have historically been a safe haven for our kids, and it has never been more essential that we make sure they can still be, even during this pandemic. Our children desperately need stability and safety right now. We must work to protect both the physical and mental wellbeing of all of our students. 

In addition to ensuring that our schools are a resource and support system for vulnerable students and families, we should be reaching the families that need help most. Schools already have relationships with the city’s most vulnerable children. We need to leverage these relationships and listen to what school administrators are learning from them, so we can better deliver social services and meet the needs of all families.

We need to reimagine interagency collaboration to holistically address the needs of our children. In New York City, it is time for the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and the Department of Homeless Services to work hand in glove. We need an accurate accounting of what’s happening in the homes of our children, and we need to allocate resources accordingly and set up an efficient system to meet their diverse needs—beginning with hunger. 

We can start by extending the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT). It’s a federal food-stamp initiative that provides funds to families that did not receive school meals because of the pandemic—or at least it did until it was allowed to expire on September 30. But merely extending this program will not be enough; we must do more for our students to ensure that all their needs are met.  

We need more creativity in how we solve our societal problems. In this case, we should implement a food delivery system that works for and individually addresses the needs of all families. Parents could fill out virtual “Blue Cards” and work with schools to identify food-related needs. The schools could then communicate these needs to the Department of Health, which would work with local distribution centers to ensure that food is delivered to hungry students. By creating a system of collaboration between families, schools, and government agencies, we can make sure all of our children receive three meals a day, including on weekends. Right now, none of this is being done.

The federal government has the infrastructure in place to support and feed our kids. During this tumultuous time, these structures should be fully funded. Systems should be in place to provide our kids with the food, technological, and mental health support they need. If the federal government fails to step up, child hunger, domestic violence, community violence, and already existing learning gaps will skyrocket. 

Since the very start of this pandemic, our federal government has ignored our most basic needs. From failing to protect our health from this deadly virus to refusing to even consider the HEROES Act in the Republican-led Senate, the American people—and especially the country’s most vulnerable children—have been left out to dry. 

We have repeatedly failed to protect our children from the pain and suffering the pandemic has inflicted. But my hope is that an issue as simple and universal as child hunger can unite us and spur the federal government into action. 

We can’t let our children go hungry. 

Jamaal Bowman is a former middle school principal and the Democratic nominee for New York’s 16th congressional district.

Tarra Simmons, Candidate for Washington State Legislature, Is Fighting To Give People A First Chance

The attorney, who is a person formerly convicted of a felony, has attracted support and praise from people around the country.

Courtesy of the Tarra Simmons

Tarra Simmons, Candidate for Washington State Legislature, Is Fighting To Give People A First Chance

The attorney, who is a person formerly convicted of a felony, has attracted support and praise from people around the country.

Tarra Simmons, an attorney in Bremerton, Washington, is running to become the first person in the state’s legislature in modern history who was convicted of a felony.

“If we create thriving and healthy communities, where people have their needs met and where if they have an issue they have someone to talk to about it and have support, I think we can really reduce crime and our reliance on prisons,” Simmons told The Appeal.

Simmons added that she wants to give people “a first chance so they won’t need a second chance later on in life.” 

“I guess that’s why I’m really running,” she said. 

A former nurse who served 20 months in prison after her drug habit led to her being arrested three times in 2011, Simmons went to law school in August 2014, a little over a year after she was released. Though she graduated with honors in May 2017, she was denied the bar the month before because of her felony convictions, setting up a showdown in the state Supreme Court which resulted in a same-day unanimous decision in her favor. 

Georgetown University law professor Shon Hopwood, himself a person formerly convicted of a felony, helped Simmons fight to get into the Washington state bar despite her felony conviction. Hopwood told The Appeal that Simmons is one of the most inspirational people he has ever met and he was confident she could make a real difference in the state legislature. 

“She understands the issues facing people who don’t have a lot of means in a way that most politicians never will, because she’s lived that life,” Hopwood said. 

Simmons was admitted to the bar in June 2018 and co-founded the Civil Survival Project, which provides counsel and legal services to the formerly incarcerated. Simmons announced in October 2019 that she would run for Washington’s 23rd District’s state house seat. Her race has attracted the support of Representative Pramila Jayapal and Senator Patty Murray, both Washington Democrats, as well as former Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg.  

Running on a platform of major economic, educational, and treatment reform, Simmons told The Appeal that she views her campaign as part of a bigger effort where she can make a real difference in people’s lives. 

“I think the whole mission I have in life is to break down stigmas and barriers,” said Simmons. “So people who have similar life stories and paths have hope and opportunity when they come back from a mistake.”

Because Simmons would be the first formerly incarcerated person in the Washington State Legislature, said Hopwood, her win would mean a lot to people around the state and around the country. Simmons would show that there’s a true second chance after prison, something that Hopwood described as “almost as important” as her work in the statehouse. 

Hopwood praised the fact that Simmons doesn’t try to hide her criminal record but has rather made it the centerpiece of her campaign. That’s important because it opens the door for others in the U.S. prison population of 1.5 million to see that there will be a future when they come home. 

“It’s not people getting out of prison and thinking, I can’t wait to go back to selling drugs,” Hopwood said. “It’s mostly people that get out, can’t find work, can’t find stable housing, realize that they’re locked out of thousands of different professions—professions that have nothing to do with the crimes they committed—and they just give up and go back to what they know.”

“They don’t feel like they’re getting a second chance or a true second opportunity,” Hopwood continued. “It would be hard for anyone on this planet to get out of a prison and be told, you’re going to be forced into a position where you’re going to make $9 an hour and have to work two part time jobs for the rest of your life.”

Kevin Ring, president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), said Simmons represents a much needed corrective in how the American people are represented in federal, state, and local office. Simmons, said Ring, can advocate for changing a system that she’s been through. 

“She’s going to be able to talk about how the state can reform its laws and prison policies based on her personal experience,” Ring said. 

People from all sorts of backgrounds—from teaching to business to the military—are in office around the country, but the formerly incarcerated are woefully underrepresented. To Ring, that shows how much a voice like Simmons’s can mean. Her story is only unique because of the stigma attached to prison, said Simmons, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

“There are so many people who are being pushed out from these barriers,” Simmons said. “And our society is losing out on their gifts.”

Shifting that paradigm would not only make life better for formerly incarcerated people, it would help keep the public safe, Simmons said. Because crime is usually the result of factors outside the control of the criminal—including addiction, untreated trauma and mental health issues, and a system that grabs hold after one bad mistake—addressing its causes is essential to making change, Simmons said. 

“Our society should allow space for that through policy changes,” she said. “Not to just show that, but also to change policies to allow for more people to find success.”

Cori Bush Wants To Make Sure That Someone Is ‘Fighting For The Regular Person’ In Washington

If she wins her bid for office in November, Bush will become the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress.

Courtesy of Craig Phelps

Cori Bush Wants To Make Sure That Someone Is ‘Fighting For The Regular Person’ In Washington

If she wins her bid for office in November, Bush will become the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress.

When Cori Bush was leading protests in Missouri after Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, was killed by a white police officer in 2014, she noticed that few, if any, elected officials had joined in. Growing up, she was familiar with politics: Her father is a former Northwoods mayor and current City Council member. She had also seen its dark side, and vowed to never get involved, instead becoming a nurse and pastor. 

Bush had spent most of her adult life struggling. At one point, she was evicted from her home and lived out of her car with her two small children and then-husband, who would move the vehicle around the neighborhood at night. Out at the protests, she realized that it was the community members, not the elected officials, who were trying to win justice, Bush told The Appeal. “That was when I decided that the only way to get at the heart of the group of the people out here every single day putting their lives on the line was to run,” she said. 

In 2016, Bush launched an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate and two years later lost a bid to unseat Representative William Lacy Clay in the U.S. House of Representatives. For more than a half-century, the House seat for Missouri’s First Congressional District, which encompasses Ferguson and St. Louis, had been filled by either Clay or his father. But in August, Bush built on the momentum from her 2018 campaign and defeated Clay in the Democratic primary, effectively ensuring she would be elected to serve the heavily Democratic district. If Bush wins in November, she would be the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress. 

In Washington, D.C., one of Bush’s priorities will be stopping police brutality. “We have to deal with the system on every side,” she said. “It’s not just the officers. The officers continue to do what they do because our system allows them to.” Along with working to abolish police unions that she says protect officers, she supports the introduction of a national police misconduct registry that would be available to the public. “As a nurse, if something happens that’s misconduct or medical negligence…That becomes public information,” she said. “I believe the same thing should happen for officers.” 

Bush also has a plan to reform the country’s prisons and jails, where roughly 2.2 million people are incarcerated. She wants to end cash bail, reform parole policies to reduce the prison population (there is currently no federal parole), and make it easier for prisoners to re-enter society after serving their sentences. Bush told The Appeal that she wants to crack down on corporations making money off incarcerated people by charging them exorbitant rates for essential items from the commissary and phone calls. “I just feel like it’s a very unfair system,” she said. Prisoners use their often meager work wages to pay for those items. Bush said she hopes to one day introduce legislation that would require prisons to pay workers the prevailing minimum wage in their state. 

Bush has earned endorsements from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, along with a slew of organizations and parties including Justice Democrats, Working Families Party, and the National Education Association. 

Education is a key part of Bush’s platform and she shared with The Appeal her robust plan to make it better for all children. Among her priorities are modernizing infrastructure in crumbling facilities, increasing funding for student lunches, and installing community gardens at every school. “We have to make sure that no child is hungry,” she said. 

When speaking to students, she said she frequently hears that they do not want to attend school because they don’t have clean clothes and want to avoid being teased. To solve this, she wants every school to put in washing machines and dryers accessible to students. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced children to learn at home, she believes it’s necessary for the government to implement a national broadband network and more funding for tutors. She’d also like therapists and social workers to replace school resource officers. 

Once she’s in Washington, she said she would continue to be motivated to serve the same people who she protests alongside. “My role is to be what I’ve always wanted to see, that’s somebody actually fighting for the regular person,” she said. “I feel like that role starts with fighting for the person who has the least in this district and looking at everything else I do from that lens.”  

Esther Agbaje Wants to Solve ‘The Million Dollar Question’ of Racial Disparities Across Minnesota

If she wins at the ballot box in November, Agbaje would become the state’s first Nigerian American state legislator.

Courtesy of Morris Goodwin

Esther Agbaje Wants to Solve ‘The Million Dollar Question’ of Racial Disparities Across Minnesota

If she wins at the ballot box in November, Agbaje would become the state’s first Nigerian American state legislator.

On paper, Minnesota looks like an equitable place to live. The state has a progressive income tax. Its Fiscal Disparities policy shifts tens of millions of dollars of property taxes within metropolitan areas and distributes funds to the school districts within those areas according to their needs.

But even with these fiscal policies only a quarter of Black families in Minneapolis-St. Paul are able to afford their own home. The Black poverty rate is more than four times the poverty rate for white residents. And Minnesota ranks 49th in the country in racial disparities in high school graduation rates.

The reason for her state’s huge racial disparities is “the million dollar question,” Esther Agbaje, a political newcomer seeking her first term in the Minnesota legislature, told The Appeal. “We have all of these institutions that are meant to be progressive and support the people of Minnesota and I think a lot of it [is due to] remaining vestiges of segregation and institutional racism.”

Agbaje, who defeated longtime state Representative Raymond Dehn in the August Democratic primary, is poised to become Minnesota’s first Nigerian American state legislator. She is one of four progressive newcomers who prevailed over established Democratic legislators in the primary—two in the state House and two in the Senate.

To make housing more affordable, Agbaje said she would support legislation to change the income eligibility to qualify for current housing options. Rather than basing eligibility for housing assistance on an applicant’s income as a percentage of the median income in a given county, she said, income guidelines should be indexed to individual cities, or even individual neighborhoods.

Agbaje added that the state should continue to build affordable housing.

The issue is a personal one. While attending Harvard Law School, Agbaje said, she volunteered in a legal clinic representing clients being threatened with eviction—work she continues today as a volunteer with Hennepin County’s Volunteer Lawyers Network Housing Court Project. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said, to work with people who are suffering economic hardship, “and our response as a society is to put them out on the street.”

As a candidate seeking to represent the city where George Floyd was killed by police, Agbaje has joined the call to divest from the police department and invest in social support work. Additionally, she wants to take on “the prison industrial complex”—a system she already challenged in a successful lawsuit that forced the state’s Department of Corrections to provide incarcerated people infected with Hepatitis C with antiviral medication in 2019.

The case “opened my eyes,” Agbaje said, to issues including the kind of food incarcerated people are given and “how we look at punishment,” including solitary confinement, which she would like to prohibit. In addition, she said, although she is still learning about incarceration in Minnesota, she is definitely looking forward to “using my platform to advocate for prisoners and making sure that while they are serving their time, they’re not treated unfairly.” 

Agbaje said she’d like to ensure incarcerated people have access to educational opportunities and that they and their families aren’t faced with the “costly imposition” of expensive phone calls as they work to stay connected.

As a Black woman and the child of immigrants, Agbaje is a member of groups who are traditionally marginalized in Minnesota. But she has also had unique, exclusive educational opportunities—including attending an Episcopal boarding school for high school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard.

“My parents”—an Episcopalian minister and a librarian who worked in homeless services— “raised us with the outlook that you’re always giving back to people,” Agbaje said. That outlook is the reason she spent part of her time at Harvard representing poor people facing eviction. It’s also the reason that, while pursuing a master’s in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania, she worked with the city of Philadelphia to create tools to help evaluate the city’s homeless service programs.

As she has traveled in different parts of the country and the world, Agbaje said, she’s had the opportunity to see “people have a lot of the same desires and needs—to come home at the end of the night to their families, to have a good paying job, and to be able to have a stable place to call home.” Those realizations, she said, “are the kind of things that have kept me grounded in my job.”

“I have always had a focus on public service, always a desire to make sure that I’m using my skills and talents to help people and to make the community around me a little bit better,” she said.

Athena Hollins Takes On Public Safety, Housing, And Affordable Child Care In Her Run For The Minnesota House

When it comes to public safety, Hollins doesn’t want to stop with reallocating police funding. She’d like her state to track both proven and alleged instances of police misconduct.

Courtesy of Sarah Mayer

Athena Hollins Takes On Public Safety, Housing, And Affordable Child Care In Her Run For The Minnesota House

When it comes to public safety, Hollins doesn’t want to stop with reallocating police funding. She’d like her state to track both proven and alleged instances of police misconduct.

“A lot of it was really very personal,” Athena Hollins said about her decision to challenge Representative John Lesch for the Minnesota House seat that represents the north side of St. Paul.

When she decided to seek office—before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and before George Floyd was murdered by police in neighboring Minneapolis—Hollins said she was inspired to run by her belief that current legislators, including her own, weren’t doing a good job engaging with the community, “especially communities of color and lower income communities.”

“Especially with the Trump administration kind of catching everything on fire, I really felt compelled to be as active as possible in what was happening in the community,” Hollins told The Appeal.

Hollins is one of four progressive challengers who defeated incumbent Democrats in the August primary. (In Minnesota, the Democratic Party is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.) And although the COVID-19 crisis, police misconduct, and the subsequent movement to defund the police are playing a prominent role in her campaign’s message, the attorney and mother of two would also like to see her state supplement the cost of childcare.

“Honestly, if we care about children and we are worried about educational discrepancies as they get older … we know that early childhood care and early childhood education is something that is so impactful as we move forward,” Hollins said.

When it comes to public safety, Hollins doesn’t want to stop with reallocating police funding to social services. In addition, she’d like to see her state create a statewide tracking system for both proven and alleged instances of police misconduct.

“It’s too easy for police officers to behave badly in one city and simply leave that department and get rehired in the city right next door,” she said. “Frankly, that’s something we should be looking at on the federal level also, because there’s too much movement between officers from state to state, where there is very little accountability for bad behaviors that have happened previously.” 

In June 2019, The Pioneer Press reported that, in Minnesota alone, arbiters reversed at least 46 percent of police terminations between 2014 and May 2019. Nationwide, according to the report, factors including the lack of a nationwide database tracking misconduct, smaller forces knowingly hiring officers who have been fired for previous misconduct, and the ability to successfully appeal a firing decision makes it relatively easy for violent police to either retain their current jobs or move to new ones.

Hollins also has her eye on her area’s housing situation. The lack of affordable housing is one of the driving forces behind the glaring racial disparities in income and employment. The median rent in St. Paul is $1,001 and the median home costs just more than $240,000. At the same time, the median Black family income in Minneapolis-St. Paul is $38,178—less than half the median white family income of more than $84,000. In the district Hollins is running to serve, more than 40 percent of district residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, according to the Census Bureau

In addition to strategies including accountability for “predators in the housing market” and statewide investments in mixed-income, multi-family housing, Hollins said more attention should be paid to the effect of public transit on housing.

“We’re kind of in this dead zone for buses,” Hollins said of the lower-income, diverse neighborhood in which she lives. “If I want to catch the bus in either direction, I’m having to walk a mile.”

Even the availability of some kinds of mass transit can have a negative effect on a community. As the result of light rail being constructed in St. Paul’s Rondo community, Hollins said, “a number of families that live there can no longer afford to live” in the traditionally African American community, either because of rising home prices or because of rental properties being sold because light rail has made the neighborhood more desirable.

One assumption that Hollins doesn’t accept is that she and the other successful challengers in Minnesota are riding the wave of a demographic shift toward “young progressives who are fly-by-night candidates.”

“What happened in Minnesota was not a demographic shift,” said Hollins, who defeated Lesch in the primary by more than 20 percent. “It’s not that we have more people of color, or more young people who are voting. … We’re looking at [voters] who are really tired of the status quo and tired of the current political system as it stands.”

“I think what we’re really seeing is a shift of folks who want to be excited, and they want to be engaged, and they want to be organized, because if the current federal government and the Trump administration has shown us anything it’s that we’d need to be organized, engaged, and present,” she added.

From Criminal Justice Reform To Protecting The Democracy, Mondaire Jones Wants To Bring ‘Big Structural Changes’ To Congress

Jones, who is running in New York’s 17th District, says fighting systemic racism and hyperpartisanship are top priorities.

Courtesy of the Mondaire Jones campaign.

From Criminal Justice Reform To Protecting The Democracy, Mondaire Jones Wants To Bring ‘Big Structural Changes’ To Congress

Jones, who is running in New York’s 17th District, says fighting systemic racism and hyperpartisanship are top priorities.

In 2008, the chief of the Palo Alto Police Department acknowledged she had instructed officers to stop Black men in response to a string of robberies in the area. Mondaire Jones, who was a senior at Stanford University at the time, organized a group of Black students to call for her resignation and reforms within the department that would stop racial profiling. It was the beginning of what Jones, who is running for Congress in New York’s 17th District, calls his “life’s work” of fighting for criminal justice reform.

There are two primary problems with our criminal legal system and one is systemic racism, and the other is an overreliance on policing as a means to obtain public safety,” he told The Appeal. 

Jones said he wants the government to invest in alternatives to incarceration, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, abolish private prisons and the federal death penalty, and legalize cannabis. He also wants to make federal funds for local municipalities conditional on independent procedures for investigating killings at the hands of police.

Jones was raised in Spring Valley, New York, in Rockland County, which is part of the congressional district he would represent if he wins the election. His district also includes parts of Westchester County. He’ll be vying against four other candidates for the seat of longtime Representative Nita Lowey, who is retiring after 32 years. If elected, he would be one of the first gay Black men in Congress in a year in which more than 500 LGBTQ candidates are running for office. (Ritchie Torres, another gay Black candidate, is running for New York’s 15th Congressional District.) 

Along with criminal justice reform, Jones said he is prioritizing changes to protect the country from attacks on democracy. Among these, he’s been a strong supporter for expanding the Supreme Court. He advocated for expansion even before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and said that it’s vital to achieving the reforms that former Vice President Joe Biden hopes to achieve if he becomes president. 

“To ensure that legislation has permanence, we must unrig the Supreme Court and ensure that we no longer have a hyperpartisan majority that is hostile to Congress,” Jones said. He added that Chief Justice John Roberts’s role has been to “systematically undermine our democratic institutions,” referring to the court’s 2013 ruling that invalidated part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected voters from discrimination.

Jones thinks that the Court expansion should be included in the For the People Act, a bill that was passed by the House last year and awaits Senate action that would strengthen voting rights and ethics rules, and limit gerrymandering. He said he also plans to introduce legislation to expand the court and is “looking forward to being the leading voice on this issue in the House of Representatives.” 

Jones, who was endorsed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is also a supporter of the Green New Deal. The legislation, introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts, sets targets for cutting carbon emissions while also creating jobs. Jones said he is committed to tackling the climate crisis and wants to introduce high-speed rail in Rockland County that would get residents to New York City in one ride, as opposed to driving or taking the bus. 

“Nothing else matters if we don’t have a planet to inhabit and we have to start acting like that,” Jones said. 

Jones is likely to emerge from Election Day victorious. His predecessor, Lowey, handily captured the district’s Democratic vote for more than three decades. And if he does take office in January, Jones is looking forward to helping shape the country into one that he’s always envisioned. 

“It is increasingly clear that Joe Biden will win in November,” Jones said. “And that we will take back the U.S. Senate and maintain our majority in the House, so we should really be thinking in earnest how exactly we’re going to roll up our sleeves and do the unprecedented work of enacting big structural changes.” 

For Years, I Didn’t Have An Outlet For Self-Growth In Prison. Now That I Do, I Can Address The Harm I’ve Caused.

Truitt Watts, who is serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole at Oregon State Correctional Institution, describes the programs that helped him recover from addiction and address his past.

Illustration by Cameron Wray.

For Years, I Didn’t Have An Outlet For Self-Growth In Prison. Now That I Do, I Can Address The Harm I’ve Caused.

Truitt Watts, who is serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole at Oregon State Correctional Institution, describes the programs that helped him recover from addiction and address his past.

“Left Behind,” a collaboration between The Appeal and Oregon Justice Resource Center, presents firsthand accounts of growing up in prison from individuals sentenced as children to 25 years-to-life. Inspired by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits the imposition of a mandatory sentence of death in prison for children, this series reveals the humanity of those given life sentences by asking: What obligations do we have as a community of not leaving them behind? Each of the primary authors is incarcerated in the Oregon state correctional system.

My crime was about family. When I committed it, I thought I was doing it to protect my parents. I was delusional and psychotic from using drugs daily, but, in my mind, I was keeping them safe. I convinced myself that my victim Randy was dangerous, and that it was on me to do something about him. He hung around our home, where drugs were easy to come by and my parents didn’t care much for rules. As I struggled to slow down the growing addiction I had slipped into, I thought I saw an imminent threat in Randy’s habit of always returning to our house, despite my best efforts to deter him. I attacked him with a knife, feeling like I had no other choice. Tragically, the wound was fatal.

Afterward, I waited for the police to arrive, and I admitted what had happened. It was July 12, 2003, and that was the last time I would see my childhood home. The officers took me into custody, and the next day I woke up in a county jail. At first, I couldn’t remember why I was there. I was 17, naked, and afraid. I had no idea what was going on; the guard had to tell me I was being charged with murder.

Within a day or two, I was taken to the psych doctor to be evaluated. The doctors asked me straight whether I wanted uppers or downers. I was an addict. I wasn’t going to say no to free drugs. I didn’t understand that this was part of how the system works. They call it “chemical suppression,” and I was well on my way to the mental numbness the system inflicts to control large numbers of incarcerated people.

I failed the first test of my mental competence to stand trial but still ended up shipped back to county jail for a second try. The night before that second psych evaluation, the psych doctor prepped me by telling me what to say. But I still didn’t have a clue why a man kept knocking on the door to my cell, or how I was supposed to answer his questions. I didn’t understand what was going on. I needed to detox, sleep, and eat. Most of all, I needed a hug. 

A few months later, the district attorney offered me a plea deal: plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and serve a little over six years in prison. My public defenders advised me to refuse. They claimed it was “too much time” and that I “shouldn’t serve more than two or three years for what happened.” In their view, if the DA wouldn’t offer a plea of negligent homicide, then we should take our chances at trial. I didn’t understand how serious my position was or how badly things could go if I lost. Plus, I was reassured by my attorney’s confidence and my faith in their professional expertise. That was a terrible mistake. At the end of a weeklong trial, I was convicted of murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after a 25-year minimum. I nearly threw up right there in court. I thought my life was over. No one wanted to hear my side of the story, as I had naively believed. They only wanted to bury me in prison and forget about me—another “super-predator” gone.

When I arrived at prison, the counselor told me my sentence meant there were no programs available to me. The prison’s administration, he said, reserves the limited cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatment classes available for people who will be leaving prison soon; it doesn’t “waste” them on people like me. I was advised to “get comfortable and try to stay out of trouble.”

There I was—alone and lost in a crowded, unfamiliar, and hostile environment. I was young and susceptible to the influences around me. I quickly learned that there are two sets of rules inside: the administration’s and the “convict code.” It seemed better to follow the latter, which would help my reputation and boost my chances of being accepted. As the days blurred together, I heard men on the yard ranting about how twisted the system is. I watched as bored people sought entertainment by creating drama out of nothing as we walked endless circles. 

At night, I had nothing to distract me from how badly I had fucked up. I sat in a five-foot-by-seven-and-a-half-foot cell with another man, trying to forget the chaos and destruction we had left behind us. We lie silent in our suffering with nothing to think about but our torments, our problems, and our deep loneliness. I grew to hate myself and used it as my armor. I began getting into trouble for fighting; my first fight landed me in “the hole” for six months, which turned into years of bad decisions spent in and out of solitary, not caring about anyone, including myself.

When I reached my mid-20s, a shift finally happened. I began to detach from prison politics and the people I’d been hanging around with who weren’t good for my growth. I had nothing to do except run on the hamster wheel. I was still excluded from programs I needed to make a transformation.

Around this time, I decided to get off the pills. Most of the time, I was just selling them and abusing my prescription anyway. A friend persuaded me to give Narcotics Anonymous a try. Despite my skepticism, I agreed to tag along. That first meeting was one of the most powerful moments in my short life. I found out I wasn’t alone in my suffering, experience, or desire to change. I got a sponsor and started working the steps into recovery. 

A guy from NA offered me a job as a plumber. I jumped at the chance to learn trade skills. I rose to becoming lead plumber of the prison I was in for nearly five years before I was transferred. Now I had something to be proud of, something I could write home about. By this point, my parents had separated and had gotten clean themselves. One day, a few months into my sobriety, my dad sent a postcard telling me he was proud of me and that I should keep up the good work. I’m not sure if I’d ever heard that from him before, and it meant a lot. It helped me realize that working to improve myself was one of the best things I could do for my family and community.

The day after I received the postcard, I was summoned to the captain’s office. I figured it must be a plumbing job because I knew I hadn’t gotten into any trouble. I was mistaken. They coldly told me my dad had died. It seemed like a cruel joke, but they let me make a phone call, and I learned that my dad had had a massive heart attack and died at just 57 years old. My brother told me it felt like the day I was locked up: now two of his close family members were gone. I was crushed by the loss of my dad, and that loss was compounded by when I realized how much pain I had caused through my incarceration. 

While my fledgling sobriety was shaken by my dad’s death, his words of encouragement inspired me to keep going. I could see now how my selfishness and addiction had destroyed so much beyond myself. Through the twelve steps, I began to see many of my character flaws clearly. I also became committed to making amends and addressing my mistakes. 

After that, I really began to push to get into any program I could find. I got in touch with my counselor and explained what I needed, but I heard the same as before: state programs are reserved for those who will be leaving prison. This time, I wasn’t going to accept their rejection. I bypassed my counselor and started going to religious services programs such as grief recovery and anger management. I took a few classes about self-awareness and self-management, I attended anything I could get into. 

I was transferred to a different prison a few years ago, where I have found a lot more classes available, thanks to volunteers. I dove in headfirst. While the pandemic has interrupted some of our activities, I have been participating in a class on restorative justice. Although I have been in prison for years, I had never been asked what led me to commit my crime and how I could work on restoration until I began this class.

For a long time, I felt like I was the victim of an unjust system, and I regarded Randy as my only victim. Now I understand how far the harm of crime can spread. This understanding has made me really think about all the consequences of my actions. I had victimized not just Randy, but also his family, my family, and our community. I discovered how people in the community blamed my parents for what I senselessly did, and I learned about the drama my little cousins dealt with at school over my actions. Buried in the system as I was, I had no idea what I had put them all through.

How I think about myself, what I did, and the situation I’m in has shifted over the years. I’ve had a lot of struggles with changing my life, but I can look back now and see the progress I’ve made. I hope that I will get a second chance one day to rejoin my family and the community outside these walls—where I can prove what kind of man I have grown to be. If I do, I know my labor to heal the harm I have caused will then truly begin.

Truitt Watts is serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. He resides at Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem. This column was edited by Alice Lundell, director of communication for the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

The Minneapolis City Council’s Attempt To Defund the Police Was Thwarted By An Unelected Charter Commission

Contrary to reports, most City Council members—who ran and won by pledging to advance racial equity—tried to do the right thing, but were stalled by a charter commission that overstepped its authority.

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The Minneapolis City Council’s Attempt To Defund the Police Was Thwarted By An Unelected Charter Commission

Contrary to reports, most City Council members—who ran and won by pledging to advance racial equity—tried to do the right thing, but were stalled by a charter commission that overstepped its authority.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Last month, the New York Times ran an article by Astead Herndon about politics and police in Minneapolis. By ignoring important context and details, Herndon painted a misleading picture of what happened and what’s likely to happen in the near future. He wrote that the Minneapolis City Council’s idealistic attempt to change public safety, spurred by young and progressive activists, were thwarted by public opposition and legislative processes. 

In truth, most of the City Council members, who ran and won by pledging to advance racial equity, tried to do the right—and popular—thing, but were stalled by an unelected, unrepresentative commission that overstepped its authority. 

The prospect of progress isn’t dead, though: The City Council has adopted a yearlong engagement plan to inform a transformation of community safety. Also, some council members want to introduce a charter amendment for referendum next year, with enough time built in so that commissions can’t keep it off the ballot by running out the clock.

To understand the events of this summer and the prospects for policy change in the future, consider recent electoral politics and mass movements in Minneapolis.

In November 2015, two Minneapolis police officers shot and killed Jamar Clark, a Black man in north Minneapolis. Thousands of residents protested outside the police department’s Fourth Precinct, including first-term Councilmember Lisa Bender, who stepped in front of an officer and told him to put his gun down. The City Council’s president at the time, Barb Johnson, scolded Bender and the other Council members who were present at the protests.

In the 2017 municipal elections, voters turned out at the highest rates in 16 years. Progressives unseated three moderate incumbents on the 13-seat City Council, including two of the non-Black Council members for north Minneapolis. One of the new Council members, a Black transgender man named Phillipe Cunningham, beat Council President Barb Johnson by a mere 175 votes. Johnson had been in city hall for 20 years. Her mother, Alice Rainville, was the city’s first female Council president and had served for 22 years. Rainville’s cousin, John Derus, had represented the neighborhood on the City Council before her. Cunningham—and the movement that elected him—had toppled a dynasty.

Cunningham wasn’t alone. Bender, who is the current Council president, and the remaining members took the pledge to close the Minneapolis Police Department and create a new model of community safety. They won their seats by promising to prioritize racial justice and equity—demonstrating a major shift in Minneapolis politics and giving the City Council a mandate to pursue bold policy changes to address the racial inequities.

After the police killing of George Floyd in May, this Council was pushed to become even more progressive by Black Visions, other activists, and members of the public who had recently changed their minds. 

In his article in the Times, Herndon writes that the public “did not support the actions of councilors or share the aims of influential activists,” but that’s based on a selective reading of complex—and sometimes contradictory—survey results. It’s true that in an August poll of registered voters in Minneapolis, only 42 percent of respondents supported reducing the size of the police force. But the same poll also shows that almost three-quarters of respondents supported redirecting funds from the police department to social service programs, only 25 percent of Minneapolis voters viewed the police favorably, and a plurality would trust the City Council to make decisions about the police department instead of the mayor. The poll results don’t constitute solid evidence of public opposition to transforming public safety.

Following a pledge made in June at Powderhorn Park, the City Council unanimously proposed an amendment that would remove requirements for a police department from the city charter and insert a department of community safety and violence prevention. This proposal needed to be approved by the charter commission before being put to the electorate.

The charter commission, whose members are appointed by a judge, is theoretically responsible for “legal and technical questions,” as Herndon writes in the Times. In reality, the commission members expressed their policy preferences and commented on the substantive merits of the proposal. 

“The substance of it makes me concerned,” said Matt Perry, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for City Council in 2013. “They [the Council] are intent on defunding the police, so I think having the provision in the charter to have a minimum number of officers … is a wise one at this time.” Another commissioner said, “I do not believe this amendment is going to do anything to alter the culture other than allowing the City Council and the mayor to virtually wipe out this department.”

Whatever their legal expertise, the unelected and unrepresentative charter commission is not an accurate gauge of policy popularity. The best way to determine that is to have the whole city vote on it. A referendum is exactly what the City Council wanted and exactly what the charter commission delayed. City Council members want to put a similar charter amendment on the ballot in 2021, but this time by padding the process with enough time so that the charter commission is unable to run out the clock. 

This isn’t great. Without a charter amendment on the ballot in 2020, the elected representatives of Minneapolis can’t dismantle an unpopular police department for another year. Instead, the force is diminishing as officers quit and file for disability leave at higher rates than normal. But the outlook is better than Herndon’s assessment that policy progress has “all but collapsed.” Progress is coming—even if it’s moving more slowly than most of us would like.

Scott Shaffer is a transportation planner who lives in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.

As More States Turn To Mail-In Voting, Problems Pop Up Across Country

Last week’s problems in New York were part of a widespread series of issues, both systemic and targeted, that are only now becoming fully apparent, activists say.

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As More States Turn To Mail-In Voting, Problems Pop Up Across Country

Last week’s problems in New York were part of a widespread series of issues, both systemic and targeted, that are only now becoming fully apparent, activists say.

When Celia Rodriguez headed to the post office on Sept. 28, she brought with her two stamped envelopes containing her and her daughter’s mail-in ballots for the November election. 

“We wanted to get our ballots in,” said Rodriguez, who lives in Manhattan. “You know, there’s all this talk about the ballots not getting where they need to be and not counting.”

So the two filled out the ballots and put a stamp on the corner of each envelope. But upon arriving at the post office, Rodriguez found that the postage for mailing her ballot was  15 cents short. There was no indication on the envelope that extra postage was necessary.

It wasn’t an issue for Rodriguez, a retired schoolteacher with a master’s in early childhood education. In the end, 30 cents was all it took total to get the two ballots mailed. But the experience shook her enough that she alerted her local representative, New York State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, to the situation. 

“Why don’t we know about that?” asked Rodriguez, referring to the need for additional postage. “That’s important information.”

Complaints to Niou over postage were not limited to the Rodriguez family that Monday, and as the day dragged on, it became clear that problems were not unique to her district. In addition to confusing postage requirements, ballots across the city were being delivered to the wrong address.

“I’m just very worried that there are different things for different folks,” Niou said. “I think that people are really not able to simply trust the mail-in ballots which is terrible because, you know, other states have had really good mail-in ballot systems. We’re really behind, and not being diligent.”

Problems with early and mail-in voting are popping up nationwide, in important states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Although the post office has promised to deliver ballots irrespective of postage, as the agency told Reuters in August, the persistence of issues around the vote are causing headaches and concern for people like Rodriguez.

One post office employee and union steward in the Midwest told The Appeal that the blame for vote-by-mail irregularities largely lies with boards of elections—not the postal service. If postage is an issue, the employee said, voters need to recognize what that really represents. 

“The ballots are quite unwieldy so the automated system might try and claim you need postage,” said the employee, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity out of concerns for his employment. “But as far as voting, that would be a poll tax.”

According to Spread the Vote executive director Kat Calvin, the real issues with vote-by-mail are really just beginning because ballots are starting to be mailed out. “It’s probably only going to get worse,” Calvin said.

While New York is seeing an outsize number of problems, other states are sure to see complications as well. 

“We still have states changing laws every day,” said Calvin. “There’s dozens of lawsuits in every state. So I think people are just feeling confused and worried and like the whole system is hopeless.”

Some Republican state lawmakers, like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, have taken deliberate steps that are making it more difficult for people to vote. A rule change that Abbott put into effect on Oct. 2 limits the number of drop-off places for absentee ballots to one per county. Critics of the move say it will almost certainly have a deleterious effect on voting in the state, where some counties are thousands of square miles wide. 

In Iowa, over 100,000 ballot requests are in limbo after the Trump campaign and Republican Party groups sought to invalidate request forms with pre-filled voter information. Voters in Indiana are reporting problems with improperly initialed ballots. Narrow limitations on applying for absentee voting are creating issues for Mississippi voters. And in Philadelphia, voters waited for hours in lines last week at one of the city’s first-to-open one-stop shops for registering, filling out, and casting absentee ballots. The delays threw the state’s ability to handle the election into question. 

Sarah Brannon, managing attorney of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, is focused on Pennsylvania this election cycle. She told The Appeal that concerns over Philadelphia’s elections were a bit overblown, in her view. She said the state is doing its best to ensure that it abides by Act 77, a 2019 law passed by a broad bipartisan state coalition that allows people to vote by mail for any reason for up to 50 days before Election Day. The law is now the centerpiece of efforts to address COVID-19’s effect on the ballot. 

“I think it’s part of something you’re going to see in other places too,” said Brannon. “They’re implementing processes that they haven’t had before or haven’t used before in such large volume for people who need them because of COVID—and that’s contributing to things like unexpected long lines at the city hall in Pennsylvania.”

Brannon told The Appeal that vote-by-mail rules and regulations vary widely throughout the country, and even within states. Further, many boards of elections are not set up to handle the operational challenges from a high volume of voters choosing to send their ballots in by mail. 

“In most places in the United States—not all of them, because there are some states that have been voting by mail for many years without trouble or issue or incident—but in many places in the country, vote by mail has not historically been the most common way to vote,” Brannon said. 

Brannon said her advice to voters is, first, that they call their local elected officials and ask if postage is necessary and make sure to follow the directions on the ballot envelope itself. 

“Many people will put their ballots in the mail without worrying about the postage,” said Brannon. 

Although there’s a concerted, nationwide effort to get postage payment covered, it’s still unclear if that will come in time to address the November election, Brannon said. As for the technology that the post office uses to handle ballots, it’s largely automated and shouldn’t be an issue, she said. 

Even once ballots are turned in, however, there are still concerns over whether they will be accepted. Issues around “naked ballots”—votes sent into voting centers without a necessary second envelope inside the mailing envelope—and other technical problems could lead to widespread invalidation. 

Noting that half a million ballots were thrown out during the primaries, Spread the Vote’s Calvin pointed to the increased turnout and varied rules in the general election and warned that the likelihood is high that even more votes will be contested and ultimately rejected. 

“I don’t think that anybody is going to solve these problems in the next few weeks—we have, what, four weeks until the election?—that they haven’t solved in the last seven months,” Calvin said.

Advocates For Domestic Workers, Voters, And Prisoners Express Alarm Over Trump’s Threat To End Stimulus Talks

Passing the HEROES Act would provide crucial protections to some of the most vulnerable essential workers, they say.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Advocates For Domestic Workers, Voters, And Prisoners Express Alarm Over Trump’s Threat To End Stimulus Talks

Passing the HEROES Act would provide crucial protections to some of the most vulnerable essential workers, they say.

President Donald Trump’s declaration on Tuesday that he would end negotiations on the coronavirus stimulus bill will have dire consequences for domestic workers, voters, and prisoners, advocates say. 

“We are very disappointed with the president’s announcement,” Kevin Ring, president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), told The Appeal in an email. “For months, families have been asking their elected leaders to keep their loved ones safe or send them home. They don’t care about the election; they care about keeping their loved ones alive.”

Trump first announced on Twitter that he was ending negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hours after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said that a second wave of COVID-19 could jeopardize economic recovery. Trump’s tweet led to a dramatic drop in the stock market Tuesday afternoon, and he later changed course, saying he was open to signing legislation specifically for $1,200 payments, $25 billion for airlines, and $135 billion for a program protecting small businesses. 

Pelosi had been negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over legislation known as the HEROES Act, which would provide one-time $1,200 payments to adults (plus $500 per child) and restore $600 per week payments for people left unemployed by the pandemic. Twenty-two million jobs were lost during the lockdown in March and April, and though millions of jobs have been recovered since, people who work in service industries are at risk of losing work again should the country go into another lockdown.

In July, The Appeal chronicled how the country’s 4 million domestic workers—nannies, caregivers, and house cleaners—had been devastated by the lockdown. According to one survey, more than half could not afford rent in April because the new restrictions put in place to protect against the coronavirus meant that jobs were either lost or hours were cut. Advocates urged lawmakers to pass the HEROES Act, which would ensure hazard pay, cash assistance, and help accessing essentials. 

“The recent news that two members of the housekeeping department at the White House contracted COVID underscores the danger domestic workers face every day as they continue to work on the frontlines of the pandemic,” the National Domestic Workers Alliance told The Appeal in a statement. “These essential workers urgently need a relief package.”

While the one-time and weekly payments are the best known features of the HEROES Act, it would also include extensive provisions designed to protect prisoners from the pandemic. Currently, there are 119 federal prisons with active coronavirus cases, and at least 138,000 state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Among the features of the bill, federal prisoners who are children, over 50, or have certain medical conditions would be placed in community supervision programs such as home confinement unless there is evidence that the person poses a threat of violence. It would also decrease the number of people who are held in jail while awaiting trial. Additionally, since lockdowns have resulted in visitation suspension in many facilities, the legislation would impose limits on how much correctional facilities could charge for telephone and video calls. 

The Democrat-controlled House passed the first version of the HEROES Act in May and a revised version at the beginning of the month, both of which contain $3.6 billion in funding to be distributed to states for the “planning, preparation, and resilience of elections.” The money could be used for mail-in and curbside voting and COVID-19 protections for poll workers and voters. A Republican version of the stimulus bill did not include any money for election funding. 

“This is voter suppression in action,” said Jana Morgan, director of the coalition Declaration for American Democracy, in a statement on Tuesday after Trump’s announcement. “Despite these efforts to suppress the vote, over four million people have already made their voices heard this election. The president and Senate Republicans must stop playing partisan politics with our democracy and work to pass a stimulus bill now.” 

Another Way Chaos Could Erupt on Election Day: Delayed Absentee Ballot Processing

Although some GOP election officials have moved to allow mail-in ballots to be counted early, outdated rules in other key Republican-led states could feed President Trump’s Election Day fearmongering.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Another Way Chaos Could Erupt on Election Day: Delayed Absentee Ballot Processing

Although some GOP election officials have moved to allow mail-in ballots to be counted early, outdated rules in other key Republican-led states could feed President Trump’s Election Day fearmongering.

In mid-September, in federal court in New Jersey, the Trump campaign made unfounded claims about absentee voting leading to fraud. It was a predictable argument, the same one the campaign’s legal team has been using for months, but in New Jersey they asked the court for something more: prevent the state from counting mail-in ballots until Nov. 3. 

Because Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote using absentee ballots, delaying their counting is likely to artificially inflate the preliminary returns for President Trump while also drawing out the process well after Election Day. That would support his repeated and unsubstantiated claims that the election is rigged against him. At the same time, if a voter’s ballot is rejected, as more than a half million were during the primaries, they also have less time to fix the mistake, which is likely to further disenfranchise voters who lean left.

While states like Iowa, Michigan, Kentucky, Maine, and South Carolina are attempting to allow early processing of ballots, others states have refused to expand pre-processing—most notably, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Amber McReynolds, director of elections in Denver from 2011 to 2018, said delaying the counting of absentee ballots is a mistake. Counting ballots before Election Day “is the most nonpartisan technical improvement that can be made,” she said.

Currently, 11 states prohibit the pre-processing of ballots, which is for three main reasons, said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the Elections program at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation working to improve election administration. The first is that some voters may change their minds between mailing the absentee and Election Day, which doesn’t sway Patrick. “You’re not processing potentially millions of ballots because one or two or a handful of voters changed their mind?” she said. 

Similarly rare is the second concern: that a voter dies in between casting the ballot and when it’s counted. “It’s odd that we have entire policies about when we can administer our elections around the minuscule number of people who pass away after voting their ballot,” Patrick said. 

The final concern is that the results will be leaked ahead of time. For this reason, no state allows officials to know the final count of absentees before polls close on Election Day. Before then, though, there’s a wide variety of what’s permissible. 

In South Carolina, officials can start the process the morning of the election, including the critical step of ensuring that ballots are scannable. “Some of the ballots get ripped or stained or can’t be read, so they have to be duplicated onto a fresh ballot,” said Josh Dickard, the deputy director of the Charleston County Board of Elections. “That’s one of the longest, most tedious parts because it’s a manual process.” 

In 2016, Dickard and his team started tabulating at 9 a.m. By 11:30 p.m, they’d gone through all the legible ballots (about 16,000), but the roughly 400 that had to be duplicated took until 2 a.m. This year, he has two additional high-speed scanners and plans to start the duplication process earlier. He’ll also have an additional two hours to process, but he’s already received triple the number of absentee applications. “We expect we’ll go well into Wednesday,” he says. “We hope we won’t go into Thursday.”

In Michigan, the number of absentees for this presidential primary was almost double that of 2016. Tina Barton, the clerk for the city of Rochester Hills, was well prepared, partly because of a gamble she took in 2017. That year, the state bought new election equipment and she spent some of the money available for in-person ballot scanners on high-speed tabulators for absentees. “People kind of chuckled at me,” she said. “They thought it was aggressive.” 

But Barton could see the signs. In 2016, the Republican secretary of state and a Republican state representative tried to clear the way for residents to vote by mail without needing an excuse. They failed, but with those people pushing for reform, Barton thought, “it’s going to happen eventually.” In 2018, it passed.

To help election officials keep up, Michigan’s GOP-controlled legislature recently considered allowing them to pre-process absentees. When Barton testified before the Senate’s Elections Committee, she asked for seven days—the recommendation from the Bipartisan Policy Center. Instead, the legislature approved one extra day. The bill is now headed to the governor, who’s expected to sign, but either way, it will sunset after this election. 

At the end of September, Barton and four other Republican clerks published an opinion article calling for more time, but Barton is still grateful for the extra day. “If I’m looking at 30,000 absentee ballots coming back for us to process on Tuesday,” Barton says, “those are 30,000 tasks that I can do on Monday.”

And, what that bill lacks in extra time, it makes up for in another crucial area: notifying voters that their signatures don’t match what’s on file. While other states have extended the deadline to “cure” a rejected ballot, Michigan’s law stipulates that clerks must tell voters within 48 hours of when their ballots are received.

This difference—between a law allowing an action and explicitly requiring it—is important. For example, Florida’s start date to process absentees is 22 days beforehand, among the most generous timelines in the country. Still, in 2018, Broward County, one of the state’s most historically dysfunctional election jurisdictions, had a backlog of at least 49,861 absentees on Election Day, further disrupting an already chaotic process.

The tide is tilting toward pre-processing. In late August, Maine’s governor signed an executive order allowing counties to petition for three additional days. Recently, Iowa’s Republican secretary of state allowed county auditors to start the weekend before the election, a policy unanimously approved by the legislative council. As part of its bipartisan election compromise, Kentucky’s counties can already start processing, as can those in North Carolina

However, in Pennsylvania, pre-processing has become a bargaining chip. Under GOP-sponsored legislation, counties would get an additional three days, but drop boxes would be prohibited and the deadline to request an absentee would be shortened. The governor has vowed to veto the bill. 

In Wisconsin, where each absentee vote requires an election official to click between 14 and 18 times to verify in their computer system, clerks have been pushing for years to start processing before 7 a.m. on Election Day. So far, the legislature has no plans to consider such a proposal. 

In such a crucial state, with perhaps as many as 1.8 million absentees for the general election, the aftermath could be just what the Trump campaign has been prophesying. 

“If your narrative is, ‘If we don’t have an answer by 10 o’clock on November 3, the results are illegitimate,’ then you’re going to want to do everything you can to sow seeds of chaos and doubt,” Patrick said. “And having outstanding processing of millions of ballots, particularly in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania just feeds into your narrative.”

Carroll Fife Is Fighting To Make Oakland Safer And More Equitable For Everyone

In her run for City Council, Fife pushes back on the institutional barriers to Black people that come from a history of oppression.

Carroll Fife for Oakland City Council Facebook page

Carroll Fife Is Fighting To Make Oakland Safer And More Equitable For Everyone

In her run for City Council, Fife pushes back on the institutional barriers to Black people that come from a history of oppression.

Carroll Fife, a longtime activist in Oakland, California, is running for City Council on a broad platform promising to address injustice and racial inequities across the city. It’s part of what she describes as a long overdue program of dismantling systems of racial oppression that have lingered in America for decades since the civil rights movement.

“My perspective of the U.S. is this country has never atoned for the original sin of having people enslaved and used as property,” said Fife, executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Oakland. “Everything we’re experiencing today is a result of not addressing that.” 

Fife’s platform pushes back on the institutional barriers to Black people that come from a history of oppression. Cat Brooks, a 2018 mayoral candidate and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, praised Fife as one of the city’s fiercest campaigners and said the City Council campaign is a chance to capitalize on the work done by local activists for years. Fife has the “right platform and the right message” for the current moment, said Brooks, and her policy priorities reflect a realistic response to the challenges faced by Oaklanders and the country as a whole. 

“The radical is rational, that’s something I’ve been saying since 2018,” Brooks told The Appeal. “Radical infers something so far out there and crazy and not doable, not feasible.”

What’s radical instead, said Brooks, is that in the richest state in the richest country in the world, there are people who are on the streets and in need of housing, shelter, and food. The solutions proposed by Fife, on the other hand, are “humane, compassionate, rational, and feasible,” Brooks said. 

“Socially, morally, and fiscally—the things that we’re talking about are rational and what make sense,” Brooks said.

Fife is running on defunding the police and reinvesting in the community, aggressively combating the housing crisis, taxing the rich, and the Black New Deal—a series of programs that include changes to California’s housing and policing crises as well as addressing income inequality, education, and healthcare. 

Although Fife is motivated by undoing the harm of racial injustice toward Black Oaklanders, her policies will help everyone in the city, she told The Appeal. “I believe in equity,” Fife said.  “And I believe in making sure people have what they need in order to thrive so everyone is OK.”

A longtime housing advocate, Fife is pushing to undo the effects of historic racism in California housing policy which have affected Black residents more than other groups. And with 70 percent of Oakland’s unsheltered population Black—in a city where Black residents only make up around a quarter of the people—there is still a lot of work to do, she said. Step one is ending the commodification of housing which has led to a speculator’s market in the city.

“My perspectives around getting speculators out of our city and decommodifying housing work for everyone,” she said. “Unless you’re a speculator.”

Watching her friends and neighbors “fighting just to exist” played into the decision to run, she told The Appeal, because there was space to help them in the halls of power rather than the street. “I know way too many people who’ve been beaten and broken, who are just trying to live a decent life,” Fife said. “They don’t have representation. They don’t have people standing up for them. And so I wanted to help.”

There are so many stories around housing and police brutality that “illustrate that the system does not work,” Fife said. 

Defunding the police could help address those issues. Although it is seen as a fringe position in media and establishment politics, the policy, said Fife, is a matter of practicality. The department’s $302 million budget gobbles up nearly half of the city’s general appropriations fund, and residents aren’t seeing any benefit to that level of spending. 

“We just don’t have any evidence that it’s actually giving us back the type returns that one might think with that investment,” Fife said. 

“What is the purpose if they don’t come when you call, and they don’t solve incidents after they occur, and if they’re in the process of engaging in illegal activity—such as harassing Black folks, trafficking young women in the sex trade, planting drugs, and killing people,” Fife said. “What are we paying for?”

Dropping the budget by 25 percent and reinvesting that money into community initiatives would change things—rather than relying on reformist policies that, in Fife’s mind, provide little in the way of actually solving problems. Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, the Thurgood Marshall civil rights fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, agreed. 

“I think that she’s right when she describes this kind of reform not working,” Ressl-Moyer said. “That’s rooted in truth, it’s rooted in facts, and it’s rooted in history.”

Oakland residents have been pushing back against the oppressive nature of American policing, and the city’s department has earned that pressure, Ressl-Moyer said. Defunding makes sense, she continued, because people suffering in different aspects of life—be it housing, mental health issues, access to jobs and income—don’t have the necessary, adequate services on hand to help. 

“The city budget is bloated for law enforcement and continually diminishes for health and housing services,” Ressl-Moyer said. “Pulling funding away from policing and into housing is logical and not at all a radical idea.”

Brooks told The Appeal that what’s happening in Oakland is part of a nationwide effort by progressives to reclaim the Democratic Party for the left. Challenging establishment party figures, said Brooks, is the logical next step for activists who have seen their goals frustrated at the political level. 

“People with a history of being frontline organizers and advocates are moving their work into the halls of power to effect policy change in places where organizers haven’t necessarily been able to get the goods,” Brooks said.

Although many progressives have given up on the Democratic Party, the reality of the American system doesn’t leave a lot of other options, Brooks said. That has led to organizing to the left of the party and stopped progressives from engaging with power. 

“The Fife campaign is a perfect example of that at the local level,” said Brooks.

That message is one that Fife hopes voters hear and carry to the polls.

“I’m running in this particular moment because of all of the different issues that are converging together and that are part of the struggles that I work on every single day,” she said.

California Needs A Community-Based Response To People In Crisis, Not Law Enforcement

Governor Newsom should sign the CRISES Act into law this week and invest in community partners who support people in crisis situations.

Protesters in San Clemente, Calif., on Thursday, a day after Kurt Andras Reinhold, a homeless Black man, was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies.
Getty Images

California Needs A Community-Based Response To People In Crisis, Not Law Enforcement

Governor Newsom should sign the CRISES Act into law this week and invest in community partners who support people in crisis situations.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

California is facing yet another example of why police should not be the first responders for mental health and social services calls, which are among the most common reasons people call 911. Kurt Andras Reinhold, a 42-year-old Black man, was shot dead last Wednesday by two deputies from Orange County Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Team. Mr. Reinhold did not need an officer; he needed a home.

This public health crisis called racism is literally killing us. California needs community-based responses for people in crisis that are not controlled by law enforcement. The CRISES Act (Assembly Bill 2054), a bill on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk authored by Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, will save lives by investing in trusted community partners to support people in crisis situations. The deadline for the governor to sign or veto legislation is Wednesday.

It is no secret that our current mental health care system is failing some of our most vulnerable community members and relying heavily on first responders to fill in critical gaps. As an emergency room registered nurse in Sacramento, I spent over a decade working in some of the state’s most notable inpatient psychiatric healthcare facilities. I now work at a Northern California adult and pediatric Level 1 trauma center. 

To address the lack of humane options for people in mental health crisis, brave doctors, nurses, and community members came together to create Mental Health First, or MH First, a mobile mental health crisis response team in Sacramento. Our model provides non-punitive, patient-centered crisis intervention for individuals in a mental health crisis. 

The Sacramento Police Department receives an average of 35 mental health calls a day through 911. Given the opportunity, resources, and support, a program like MH First could respond to at least half of those calls. Funding community-based responses would help keep our neighbors safe, out of jail, and in their homes.

The increased stress of living through a pandemic has meant a surge in mental health calls as well. Failing to humanely and strategically address this growing public health crisis will cost us more than we can both morally and fiscally afford.

MH First provides support for people through a variety of crises. We have helped young, vulnerable people keep their housing; supported community members struggling to find a reason to live; given overwhelmed caregivers tools to take care of themselves; and kept someone from running in and out of traffic. The people we serve come from all walks of life, and are male, female, trans, and nonbinary. They come from an array of ZIP codes, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. We have done this with volunteer doctors, nurses, and community members. With donated vehicles, supplies, and space. 

The CRISES Act will allow us to continue to build and expand this community-based infrastructure to support people in crisis. As we see the demand for our services skyrocket during this pandemic, we must increase our capacity to meet this need in our traditional systems, as well as in our communities.

We all know someone, love someone, or are that someone living with mental illness. In a time of crisis, I imagine we all would prefer our loved one or ourselves be lifted up with a kind hand and not handcuffs.

After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent uprising for Black lives, Governor Newsom declared that California will not go backward. But if California is to move forward and take bold action to address the crisis of police violence toward Black people, a new direction is required. The CRISES Act is that new direction and will help our state move beyond the status quo and toward a California that invests in community responses that are led by community, not the people who are killing us.

Asantewaa Boykin is a founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and the program director for MH First Sacramento.

Florida Governor’s Bid To Felonize Protesting Is An Attack On Democracy, Justice Advocate Says

Legislation proposed this week by Gov. Ron DeSantis also seeks to withhold state funding from counties that move to decrease police budgets.

Demonstrators protesting against police brutality on June 12, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
Getty Images

Florida Governor’s Bid To Felonize Protesting Is An Attack On Democracy, Justice Advocate Says

Legislation proposed this week by Gov. Ron DeSantis also seeks to withhold state funding from counties that move to decrease police budgets.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s bid to increase penalties for protesters and withhold money from municipalities that decrease police budgets is a direct affront to Floridians working to rid the state of police violence, activists say. 

DeSantis, a Republican, proposed legislation on Monday that would allow prosecutors to seek felony charges against protesters who damage property, such as a monument, or inflict injuries. It would also result in a mandatory minimum six-month jail sentence for anyone found guilty of striking a law enforcement officer and cut state funding to counties that act to defund the police. Anyone who organizes or funds a protest that becomes violent would be eligible for prosecution under Florida’s RICO Act. Additionally, the bill would protect drivers from liability if they injure or kill anyone while “fleeing for safety from a mob.” 

“[DeSantis] is telling Florida residents fighting for a better future that he will throw them into a cell, or stand by and applaud vigilantes who would do them harm if they continue to mobilize and organize,” said Nailah Summers of Dream Defenders, a Florida social justice group that organized Black Lives Matter marches in the state this summer. “He’s telling us there will be no justice in Florida, no democracy.”

The legislation, the Combating Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act, is the latest effort by Republican lawmakers to criminalize protesters. In August, after protesters camped outside Tennessee’s Capitol for two months, the state legislature passed a law that made camping on state property a felony. That bill also enhanced penalties for people who spit on police, disrupt meetings, and block streets. In Utah, protesters have been charged under the state’s gang enhancement laws that can carry up to a life sentence. 

DeSantis has asked lawmakers to consider the bill during the November legislative session, though lawmakers have previously declined to pass bills that would criminalize protesting. In 2017, after demonstrators blocked highways around the country to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration, Florida Republicans proposed bills in the House and Senate that would have legalized “unintentionally” running over anyone blocking traffic as a form of protest. But those bills failed to become law.

Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, but the Florida Senate—where the majority is narrower—has in recent years acted as a moderating force on the House. Those divisions are rapidly eroding, however. The state GOP is now dominated by Trump-aligned Republicans; 141 of the 160 total statewide legislative seats are up for grabs in November.

Thousands of Children On Probation Are Incarcerated Each Year for Nonviolent, Noncriminal Behaviors

Experts say Black and Native children are disproportionately jailed either for status offenses or for technical violations of probation or parole—and that incarcerating them has far-reaching negative consequences.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Thousands of Children On Probation Are Incarcerated Each Year for Nonviolent, Noncriminal Behaviors

Experts say Black and Native children are disproportionately jailed either for status offenses or for technical violations of probation or parole—and that incarcerating them has far-reaching negative consequences.

“Grace,” the 15-year-old Black girl whose incarceration in Michigan for failing to complete online school work drew national attention this summer, is one of thousands of children across the country who are incarcerated each year either for technical violations of probation or parole, or for what are known as status offenses—acts that are illegal only because of the child’s age. 

Whether they are jailed for a technical violation or status offense, these children end up confined in a legal system that experts say is rife with racial disparities and provides few if any educational or therapeutic services.

“[Detained] children are not free to leave, the doors are often locked, and the range of services that are available are from nothing to mediocre around the country,” said Tim Curry, special counsel with the National Juvenile Defender Center.

In addition to being incarcerated for alleged crimes like drug offenses or committing an assault, children in the United States can also be jailed for technical violations of their probation—nonviolent, noncriminal behavior that a judge finds objectionable—or for violating what are known as valid court orders. Grace was jailed in mid-May for a technical violation of her probation after she didn’t complete court-ordered homework in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other children are incarcerated on “status offenses”—typical adolescent behaviors such as refusing to obey their parents, skipping school, running away, or experimenting with alcohol. These “offenses” are criminalized by law solely because of the age of the people engaged in them. 

Experts say that most children who engage in status offenses don’t go on to commit serious crimes, but the damage done by incarcerating them for these behaviors can last well into adulthood. Studies have found that risks include depression, suicide or other self-harm, insurmountable debt, educational and professional instability, and an increased risk of future arrests for actual crimes.

Status offenses and technical violations are connected because “oftentimes young people on probation end up being locked up for breaking rules that are just symptomatic of adolescence,” said Steve Bishop, a senior associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Grace, who was released last month after her case received widespread attention, was first sentenced to “intensive probation” in April for allegedly stealing a phone and having arguments with her mother that became physical. In May, Oakland County Michigan Judge Mary Ellen Brennan ruled she had violated her probation by failing to complete her court-ordered homework. Regardless of the reason for their incarcerations, juvenile justice advocates say the process children like Grace go through when they’re jailed is traumatic.

“You get snatched out of your home and shackles are put on your hands and feet, you’re thrown in the back of a squad car and you’re brought to a cold official courthouse or detention center where you are stripped naked, put in clothing that you’ve never worn before,” said Judge Dan H. Michael, who is president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and is a judge in Shelby County, Tennessee. “If you come in [to a juvenile detention center], you come in with nothing other than what God gave you.”

The trauma is made worse because, frequently, children charged with status offenses aren’t provided with attorneys if their parents can’t afford one. In Michigan, for example, only children charged with one of the several status offenses—“being wayward”—are provided with an attorney, Curry said. Meanwhile, poor children charged for any of the other status offenses, such as running away from home, truancy, or being “incorrigible,” are not given counsel.

Children held for a status offense or for a technical violation are also frequently not provided with services that might actually help them, advocates say. During a July appeal of her incarceration, Grace, who is identified by a pseudonym because she is a minor, said she was actually falling behind in her schoolwork while being held at Children’s Village in Oakland County because the classes there weren’t challenging her. Michael said children being held on a VCO for running away from home or a violation related to their schoolwork are also often housed with juveniles serving sentences for violent crimes.  

When it was originally passed in 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act called for the complete deinstitutionalization of status offenses. However, a 1980 amendment created the “valid court order” exception, which allows judges to incarcerate children for failure to follow court instructions. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges pushed for the valid court order exception, a position the organization reversed in 2010. Michael told The Appeal that the reversal came about as juvenile judges learned more about the science behind childhood brain development.

“The last thing you want to do is to bring a child who is struggling with their behavior into the juvenile justice system,” Michael said, “because what we know is that once they come into the juvenile justice system and they’re incarcerated, they’re going to wind up deeper in the system over time.”

In 2018, Congress passed a JJDPA reauthorization that includes more limits on the use of valid court order exceptions to incarcerate children. One senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, was the lone voice in Congress fighting against eliminating VCOs altogether.

Michael said he also opposes incarcerating children for technical violations of probation or parole.

“A lot of judges would say, you jerk them back into the system” for violations like forgetting to charge an ankle bracelet or missing phone calls, he said. Instead, Michael advocates getting “into the community to find out what the problem is” and solving the problem rather than incarcerating the child. “We’re dealing with children here, we’re not dealing with adults.”

The number of children and teenagers incarcerated each year on status offenses alone vary because, under the JJDPA, states are allowed to provide estimates instead of hard numbers. Nearly 100,000 cases of status offenses were brought before juvenile judges in 2018, according to data compiled by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. What happens next can vary widely, not just state by state, but also county by county within the same state. Across the country, the OJJDP estimates that, in 2017, 1,690 children were incarcerated for status offenses and 6,651 were held for technical violations of their probation.

The numbers show a system rife with racial disparities. In 2017, Black children were nearly four times more likely to be incarcerated for technical violations compared to white children, and almost twice as likely to be incarcerated for status offenses. Native youth were incarcerated for both probation and status violations at nearly four times the rate of white children.

Eight states make heavy use of valid court order exceptions to incarcerate children for status offenses. Those include Michigan, which incarcerated 630 children, Arkansas with 832, Virginia with 327, and Washington State with 1,723 children being detained in fiscal year 2016, according to a state-by-state comparison of VCO exception use published by OJJDP.

Tennessee, where some judges do not incarcerate children on VCOs, nevertheless reportedly detained 222 children for status offense-related charges. Thirty-two states and territories didn’t incarcerate a single child under a VCO, but 16 states and territories incarcerated from 1 to 100 children each for status offense-related charges, according to a state-by-state comparison of VCO exception use last updated in February by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

Efforts are underway in some states to at least limit the use of VCOs. Kentucky, which incarcerated 264 children during the 2016 fiscal year, passed a law in 2014 that “significantly reduced” the number of status offense-related incarcerations in that state, according to Mara Powell, the chief communications officer for Kentucky Youth Advocates. In Michigan, a bill introduced in January would bring the state’s status offense procedures in compliance with the recent federal reforms. Tennessee passed a reform bill in 2018 that some advocates said was “watered down.” Washington State, which incarcerates far more children for status offenses alone than any other state in the country, passed a law during its last legislative session that would eliminate the use of detention for status offenders.

These reform efforts face opposition. In Washington State, “judges are actively working to find ways to get around or repeal the new law,” George Yeannakis, a special counsel at TeamChild, told The Appeal. Powell of Kentucky Youth Advocates said that, in her state, “Stakeholders advocated for legislation that would end the use of detention for status offenses but have been unsuccessful thus far.”

The question of juvenile incarceration reform, particularly for status offenses, comes down to whether the justice system should be involved with truancy or a child disobeying their parents, Curry said. “Is that really something that the court system and the incarceration system should be involved in?”

Michael spoke more bluntly.

“If you’re going to lock up a child because she’s not doing well in school, because she doesn’t have the community support to do well in school, why aren’t you locking up the community as opposed to the child?” he said.

Economic Insecurity Brought On By COVID-19 Threatens To Disenfranchise Millions Of Voters

Between the global pandemic and a nationwide economic crisis, voting rights advocates see a ‘perfect storm of barriers’ ahead that could prevent millions of people from casting a ballot in November.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Economic Insecurity Brought On By COVID-19 Threatens To Disenfranchise Millions Of Voters

Between the global pandemic and a nationwide economic crisis, voting rights advocates see a ‘perfect storm of barriers’ ahead that could prevent millions of people from casting a ballot in November.

Housing insecurity may lead to a drop in voter participation in the 2020 election, experts say, as the pandemic-sparked economic crisis continues to upend life around the country. 

“I think the first thing to remember is that this country doesn’t do a good job under the best of circumstances in ensuring folks that are homeless or have unstable housing can vote,” Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Appeal.

“Folks need to be presuming that there will be glitches and things not going smoothly,” said Pérez. “The problem is that when there are challenges, the folks who are most on margins are the ones who suffer.”

With the general election just nine weeks away, concerns over voter disenfranchisement remain heightened as millions of Americans continue to worry about housing security and a homelessness crisis looms by year’s end. An Aspen Institute analysis published in August warns that 30 million to 40 million Americans could lose housing by the end of the year, referring in part to an estimate from global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross showing over 12 million households have little or no confidence that they can keep paying rent.

A move by President Trump this week to impose a moratorium on evictions across the country through Dec. 31 could forestall—or at least delay—the crisis. But as Tara Raghuveer, director of the Homes Guarantee campaign, based at People’s Action, wrote for The Appeal on Wednesday, the policy is flawed, allowing tenants to accrue debt even with the grace period and offering no protection against landlord retaliation. The moratorium is also sure to be challenged in court. 

“Tenants know better than anyone,” Raghuveer wrote. “Eviction moratoriums were never going to save us, at least not on their own.”

According to Aspen, the COVID-19 pandemic striking in the midst of an affordable housing crisis could be the last straw for many renters already under severe economic strain. Unprecedented unemployment has led to an increase in housing insecurity, the report continued, with 20 million households seeing jobs gone because of COVID-19. All the data taken in aggregate, the report continues, leads to an inescapable conclusion: Millions of Americans are increasingly housing insecure. 

Housing experts The Appeal spoke to said there are many variables, including federal action on another stimulus, that could change the absolute number of people left without housing. Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, said landlord behavior is hard to predict in such an economically unstable time and it is possible that the prospect of getting past-due rent could lead lessors to delay or even stop looking to push people out of their housing in parts of the country. However, Roller added, the difference in projections doesn’t mean that tens of millions of Americans aren’t still at risk of losing their homes at the end of the year “without a major federal intervention.” 

Cea Weaver, Housing Justice For All campaign coordinator, suggested the Aspen number might instead be too low. Citing the unpredictability and chaos of the present moment and the difficult decisions between shelter and food that more people in the U.S. are being forced to make, Weaver said the explosion of unhoused people could well exceed 40 million—especially if one includes people who leave their residences before the eviction process begins. “A lot of people don’t want to go through the stress of an eviction,” said Weaver. “So if they’re not paying their rent and the landlord tells them they have to leave, they just leave.”

What isn’t in question is that a sharp surge in home displacement and insecurity will leave families around the country in dire straits and facing a winter on the streets as they attempt to navigate an economy barreling toward—or already in—a full-blown depression. Add to that the stress of a precarious economy and bills and it’s hard to see voting being a high priority for the displaced, said Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of Spread the Vote.

“People are going through chaos and crisis, and during that the last thing that’s going through people’s minds is voting,” Calvin said. “Not because they don’t want to or that they don’t care, but because when you’re trying to stay alive every day and keep your children safe every day, figuring out all the barriers to voting is not something people can prioritize.”

Calvin explained that losing housing raises the chances that someone will lose their identification and supporting documents, paperwork that is essential for a new home and employment. That can lead to a downward spiral for the unhoused that can quickly spin out of control, she said. Even before the pandemic, Calvin added, this was the bleak reality facing many American families around the country. Now, things are even more difficult.

“It’s hard enough when you’re not in the age of COVID,” she said. “And now you’re adding all of that to the mix.”

While people lose their homes and become transient and displaced, voter registration becomes more difficult as the election draws near and people don’t have time or capacity to re-register with temporary addresses or are unable to because of the shutdown or curtailing of hours at state and local agencies. The problem is especially alarming in the Deep South, a region reeling from the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case that disemboweled Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and made it easier for state and local governments to rewrite their voting rules and disenfranchise people of color. 

“The scale of destabilization is hard to imagine,” said Weaver. 

Weaver added that the communities that will bear the brunt of the crisis are largely people of color. Numbers from the Census Bureau’s Week 12 Household Pulse Survey show 32 percent of Black households were behind on rent in July compared to 19 percent of white households in New York state. A Community Service Society New York report released in June noted that communities of color “have little to no confidence in their ability to make their next month’s rent payment.” That’s a sign of how the pandemic is exacerbating existing problems, the report continued. “Within the housing sphere, racist lending and real estate practices, often with support from public policy, have produced an environment where black tenants were experiencing the most acute level of eviction risk before the pandemic, with the threat of eviction-related housing insecurity also extending out to Latinx tenants,” said the report. “The pandemic has also amplified these existing racial disparities.”

A recent survey by the Census Bureau confirmed that those findings track with nationwide reporting: Black and Latinx populations consistently report low confidence in the ability to pay rent during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities in many areas of life, including increasing housing insecurity and risk of evictions,” said Shruti Banerjee, senior policy analyst at Demos. “In an election cycle that is increasingly reliant on voting by mail, meeting the requirement of having an address to register to vote and receive a ballot has impeded access to the ballot box.”

Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told The Appeal that the ramifications of housing insecurity overburden communities of color when it comes to voting rights under normal circumstances. Combine that existing inequality with the pandemic and economic crisis, said Lakin, and you have a recipe for disaster. 

“There are structural inequalities of who is unemployed, and who is evicted,” said Lakin. “In addition to some problems that are structural, we now have the coronavirus.”

Lakin described housing insecurity as one of numerous factors leading to a “perfect storm of barriers put at the foot of voters that we should be thinking about” and noted that voters living on the margins of society—groups that include the unhoused and many people of color—are under particular threat from the economic crisis that has swept the country during the pandemic. 

The challenges lend themselves to a crushingly unfair state of affairs for the displaced, said National Housing Law Project’s Roller. “Just because you make an involuntary move doesn’t mean you should lose your right to vote,” he said.

Solving this problem before it gets out of control will require major action on the part of federal officials, said the Brennan Center’s Pérez, who called for clear protocols and an issuance of guidance from officials to help Americans understand how to exercise their rights. People need to make sure they go to vote early, she added, so as to ensure that if there are problems, they can be dealt with. 

Pérez said that the U.S. elections system is chronically underfunded and has a difficult time facing threats and challenges even under the best of times. During a pandemic, with an important election ahead, that should be frightening, said Pérez. “A lot is only working because until now we’ve gotten lucky and had no crisis,” she said. “Our system is not built for stress.”

Calvin, of Spread the Vote, said she expected a decline in total voter participation to follow what she expects to be a harsh few months of housing insecurity and ongoing economic and public health crises. “The people that will not vote are the ones most affected on every level by elections—those the ones that aren’t going to be able to,” said Calvin. “Realistically a large number of people who would have voted just won’t.”

President Trump’s Eviction Moratorium Falls Far Short Of Calls For Rent And Mortgage Cancellation

Tenants and progressive leaders who cried out for a national action must now grapple with two truths: This eviction moratorium will save lives, but everything about it is a page out of Trump’s re-election playbook.

Protestors demonstrate during a 'No Evictions, No Police' national day of action protest on September 1, 2020 in New York City.
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President Trump’s Eviction Moratorium Falls Far Short Of Calls For Rent And Mortgage Cancellation

Tenants and progressive leaders who cried out for a national action must now grapple with two truths: This eviction moratorium will save lives, but everything about it is a page out of Trump’s re-election playbook.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

On Tuesday, when the rent was due once again and as 43 million Americans braced for possible eviction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide eviction moratorium that will run from Friday through Dec. 31. 

This eviction moratorium, unlike the one under the CARES Act policy that expired in late July, appears to apply to all rental units nationwide. Now, regardless of whether they receive federal funding or financing, landlords may not evict their tenants based on their inability to pay the rent. 

The order applies wherever there is not a more protective state moratorium in effect, like in Missouri and Alabama, where the governors never issued statewide eviction protections. But it does not override any jurisdictions that provide the same or greater protections for tenants. 

The CDC order responds to months of outcry from organizers, tenants, and policymakers, taking a decisive stance: ending evictions is a public health imperative. The order reads: “In the context of a pandemic, eviction moratoria—like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing—can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease.” 

In order to benefit from this protection, tenants will have to declare their inability to pay to their landlord, using a form provided by the CDC (and included in the text of Tuesday’s order). Tenants are eligible to make this declaration if they earn less than $99,000 annually or less than $198,000 as a household, were not required to report income in 2019, or received a stimulus check. 

The CDC’s national eviction moratorium may keep millions of tenants in their homes until the new year, and in turn it could save untold numbers of lives as COVID-19 remains an active threat. But, of course, it’s not so simple.

Several caveats limit the moratorium’s potential reach. 

The requirement that tenants swear they meet certain income- and need-based criteria may exclude some tenants, such as undocumented immigrants and participants in the informal economy, like domestic workers and food vendors, who may not have standard documentation of their wages. 

Tenants will have to certify that they are unable to pay their rent because of coronavirus, that they are likely to become homeless as a result of displacement, and that they have made their “best efforts” to get any government assistance available to them to make rent. These requirements are vague, which could benefit tenants, but could also leave too much subjectivity in the landlords’ hands. 

We know that landlords will find ways to evict and retaliate against their tenants because it’s already happening. The eviction moratorium only pertains to rent-related evictions. Landlords may still evict their tenants on the basis of a lease violation—say, a noise complaint. Landlords will keep pursuing informal evictions using intimidation tactics like utility shutoffs, refusing repairs, and more. Tenants and organizers will have to keep a close eye on local trends and be ready to challenge landlords who exploit loopholes, escaping the parameters of this moratorium. 

Tenants must still pay the rent, debts will mount, and landlords will continue to profit from their control over tenants’ most basic need: their home. The CDC order does not stop tenants from accruing rental debt, nor does it prevent landlords from continuing to charge fines, fees, and interest. Landlords have invented all kinds of profit-maximizing machinery like pet deposits, trash fees, and more. The threat of such costs, and the associated debt, can itself serve as an intimidation tactic to force tenants from their homes. Rental debts follow tenants even after an eviction, through wage garnishments and bad credit scores. 

Finally, legal challenges are likely. Almost immediately after the announcement, lawyers and reporters and tenants alike began questioning the CDC’s authority to take such an action. As of now, the order will take effect on Friday, but it will almost certainly face legal challenges. Even if those challenges are unsuccessful, they will undoubtedly confuse tenants, and they may complicate local enforcement. 

The Trump administration has been quick to celebrate the national eviction moratorium as his offering to working families. But it must not be attributed to Trump. This is a victory for tenants. Tenants orchestrated a mass rebellion since March, sharing their stories, organizing their buildings, and executing the largest rent strike in history. Meanwhile, Trump and Republican leadership in Congress have mostly ignored the deepening emergency among poor and working-class tenants. 

All those who cried out for a national response to protect tenants must now grapple with two truths: This eviction moratorium will save lives, protecting tens of millions of households from violent displacementalbeit for a relatively short period of timeand everything about this order is political, a page out of Trump’s re-election playbook. 

We should acknowledge that governors and mayors, including many Democrats, failed to protect tenants before the Trump administration took this step. As the pandemic rages on, it seems that real estate interests have tightened their chokeholds on state and local officials of both major political parties. Ignoring the looming eviction and homelessness crisis was never going to serve Democrats, and now they’ve been outflanked by Trump.

“Does it apply to me?” That was Ashley Johnson’s first question when I called her Tuesday to tell her about the moratorium. Ashley is a tenant in Kansas City, Missouri, and a grassroots leader with KC Tenants, the local organization I direct. A single mother of three kids, she works several jobs, but employers cut her hours in late March, and she has struggled to remain housed ever since. 

Ashley’s landlord is evicting her, and it is getting messy. Last Wednesday, Ashley’s landlord sent maintenance workers to her home while Ashley was at the office. They shoved past Ashley’s teenage daughter to remove the family’s stove. On Friday, Ashley came home to a disconnect notice from the utility company. Ashley is due in eviction court Thursday, but she has already been forced from her home. 

The CDC eviction moratorium does not apply to Ashley. She is not being evicted for past-owed rent, but for possession of the property. The landlord simply doesn’t want to “deal with tenants” anymore, and she is using COVID-19 as an excuse to get Ashley out. Ashley will still have to appear in court by teleconference tomorrow morning, and the judge is likely to issue a formal eviction judgment. Ashley will need to find a new place to live. 

Too many tenants are in Ashley’s position. Landlords have filed tens of thousands of evictions during the pandemic. Tenants have been evicted because they live somewhere that never had an eviction moratorium, or their moratorium expired, or because their landlord forced them out through an informal process, outside of the court system. The CDC moratorium does not provide recourse to tenants who have already been displaced. 

Some tenants like Ashley have scraped together their rent payment month after month, even though they could not afford it. Others have been pushed into high-risk jobs to make the bills. Because of inaction from policymakers, these tenants put their lives at risk and paid their last savings to their landlords, sacrificing other basic needs, to meet their rent obligation. It didn’t have to be like this. 

Tenants know better than anyone: Eviction moratoriums were never going to save us, at least not on their own. That’s why tenants have demanded rent and mortgage cancellation, combined with a nationwide eviction moratorium, since March. Tenants worked closely with Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota to introduce House Resolution 6515, the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, in April. The bill would cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis, and provide conditioned relief for some property owners. No rent payments, no late fees, no debts. 

For now, tenants and organizers will spread the word about the CDC eviction moratorium, inform their neighbors of their rights, continue unionizing, and track landlord noncompliance and retaliation. Lawyers will have to defend the legality of this eviction moratorium and seek out sufficient local enforcement. 

Lawmakers must cancel rents and mortgages so tenants are not stuck with significant, insurmountable debt come January. And in the long run, the federal government must take sweeping action to dismantle the American housing system that puts landlords’ profits over tenants’ lives; we must guarantee housing as a public good. 

Tara Raghuveer is director of the Homes Guarantee campaign, based at People’s Action, a national network of grassroots organizations committed to economic and racial justice. She is also the director of KC Tenants, an organization led by a base of poor and working class tenants in Kansas City.

U.S. Executes Keith Dwayne Nelson, The Fifth Federal Prisoner Put To Death This Year

Nelson’s attorneys had sought to have his death sentence reversed, citing critical errors by his original trial attorneys.

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U.S. Executes Keith Dwayne Nelson, The Fifth Federal Prisoner Put To Death This Year

Nelson’s attorneys had sought to have his death sentence reversed, citing critical errors by his original trial attorneys.

The U.S. government executed Keith Dwayne Nelson on Friday, the fifth person the Trump administration has put to death this summer. 

Nelson, 45, was pronounced dead at 4:32 p.m. at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, according to the Associated Press, which had a reporter present. He did not make a final statement. 

“The execution of Keith Nelson did not make the world a safer place,” said his attorney, Dale Baich, in a statement. “Over the years, we have come to know Keith as someone who was different than the person who committed the horrible crime … We saw his humanity, his compassion, and his sense of humor.”  

A District Court judge initially stopped the execution on Thursday, ruling that the drug the government uses for executions, pentobarbital, violates the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act because it was obtained without a prescription. That order was lifted by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday night, clearing the way for the execution to proceed. 

The Trump administration resumed executions in July after a 17-year hiatus, executing three men in one week. Earlier this week, the government executed Lezmond Mitchell, despite objections from tribal leaders who said the killing breached tribal sovereignty. 

In 2001, Nelson pleaded guilty to kidnapping 10-year-old Pamela Butler in Kansas City, Kansas, raping and then strangling her to death before dumping her body in Kansas City, Missouri. The crime was eligible for the federal death penalty because he transported Butler across state lines. 

In the years since Nelson was sentenced to death, his attorneys have argued that his trial counsels’ performance did not meet constitutional standards. In filings, they have argued that the attorneys did not uncover evidence of brain damage and physical and sexual abuse that might have swayed the jury to spare Nelson’s life. Additionally, attorneys said that Nelson had a long history of mental illness including psychosis and was dissociating at the time of the crime. Though this could have been used to mount an insanity defense, Nelson’s trial attorney did not present that evidence to the jury and told him that he should plead guilty because there was no defense to the charges filed against him, according to his legal team. 

During an appellate hearing on the case, one of the trial attorneys admitted that he was overburdened with other capital cases when he took Nelson’s case with just nine months until trial and regretted doing so. 

In a statement last month, Baich said that these errors were to blame for Nelson’s death sentence. “[It is] the result of a proceeding that denied him constitutionally guaranteed protections and reveals another deep flaw in the federal death penalty system,” he said.

U.S. Executes Lezmond Mitchell Over Objections Of The Navajo Nation

It’s the first time in modern history that the federal government has executed a Native American for a crime committed against another Native American on tribal land, his attorneys say.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

U.S. Executes Lezmond Mitchell Over Objections Of The Navajo Nation

It’s the first time in modern history that the federal government has executed a Native American for a crime committed against another Native American on tribal land, his attorneys say.

The federal government has executed Lezmond Mitchell, the only Native American on federal death row, despite objections from Navajo leaders who said the killing breached tribal sovereignty.

Mitchell, who is Navajo, was pronounced dead by a lethal injection of pentobarbital at 6:29 p.m. Eastern at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, according to the Associated Press, which had a reporter present. He declined to make a final statement. Mitchell, 38, was the fourth prisoner executed by the U.S. government this summer following a 17-year hiatus on federal executions. 

On Tuesday night, the Supreme Court declined to review Mitchell’s claim that racial bias may have tainted the jury (only one juror was Native American), clearing the way for his execution. Mitchell had also petitioned President Trump for clemency. Trump did not rule on that petition before Mitchell’s death. 

Mitchell was sentenced to death in 2003 for the 2001 murders of 63-year-old Alyce Slim and her nine-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee. Both were members of Navajo Nation. Prosecutors said that Mitchell, along with his co-defendant Johnny Orsinger, hitched a ride with Slim back to the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Once there, they stabbed Slim more than 30 times and killed Lee by slitting her throat and crushing her head with a rock, prosecutors said. Mitchell, who confessed his role in the crimes after being held 25 days in a Navajo jail without access to an attorney, has argued that Orsinger was the mastermind of the killings. Orsinger was 16 at the time of the crimes and received a life sentence because of his age. 

Mitchell’s attorneys say that he’s the first Native American in modern history to be executed by the federal government for a crime committed against another Native American on tribal land. Under the Clinton-era Federal Death Penalty Act, the government is prohibited from seeking the death penalty for a set of crimes committed on tribal land unless tribal leaders opt in. In 2002, the Attorney General of Navajo Nation asked the federal government not to seek the death penalty against Mitchell because capital punishment went against the tribe’s cultural and religious values. Though the U.S. Attorney for Arizona said he would defer to the tribe’s position, the U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, overrode him and sought a death sentence by charging Mitchell with carjacking resulting in death, a capital crime that does not require the permission of tribal leaders for a death sentence. 

The courts have denied Mitchell’s appeals on claims that his death sentence infringes on the tribe’s sovereignty, but in April, two judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in concurring opinions of their concerns about his death sentence. “The imposition of the death penalty in this case is a betrayal of a promise made to the Navajo Nation, and it demonstrates a deep disrespect for tribal sovereignty,” wrote Judge Morgan Christen.

In the month leading up to Mitchell’s execution, tribal leaders urged Trump to commute his sentence. “This request honors our religious and traditional beliefs, the Navajo Nation’s long-standing position on the death penalty for Native Americans, and our respect for the decision of the victim’s family,” wrote Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a July 31 letter. 

The U.S.government is scheduled to execute Keith Dwayne Nelson on Friday.

Loved Ones And Prisoners Sound Alarm As Coronavirus Cases Surge At Florida’s Largest Women’s Prison

As of Thursday, 993 incarcerated women and 62 staffers at Lowell Correctional Institution have tested positive for the virus. Two women have died.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Loved Ones And Prisoners Sound Alarm As Coronavirus Cases Surge At Florida’s Largest Women’s Prison

As of Thursday, 993 incarcerated women and 62 staffers at Lowell Correctional Institution have tested positive for the virus. Two women have died.

Nearly a month had passed since Kenyetta heard from her sister at Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida when she received a message in late July. Her 37-year-old sister, who has Type 2 diabetes and latent tuberculosis, wrote to tell Kenyetta that she was battling a severe headache and sore throat. Her body, she said, felt like it had been in a car wreck. 

In the July 27 message, Kenyetta’s sister told her that Lowell had just accepted a transfer of incarcerated women from the Florida Women’s Reception Center. The newly arrived women, who were promptly moved into the main unit near Kenyetta’s sister, were released from what was ostensibly a 14-day quarantine for exposure to COVID-19.

“These new ppl came in coughing and sneezing,” wrote Kenyetta’s sister, who is serving a 15-year sentence at the Marion County prison for robbery with a deadly weapon. Kenyetta asked The Appeal not to name her sister—and to withhold her own last name—for fear of retaliation from the prison staff.

Three days after the women arrived at Lowell, Kenyetta’s sister and the others in the dorm—all of whom were previously healthy—fell ill, she said in the message. On Aug. 14, she was confirmed positive for the novel coronavirus. In an email to The Appeal, the Department  of Corrections neither confirmed nor denied the transfer, stating only that noncritical transfers have been paused statewide since March and all transfers into and out of Lowell were temporarily suspended in early August. 

Kenyetta said she’s now anxiously waiting to hear how her sister is coping with the infection. But as she watches the surging cases at the prison, which has long been plagued with reports of abuse and medical neglect, Kenyetta can’t help but feel powerless. 

“She has 10 more years to go,” Kenyetta told The Appeal. “I want to see her. I want her to come home.”

As of Thursday, 993 incarcerated women and 62 staffers at Lowell have tested positive for COVID-19. Two women have died. The prison is listed as No. 16 on the New York Times’s list of largest clusters of the virus in the U.S. It ranks closely behind the Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in South Dakota, which was once considered the largest coronavirus hotbed in the nation.

In March, before the first case of the virus was confirmed inside Florida’s state prisons, advocates sounded the alarm that Lowell wouldn’t be able to navigate a widespread outbreak. The state’s largest prison for women is home to nearly 500 women over the age of 50. The massive complex also has a dorm specifically for prisoners who are elderly, pregnant, or have complex medical needs. 

As the virus has coursed through Florida’s state prisons—infecting more than 15,000 and killing 78 as of Thursday—advocates and state leaders have called on prison leaders and Governor Ron DeSantis to consider compassionate release for certain people. They’ve been asked to review all elderly and vulnerable prisoners and suspend sentences through commutations or pardons. But to date, calls for action have fallen on deaf ears. 

In a virtual press conference Aug. 13, state lawmakers reiterated their demands. Representative Dianne Hart called out the persistent lack of action from the top, noting that state corrections leaders have yet to take any steps to release a portion of the state’s 100,000 prisoners. No prisoners from Lowell have been granted compassionate release since the pandemic arrived. 

According to the Palm Beach Post, at least 14 state prisoners who have succumbed to the virus were eligible for parole.

For months, the DOC has touted a long list of measures it is taking to protect prisoners, including its pledge to conduct daily temperature checks, suspend prisoner transfers and provide “on-going medical care and monitoring” to prisoners, according to its website. Kenyetta told The Appeal, however, that her sister has only received temperature checks a few times each week. 

Similar accounts have been echoed in messages recently sent to Debra Bennett-Austin, a former Lowell prisoner and founder of the nonprofit Change Comes Now. In an Aug. 12 message, one woman at Lowell’s Main Unit wrote to her: “We are not being temp checked at all….. there are several girls that have been showing symptoms, but no nurses are available…. even for a medical emergency.”

Another woman at Lowell Work Camp wrote on Aug. 12: “They still do not take our temperature every day. Monday and Tuesday no one came to take it. Today when the nurse came she didn’t write down anyone’s temps and didn’t seem to care what the thermometer read.”

In a statement to The Appeal, the DOC wrote that “inmates in medical quarantine are monitored by health services staff and receive temperature checks twice a day for signs of fever.” The agency did not respond to questions about prisoners outside of medical quarantine not receiving temperature checks. 

Sue Kuhns’s girlfriend, who is set to be released from Lowell in November 2021 and has lupus, told Kuhns that she has been spending the majority of her days on her bed, trying to keep as much distance from others as possible. She learned that she was negative for the coronavirus on Aug. 11, nearly two weeks after getting tested on July 27, Kuhns said. 

Kuhns’s girlfriend, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from prison staff, told Kuhns that staffers at Lowell have been cross-contaminating people on the compound, bringing women who may have been exposed to the virus into healthy dorms with no explanation. Kuhns’s girlfriend also told her that when other women in her dorm began feeling sick, the medical staff waved it off as summer colds. 

“Medical emergency? You might as well cancel Christmas on that,” Kuhns told The Appeal. “You gotta be dead just about before they’ll come to help.” 

In their near-daily conversations, Kuhns’s girlfriend has described the increasingly desperate conditions at Lowell: women hoarding food, books, and other items, fearful of the unknown. She tells Kuhns that between the level of stress and heat at the prison, which has many dorms without air conditioning, people have become irritable. 

“Everything is really tense and people are really scared,” Kuhns’s girlfriend wrote in a July 23 message to her. “It’s like the life lottery. Who gets to live?” 

Kuhns said her girlfriend emphasized how the outbreak has worsened the nutritional quality of the food, given that prison meals now have to be delivered to dorms and canteen access has been restricted. Kuhns said she has described subsiding on a monotonous diet of bread with peanut butter or bologna, rarely knowing when her next meal is going to come. 

“It’s a tablespoon, if they’re lucky, of peanut butter, two slices of bologna, some cheese, carrot coins, shredded carrots,” Kuhns said. “And the ones that don’t have teeth, they’re out of luck.”

Similar reports have emerged from Homestead Correctional Institution, a women’s prison located roughly five hours south of Lowell. In an email to The Appeal, the DOC wrote that it is following a dietary reference from the National Academies of Science “to ensure proper nutrition and caloric intake for inmates.” The modified menu available to prisoners was designed by dieticians to “meet standards” and “provide the required nutritional content,” the DOC stated. However, it didn’t deny accounts of prisoners getting by on bread with bologna or peanut butter.

According to the DOC, prisoners at Lowell continue to have access to the canteen through individual orders. But Kuhns said her girlfriend hasn’t been able to purchase anything from the canteen since the pandemic began, despite filling out two order forms for various items. Kuhns worries that her girlfriend, already immunocompromised, won’t be able to fend off the virus while sustaining herself on the available diet.

“I mean, she’s getting worn out and tired. She needs some nutrition,” Kuhns said. “How are they supposed to keep their energy up, if you’re feeding them the same thing over and over and over?”

Lately, Kuhns has been eating peanut butter sandwiches and bologna in solidarity with her girlfriend and the other women at Lowell. But like so many others with vulnerable loved ones incarcerated across the state, Kuhns is scared. She wants her girlfriend, whose scheduled release is lingering on the horizon, to be granted compassionate release. 

“She’s got 15 months, you know,” Kuhns said. “If they’ve got 18 months or less, release them. Get an ankle monitor on them. She’s safer here at home than she is in there.”

The Federal Government’s Decision To Execute Lezmond Mitchell Is A Direct Affront To Tribal Rule

The execution of Mitchell against the will of the Navajo Nation only perpetuates the U.S.’s dreadful history of colonial violence and oppression of Indigenous peoples.

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The Federal Government’s Decision To Execute Lezmond Mitchell Is A Direct Affront To Tribal Rule

The execution of Mitchell against the will of the Navajo Nation only perpetuates the U.S.’s dreadful history of colonial violence and oppression of Indigenous peoples.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

On Aug. 26, the United States government plans to subvert Native nations’ constitutionally recognized inherent right to self-govern in an unprecedented act of federal overreach. They’ve arranged for the state-sanctioned murder of a Navajo Nation citizen, Lezmond Mitchell, against the express wishes of the Navajo Nation.

This is the first time the federal government has pursued the death sentence in the case of a Native person over tribal opposition since laws were established that determined criminal jurisdiction regarding tribal members. Some of the offenses Mitchell was convicted of fall under the Major Crimes Act of 1885, which makes certain felonies perpetrated by Natives in Native territory punishable under federal law. Not only is Mitchell Navajo, his victims were, too. The crimes also occurred on Navajo land. 

Undoubtedly, the violence Mitchell committed is reprehensible. He participated in the grisly killings of a grandmother and granddaughter. However, Diné (Navajo) spiritual beliefs uphold the sanctity of life, so the Navajo are culturally opposed to the death penalty. The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 provided tribes with the ability to opt in to the death penalty, allowing the federal government to execute tribal members who are convicted of federal crimes that qualify, with the consent of that tribe. The Navajo Nation never opted in to allow the execution of its members. In fact, the Navajo Public Safety Committee went on record rejecting the federal death penalty in 2004. For these reasons, a sentence of death in the case of Lezmond Mitchell should be commuted.

The Navajo Nation, which has one of most well established and widely respected tribal legal systems in the United States, is fighting back. The president of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, planned to appear before the U.S. pardon attorney to advocate on behalf of Mitchell, and wrote a letter to President Trump appealing for executive clemency. In the letter, signed by Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, the crux of the matter is brought to bear, and the legal gymnastics being used to justify Mitchell’s execution is confronted: 

“The United States’ decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Mitchell ignored the intent of the tribal opt-in provisions of the Federal Death Penalty Act. Instead the United States included carjacking resulting in death with the crimes charged against Mr. Mitchell. Carjacking resulting in death is a non-Major Crimes Act crime, but which carries the death penalty sentence. Mr. Mitchell is now on death row as a result of a crime that is not included in the crimes associated with Indian Country under the Major Crimes Act, and in complete disregard to the Navajo Nation’s deliberate decision not to opt-in to the death penalty under the Federal Death Penalty Act.”

Yes, you read that right. The U.S. government is putting Lezmond Mitchell to death for carjacking. It’s the only legal justification they could find to do so. 

The president and vice president of the Navajo Nation go on to implore Trump to commute Mitchell’s execution and replace it with a life sentence. Besides honoring Diné religious beliefs, honoring their request would also show respect for the victims’ family members, who do not want him put to death, either. 

Current Navajo leadership is hardly alone in voicing opposition to Mitchell’s death sentence. In 2002, Navajo Attorney General Levon Henry asked the federal government not to seek the death penalty. A subsequent Navajo attorney general, Harrison Tsosie, also requested in 2014 that Mitchell not be executed. 

Mitchell filed a petition for clemency as well. Within, Trump is reminded that the Navajo Nation’s cultural and religious values do not support capital punishment, and that the pertinent events transpired among Navajo tribal members on Navajo land. The petition further delineates the loopholes being used to permit his execution, and quotes the victims’ family members who say they “do not need another murder for our family to heal.” It also indicates that Mitchell was interrogated for 25 days without being given access to legal representation, and that the jury did not hear compelling evidence, like Mitchell being in a drug-induced psychosis when the crimes were committed, that he had no prior criminal history, and his co-defendant, a minor who was the primary assailant, had killed before. 

Some say Attorney General William Barr’s decision to reinstate federal executions is little more than a blood offering meant to energize Trump’s pro-death penalty base—a callous political stunt to make Trump look like a law and order president. Although Mitchell’s death sentence since the passage of the Major Crimes Act is unprecedented, it wouldn’t be the first time Indigenous people have been sacrificed to reinforce colonial conquest and quell the settler masses. 

In 1862, 38 Dakota warriors died in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history in Mankato, Minnesota. The circumstances were vastly different from Mitchell’s. The men hung were not accused of hurting or killing other Dakota. They were part of an uprising against the government that had unilaterally breached their treaty, stolen their land, refused to pay, and was starving them. Some of those hung were innocent of any wrongdoing. One was a case of mistaken identity. Yet like Mitchell, they fell prey to an unjust system that upholds white supremacy.

The Dakota did not receive fair trials. Some could not speak English and were not provided with translators. They lacked legal counsel. They did not receive due process. And like Mitchell, they were executed without the consent of their Native nation. Their lives were also forfeit for political gain, to appease bloodthirsty anti-Native sentiment. 

The Major Crimes Act itself, and its continued use, is proof that the government does not value Native culture. It became law because settlers were unwilling to accept the administration of tribal justice between Natives on Native land. When Crowdog killed Spotted Tail in 1881 after a dispute at the Rosebud Indian Agency on the Great Sioux Reservation, Lakota laws were followed. Crowdog paid restitution to Spotted Tail’s family as directed, but racist locals and federal officials demanded Crowdog’s arrest. The case, referred to as Ex parte Crow Dog, ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court upheld tribal sovereignty. Congress answered with the Major Crimes Act, putting itself in charge of major felonies perpetrated by Natives on Native land.

The execution of Mitchell against the will of the Navajo Nation only perpetuates this country’s dreadful history of colonial violence and oppression of Indigenous peoples. It furthers genocide still being committed against them and is a breach of trust that damages the government-to-government relationship that current federal policy claims to aspire to. 

If you are Native and in support of commuting Lezmond Mitchell’s execution to a life sentence without the possibility of release, you can help by signing this letter to Trump. Honor tribal sovereignty, President Trump. Commute the death sentence of Lezmond Mitchell. 

Ruth Hopkins is a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer and enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. She is also a biologist, tribal attorney, former judge, and co-founder of Hopkins resides on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota.

Life Sentence For Missouri Woman Convicted Of Assaulting Police Officer Is ‘Extremely Distressing,’ Justice Advocate Says

Nicole Poston was sentenced in July for punching a police officer after she slipped free from a handcuff. Life sentences, even for nonhomicide offenses like Poston’s, are ‘a major factor’ in mass incarceration in the U.S., a criminal justice expert said.

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Life Sentence For Missouri Woman Convicted Of Assaulting Police Officer Is ‘Extremely Distressing,’ Justice Advocate Says

Nicole Poston was sentenced in July for punching a police officer after she slipped free from a handcuff. Life sentences, even for nonhomicide offenses like Poston’s, are ‘a major factor’ in mass incarceration in the U.S., a criminal justice expert said.

A Missouri woman sentenced to life in prison last month for assaulting a police officer received an “extremely distressing and problematic” sentence, a criminal justice advocate says. 

On Aug. 8, 2019, Rolla Police Department officers arrested Nicole Poston, 30, on a warrant after she did not appear in court for a drug case for which she didn’t realize the date had been changed, her attorney, Phelps County public defender Jacob Sells, told The Appeal. (That charge was later dismissed.) After the arrest, she had a seizure and was taken to the hospital, where doctors administered seizure medication she took regularly and gave her an IV. 

Upon release from the hospital, Officer Leann Robertson cuffed Poston’s hands to the front of her body because of the IV, according to a report filed as part of the case. Once at the entryway to the Phelps County Jail, she became anxious about being locked up. She freed herself from one of her handcuffs and punched Robertson in the face while using the handcuffs as a weapon, according to the report. “I’m not going back to jail,” Poston was recorded as saying. 

Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Brendon Fox convened a grand jury that indicted Poston for first-degree assault while using a dangerous weapon. The assault charge carried up to a life sentence because the victim was a police officer. 

At trial in January, Robertson testified that she suffered a traumatic brain injury and still experienced headaches and problems balancing. According to a probable cause report, she also received cuts on her temple and nose. Approximately 50 law enforcement officers attended the trial in a show of support, according to a news release issued by Fox. She was convicted in January of first-degree assault of a law enforcement officer and armed criminal action.

During the trial, Sells argued that the incident was not premeditated and was out of character for Poston, who had a history of drug charges but not violence. At the sentencing hearing, Poston’s mother testified that she became addicted to drugs after doctors removed a cyst on her face when she was a teenager. Sells asked Judge William Hickle, who presides over the circuit court for Phelps County, for a sentence that would have resulted in three years of incarceration if Poston completed a program. 

“Nicole was not the person to use to send the message ‘we are tough on people who assault law enforcement officers,’” Sells told The Appeal. “We don’t think that Nicole was intentionally trying to cause calculated damage to Officer Robertson.”

In a statement during Poston’s sentencing on July 30, Hickle said: “Part of my job is to make sure dangerous people aren’t allowed to hurt other people again. I believe this sentence is necessary to protect the community from future harm.”

Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, told The Appeal that Poston’s sentence is “extremely distressing and problematic, but unfortunately not out of the ordinary given the nature of sentencing in the United States.” One in seven people in prison is serving a life sentence, according to a 2018 Sentencing Project report

“The fact that life sentences are allowed, even for nonhomicide offenses, is a major factor in why the United States has mass incarceration,” she said.

In response, Fox told The Appeal in an email: “People are entitled to their opinions, but the judge who presided over the trial, observed all the evidence, and weighed the arguments of both sides determined the sentence was appropriate.”

Sells has appealed Poston’s sentence and asked for a new trial on the grounds that the court made several errors during trial such not allowing for a continuance to prepare for testimony regarding mental illness.  

Before the August 2019 incident involving the officer, Poston had a history of drug use that shuffled her in and out of the court system in Phelps County, roughly 100 miles southwest of St. Louis. Leading up the incident, court records show that Poston had been arrested several times on various drug charges. In 2015, she was charged with possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute. She pleaded guilty to that charge and a second-degree burglary charge in 2017. Poston was incarcerated at the Phelps County Jail for 75 days in 2018 after she pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance. 

Along with the life sentence, Poston was sentenced to 20 years for using handcuffs in the attack. She will be eligible for parole in 25 and a half years under state law, according to Sells.

Criminal Justice Advocates Say New Law Undermines Georgia’s Efforts at Bail Reform

The law, known as SB 402, eliminates the use of signature bonds for a number of felonies, putting poor people who might not be able to afford cash bail at a disadvantage.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Criminal Justice Advocates Say New Law Undermines Georgia’s Efforts at Bail Reform

The law, known as SB 402, eliminates the use of signature bonds for a number of felonies, putting poor people who might not be able to afford cash bail at a disadvantage.

A new Georgia law that requires people facing certain felony charges to either pay bail or remain behind bars is an affront to recent efforts to reform the state’s cash bail system, criminal justice advocates say.

“Detention should not turn on whether you can afford to pay [cash] bond,” said Marissa Dodson, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights. It’s a stance that an increasing number of elected officials nationwide, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, have taken measures to correct. 

The new law, however, known as Senate Bill 402, eliminates the use of signature bonds (also known as release on recognizance) for a number of felony charges. These charges include murder, felony murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery (armed and otherwise), driving under the influence, and bail jumping. Under a signature bond, a person need not scrape together money in exchange for pretrial release. Instead, they sign a promise to return to court for trial. If they do not, they face financial consequences. The bill also prohibits people who are charged with any of the listed offenses from being given a signature bond so that they can enter a pretrial release program or a pretrial release and diversion program. A judge can still order the person’s participation in such a program if they can afford to post bail.

“This will impact primarily poor people and individuals who are marginalized,” Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South, told The Appeal, noting that those who can afford bail can still be released pretrial. “All of this would be true in normal times, but we are not in ‘normal’ times. We’re in the midst of a pandemic when leadership around the country is trying to come up with various ways to let people out.” 

Across the country, 74 percent of people in jails have not been convicted and are simply incarcerated awaiting their day in court. In many states, those who cannot afford to pay the full bail amount can hire the services of a bail bonds company, in which a person (or their family) pays a percentage to a bail bond agent, who then covers the full amount. But unlike posting bond directly with the court, those who use bail bond agents do not get their money back.

In public forums over the past year, police and prosecutors in Georgia have warned residents that judges’ leniency caused a “revolving door” for people who go on to commit further violence and crime and encouraged residents to organize against judges’ ability to release people on their own recognizance. News stories have highlighted people with lengthy arrest records who were released on signature bonds and then arrested for new offenses. 

Senator Randy Robertson told The Appeal that he introduced SB 402 after what he called “a pattern” in which people charged with violent offenses were released on signature bonds and were arrested again for new offenses, often violent ones. 

“The legislation took the fraudulent language away where there was a monetary amount announced, but no surety required, and limited the ability of those charged with violent crimes—such as murder, rape, child molestation, things of that nature—from being released without having to put up anything,” Robertson said. Judges, he continued, could decide to set bond amounts for as little as $1 for people charged with violent offenses, but people would be required to pay something. He emphasized that the elimination of the signature bond only applies to those charged with certain violent offenses as well as DUI and habitual offender offenses. “For a lot of nonviolent offenders, there are still a lot of opportunities to get out [of jail],” he added.

Dodson scoffs at the idea that judges will set bond amounts for $1 or that requiring people to pay to secure pretrial release would make them take the threat of incarceration more seriously. Moreover, she notes that people who are detained pretrial are more likely to be convicted and face long-term incarceration 

Both Dodson and Shahshahani emphasize that people charged with the offenses listed in the bill can still be released on cash bond if they can afford to pay it. “If this was about public safety, we wouldn’t talk about requiring them to pay money,” Dodson said.  

At the same time, Dodson acknowledges that the list of charges covered by the law are those that are most likely to be perceived as threatening or scary. That, coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has made educating the public about the ill effects of the law difficult. 

Being incarcerated for months if not years while awaiting trial can wreak lasting damage, Dodson said. For instance, Georgia allows prosecutors to try children as young as 13 as adults if they are charged with murder, rape, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated child molestation, and robbery with a firearm. The state’s party-to-crime law also allows prosecutors to charge people, regardless of age, even if they did not directly commit the alleged crime. 

Eliminating signature bonds removes the judge’s ability to consider a person’s age, alleged involvement, culpability, and family ties that ensure they stay in the community and return to court. Instead of a signature bond, judges can only issue a cash bond, which could result in children as young as 13 languishing in jail if parents or guardians cannot afford to pay. 

For adults who cannot afford bail, whether charged with a violent felony or a DUI, staying in jail for a prolonged period would most likely result in losing employment, and jeopardize housing and custody of any children.  

Advocates aren’t the only ones concerned about the ramifications of SB 402. The Council of Municipal Court Judges notes that the bill introduces new language—an “unsecured judicial release”—that does not exist anywhere else in the state’s codes. 

In a letter to Representative Chuck Efstration, chairperson of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, the council raised concerns that this new language could potentially lead to a number of problems, such as preventing judges from adding conditions for release, such as a no-contact order or a release to a treatment facility. “An unsecured judicial release is not a bond, and therefore could not be revoked like a bond,” cautioned Chief Judge Willie C. Weaver, the council’s president, adding that the unforeseen consequences of the language change “could be catastrophic.” 

Furthermore, the letter noted that many coronavirus outbreaks have occurred in jails and prisons—and the virus does not discriminate between those who are awaiting trial and those who are convicted. “The middle of a pandemic seems to be an injudicious time to introduce or pass legislation which would have any effect of increasing the jail population in the state,” the letter concludes. Last week, the Marietta Daily Journal noted an increase in COVID-19 cases in Fulton County that halted all movements to court and to the prison system. 

Nonetheless, SB 402 passed both the Senate and House. On Aug. 3, Governor Brian Kemp signed the bill, which will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. 

“When the country as a whole is moving in a positive direction towards shutting down jails, shutting down policing, shutting down prisons and coming up with alternative mechanisms to ensure public safety and ensure human dignity, it’s abominable that Georgia is moving in the opposite direction,” Shahshahani said.

“We will continue to challenge wealth-based detention at the state and local levels in Georgia and work with lawmakers to introduce legislation to reduce wealth-based detention,” Dodson said. “The depths of [a person’s] pocket shouldn’t be driving the narrative.”

Michigan Judge Ends Probation For Black Teen Who Was Jailed For Not Completing Her Homework

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan jailed the 15-year-old, known as Grace, for violating her probation by not completing schoolwork. Last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered Grace’s immediate release, which Brennan said left her without the means to ‘issue consequences.’

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.

Michigan Judge Ends Probation For Black Teen Who Was Jailed For Not Completing Her Homework

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan jailed the 15-year-old, known as Grace, for violating her probation by not completing schoolwork. Last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered Grace’s immediate release, which Brennan said left her without the means to ‘issue consequences.’

Grace, the Michigan teen who was incarcerated in May for failing to complete homework while on probation during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, was released from the terms of that probation today. 

In making her decision, Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan said a July 31 ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals releasing Grace from incarceration at Oakland County’s Children’s Village had left her without the means to “issue consequences” to Grace.

Before handing down her order, Brennan took one last opportunity to defend her decision to incarcerate Grace—a 15-year-old Black girl who has been identified only by her middle name because of her status as a minor—in a facility where four staffers had tested positive for COVID-19.

Brennan first sentenced Grace to “intensive probation” on April 21, following fights with her mother that had turned physical and Grace’s alleged theft of a fellow student’s phone. The terms of that probation included school attendance and completion of all schoolwork, something Grace was unable to do without her usual academic support because of the rushed switch to online learning in her Birmingham school district.

Brennan’s decision to incarcerate Grace for violating those terms—citing what she said was her “extensive” history of violence and theft—was condemned by officials including representatives of two local school boards, two of Michigan’s congressional representatives, and the Oakland County executive.

During today’s hearing, Brennan said the Court of Appeals’ decision to release Grace interrupted the “treatment plan” she had in place for her, and “damage to that plan cannot be repaired by this court,” according to this morning’s account of the hearing in the Detroit News.

At the beginning of the hearing, attorney Saima Khalil called on Brennan to recuse herself from Grace’s case, saying the judge “has engaged in callous conduct in this case,” including the decision to incarcerate Grace during the pandemic. Brennan dismissed the motion, saying its timing was “not an appropriate way to bring this matter before the court.”

Khalil wasn’t alone in condemning Brennan’s conduct.

“In the short period of time that Grace has been home, we have become keenly aware of how damaging the juvenile system is as she recants loss of well-being, quality education, effective therapies and faith in a system that was supposed to protect and preserve the family,” Grace’s family said a statement released shortly after the hearing. “No child should walk away feeling less than because a system is degenerative and designed to break the spirit.”

New Jersey COVID-19 Bill Could Help Reduce The Harshness Of The Criminal System

If the bill is signed into law later this month, about 20 percent of the state’s prison population could see their sentences reduced to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, including some people who have served lengthy sentences for violent crimes.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

New Jersey COVID-19 Bill Could Help Reduce The Harshness Of The Criminal System

If the bill is signed into law later this month, about 20 percent of the state’s prison population could see their sentences reduced to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, including some people who have served lengthy sentences for violent crimes.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we may finally be getting some effective criminal justice reform. On July 30, the New York Times reported that New Jersey is considering legislation that could release about 20 percent of its prison population because of fears about the coronavirus. Unlike most sentence-reduction bills in recent memory, this bill includes reductions for people convicted of violent crimes.  

The New Jersey bill contrasts with coronavirus measures in places like California that only focus on releasing those convicted of nonviolent offenses. New Jersey’s bill is an important step forward in reducing the overbearing harshness of the criminal system. Such sentence reductions, if expanded across the country, could increase public welfare and save the state money without endangering public safety.

As you may know, the United States has a mass incarceration problem. We have 2.3 million people incarcerated, and although we are only 5 percent of the world population, we have nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. People are waking up to this problem, and criminal justice reform is a regular policy discussion. Both of the major political party platforms include commitments to criminal justice reform.

Many of the proposed reforms focus only on nonviolent drug offenders. For example, the First Step Act, passed by Congress in 2018, reduces sentences for some drug offenders but does not release those convicted of violent crimes. The act, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, specifically expands a “safety valve” that “allows courts to sentence low-level, non-violent drug offenders with minor criminal histories to less than the required mandatory minimum for an offense.” This is a very narrow group.

As Fordham University law professor John Pfaff explains, the numbers in the prison population are largely influenced by the states’ sentencing people convicted of violent crimes. This point conflicts with the idea that the war on drugs is the real cause of mass incarceration. Pfaff says that, even if we released everyone in jail who is there because of a drug offense, it is likely we would still have the highest incarceration rate in the world. The numbers back that up: About one-fifth of the people in jails or prison are there only for a drug offense. If we released all of them we would have approximately 1.8 million people locked up, while China, our next closest “competitor” has 1.5 million. If we really want to reduce mass incarceration, we need to reduce the number of people in jail because of violent offenses.

Long prison sentences also have deleterious effects on individuals and communities. Harvard sociologist Bruce Western has called incarceration a “poverty trap” that creates an “enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.” People who go to prison for long periods are released without strong employment prospects and with severed community ties. Instead of being out in the community working, they have been warehoused and isolated. This socioeconomic situation can lead them to return to criminal activity and prison.  

Communities as a whole also suffer because of mass incarceration. The criminal system strikes at poor communities of color at higher rates than other places, and, therefore, incarcerates more people living and working there. Such incarceration leaves many children with only one parent who then struggles to take sufficient care of those children. Mass incarceration also destabilizes the economies of poor areas by removing workers on a regular basis. Additionally, as stated above, when people are eventually released from prison, they have been out of the traditional workforce and most likely have reduced job prospects. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is much higher than the rate for the general population. People who remain unemployed after release are much more likely to commit further crimes.

Reducing sentence length would have the additional benefit of saving the government money.  It costs an average of around $33,000 to incarcerate someone for a year, and state budgets are tight. If the states are locking up fewer of their residents, then they may be able to close some prisons and put that money into more important matters. I think most people can agree that they would rather the state pay teachers than maintain an expensive, ineffective prison system.

A typical defense of long sentences is that they have a deterrent effect. The idea is that people who are considering criminal action may not commit the crime because of the fear of a long prison sentence. However, increasing the severity of punishment has not been shown to be much of a deterrent. Much more relevant is the likelihood of getting caught and punished in some way. A low to moderate prison sentence seems to be enough to deter people; the specific length of punishment is not the deciding factor.

Therefore, reducing sentence lengths would be a major boon for a state because it would save money on incarceration. This reform would help poor and nonwhite communities by reducing how often the system abducts residents and returns them jobless, stigmatized, and unskilled. And it would do all of this without having a negative effect on public safety. In fact, reducing the number of people incarcerated could improve public safety, because fewer people would be traumatized by the effects of prison.

So, back to the New Jersey bill—this seems like a good step forward. The state is making the leap to grace for those convicted of violent offenses. The motivation is the risk of the prisoners contracting COVID-19, which is an honorable reason, but the state could also be motivated by the reasons detailed above. Shortened sentences for those convicted of violent offenses makes the community safer and reduces the harm done to poor communities. It would also be nice if we took the U.S. off the world pedestal for mass incarceration. Let’s use New Jersey’s bill as an impetus for major, national change. 

Ellison Berryhill is an assistant public defender in Tennessee.

Prisoners Inside Georgia’s Clayton County Jail Describe Desperate Efforts To Avoid COVID-19

They shared their stories as part of a lawsuit seeking urgent changes to protect prisoners. One prisoner wrote that a jail officer denied his request for a mask, so he tied old underwear around his face.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Prisoners Inside Georgia’s Clayton County Jail Describe Desperate Efforts To Avoid COVID-19

They shared their stories as part of a lawsuit seeking urgent changes to protect prisoners. One prisoner wrote that a jail officer denied his request for a mask, so he tied old underwear around his face.

Prisoners at the jail in Clayton County, Georgia, say they were told to use underwear, T-shirts, towels, and sheets as makeshift masks because they were not provided with their own. Masks are one of several measures the sheriff, Victor Hill, failed to introduce to protect detainees from COVID-19, alleges a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of all of the jail’s detainees. 

In that lawsuit, filed last month by the Southern Center for Human Rights, 12 former and current prisoners described conditions that made social distancing and disinfection impossible and said their requests for medical help had gone ignored. They are urging a federal judge to order Hill to implement changes that follow guidelines for guarding against the spread of coronavirus. As of July 9, at least 72 detainees and 13 staff members had tested positive for coronavirus, according to the filing. 

“Everyone working at or living in the Clayton County Jail is now at risk of serious illness, or even death for those who are most medically vulnerable,” Dr. Fred Rottnek, a former medical director of the St. Louis County Jail in Missouri, wrote in a declaration accompanying the lawsuit. 

The sheriff’s office has denied a surge in COVID-19 cases at the jail. “There is no outbreak of COVID-19 in our facility,” Alan Parker, Hill’s legal adviser, wrote in a message on the communications platform Nixle on July 2. “The media has falsely exaggerated the facts to suit their story. … I have reviewed the allegations in the lawsuit, and we will vigorously defend against this lawsuit in a court of law, not in the press.”

Prior to the statement, the Georgia Department of Public Health had confirmed at least 32 cases in the facility. The jail in the metropolitan region of Atlanta, which was built to house a little more than 1,900 people, is at nearly 100 percent capacity, according to the filing. 

In a response filed on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Hill argued that the lawsuit “mirrors complaints filed across the country as a wholesale attack on jails and prisons.” 

As part of the lawsuit, prisoners wrote affidavits detailing their experiences at the jail. Rhonda Jones, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hepatitis C, said she is housed in a cell with two other people, though her cell has two bunks. She said she sleeps on a thin mattress on the floor, which is often covered by water that has leaked from the toilet. Jones said she goes to the medical unit three times per week to get her blood drawn and blood pressure checked. During that time, she waits in a crowded cage with about 20 other women, only some of whom are wearing masks, she wrote in a declaration.  She attempted to file a grievance about the lack of protections against coronavirus but said an automated kiosk told her that she had reached her grievance limit. “I am scared that I could get sick and die from coronavirus in this jail,” she wrote.

A 72-year-old former prisoner, Randolph Mitchell, said he bought a homemade mask from another prisoner in exchange for two soup packets. In May, he said he began to get headaches, an upset stomach, and shortness of breath. When he went to go see a nurse, he said that 12 to 13 people were sitting side by side in the waiting area. Later, he said he asked a nurse to be tested for COVID-19 but was told that “they do not test inmates.” 

Another prisoner wrote that he exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 three days after being placed in a cell with a symptomatic man. Once he received a test, he waited for his results for more than two weeks and in that time, a third sick man was moved into his cell. That man was later confirmed to have tested positive for the disease.

Prisoners also said they were not given proper cleaning supplies and instead forced to use a dirty mop to clean their cells once or twice a month. Every week, each person was given one four-ounce bottle of soap for showers, washing, and cleaning their cells, they said. Masks were not guaranteed, either. For the first three months of the pandemic, prisoners say most people were not given masks and used whatever they had lying around in their cells. “I recently asked an officer for a mask to protect me from the coronavirus,” wrote one man. “The officer said no. So I tie a scrap of old, ripped underwear around my face as a makeshift mask.” 

More people have been provided with masks as a result of the litigation, but the lawsuit alleges that not everyone has been given one and prisoners do not have a way to clean them. 

To remedy the problem, attorneys are asking the judge to order Hill to devise a plan for guarding against and stopping the spread of COVID-19 in the jail. That proposal would be submitted to the Georgia Department of Health for approval. And because they are alleging that the jail has not taken the proper precautions to stop an outbreak, attorneys are asking the court to determine if people who are vulnerable, such as the elderly, sick, or those with disabilities, must be released or transferred to another jail. 

The request echoes calls from advocates throughout the country for officials to release prisoners to protect them and the community from COVID-19. Though opponents have argued that releasing prisoners would put people in danger, a July report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that crime decreased in counties whose jails had reduced their populations between February and the end of April. 

Throughout the pandemic, jails have shown to be a hotspot for the disease. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, officials had reduced its jail population by more than 1,500 people early in the pandemic in part by releasing people detained on nonviolent charges. But the population has since risen back to pre-pandemic numbers as close to 1,000 people held in the jail have tested positive for coronavirus. At the Chattooga County jail in Georgia, nearly all 15 employees are either COVID-19 positive or displaying symptoms. 

Speaking about Clayton County, Sarah Geraghty, senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told The Appeal, “For certain people, the current conditions at the jail pose such a high risk that transfer or release is the only solution to protect those people from a risk of serious illness or death.” 

“People in this jail are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, members of the community,” she added, “and none were sentenced to die of an infectious disease inside this jail.”

As Decriminalization Drives Reforms For Marijuana Convictions, Activists See Others Serving Time Left Behind

Despite the growing consciousness around the need for reforms, thousands of prisoners who might also deserve clemency or early release are slipping through the cracks.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

As Decriminalization Drives Reforms For Marijuana Convictions, Activists See Others Serving Time Left Behind

Despite the growing consciousness around the need for reforms, thousands of prisoners who might also deserve clemency or early release are slipping through the cracks.

In 2003, Mark Sumrell walked into a Kroger in Greenville, Mississippi. He took a jacket off the rack—retail price $39, according to his family—and put it on. As he walked toward the door, two security guards confronted him.

“I stopped walking and asked the two men if I could help them,” Sumrell recalls. “The elder one asked me to give him the jacket, because at this point I’ve put it on. With no hesitation I gave him the jacket. He asked me to go to the security room with him.”

Police soon arrived and arrested Sumrell for shoplifting. He had two prior felony convictions: a robbery charge from 1991 and a cocaine possession charge two years later. Based on the state’s habitual offender law, Judge Ashley Hines sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. The jacket went back on the shelf. 

“It was re-ticketed and re-sold for retail price,” Sumrell writes from Mississippi State Penitentiary. “Yet, some 17 years later I am still fighting for my life.”  

“Sixteen years of life has passed me by. My daughter was two, she’s nineteen now. My son was fifteen. I have lost the prime of my life in here.” 

In the last decade, there’s been growing, bipartisan consensus that the U.S. imprisons too many people for far too long. That shift largely has come amid a surge in pot legalization at the state level, which has helped generate the political will to stop incarcerating people for marijuana and to redress law enforcement overreaches from the past. Yet despite the growing consciousness around the need for reforms, thousands of prisoners who might also deserve clemency or early release are slipping through the cracks. 

That category includes people who don’t fit the highly exclusive definition of being a nonviolent drug prisoner. Sumrell’s petty shoplifting (in addition to robbery and cocaine possession) aren’t on the radar of social justice groups and activists who focus on drugs. And although many drug policy groups seek to end incarceration for all drug crimes, there is not the same momentum behind methamphetamine, crack cocaine, or opioids as there is for marijuana. Then there are cases that fit the generally accepted notion of nonviolent drug crime, but have complicating factors that might make lawmakers wary of granting clemency. 

Michael Thompson is serving 40 to 60 years for selling pot in Michigan, a state where the drug is now legal. But because police also found several guns in his condo when they arrested him on Dec. 19, 1994, and he had (nonviolent) priors, his case isn’t legally categorized as a nonviolent marijuana crime. Thompson, who has spent 25 years behind bars (and has a perfect disciplinary record), is waiting for the parole board to send his clemency petition to Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Whitmer, a Democrat who has styled herself as an effective leader on COVID-19, has yet to grant Thompson clemency, even as the first cases of the disease appeared at the Muskegon Correctional Facility, where he’s imprisoned. ABC reports that there are more than 100 prisoners at the facility who’ve tested positive. 

Last week, Thompson was hospitalized at the Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson, Michigan, with a case of COVID-19. “My biggest fear finally popped up,” Thompson, who is diabetic, told The Appeal. 

Thompson’s case has garnered widespread public attention. Activist Shaun King has taken up his cause and Kimberly Corral, an Ohio-based attorney, is spearheading his legal campaign for release. Many of Thompson’s supporters are well-known pot entrepreneurs, like Steve DeAngelo, whose group the Last Prisoner Project, an organization devoted to freeing marijuana prisoners, has prioritized getting him out.