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Massachusetts Could Loosen Life Without Parole Restrictions For Young People

Justices in the state’s highest court are weighing whether it is unconstitutional to sentence people convicted of murder and aged 18 to 20 to life without parole.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Getty Images.

Massachusetts Could Loosen Life Without Parole Restrictions For Young People

Justices in the state’s highest court are weighing whether it is unconstitutional to sentence people convicted of murder and aged 18 to 20 to life without parole.

By the age of 15, Alfred Jenks was alone. His dad was in and out of prison throughout his childhood, he said. To put food on the table, he sold narcotics. 

“You’re groomed by other individuals in the street life who are older than you,” he told The Appeal in a phone call. “They show you different parcels and avenues and things like that. And ultimately, that led to the situation I found myself in.”  

In 1994, when Jenks was 20, he was involved in a shootout at a nightclub where a stray bullet fatally struck an innocent bystander. He was arrested, put behind bars, and sentenced to life without parole.  

Now, 27 years later, Jenks might get a second chance. His fate could rest in the hands of seven Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judges who are reviewing two cases and weighing whether it is unconstitutional to  issue life without parole sentences to emerging adults—people ages 18 to 20—who have been convicted of first-degree murder.

“There has to be some mechanism for individuals in that [youthful] category, to not just be thrown away,” Jenks told The Appeal. “They cannot be defined by that one moment as an adolescent.”

One 2011 case under review, Commonwealth v. Watt, concerns Sheldon Mattis who was 18 when prosecutors said he handed a gun to Nyasani Watt. Watt, who was 10 days away from his 18th birthday, shot and killed Jaivon Blake, according to prosecutors. 

Watt was originally sentenced to life without parole. But following a 2013 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that eliminated life without parole sentences for people who were younger than 18 when they were convicted of murder, he was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Mattis, however, was considered an adult and given a mandatory life without parole sentence. 

Another case under review, Commonwealth v. Robinson, involves Jason Robinson, who was given a life without parole sentence after being convicted in 2002 of first-degree murder, unlawful posession of a firearm, and armed robbery. He was 19 at the time of the crimes.

Mattis’s attorneys argue that the legal boundary separating people defined as juveniles—younger than 18—from emerging adults is arbitrary. Neuroscience research shows that the brain is not fully developed for emerging adults at age 21, they argue, and people younger than 21 should be provided the same relief as those under 18. 

If the Supreme Judicial Court sides with Mattis, more than 200 people who, like Jenks, committed first-degree homicide after they turned 18 and before they turned 21 could have a chance at a life outside of prison, according to an informal survey conducted by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and shared with The Appeal.  

Ruth Greenberg, one of Mattis’s attorneys, told The Appeal she is optimistic about the trend away from harsh sentencing in the state. “Things have been getting better for children in Massachusetts and federally now, for years,” she said. “When I began my practice in 1985, children as young as 14 could be sentenced to death.” 

However, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a judge can sentence a child to life without parole in the absence of a “permanent incorrigibility” determination, which means a child could be sent behind bars for life even if the court believes they could be rehabilitated. International law prohibits sending children to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court, upheld Watts’s and Mattis’s convictions in December 2019. But it remanded the case to the Suffolk County Superior Court for evidentiary hearings to reconsider the current research on brain development in young adults. 

Adriana Galván, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles with expertise in adolescent brain development, and Robert Kinscherff, a professor at Williams James College specializing in forensic and clinical psychology, testified on behalf of Mattis in those hearings in January and February.

In January, Galván testified that the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that deals with reasoning, decision-making and consequences—is still developing until a person’s mid-20s. 

“Adolescents have a higher cognition or more mature cognition than younger kids,” Galván said, “but they too are still in flux in terms of the way that their prefrontal cortex can support decision-making and planning and future orientation.” In a blog post last year for the American Constitution Society, Galván wrote that “there is widespread agreement in the scientific community: the brains of emerging adults are undergoing ongoing maturation in fundamental ways related to emotional regulation, decision-making, and risk-evaluation, even though people in this age range may look (and sometimes act) like adults.”  

Kinscherff testified in February that it is impossible to reliably predict an individual’s capacity for change. “People change over the course of their lives,” he said. “Even adults who have been very problematic, very violent people can change when they are in their thirties and forties. … [T]he further out the prediction goes the shakier the ground that you’re on. And that’s even more the case with adolescents and late adolescents.” 

Research conducted by Laurence Steinberg, an expert who testified on behalf of Robinson in October 2020, found adolescents’ reward systems are especially sensitized in the presence of peers, which may make them more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. “[A] lot of our work in our laboratory has looked at how the presence of peers affects decision-making and risk-taking among people of different ages,” he testified, “which his [sic] to elevate or increase risky behavior in late adolescence and we don’t see a peer affecting people once they’re 24 or older.” 

This scientific consensus about brain development is motivating changes in sentencing laws. In March, the Washington Supreme Court became the first to extend the federal Supreme Court’s ban on mandatory life without parole for minors to people older than 18, citing neuroscience research. 

“The petitioners have shown that many youthful defendants older than 18 share the same developing brains and impulsive behavioral attributes as those under 18,” the court wrote. “Thus, we hold that these 19- and 20-year-old petitioners must qualify for some of the same constitutional protections as well.” 

But Washington’s ruling only bans mandatory life sentences for people younger than 21, meaning a judge still has the discretion to sentence 18- to 20-year-olds to life without parole. “We’re asking for more,” Greenberg told The Appeal. Mattis’s defense attorneys are seeking a ruling that bans life without parole sentences for all emerging adults, she said.

Other states are moving to enact laws that provide some relief for emerging adults. Illinois is considering a bill that would make a person who committed first-degree murder under the age of 21 eligible for parole after spending 40 years in prison. In April, Washington, D.C., passed a law that allows people who committed a crime after they turn 18 and before they turn 25 to apply for sentence modification. Vermont became the first state to expand juvenile court jurisdiction to 19 in 2020.

Jenks’s memories of his youth seem to align with the research that is bolstering efforts to reduce mandatory sentencing penalties. When he was 20, he said, “there was no thoughts of tomorrow.” The impact of being incarcerated for 28 years wasn’t something he could fathom, Jenks explained. 

For Jenks, risk-taking wasn’t a choice, it was a survival tactic. “Back then, it was just living in the moment and trying to survive. I never thought I would live as long as I’ve lived today, you know, living in that type of lifestyle,” he said. “It was almost to be expected that I would be in the position that I was in at that age. That’s what we’re told. In street life there are two endings: You’re gonna die or you’re gonna go to jail.

Adolescents of color like Jenks are disproportionately detained and confined across the criminal legal system. White people view Black children as young as 10 as less innocent than other children and overestimate the age of Black children by an average of 4.5 years, according to a 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association. More than three quarters of all youth sentenced to life without parole are children of color, according to a 2016 Prison Policy Institute report. 

Children sentenced to life have likely already faced severe hardships. In a national survey of children sentenced to life without parole, published in 2012, The Sentencing Project found that more than half were not attending school at the time that the crime they were accused of was committed, and the overwhelming majority had experienced trauma before they were charged, including witnessing violence in their homes and neighborhoods. Nearly half of respondents reported experiencing physical abuse, and the majority of girls reported histories of sexual abuse.

After Jenks’s brother was murdered in 1999, he said he had a new understanding of what his victim’s family was going through. “That really was almost a catalyst for me to expect better of myself, even if this was my final destination,” he said. He got his GED, and is two courses away from obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Boston University. 

“It’s been a journey. Through introspection and education and obviously, my religion. I’m a Christian. All of these factors combined helped me broaden my perspective and to reform myself,” said Jenks.   

Those who are affected if the court rules in favor of Mattis will face their own set of challenges getting parole. Racial disparities persist in approvals: Nearly 58 percent of people in Massachusetts prisons identify as people of color, compared with 44 percent of the people paroled in 2019. That year, the state’s total parole rate was 64 percent, but only 17 percent for children who became eligible following the 2013 state Supreme Court ruling. 

A March audit of the Massachusetts parole board also found that the board could not provide documentation proving all parolees received required re-entry forms, meaning parolees may not be aware of what constitutes a violation of their parole. Gregory Diatchenko, an activist whose case was the basis of the state Supreme Court ruling that banned life without parole for children under 18, was sent back to prison in 2019. He’d had a positive breathalyzer test at his home and protested at a state prison, a violation of his visitation ban according to the board. In May of last year, the board voted to keep him behind bars for at least two more years.    

If Jenks is released, he hopes to become a social worker or to find work where he can help prevent young people from falling into traps he said are designed to land them in prison. 

“We need to give people a chance,” he said. “Because that’s all anybody ever really wanted was a chance.”

Important Updates From The Appeal

After years of groundbreaking reporting and analysis, The Appeal will sunset in its current form on June 30. Staff are working to relaunch in the near future.

Important Updates From The Appeal

After years of groundbreaking reporting and analysis, The Appeal will sunset in its current form on June 30. Staff are working to relaunch in the near future.

We are saddened to share that The Appeal will be closing on June 30. However, we are excited to support the staff who are committed to relaunching The Appeal and carrying on our important work.

Please find two statements below. The first is from The Appeal’s executive director, advisory board, and fiscal sponsor. The second is from the Appeal transition team—the staff working to relaunch the media organization.

Joint Statement of  Rob Smith, Executive Director & Founder of The Appeal, The Appeal Advisory Board, and Tides Center & Tides Advocacy

After more than three years of providing groundbreaking reporting and analysis aimed at solving the problems of discrimination, inequity and injustice in our society, we have decided to sunset The Appeal in its current form at the end of June. 

This was a difficult decision but one we believe is most consistent with our mission and values, responsibly manages our existing funding, and provides some level of stability for the people who have given so much to The Appeal.

As we have evaluated the challenging funding landscape, a fiscal restructuring, and changes in the project leadership, it became clear that The Appeal could not continue in its current form. This decision comes after extensive engagement with The Appeal Union, funders, and other stakeholders, and the consideration of various alternative pathways forward. 

Founded in 2018 as a mission-driven media organization covering the criminal legal system, The Appeal quickly grew into an influential outlet that produced rigorous reporting and analysis regularly cited by leading policymakers, journalists, scholars, and advocates. In addition to mass incarceration and policing, The Appeal’s coverage included housing and homelessness, economic stability, and other policies affecting our most vulnerable communities. We are extraordinarily proud of the work that The Appeal has produced and the impact it has had in the community. 

This is not the outcome we had planned or hoped for The Appeal. There has been an incredible amount of time, energy, talent, and resources devoted to this organization, and we are grateful to all who contributed to it. We are especially grateful to the remarkable people who have worked here and their deep commitment to The Appeal’s mission.

We support the staff who are committed to relaunching The Appeal and are hopeful about what’s to come. We are in ongoing discussions with them about their plans to carry on the work of The Appeal. Please see their statement to learn more about their next steps.


The Appeal Advisory Board members are Anne Irwin, Sophie Cull, and Zack Malitz.

Statement From The Appeal Transition Team

Today we are officially announcing the worker-led effort to relaunch The Appeal. 

The executive director of The Appeal, The Appeal Advisory Board, and our fiscal sponsor, Tides Advocacy, have decided to shut down The Appeal in its current form on June 30, despite our union’s best efforts.

But we, the workers, are not giving up on the mission that has made The Appeal a leading national voice on the harms and injustice of the U.S. criminal legal system.

On the heels of our union wins and the public’s overwhelming support of that effort, a majority of us have formed a transition team that is taking steps to ensure that we can continue our vital journalism. 

For the time being, we will be working without pay to get this up and running. To support efforts to relaunch The Appeal, please make a monthly or one-time donation here. (Donations will be made to Scalawag, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit newsroom assisting the effort to relaunch.)

We are so proud of what we have accomplished so far. Our work has challenged prevailing narratives about crime and punishment and uplifted stories and voices that traditional media so often leaves behind. We have exposed injustices, sparked protests and grassroots activism, and inspired legislation that shrinks the footprint of policing and incarceration.

This is an incredible opportunity to write a new chapter for The Appeal that builds on our successes and improves our workplace. As we move forward, we will create an Appeal where racial and gender equity are priorities, and where we all have a say in the direction of the organization. Being worker-directed will help us achieve these goals and set us apart in a challenging media landscape.

With your help, we can continue this work. 

Make a monthly or one-time donation to help us build the new Appeal.

Follow @TheAppeal and @TheAppealUnion on Twitter to receive news about future developments. 

Your support will help us realize our goal of producing journalism that shows the human costs of our expansive carceral system, equips people with the tools to make change, and elevates solutions that seek to create a safer society for everyone.


The Appeal Transition Team

For press inquiries, please contact Nick Wing at

The Dishonest Blame Game of Retail Store Closures and Crime

Reporters who parrot corporate claims of out-of-control theft play into a narrative that benefits big business and perpetuates carceral policies.

A Walgreens store in San Francisco on Oct. 12, 2020.
Photo by Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

The Dishonest Blame Game of Retail Store Closures and Crime

Reporters who parrot corporate claims of out-of-control theft play into a narrative that benefits big business and perpetuates carceral policies.

After former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted for murdering George Floyd, the initial police account of Floyd’s death circulated widely. The statement said Floyd suffered “from medical distress” and emphasized that police did not use weapons, but it omitted that Chauvin had kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes while he cried for help and, eventually, stopped breathing. 

The misleading and dishonest statement crystallized for the entire country what many in the criminal legal system already knew: The police lie. The police are not reliable narrators about crime and public safety because they have their own interests to protect. They want to avoid punishment and to amass big budgets and power, and they offer narratives that, on balance, advance those interests over others. Given this, Barry Petchesky wrote in April in Defector, reporters who rely on police statements should at the very least append the qualification “officers claim,” making clear that what officers say should always be questioned and verified. 

The same lesson applies not just to the police but to anyone who stands to benefit from more policing and carceral systems, including wealthy corporations that see arrests and prison terms as means to protect their bottom line. It’s the sort of basic skepticism that should at this point be de rigueur for any journalist or policymaker. 

Yet in San Francisco, just months after Chauvin’s conviction, that lesson remains unlearned. Prominent newspapers are parroting police and retailer talking points about a supposed shoplifting “surge” that they say is “out of control,” despite the lack of evidence or any apparent investigation into whether such evidence exists. And that narrative is dangerous, providing grist for political opponents of criminal justice reforms who use fear of rampant crime to advocate more harmful and discriminatory carceral policies. 

The San Francisco Chronicle paints a dire picture. One alarmist headline reads “Organized crime drives S.F. shoplifting, closing 17 Walgreens in five years” and describes seniors losing access to prescription drugs and other vital services after their neighborhood pharmacy is forced to shutter. The paper doubled-down on this narrative last week based on video of a single shoplifting incident, in which a man shoves items into a garbage bag and then flees on a bicycle. Similarly, the New York Times reported that “the mundane crime of shoplifting has spun out of control in San Francisco,” with stores closing “largely because the scale of thefts had made business untenable.”

The source for this information? The retailers themselves, backed by anecdotal reports from law enforcement. 

The stories draw from a San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing that Supervisor Ahsha Safai convened last month. There, reports the Chronicle, “retailers attributed a majority of losses to professional thieves instead of opportunistic shoplifters who may be driven by poverty, with one CVS leader calling San Francisco a hub of organized retail crime.” That “leader” is Brendan Dugan, CVS Health’s “director of organized retail crime and corporate investigations,” who said “professional crime accounts for 85% of the company’s dollar losses” in San Francisco. 

The Chronicle and the Times also reported retailer claims that criminal justice reform is to blame, particularly Proposition 47, which California voters passed in 2014 to reduce penalties for thefts worth less than $950. According to supermarket chain Safeway, the new law, which has been a critical tool in fighting mass incarceration, led to “dramatic increases” in shoplifting losses. 

For his part, Safai wrote on Twitter that “the numbers speak for themselves,” and posted a Walgreens-produced graphic that uses four cartoon robbers to indicate the prevalence of “professional theft” in San Francisco. (By comparison, New York City only has 1.5 cartoon robbers.)

In none of this reporting did anyone apparently ask for actual data, or the methodology used to obtain it, or, say, the definition of “organized retail crime” and how retailers could possibly know exactly how much theft it’s responsible for. And when commentators like Adam Johnson, co-host of the podcast “Citations Needed” and a former staff writer at The Appeal, and law professor John Pfaff pointed this out, they confronted disbelief: “Are you accusing Walgreens of falsifying that data?” tweeted Michelle Tandler, a self-described “Moderate Dem” and founder of a life skills company. Michael Shellenberger, a writer and commentator on environmentalism,   asked, “Why would Safeway lie?”

More thorough reporting would have provided reasons for skepticism. It could have mentioned that Walgreens announced in 2019 that it was closing hundreds of stores nationwide as a cost-saving measure, and that, as Johnson noted, Walgreens has closed stores in New York City at a higher rate without allegations of rampant organized crime. 

Thefts overall are down compared to the five-year average from 2015 to 2019, and, according to police data, larceny (which includes shoplifting) is down 14 percent from this same point last year.

Beyond that, the stories could have explained how the actual data shows that crime in San Francisco, including property crime, has dropped to record lows. Thefts overall are down compared to the five-year average from 2015 to 2019, and, according to police data, larceny (which includes shoplifting) is down 14 percent from this same point last year (or, to compare to a non-pandemic year, down 33 percent from the first five months of 2019). The Chronicle dismissed the relevance of this based on a police explanation, writing that police said “incidents are often underreported and have become more violent and brazen.”

And Safeway’s assertion that criminal justice reform is causing more crime could have been rebutted with the 2018 University of California, Irvine study, which concluded that while larceny “increased moderately,” overall, “we find very little evidence to suggest that Proposition 47 caused crime to increase in California.”

Even more glaring is the failure to note or investigate retailers’ long history of pushing for draconian shoplifting penalties based on dubious claims of significant crime waves. 

An October 2020 report by the consumer-interest group Public Citizen explained how, “in recent years, the retail industry has advocated against criminal justice reforms that reduce shoplifting sentences and/or supported harsher anti-shoplifting laws in 18 states,” with retailers winning in 11 of those states. In California, major grocers including Safeway collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting an unsuccessful 2020 ballot measure to roll back Proposition 47 and create longer prison sentences for shoplifting, among other harsh criminal penalties.

Then there’s the warning of “organized retail crime,” or ORC in industry parlance. The term sounds ominous, evoking a network of thieves operating a sophisticated enterprise. But state laws and the retail industry use it broadly to describe coordinated theft of almost any kind, and in some cases theft involving just a single person. The National Retail Federation, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of retail businesses, releases an annual survey on “organized retail crime” and “ORC gangs” that doesn’t define either term and is based entirely on a survey of retailers (a total of 61 in 2020). The group then uses that survey to make claims like organized retail crime “affects 9 out of 10 retailers,” and “among ORC victims, three in four report an increase in the past year,” and to demand federal organized retail theft legislation.

State laws targeting so-called organized retail crime can be similarly broad, allowing prosecutors to bring charges against people wrestling with poverty or substance use issues. The 2020 ballot initiative that Safeway and the California Grocers Association backed, Proposition 20, would have created a new crime for “organized retail theft” defined as two or more people shoplifting “in concert” at least twice in six months for a total value more than $250. In Arizona, there’s no dollar amount threshold and a person can commit organized retail theft entirely alone if they steal something with the intent to sell it. The offense carries a potential three-year prison term. 

Which is all to say, when retail chains like Walgreens tell you that stores are closing because of organized crime—that seniors are losing their local pharmacy because shoplifting is “out of control” and not because of corporate strategic planning or to pay for the CEO’s $25 million signing bonus—it’s worth at least digging into their story.

Why does all this matter? Because this is how mass incarceration happens. Police and the moneyed interests who want their protection tell stories that spark fear about rising crime—in this case, that well-intentioned reforms have led to an onslaught of organized crime—journalists launder those stories through the “news,” and then those stories become fodder for campaigns against reforms and reformer politicians. That’s happening now in San Francisco, where a Silicon Valley-funded campaign to recall Chesa Boudin, the city’s district attorney, is built upon bogus claims that crime has exploded during his tenure. The end result, when these efforts succeed, is more arrests, more people in jail, and longer prison terms, all of which will inevitably fall hardest on poor people and people of color. 

Corporations are not experts on crime statistics, nor are they honest brokers of it, and they shouldn’t be treated otherwise.

Los Angeles County Homeless Residents Say Sheriff’s Department Is Targeting Them

The ACLU of Southern California is suing the city of Lancaster and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for excessively citing people living at desert homeless encampments in the Antelope Valley.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s district includes the northern portion of the county, where Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Perris has been accused of neglecting the rights of the unhoused community.
Photo illustration by Jessy V. Castillo

Los Angeles County Homeless Residents Say Sheriff’s Department Is Targeting Them

The ACLU of Southern California is suing the city of Lancaster and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for excessively citing people living at desert homeless encampments in the Antelope Valley.

In March, Echo Park, a gentrified neighborhood in Los Angeles, made national headlines after police swept the area and removed about 200 people at a park encampment. But in the Antelope Valley, located just outside the city in the northern part of Los Angeles County, sweeps have been happening for years, sometimes with 72 hours’ notice or less. Unlike the Echo Park sweeps, they’ve often not been recorded or photographed, and have pushed people into the Mojave Desert.

Residents at one encampment in Lancaster told The Appeal that trekking into the desert with a truck, an RV, or merely a tent is a last resort. They said they have been pushed out of Los Angeles to Antelope Valley cities like Palmdale and Lancaster because of a lack of services, rising home prices, and evictions. But the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department has continued to clear encampments and cite people for municipal code violations.

Unhoused people in Lancaster make up about 1.3 percent of the city’s population, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. However, they are the subjects of a quarter of all stops that result in citations issued by the sheriff’s department, which polices the area, and about half of the department’s stops to enforce the city’s municipal codes, the report said. ACLU SoCal, along with the University of California, Irvine, filed a lawsuit in February against the city and the sheriff’s department for a citation regime they say is “designed and enforced to punish poverty, in violation of the California Constitution.” The sheriff’s department did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

“Once the lawsuit dropped, the [administrative] citations almost pretty much stopped,” Ruth Sanchez, an ACLU Antelope Valley Chapter organizer, told The Appeal. “But that doesn’t mean the harassment has.” 

In April, red tag notices indicating that residents had to leave appeared overnight on their belongings, Sanchezsaid. She did her best to connect people to services, and she routinely visits people in the encampments to offer food and connect them to county services, work that she says the deputies and Lancaster officials hardly do.

We hold both the city of Lancaster and the LA County Board of Supervisors accountable for this crisis.Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst and advocate at ACLU SoCal

The ACLU SoCal report cites Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris as partly responsible for a robust campaign to “criminalize and banish [the city’s] unhoused community members” through ordinances. When asked for comment, Parris referred The Appeal to a February statement from his office, which said city ordinances “do not target homeless people” and that the spike in homelessness in Lancaster did not have a “corresponding spike in funding to help them.”

“Lancaster has been reviewing the existing administrative citation program to ensure that it will benefit public health, safety and welfare, while providing persons who commit such offenses an opportunity to avoid criminal proceedings and possible convictions,” Parris said in the statement. “We will continue to support the program, with the goal of decriminalization and keeping people out of the system —  including the unhoused.”

He suggested to local media that the city would continue to enforce city ordinances that affect homeless people. “Am I going to allow people to sleep wherever they want and try and get money from people who are shopping? That’s not going to happen,” he told the Antelope Valley Times.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Lancaster and Palmdale, was also cited in the ACLU SoCal report as responsible for the city’s treatment of unhoused people. Michelle Vega, communications director for Barger’s office,  told The Appeal the office cannot comment because of the pending litigation.  

“We hold both the city of Lancaster and the LA County Board of Supervisors accountable for this crisis,” Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy analyst and advocate at ACLU SoCal and one of the report authors, told The Appeal. “These people are constituents of both the city and the county. And both levels need to treat this crisis as the public health and safety crisis that it is for people that are unhoused. For so long now, they’ve pointed at each other when it comes to accountability but it has always been on both of their hands.” 

Garrow said that the county has not responded to her request to meet with members of the Board of Supervisors about the report’s findings.

The lawsuit comes as organizers in the Antelope Valley are pushing to get the sheriff’s department out of their communities entirely.  On March 4, a coalition of community organizations launched a campaign called Cancel The Contract, which asks the cities and schools of Palmdale and Lancaster to cancel their contracts with the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department and “reinvest dollars into a new vision of community safety and meaningful services for students and the community.” Educators and students last summer detailed experiences they had during school hours and on school property with sheriff’s deputies, including strip searches and harassment.

“I bought a stolen calculator. The campus cop arrested me for felony possession of stolen property,” reads one testimony from a former student. “I didn’t even know it was stolen. He didn’t care. I had a felony before I was 17, and the judge I was assigned to was known for keeping kids in jail. Not how a society should deal with their young.”

The coalition said it stands with the ACLU of SoCal’s demands and wants the nearly $28 million devoted to Lancaster’s contract with the sheriff’s department diverted to community services like long-term affordable housing, mental health and substance use services, and long term care. “Let’s envision a community beyond law enforcement,” the group said in a statement to The Appeal.

The Appeal asked the Board of Supervisors for comment on the group’s demands; Holly Mitchell, whose district includes portions of downtown L.A. and unincorporated areas like Baldwin Hills, was the only supervisor who responded. 

“We cannot expect law enforcement to be the catch-all solution for the deeply nuanced social and economic challenges that push families into deep poverty,” Mitchell told The Appeal in an email. “Instead, a more collaborative approach is needed that includes community-based organizations and services to help ensure we are actually meeting the immediate and long term needs of our unhoused residents.”

The sweeps and citations make up a culture of constant fear and intimidation in the region, according to several unhoused people at an encampment. Although some have woken up to red tags telling them to leave the premises, some people have reported deputies showing up unannounced, with Lancaster city officials yelling at them to gather their belongings and shaming them for the current condition. Two people have reported sheriff’s deputies taking photos of them and their belongings without their consent and laughing.

“When the deputies come by, they say all these snarky things and make fun of you for being here,” said Aletha Johnson. “Once in a blue moon they’ll ask me how my dog and I are doing, but you know.” 

Life in the Mojave Desert, away from critical infrastructure, is precarious. Temperatures can approach 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 120 degrees during the summer. At least two people at the encampment had come down with frostbite, Johnson said.

Gary Foss, who lives in a makeshift tent around his truck, said he and his wife were pushed like many others to the Antelope Valley because of loitering and panhandling ordinances in Lancaster. Their relocation resulted in immense tragedy. His wife suffered a heart attack in November, but the ambulance took over an hour to arrive, he said, given that their encampment is over seven miles away from the local hospital in the desert and Foss had to find someone with a phone near their makeshift home. She died before EMTs were on the scene.

On April 27, organizers with ACLU SoCal were able to get some cell phones to people in encampments in order to have them give public comments during Lancaster’s City Council meeting. Foss was one of two people to comment and shared the story of how sheriff’s deputies had forced him and his wife to move away from the city, which caused them to be completely isolated during their crisis.

Parris, however, appeared unmoved by the campaign to remove deputies from the city. In response to a public comment condemning the killing of Michael Thomas last summer, Parris grew visibly upset and asserted that “there is no intention of this council to replace the sheriff’s department.”

Organizers from the ACLU SoCal and Cancel the Contract coalition tell The Appeal that they plan to continue pursuing their campaign to get the sheriff’s department out of the Antelope Valley. They also plan to continue their overall push for a housing-first model and demand that the city of Lancaster and Los Angeles County provide restitution to all the people in encampments. They reject current programs like the city of Los Angeles’s camping sites with small-home villages in parking lots, and they demand short- and long-term solutions.

“We need to see this for what it is: a complete horrific public health crisis being orchestrated by two government entities,” Garrow told The Appeal. “This campaign to banish our most vulnerable people has gone on for far too long.”

Climate Justice Is Central to Kate Knuth’s Bid for Minneapolis Mayor

The former state legislator and resilience officer sees progressive economic policies as part and parcel of curbing climate change.

Kate Knuth, candidate for Minneapolis mayor
Kate for Minneapolis/Facebook

Climate Justice Is Central to Kate Knuth’s Bid for Minneapolis Mayor

The former state legislator and resilience officer sees progressive economic policies as part and parcel of curbing climate change.

While most kids love parades, Kate Knuth despised them. Shy growing up, Knuth saw them largely as crowded political events she had to slog through: Her father, Daniel, was a hydrologist turned Minnesota state legislator, and she recalled many photo ops for which she refused to smile. “It’s funny that I now do politics, but what stuck with me is that a good life is a life with part of it in service of community,” she told The Appeal.

Knuth followed in her dad’s political footsteps when she served in the Minnesota State House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013. She is now one of five Democratic challengers trying to oust incumbent Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. The crowd includes community organizer Sheila Nezhad; former Marine Philip Sturm; businessperson and attorney Mark Globus; and A.J. Awed, co-executive director of the community council of Cedar-Riverside, a predominantly Black neighborhood represented by Ilhan Omar in the U.S. House of Representatives. Knuth hopes to stand out by focusing on environmental justice as her touchstone issue.

“The thing that I bring is this really strong commitment to moving through the work of structural transformative change, particularly when it comes to public safety, particularly when it comes to climate change,” she said. “Pairing that with [my] experience in, and just liking working within, big public institutions and working with them and through them to make sure they’re serving what we deserve as a city is potentially really powerful and I think something people in this city would really value.”

The city coordinator appointed Knuth as Minneapolis’s first chief resilience officer, a Rockefeller Foundation-funded position intended to increase climate resilience in 100 cities across the U.S. She began her work in June 2017 and stepped down just seven months later. Knuth says her decision to leave came down to a lack of alignment with Frey after he took office in January 2018. Her vision for the role “was to work across the siloes of city government in collaboration with the community to get to the root of systemic challenges like systemic racism, dangerous wealth inequality, and inequitable climate impacts,” she said. “Mayor Frey wanted to focus narrowly on housing. I was also concerned about the lack of listening to staff and community I saw coming from the mayor, which I felt would negatively impact the success of the resilience work.”

For her, addressing climate change on the city level in Minneapolis is an equity issue. “As climate change ramps up, it increases risk and those risks show up in different ways,” Knuth said. “If we don’t take care of the inequality and the injustice, the people who are already marginalized are going to be even more vulnerable in the face of climate change.” Redlined neighborhoods—often majority-Black neighborhoods that were historically denied mortgages or loans and subsequently divested from—“are actually about 10 degrees hotter on the hottest days,” she said, citing a January 2020 study.

For Knuth, the answers lie in focusing on urban tree canopies, accessible green spaces, community cooling sites, and encouraging people to check on their neighbors. She would also like to see the city build a targeted wealth development program for the Black community to help people afford air conditioning and other heat mitigation strategies.

Climate change intersects with progressive economic policies for Knuth. “I think one of the best resilience strategies we could accomplish is if every family had $500 in the bank,” she said. “Whether it’s a car breaking down or the power going out and losing some food, they’re better able to handle that. Does that sound like a climate policy? No, but if climate change increases risks in the most vulnerable [communities] now or even more vulnerable [communities in the future], decreasing vulnerability overall is super important in terms of dealing with climate change.”

Knuth believes that Minneapolis needs a “full-throated climate justice champion” as mayor because “the moment calls for it.” She plans to be a mayor who focuses not only on climate resilience strategies, but on actually implementing them through departmental leadership, budget investments, and radical transparency around climate-focused decision-making in everything from housing to transportation.

Frey and the City Council have had an adversarial relationship, and Knuth believes the fissure is bad for the city. “I think it’s really important to push back on the narrative that the council is problematic,” she said. Knuth sees the City Council as trying to lead on key issues: In 2019, the council voted to declare a climate emergency, and it announced a commitment to disband the Minneapolis Police Department in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, a move that Frey has criticized.

Frey’s contentious relationship with the city’s elected representatives, among other issues, got Knuth thinking in January about running for mayor. “Especially in the last year, especially in the last six weeks, there has been an absence” on the part of Frey, she said. “I also haven’t seen as strong of an interest in the basic running of the city that I would like to see from my mayor.”

For Knuth, two of the central issues the city has to contend with are policing and homelessness, primarily how Minneapolis has dealt with the numerous homeless encampments in city parks by abruptly disbanding them.

Knuth sees the encampments as the result of multiple issues, including housing, mental health, and substance use. “It’s super important to meet people where they are and to put resources into moving people into homes and housing situations that work for them,” she says. “It’s not just a numbers game of this many units, this many people, problem solved.”

She sees unhoused neighbors as best served by mental health professionals rather than armed police. Pretextual stops, like the one that led to an officer shooting and killing Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center in April, are another area where Knuth believes the police shouldn’t be involved. She supports the City Council’s and the public’s efforts to amend Minneapolis’s charter in an effort to eliminate and replace the police department.

“I hope to get the opportunity to build a public safety department,” she says. “I want to help the city navigate through this time in a way that helps us turn towards a more just, sustainable, resilient future,” adding that she isn’t making any plans for what’ll happen if she doesn’t win.

How The Twin Cities Mayors Diverge on Policing and Race

While Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey faces scrutiny over policing and racial equity issues, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter has helped his city achieve progressive milestones, say lawmakers and advocates.

St Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey during a funeral held for Daunte Wright on April 22 in Minneapolis.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

How The Twin Cities Mayors Diverge on Policing and Race

While Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey faces scrutiny over policing and racial equity issues, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter has helped his city achieve progressive milestones, say lawmakers and advocates.

As the Mississippi River makes its journey from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it splits the Twin Cities in two: Minneapolis to the west and the state’s capital of St. Paul to the east. The cities have also diverged politically. Both are led by young mayors who promised reform, but city leaders, activists, and experts say they are frustrated by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and laud St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter for his progress in office so far.

Carter, the city’s first Black mayor, has implemented programs focused on equity and inclusion for marginalized communities. He supported and signed into law a commission to explore reparations, piloted guaranteed income, and offered college savings accounts for every child born in the city in 2020 and after. “I think we have work to do to make sure this is a city that works for everyone, where everyone in every corner of our city knows that they have access to the highest quality of public services possible, and building an economy that works for everyone,” Carter told Minnesota Public Radio in 2017.

Frey, who is white, promised to invest in affordable housing and improve relations between the community and police. “We want police officers to come from the community,” Frey said at a meeting with a Minneapolis group in 2017. “We want people to be invested in the neighborhoods in which they are serving. You’re more invested in the neighborhood in which you are living.” But he has floundered publicly over the police killings of George Floyd in his city and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. After a 6-year-old girl in North Minneapolis was recently hospitalized with a gunshot wound, Frey held a press conference and said he believes in a “both-and” approach to addressing violence, calling for prevention strategies as well as more police. Frey’s approach to policing also contrasts with that of Brooklyn Center Mayor Michael Elliott, a Black man who within weeks of Wright’s death proposed and helped pass a resolution that establishes a public safety department with unarmed traffic enforcement and a mental health response division. 

D.A. Bullock, a filmmaker and community activist in North Minneapolis, described the press conference in a tweet as a “campaign event” that contrasts with what he sees as Frey’s continued absence during a tumultuous time for the city.

“George Floyd’s murder put the spotlight on how the Minneapolis Police Department responded to that with a lot of additional escalation and violence. …  The mayor’s reaction to that was being sort of hands-off,” Bullock told The Appeal. “Can you say you’re achieving here or not? I think a lot of people are disappointed that he has not … and [that he] has been reticent to take responsibility.”

Neither Frey nor Carter responded to The Appeal’s requests for comment on this story.

David Schultz, a political science professor at St. Paul’s Hamline University, said it’s important to understand that the mayors’ legal powers differ in significant ways. “Minneapolis is a weak mayor system where the City Council has much more authority [over] the mayor than you have in St. Paul,” he says. “Right off the bat, the mayor has more decentralized power in Minneapolis—Frey has powers of appointment, but nowhere near the same strength as Mayor Carter has.”

Frey and Carter may operate within different systems, but both are seeking re-election in November. And what they have or haven’t been able to achieve within their respective systems is shaping up to be at the heart of the election in which Carter currently stands uncontested. Frey, on the other hand, already has at least six challengers, including community organizer Sheila Nezhad, former state Representative Kate Knuth, and A.J. Awed, co-executive director of the Cedar-Riverside Community Council.

Much of the dissatisfaction surrounding Frey has to do with the delivery of his campaign promises—or lack thereof, particularly surrounding policing—and his ties to business interests that some say outweigh those to the community.

Bullock believes Frey did not use one of his few powers—the ability to appoint the chief of police—appropriately, and Frey’s choice to keep Medaria Arradondo in the position backfired.

“I genuinely believe that he thought Chief Arradondo would be a strong block from him receiving a lot of criticism or scrutiny around what actual changes were happening at the department and be able to employ incremental reform steps in a way that would satisfy people politically,” he said. “A leader, especially for our future, is going to have to evolve [the city’s police culture] or confront it … instead of being conciliatory, which is pretty much what he’s been throughout.”

Members of the City Council are frustrated with Frey as well.

“I think Frey has focused more on the budget and really prioritized funding for affordable housing and police … one of which I agree with more than the other,” Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, who is not running for re-election this fall, told The Appeal. Frey has been at odds with Bender and other City Council members over police funding, particularly since Floyd’s murder and the heightened calls for police reform it brought. “I think this is probably clear in the public record that he’s often supportive of a thing to a point. He supported affordable housing as long as it was an incentive, not a requirement.”

Minneapolis ended single-family zoning during Frey’s tenure and with his support, a move that garnered extensive attention from national media and was portrayed as a bold step in addressing the city’s lack of affordable housing. “I believe strongly that housing is a right. I believe that everyone should have a safe place to go home to at the end of the night, to rest their heads on a pillow and rejuvenate for the next day. Clearly that right is not afforded to everyone,” he told Bloomberg CityLab in 2018. Despite the attention, some local groups expressed skepticism, suggesting the policy would not help low-income renters. Frey has also passed a budget that offers incentives for commercial developers at the same time he maintains his opposition to rent control

Bender sees Frey’s housing policies as being chiefly influenced by the business community to the point that it continues to have an outsize voice, which is driving gentrification and even increasing police presence in the city. “Before he was mayor, he represented the downtown district, Ward 3, on our City Council, so he definitely has a band of support in the business community that has been consistent and important through his time in office,” she said.

When you grow up in a community and you have lived experience, that gives you some clear leadership assets and one of them is lived experience.Mitra Jalali, St. Paul City Councilmember

Bender’s experience with Carter, although limited, has been markedly different. She belongs to a coalition of local elected officials dedicated to advancing a racial and economic justice agenda called Local Progress. Carter is a member, but Frey is not. “It’s a small thing, but a bit of an indication about their orientation as leaders,” she said.

Differences with Carter are largely over strategy rather than values, said St. Paul City Councilmember Mitra Jalali, who identifies as a member of the movement for equity and justice in the city and beyond. “I think that the nature of conflict in St. Paul stems from that. The arguments and battles aren’t about the ‘whats,’ they’re about how to get there,” she told The Appeal.

Although Jalali cautions that one person should never be seen as a savior, she sees Carter as someone who understands the community he serves. “When you grow up in a community and you have lived experience, that gives you some clear leadership assets and one of them is lived experience,” she said. “That if you’re working on problems, they aren’t just a job to you. They’re impacting the people you grew up with.”

So far, Carter’s tenure has included programs designed to do just that. St. Paul was the second city in the nation, behind Stockton, California, to launch a guaranteed income pilot program to unconditionally distribute $500 a month, largely to families of color. Another program gives every child born in St. Paul after Jan. 1, 2020, a $50 seed deposit in a college savings account. And the city’s reparations committee must make short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations that “specifically address the creation of generational wealth for the American Descendants of Chattel Slavery and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black Community.”

Carter has also asked the St. Paul Police Department to trim $9.2 million from its budget and has been working to explore community-oriented public safety reforms since before George Floyd’s murder put St. Paul’s twin city on the international map.

Carter is a fourth-generation St. Paul resident with deep ties to his community. His mother, Toni Carter, was recently re-elected as the chairperson of the Board of Commissioners in Ramsey County, which houses St. Paul. Carter’s upbringing contrasts with that of Frey, who grew up on the East Coast and moved to Minneapolis in 2009.

“[Carter] went to Central, I went to Central. He played on the basketball team, I played on the basketball team—we had the same coaches,” Trahern Crews, a St. Paul-based community activist, told The Appeal. “He has a better understanding of the people and the city” and the challenges they face, he said.

Taking all of this and more into account, Schultz, the professor, said he expects to see at least one opponent for Carter, but the candidate will be “nominal.”

“At the end of the day, the race is essentially over,” he added. Schultz expects things to look different to the west. 

If a Democratic opponent arises for Frey who “can mount a serious challenge, he’s clearly vulnerable,” Schultz said. “If you look at the criticism that he’s taken about handling the days after George Floyd’s death, normally I’d think something like that would basically destroy an incumbent.”

Ed Gainey Wins Democratic Nomination for Pittsburgh Mayor

The state representative will almost certainly be the city’s first Black mayor, and his victory follows a year of nationwide social upheaval over police and racial justice issues.

State Representative Ed Gainey
Photo by Gainey for Mayor.

Ed Gainey Wins Democratic Nomination for Pittsburgh Mayor

The state representative will almost certainly be the city’s first Black mayor, and his victory follows a year of nationwide social upheaval over police and racial justice issues.

State Representative Ed Gainey won the Democratic nomination for Pittsburgh mayor on Tuesday, ousting Mayor Bill Peduto and defeating two other candidates.

As of 11 p.m., unofficial results had Gainey leading Peduto 45 percent to 41 percent, with his lead growing as votes continued to be counted. Peduto called to concede the race to Gainey around 10:30 p.m. The other two candidates, Tony Moreno and Michael Thompson, were at 13 percent and 1 percent of the vote, respectively.

Gainey will almost surely be the city’s first Black mayor at a moment when Pittsburgh’s Black residents are leaving the city in high numbers and when racial justice issues like policing and affordable housing have emerged as key issues locally and nationwide. He will need to win the general election in November to become mayor, but Pittsburgh voters overwhelmingly swing Democratic and there is currently no Republican nominee.

“I’m honored, humbled, and proud that the people of Pittsburgh have placed their faith in me by making me their Democratic Nominee for the office of Mayor,” Gainey said in a statement Tuesday. “This election made history, and I’m ready to go to work building a Pittsburgh where all can belong, contribute, and succeed.”

Peduto, who was first elected as mayor in 2013, has faced significant criticism and at least two federal civil rights lawsuits during his campaign. The lawsuits allege that as mayor, he failed to properly control Pittsburgh Bureau of Police officers during last summer’s protests following the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. The lawsuits also allege that the police department used excessive force against protesters in the city and at times ordered protesters to disperse, blocked their ability to leave, and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them.

Peduto had acknowledged the need to “re-imagine policing” during his campaign and, as mayor, implemented some reforms, including mandating de-escalation and implicit bias training and implementing a set of reforms aimed at reducing police use of force known as “8 Can’t Wait.” But he opposed reducing the police department budget and said during a town hall meeting in October that crime was falling in the city “because our police budget has been increasing.”

Gainey told The Appeal in April that Peduto’s reforms amounted to a lot of talk but little concrete action. “We’ve got so many reports that we’ve done and they sit on the shelf,” Gainey said. “We say we’re going to implement X, Y and Z and still haven’t implemented anything. It’s just talk.”

Part of Gainey’s plan to address over-policing in minority communities includes spreading officers equally across the city, though this approach has been criticized by some community activists as not going far enough. Pittsburgh residents have called for, among other reforms, a 50 percent reduction in the police budget and moving towards abolishing the department.

“To paraphrase Grover Norquist, the police department needs to be shrunk to a size that is small enough to drown in the bathtub,” Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center, told The Appeal in April. 

Gainey has also criticized Peduto’s affordable housing record, as have community activists. Pittsburgh’s Black population fell by more than 8,000 people between 2013 and 2019—a nearly 10 percent drop, according to five year estimates published by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. At the same time the white population fell by a little more than 1,000 people, or less than 1 percent.

“In Pittsburgh, over the last four decades politicians have promised a city that would be economically and racially diverse,” Carl Redwood, a housing activist and chairperson of the Hill District Consensus Group’s board of directors, said during a city council public hearing in May. “But one mayor after another and one City Council after another has accelerated existing class- and race-based inequities.” 

Gainey also accused Peduto of failing to deliver on his promise to make housing affordable during his eight years in office. He told The Appeal that he wanted to use inclusionary zoning to guarantee affordable housing was built into any plan for development with the city, and said in April that the $10 million allocated annually from the Housing Opportunity Fund, set up for the development and upkeep of affordable housing,  was not enough to address the city’s needs.

Peduto has acknowledged that there are “two Pittsburghs”: one white, which has reaped the benefits of growth, and one Black, which has been left to deal with many of its negative consequences, such as rising or unaffordable rental and home prices.

During his tenure, Peduto signed legislation passed by the City Council to create the Housing Opportunity Fund; supported inclusionary zoning, which requires private developers to build affordable housing units as part of all new housing construction; and announced the OwnPGH program in March to provide housing loans to low-income families and those who can’t access traditional financing for a home.

Peduto also joined a national pilot program to provide a monthly stipend of $500 to 200 people in the city. He said that his office prioritized distribution of the money to households run by Black women.

During his concession speech on Tuesday, Peduto said he pledged “to do my work to elect the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh.”

How Demands for Affordable Housing Are Defining Pittsburgh’s Mayoral Race

A disproportionate number of Black residents have left the city, and advocates say the next mayor needs to ensure greater access to housing.

Pennsylvania state Representative Ed Gainey
Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images.

How Demands for Affordable Housing Are Defining Pittsburgh’s Mayoral Race

A disproportionate number of Black residents have left the city, and advocates say the next mayor needs to ensure greater access to housing.

Between 2013 and 2019, Pittsburgh’s Black population fell by nearly 8,000, more than 10 percent of all Black people living in the city. During the same time, about 1,200, less than 1 percent, of white residents left, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey Five-Year estimates.

Pittsburgh is one of the most gentrified cities in the country, according to a 2019 report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. More than 10 percent of the city’s Black residents have left since 2013, compared to less than 1 percent of white residents. Advocates say increases in rents and home prices are part of the problem. They’re calling on the next mayor to make housing more affordable.

“The question is not why Black folks left Pittsburgh,” Allegheny County resident Roxanne Scott said Wednesday during a public hearing of the Pittsburgh City Council on the loss of Black residents. “The question really is why didn’t it happen sooner and how bad is it going to get?”

Scott, who is Black, said she left Pittsburgh for one of the surrounding suburbs because the city had become unaffordable for her and lacked the opportunities she needed.

Carl Redwood, a housing activist and chairperson of the Hill District Consensus Group’s board of directors, also spoke at the hearing. “In Pittsburgh, over the last four decades politicians have promised a city that would be economically and racially diverse,” he said. “But one mayor after another and one Cty Council after another has accelerated existing class- and race-based inequities.” 

Bill Peduto, who has been mayor since January 2014 and is seeking a third term, has campaigned on Pittsburgh being among the most “livable cities.” But he acknowledged to The Appeal that that may not be equally felt.

“For too long we’ve had two Pittsburgh[s]—a Black Pittsburgh and a white Pittsburgh—where the white Pittsburgh reaps the benefits of growth, while the Black Pittsburgh absorbs all of the negative impacts,” Peduto wrote in an email. “I want to create a more equitable Pittsburgh for all of our residents. Every resident should have the same opportunity to thrive, regardless of their neighborhood.”

But state Representative Ed Gainey, Peduto’s main challenger, attacked the mayor’s record, saying he had promised to make housing affordable in the city but hasn’t delivered.

Peduto has failed to realize that “when you lift up the most vulnerable, you lift up the whole city,” Gainey told The Appeal.

Peduto told The Appeal he has overseen the creation of a $120 million Housing Opportunity Fund for the development and upkeep of affordable housing. He noted that he has supported inclusionary zoning in parts of the city, which requires private developers to build affordable housing units as part of all new housing construction. He has also created a program to provide up to $30,000 for housing rehabilitation for people making less than 50 percent of the area’s median income.

In March, Peduto announced the OwnPGH program, which will provide loans for home purchases for families who may not have access to traditional credit because of their income, as well as provide loans to renovate and rehabilitate homes.

Peduto also joined a national pilot program in July that provides a basic monthly income of $500 to 200 families earning less than 50 percent of the area’s median income. He has prioritized directing those funds to households led by Black women. 

“This program will have a huge impact in the lives of these women,” he said, “and we can leverage the results of these pilots to push on the federal level for a more robust program.”

Alethea Sims, president of the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, said more needs to be done to address housing for low-income people in Pittsburgh. Affordable, subsidized apartment complexes are being renovated and turned into market-rate buildings that the residents can no longer afford to live in, she noted.

“Whoever’s in that office needs to choose to make it better, even if it’s going to tick off some rich folks,” Sims said.

During the public hearing, activist Randall Taylor criticized the city over its land bank, which was created during Peduto’s first year in office and allows the city to take over blighted properties to sell and create more housing options. Taylor specifically took aim at the handling of properties in Homewood, a majority Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Peduto lists the creation of the land bank as one of his accomplishments on his website, but last year he said it was one of the failures of his administration. As of December, the land bank had not turned around a single property it has bought. There are more than 200 vacant properties in the land bank’s inventory.

Gainey’s campaign has promised to expand affordable housing options through the city’s Housing Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). He said last month that the $10 million allocated annually from the URA isn’t enough to create affordable housing. He also said he wants to use community land trusts and the land bank, and is a strong proponent of inclusionary zoning. 

“Now, instead of talking about affordable housing units as an add-on, it’s embedded in the proposal,” he said of the zoning approach.

Some residents have criticized Gainey for his role in creating the conditions that forced Black residents out of the city as a member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

“Ed sits on the URA board,” resident Carmen Brown said during Wednesday’s hearing. “In 2014, that’s when Ed Gainey got appointed by Bill Peduto. That’s when it seems the gentrification surged during that process.” 

Gainey and Peduto are the clear frontrunners for mayor, but Tony Moreno and Michael Thompson are also running. Moreno said during a candidate debate in April that he wants to start a program to train people in plumbing, carpentry, and other skilled labor jobs to help renovate or rebuild abandoned properties that can be turned into “as-needed” housing units. Thompson has described housing as a human right, and he notes on his campaign website that he lives in public housing but provides little detail on how he would make housing more affordable if elected. 

Ensuring that longtime Pittsburgh residents can continue to have a home in the city is critical, said Sims. “The people who lived there and endured the bad times should also be able to benefit from the good,” she said.

The Movement to Guarantee Legal Help for Struggling Renters Is ‘Taking Root’ in Connecticut

Only 7 percent of tenants in the state have legal representation in eviction proceedings. A bill in the Connecticut house is trying to change that.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

The Movement to Guarantee Legal Help for Struggling Renters Is ‘Taking Root’ in Connecticut

Only 7 percent of tenants in the state have legal representation in eviction proceedings. A bill in the Connecticut house is trying to change that.

When Sabrina’s partner lost his job as a truck driver, the pair had to move their family out of their home in Bristol, Connecticut, to somewhere with cheaper rent. They found a place in the city that they could afford on Sabrina’s income as a finance manager at a Toyota dealership for them, their two teenage children, and their many pets. They signed the lease in February 2020 and moved in March 1. Sabrina lost her job on March 15.

“We went from a household, this is no lie, that was making easy … between seven and eight grand a month,” she said, to “I could barely fill up the fridge,” said Sabrina. (The Appeal is using only her first name to protect her privacy.) 

Sabrina had always paid her rent a day before it was due, but by July, her family couldn’t pay. In November, she found eviction paperwork hanging from the doorknob. It stated that she and her family would have to leave by Christmas Eve. 

“To go from not having to worry about paying rent to going to you don’t know where you’re going to lay your head,” she said, with tears in her voice, “that’s a problem for me.”

Sabrina didn’t know what to do and had never been through an eviction. But unlike in criminal cases, she wasn’t guaranteed an attorney to help her navigate the process: Only a handful of cities and—as of last month—one state have enshrined in law the right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. 

“Just as we guarantee a right to counsel if you’re indigent facing the criminal justice system, there should be a similar right to counsel when you’re dealing with issues like evictions that really speak to fundamental personal stability and present some very serious long-term consequences,” said Cecil Thomas, staff attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressure in Connecticut and elsewhere to enact this protection for more low-income tenants. When the economy collapsed, millions of Americans were suddenly at risk of eviction and “what it means to lose someone’s home just became so visceral and real,” said Melissa Marichal, staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Federal, state, and local eviction bans were complicated to navigate, which illuminated  how byzantine the law is, and landlords tried repeatedly to skirt the bans and remove people from their homes.

“People are seeing the ways in which landlords behave in a system when there’s no lawyer on the other side,” said John Pollock, coordinator at the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

The movement for right to counsel accelerated in 2017, according to advocates, after New York became the first major city to pass and begin implementing the guarantee in limited neighborhoods. The City Council passed a bill Thursday expanding the right to counsel citywide.

The push there came from community members in the Bronx who talked about “feeling belittled, feeling humiliated, feeling like their rights were being taken away in the courts,” said Susanna Blankley, coalition coordinator for the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. 

Lawyers in the city had long discussed the need for a right to counsel, but tenant organizing tipped the scales. In 2014, organizers formed a citywide coalition that included unions, criminal justice activists, and those advocating for seniors, homeless people, and people with disabilities. Organizers were able to pressure the City Council in ways that legal aid lawyers couldn’t and held out for the bill they wanted, refusing to compromise on the mayor’s original insistence on leaving out public housing cases. “We were ready to protest a bill if we didn’t win a bill that was essentially what we wanted,” Blankley said.

Their victory “really galvanized things nationally,” Pollock said, given New York City’s size and eviction rate. And New York became a proving ground for the movement. In New York City, 86 percent of tenants who are represented by lawyers have been able to stay in their homes, while the number of eviction filings has declined. “The only thing that would impact landlord behavior in that way is when you have a fundamental right, when it applies to everybody,” said Blankley.

Before the pandemic, four other cities—Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Newark, New Jersey—had enacted right-to-counsel programs. But since March of last year, four more—Baltimore; Boulder, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; and Seattle—passed laws ensuring that low-income tenants are provided counsel in eviction proceedings. 

Now states are joining in. On April 22, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that requires the state to provide eviction attorneys for individuals making $25,760 or less annually or for families of four making $53,000. Maryland lawmakers passed a right-to-counsel bill that now waits for Governor Larry Hogan’s signature.

Sabrina’s home state, Connecticut, is also considering right-to-counsel legislation. A bill in the state legislature would ensure a right to counsel beginning in October for residents making 80 percent or less of state median income, receiving public benefits, or struggling to secure legal representation for other reasons. 

In 2016, four of the state’s major cities—Waterbury, Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven—were among the top 70 evicting cities in the country. Yet just 7 percent of tenants in the state have legal representation in eviction proceedings, compared to 81 percent of landlords. The default rate in cases where tenants fail to appear—meaning the court sided with the landlord—has ranged from 42 to 34 percent since 2007. “Effectively, more than one in three tenants [in the state] is losing their home or eviction case without having had the opportunity to appear in court and present a defense,” Thomas, the Legal Aid attorney, said. Even tenants who show up don’t have much time: It took just 26 days, at the median, for cases to be resolved in 2019.

Tenants often can’t parse the dense jargon of eviction paperwork and, without a lawyer, don’t know what defenses they could raise or what their options are, Thomas noted. Many receive the first notice and wrongly assume they have to leave.

In Sabrina’s case, she tried calling 211 but couldn’t get any useful information. At the first mediation session with the landlord she showed up alone, without a lawyer, and she worries that she didn’t do enough to fight for more time or push back on the landlord’s demands.

Ten days before she was due to be removed from her home, she called a legal aid office, and the person she spoke to broke down the entire eviction process and gave her step-by-step instructions. The person told her to request a motion to reopen and submit a declaration form saying that she should be protected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium, which in March was extended to June 30. “Nobody else told me that,” Sabrina said.

“Having someone in your corner at that moment who’s familiar with the process and can tell you what the potential outcomes are is incredibly valuable,” Thomas said.

A Connecticut task force began examining access to legal help in civil cases in 2016. The first recommendation was to guarantee a right to counsel. But as in New York City, it was the involvement of organizers—in this case, local Democratic Socialists of America chapters—that pushed it forward. Last June, the Central Connecticut and Western Connecticut DSA chapters joined the Cancel Rent Connecticut coalition and started their own housing justice working groups.

People are seeing the ways in which landlords behave in a system when there’s no lawyer on the other side.John Pollock, coordinator at the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel

After meeting with lawyers, the DSA chapters launched a petition to gather support from other organizations, and within the first few weeks about 25 signed on, said Stephen Poland, a DSA organizer. The list is now 46 groups long, including Connecticut chapters of the AFL-CIO, the Working Families Party, and Make the Road. “Things started to move really quickly,” Poland said. 

Now, if the legislature passes the bill and Governor Ned Lamont signs it, tenants will be able “to have a real, fair chance to defend their case and to get results that allow them to stay more often in their homes or to have a more stable transition to new, permanent housing,” Marichal said.  It will also show “that [right to counsel] can be done anywhere,” Poland said. 

And Pollock is seeing a “huge groundswell of support” for right-to-counsel protections, he said. He gets calls almost every day from lawyers, politicians, and activists asking how to get their own legislation started in places as varied as Indiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Blankley is receiving the same level of interest in the campaign she helped wage in New York City and the toolkit they created. “It’s taking root all over,” Pollock said. The movement is also helped by the fact that the federal government has sent states billions in relief funds during the pandemic that can be used to set up and fund right-to-counsel programs. 

It’s not just about keeping people in their homes but shifting the power dynamics between landlords and tenants. A right to counsel, advocates say, gives people the ability to press for all of their rights with less fear of losing their homes. It also indicates to tenants that “this is a collective problem,” said Khadija Hussain, a Connecticut DSA activist. “This is not something you should ever have to go through alone.”

Sabrina, however, still had to try keeping her housing on her own. Thanks to the advice she got from calling the legal aid office, she was able to get a court date for late April to determine whether she qualifies for protection under the CDC moratorium. She once again had to appear without a lawyer at her side; the judge gave her until May 29 to leave.

She refuses to move into the “rat in the holes,” as she put it, that are willing to accept someone with a pending eviction on her record and no current income besides unemployment benefits and rental assistance. “There’s no way in hell that I’m going to do that to my kids.” But she also knows that she could very well be forced out of her home at a time when all the shelters have told her they are full.

She believes everything would have gone differently had she just had a lawyer at her side. Without the stroke of luck of reaching legal services, “I would have never known” what to do, she said. That’s why she thinks it’s essential that everyone be guaranteed access to legal help. “You have to have somebody to advocate for you.”

Update: This article was updated to include the judge’s decision in Sabrina’s case. It was also updated to reflect that 46 organizations have now signed on to the DSA petition.

How Policing Is Shaping the Pittsburgh Mayoral Race

Incumbent Bill Peduto’s policing record is under scrutiny after protests last summer. He is facing what may be his most competitive race yet.

Mayor Bill Peduto
Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

How Policing Is Shaping the Pittsburgh Mayoral Race

Incumbent Bill Peduto’s policing record is under scrutiny after protests last summer. He is facing what may be his most competitive race yet.

Last summer, police clashed with protesters in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, as they did in many cities after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“My friends were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets,” said Allegheny County Councilmember Bethany Hallam. “And this was all done by the city of Pittsburgh police, under the leadership of Mayor [Bill] Peduto.”

Peduto, who is hoping to win a third term in this year’s mayoral race, has faced two federal lawsuits over his and the city’s alleged failure to control the police department during protests last summer. In the approaching May 18 Democratic primary, he will face three challengers, one of whom—State Representative Ed Gainey—has won the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. Peduto last year criticized the committee for endorsing a state House candidate who praised Trump, and did not seek its nomination this year.

“People wouldn’t be so desperate for change if everything was going well,” said Hallam, who has endorsed Gainey. “The need for change is because of a need, not just some new flavor of the week.”

One lawsuit, filed anonymously against Peduto and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, alleges that police used excessive force against protesters. The lawsuit states that in one incident police blocked in more than 100 people, told them they had to disperse, and then fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them, even though officers and police vehicles were blocking their way out. Police unnecessarily escalated the protests to violence, the lawsuit alleges, and prevented EMTs from treating protesters.

Another suit, brought by Nicole Rulli and several other Pittsburgh residents, alleges that police used tear gas on Rulli’s 13-year-old son during the protests and blames Peduto for not properly controlling the police department. The suit was dismissed against Peduto individually but continues against the city and the police department and was referred to mediation earlier this month.

Peduto told The Appeal that he has made changes to the Pittsburgh Police Department to make sure the police action during the protest “never happens again.” He has created an Office of Community Health and Safety that is meant to help respond to and divert people in need of social services and mental health treatment away from the criminal legal system.

“The point is to make sure police officers aren’t the ones responding to these calls, but rather social workers, and professionals who have an expertise in this area,” Peduto said. “The Allegheny County Jail shouldn’t be our area’s largest mental health facility.”

Peduto said part of his administration’s “re-imagining policing” includes the implementation of mandatory de-escalation and implicit bias training, as well as the adoption of 8 Can’t Wait reforms, measures meant to restrict police use-of-force policies. In December, the Black Political Empowerment Project praised Peduto for agreeing to several concrete solutions aimed at increasing the recruitment of minority officers. 

However, amid widespread calls to defund the police, Peduto has said he actually wants to invest more money in the department. “Crime has decreased because our police budget has been increasing,” Peduto said during a town hall in October. “If we defund the police, what will be cut are the community officers, are the neighborhood officers, are the officers working in order to be engaged with the community.”

We’ve seen Black and brown people be brutalized and murdered at the hands of law enforcement. This is not a new issue.Ed Gainey, candidate for Pittsburgh mayor

Gainey, who would be the city’s first Black mayor, also favors community policing and distributing officers equally across the city. Concentrating them in certain communities leads to Black people being arrested at disproportionate rates, he said. 

“We’re going to spread the police throughout the city,” Gainey told The Appeal. “We are going to have them get out of these cars and walk this beat and get to know the people. If you don’t build the relationship, you can’t build trust.”

He has also called for more accountability in policing and told the Pittsburgh City Paper that officers who, in a Facebook group, made disparaging comments about the Black Lives Matter movement and colleagues sympathetic to it must be disciplined or fired.

Gainey agrees with some of the proposals Peduto has announced in theory but said Peduto’s response so far has been a lot of reports and working groups and very little change on the ground.

“We’ve got so many reports that we’ve done and they sit on the shelf,” Gainey said. “We say we’re going to implement X, Y and Z and still haven’t implemented anything. It’s just talk.”

After the killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose by former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld in 2018, Gainey co-sponsored legislation to limit when police are allowed to use lethal force. 

“We’ve seen Black and brown people be brutalized and murdered at the hands of law enforcement,” Gainey said. “This is not a new issue. This is an issue we know has been going on since the beginning of time.”

Advocates have called on city leadership to fundamentally transform public safety and reduce reliance on police.

“There is no place for police in mental health response or traffic enforcement, and responsible political leadership must put an end to their enforcement of the drug war, persecution of sex workers, and order them to cease prosecuting nonviolent misdemeanors,” Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, wrote in an email to The Appeal. 

In 2019, Pittsburgh police made more than 11,000 arrests, including more than 2,600 arrests for drug offenses. Despite accounting for less than 25 percent of the city’s general population, nearly 70 percent of arrests were of Black people.

As a state representative, Gainey has introduced legislation that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, make needle exchanges legal in the state, and expand Pennsylvania’s clean slate law—a law that automatically seals most records of misdemeanor convictions after 10 years—to include some nonviolent felonies.

For his part, Peduto signed a local ordinance decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana in Pittsburgh in 2016 and has since said he supports full legalization.

Peduto and Gainey are considered the frontrunners in the race, Hallam told The Appeal, despite Tony Moreno securing 40 percent of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s endorsement vote. Moreno, a former police officer, has called for more officers on the street to direct traffic and said he disagrees with Peduto’s hesitance to police low-level offenses arising from homelessness or substance use issues. He has said officers who do things seen as “untasteful” should be taken out of “the area where they’re committing infractions” and has described the Pittsburgh Citizen Review Board, which investigates complaints against police, as a “complete waste of money.”

Despite his stance on reform, math tutor and ride-share driver Mike Thompson is largely seen as an outsider candidate. On his campaign website, Thompson calls for a 50 percent cut in the police budget, as well as disbanding and rebuilding the department with a focus on addressing root causes of crime like housing and access to mental health care.

Hallam said the competitiveness of this race speaks to the desire of people in Pittsburgh to see some real change. “Something new and different needs to be done because the lives of the people who are living in our city are not feeling like they are living in the ‘most livable’ city.”

After Daunte Wright’s Death, Advocates Press Leaders to Get Police Out of Traffic Enforcement

Cities across the country must rethink the role of law enforcement, as police continue to brutalize and kill Black men and women during traffic stops, advocates say.

Chyna Whitaker, mother of Daunte Wright's son, speaks during a press conference in Minneapolis on April 13.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

After Daunte Wright’s Death, Advocates Press Leaders to Get Police Out of Traffic Enforcement

Cities across the country must rethink the role of law enforcement, as police continue to brutalize and kill Black men and women during traffic stops, advocates say.

After she heard that police had killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop outside of Minneapolis, Eilanne Farhat said she first reacted with “deep exhaustion, heartbreak, and sadness.”

Then she was disturbed. Farhat, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, told The Appeal she was struck by how frequently stories of police killings of unarmed people, often people of color, have made headlines in recent years. 

Since 2015, at least 135 unarmed Black men and women have been killed by police during traffic stops, according to a January investigation by NPR. Now, after Wright’s death and other recent violent encounters between Black people and police, experts and advocates say it’s past time for cities to move traffic enforcement away from law enforcement.

“Once again, a minor infraction presenting no threat to public safety has ended in a senseless murder at the hands of Minnesota police,” Scott Roberts, senior director of the criminal justice and democracy campaigns at Color Of Change, said in a written statement. “The only way to protect Black lives is by reimagining how we provide safety and security in communities.”

Sheila Nezhad, who is running to unseat Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey in November, told The Appeal that Wright’s killing and that of other unarmed Black people during traffic stops show that popular policy reforms, such as requiring body cameras or outlawing certain tactics, have not worked. She supports moving traffic enforcement away from police in her city and into the Traffic and Parking Services department.

“Police reform in Minnesota has looked like calling for more Tasers and calling for hiring more female cops, and we saw the death of Daunte Wright at the hands of a female officer reaching for a Taser,” she said.

Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kim Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Wright on Sunday afternoon. Officers had pulled him over for expired license plate tags, police said, though Wright’s mother Katie, whom he called from the car, said it was “because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror,” which is illegal in Minnesota. 

Officers tried to detain Wright after realizing a “gross misdemeanor warrant” for his arrest had been issued. (He had missed a first appearance in court for allegedly possessing a pistol without a permit and fleeing police, though he may not have known of the summons, the Star Tribune reported.) Wright got back into his car, when Potter drew and fired her handgun. Police said she had intended to fire her Taser. Potter and police chief Tim Gannon have since resigned.

The fatal encounter follows months of protests and upheaval over police brutality. Wright was killed just miles from where former police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for the death of George Floyd, inflaming a community already in pain. 

Wright’s killing also comes less than a week after another violent traffic stop made national news: Body cam footage from December shows Windsor, Virginia police officers pointing guns at Caron Nazario, a Black and Latinx army lieutenant who was unarmed, and pepper-spraying him during a traffic stop. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Nazario was raised in part by the family of Eric Garner, whose death at the hands of police roiled the country in 2014.

Removing traffic enforcement from police, some researchers argue, is the only way forward. Jordan Blair Woods, a law professor at the University of Arkansas who spoke to The Appeal in January, recently published an article in the Stanford Law Review that outlines ways to “rethink” traffic enforcement, including having unarmed traffic monitors handle the enforcement of low-level traffic violations, rather than police.

In July, the Berkeley, California City Council passed a proposal to do just that. The city approved the creation of a new department of transportation that will employ unarmed traffic monitors to enforce low-level traffic offenses like driving with an expired registration or driving with a broken taillight. The city went a step further in February by banning police officers from making stops for low-level traffic offenses and directing police to only conduct traffic stops for things that directly endanger public safety like driving under the influence and excessive speeding. Neighboring Oakland passed a similar reform a few years earlier and saw the number of traffic stops fell by more than half, while overall crime also fell.

Other cities have enacted similar reforms, including Lansing, Michigan, which, in July, barred its officers from making traffic stops for offenses like an inoperable license plate light or loud exhausts. In what is likely the broadest attempt to remove police from traffic enforcement so far, Florida state Rep. Omari Hardy introduced a bill in March that would require all cities and counties to create a Public Safety Department that includes a traffic enforcement division manned by unarmed traffic monitors. The bill, however, is unlikely to pass.

“These singular incidents will continue to happen because they are the natural result of a system that was designed and is publicly funded to violently oppress Black people and brown, native and poor people too,” Farhat said. “We know this system of public safety was never designed to keep Black community members safe.”

What New York City’s Next Mayor Can Do to Solve the Homelessness Crisis

Creating a commission and a new deputy mayor of housing will give directly impacted people a much-needed voice in government—and help ensure a right to housing for all.

A homeless person in New York City on Feb. 23.
Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

What New York City’s Next Mayor Can Do to Solve the Homelessness Crisis

Creating a commission and a new deputy mayor of housing will give directly impacted people a much-needed voice in government—and help ensure a right to housing for all.

When New York City lawmakers talk about homelessness, it is clear that few of them know this city as I do. But how can they? 

They’ve never slept on its park benches. They’ve never been handcuffed by the NYPD simply for changing subway lines at 4 in the morning. They’ve never joined a gym, just for a consistent shower. And they have not raised a child as a single father while bouncing from shelter to shelter. I have done all of this and more. I know this city only as a person who has been homeless while Black can.

The elected officials who run my life have never taken the time to listen to me or the tens of thousands of New Yorkers with similar experiences. Meanwhile, recent violent attacks against homeless men and women have shaken the community. And when tourists stopped coming and the white-collar workers stayed home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we became visible in a way that we never have before. I’ve seen this firsthand during my fight against the city just to remain sheltered at the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side. 

But the city will soon have the opportunity to elect a new mayor who will listen to us—and who can ensure a right to housing for all.

In my work as an advocate, I have fought hard for New Yorkers’ right to secure shelter, but I’ve learned that a right to housing is essential. United for Housing—a coalition of more than 90 organizations, including some of New York City’s leading housing advocacy groups—agrees. The group has released an ambitious policy blueprint for the next mayor that would be transformative for the city’s homeless community.

In addition to calling for $200 million in direct rental assistance for the lowest-income New Yorkers and funding for thousands of new units of low-income housing per year, the blueprint calls for something radical: treating homelessness and housing as two sides of the same coin. A new deputy mayor could coordinate the city’s housing policy to serve extremely low-income and unhoused New Yorkers, creating operational efficiency that ensures all of the city’s agencies work in concert with one another.

The next mayor must also create a commission on homelessness that includes directly affected New Yorkers, as well as those who are currently housing insecure. These New Yorkers can share their lived experiences with all city agencies, which would create a clearer understanding of the issues and help elected officials without lived experience maximize the positive effect of policy decisions and increase exposure for a population that is too often left out.

To truly end homelessness, it is imperative that New Yorkers like me have a seat at the table, a voice in the discussion and a hand in decision making. Legislators in Albany recently approved a $212 billion budget that includes many important relief measures, including $2.35 billion in rental assistance for vulnerable people—but its impact is still too limited. It is a Band-Aid that stops the bleeding but does not seal the wound and a missed opportunity to utilize an unprecedented $12.6 billion in federal aid to rethink the way we approach homelessness. If those of us with lived experience were at the table, we would have fought to break New York out of the politics as usual mentality.

The city’s homelessness crisis is a failure of imagination. Despite the challenges I have faced in my life, I am a lifelong student. One of my favorite stories is a hallmark of Western philosophy: Plato’s allegory of the cave. In that story, prisoners chained in a dark cave only see shadows on the wall from the light behind them. Yet, because it is all they’ve known, they believe it to be reality.

New York City is trapped inside a cave of its own making. When we discuss homelessness, we stick to the same old solutions that do not work and lose sight of the simple fact that what we need most are safe, affordable places to call home with the services we need to thrive.

New Yorkers like me know that best. And it is only by following our wisdom and guidance that the city will step outside our cave and into the light.

Shams DaBaron is a hip-hop pioneer, writer, and filmmaker directly impacted by homelessness. You can follow him on Twitter at @Homeless_Hero.

The Pandemic Prompted Marilyn Mosby to Stop Prosecuting Low-Level Crimes. Will Other D.A.s Follow?

Prosecutors across the country have begun declining low-level cases in an effort to reduce racial inequity and to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

The Pandemic Prompted Marilyn Mosby to Stop Prosecuting Low-Level Crimes. Will Other D.A.s Follow?

Prosecutors across the country have begun declining low-level cases in an effort to reduce racial inequity and to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About a year ago, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office stopped prosecuting several low-level offenses—minor drug possession, prostitution, and minor traffic offenses—to reduce the flow of people in and out of local jails and slow the spread of COVID-19. In March, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she was making the changes permanent.

The decision to stay the course, Mosby told The Appeal, was clear. Though her office dismissed more than 1,400 cases and 1,400 warrants for low-level offenses in the last year, less than one half of one percent of people who had a case dismissed or warrant thrown out were rearrested for another crime, according to a memo provided by Mosby’s office. Overall, the number of people in the city’s jail fell by roughly 18 percent and nearly 40 percent fewer people entered the criminal justice system.

“There never has been any public safety value in prosecuting these low-level offenses,” Mosby told The Appeal. “And yet, for decades we’ve been incarcerating poor, Black, and brown people for [them].”

Several prosecutors across the country took similar measures last year to reduce the spread of COVID-19, though Mosby appears to be the first to make them permanent. In March 2020, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez directed his office to suspend prosecutions of offenses like driving without a license and shoplifting. At the time, Gonzalez said it was in the “interests of public health and safety” to not prosecute cases that “don’t jeopardize public safety.” Around the same time, King County, Washington District Attorney Dan Satterberg instituted a two-week policy of only filing charges for some violent felonies and Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney Kim Foxx stopped prosecuting minor drug possession cases.

Several prosecutors across the country took similar measures last year to reduce the spread of COVID-19, though Mosby appears to be the first to make them permanent.

Now Foxx’s office says its policy may be here to stay. The office initially stopped prosecuting these cases for the “health and safety of law enforcement, first responders, medical professionals, and staff at the Cook County Jail,” Risa Lanier, chief deputy state’s attorney for the county, wrote in an email. Right now, as a result of case backlogs and “strained resources,” the office is prioritizing cases involving violent crime. “Because of this we are evaluating whether this policy should remain in place permanently and what, if any, other changes should also be made,” Lanier wrote.

The Brooklyn DA’s office, on the other hand, has already started rolling some of these policies back, spokesman Oren Yaniz told The Appeal. The office is still screening cases in an attempt to balance public safety and public health, Yaniz said, but is not strictly declining as many cases as it did at the beginning of the pandemic. Yaniz said the office will be diverting and dismissing low-level cases after the person is connected to social services, as it did before the pandemic.

In Seattle, while the short-term policies Satterberg announced last year have now lapsed, his office is offering a one-time diversion program to dismiss between 100 and 150 cases in order to address some of the backlog created by court closures during the pandemic. Satterberg also set up a community diversion program late last year and said his office was dedicated to sending at least 1,000 felony cases and at least 1,200 misdemeanor cases annually through the program to avoid prosecution.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 400,000 people in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 2,500 people incarcerated in state prisons have died from the virus. Public health experts have warned that prisons, which allow for little room for social distancing and generally provide limited access to proper hygiene materials like soap and hand sanitizer, have been among the largest hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks. Experts urged prisons to reduce their populations to try to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

In Baltimore, more than 900 incarcerated people and nearly 600 staff members at prisons and jails have tested positive for COVID-19. Three staff members and one incarcerated person have died from the virus, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Mosby said her office worked with public health experts from Johns Hopkins University to come up with her declination policies. The pandemic, she said, “gave us the opportunity to be able to work with public health experts and to experiment and to say, ‘OK, let’s not prosecute these cases, understanding we don’t want to intensify the virus—and what will happen?’”

She also said that part of the reason she is making the policies permanent is to limit the interactions with communities of color and police in the face of the national uprising after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is on trial for murder, killed George Floyd last year. And not long ago, similar anger arose in Baltimore and across the country after the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody in 2015. Police, who forcefully apprehended Gray because he ran away from them, said they found him with an illegal knife. Officers placed him in the back of a transport vehicle—handcuffed, shackled at the feet, and without a seatbelt—and drove him around the city. By the time police finally stopped the vehicle, Gray’s spine was partially severed and he died a few days later. Mosby’s office charged six Baltimore police officers for Gray’s death. Three officers were found not guilty at trial and the charges against the other officers were ultimately dismissed.

In 2020, the Baltimore Police Department reported making nearly 800 arrests for personal possession of drugs. More than 440 of those arrests occurred during the first three months of the year. After implementation of Mosby’s policy, arrests fell substantially, and police recorded fewer than a third as many drug possession arrests through the first three months of 2021 as they did a year earlier.  

“Prosecutors have to recognize our power to shape the criminal justice system and realize when we criminalize these minor offenses we expose people to needless interaction with law enforcement,” she said. “For Black people that can lead to a death sentence.”

Researchers and advocates have argued for years that more attention needs to be paid to the misdemeanor system, which ensnares millions of people each year but generally gets less public attention than the felony system. Roughly 80 percent of all criminal cases—more than 13 million annually—are misdemeanors, Harvard Law Professor Alexandra Natapoff told The Appeal.

“We cannot reduce mass incarceration without reducing the misdemeanor net that sweeps the vast majority of people into the system in the first place,” she said. New declination policies, she added, “are extraordinarily important” to that effort. 

And there are indications that dropping low-level cases may actually increase public safety. In a study commissioned by Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, researchers from Rutgers University, Texas A&M University, and New York University reviewed more than 67,000 misdemeanor cases filed in the county between 2004 and 2018 and found that having a case dismissed decreased the likelihood that someone would be charged with another crime within two years.

Roughly 80 percent of all criminal cases—more than 13 million annually—are misdemeanors.

“It looks like now the emperor has no clothes,” Jody David Armour, professor of law at the University of Southern California, told The Appeal, referring to the study. The research, he said, “shows that broken-windows policing leads to more crime and not prosecuting low-level crimes leads to less crime.”

The broken-windows theory of policing suggests that minor crimes can snowball into more serious and violent crime when not addressed. It has led to the much criticized practice of “stop-and-frisk,” in which police stop and search people—often Black people—for contraband. In 2013, a federal district court found New York City’s stop-and-frisk program unconstitutional but broken windows-style policing has continued in some form, despite mounting evidence that it is ineffective. Notably, an NYPD officer killed Eric Garner in 2014 after stopping and attempting to arrest him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, a broken-windows type offense. Researchers at Northeastern University found in 2019 that neighborhood disorder does not encourage more serious crime.

For some in law enforcement, the argument can still hold sway. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told the Washington Post that officers had initially been resistant to the change and that he was expecting crime to rise as a result of the shift in prosecutions. But Harrison acknowledged to the Post that crime did not rise in 2020 after officers stopped making arrests and Mosbsy’s office declined prosecutions.

A growing number of DAs have been using their authority to decline prosecuting certain misdemeanors, even before the pandemic. In 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner directed his office to stop prosecuting people for prostitution, possession of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia in marijuana cases. In early 2019, Rollins, the Suffolk County DA, implemented a policy to not prosecute, except under certain circumstances, 15 misdemeanor charges, including trespassing, shoplifting, and disorderly conduct. During his campaign in 2019, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced his administration would not prosecute “quality of life” offenses like sex work, public urination, public camping, and blocking a sidewalk.

Mosby says simply dropping the cases is not enough. There need to be support systems in place to address the underlying causes of substance use and homelessness, for example, she said. Her office is working with multiple mental health agencies and groups that support sex workers to identify people who’ve entered the criminal legal system and connect them with services like a mobile crisis response team, mental health support, and access to medical services like medical detox and HIV and sexually transmitted disease testing.

“The one thing we always have done is default and stigmatize and criminalize, and it hasn’t worked,” Mosby said. “Now is the time, in light of everything we’ve gone through in the past year and has been brought to the center about reimagining the criminal justice system, now is the time to do it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Risa Lanier’s title. She is chief deputy state’s attorney for Cook County, not a spokesperson.

San Antonio’s Response to Homelessness Is Broken. It’s Time to Put Housing First

Shelters are not meeting people’s needs, and the city is clearing encampments, says City Councilmember Roberto Treviño.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Lawson Picasso.

San Antonio’s Response to Homelessness Is Broken. It’s Time to Put Housing First

Shelters are not meeting people’s needs, and the city is clearing encampments, says City Councilmember Roberto Treviño.

When I drive up to my field office each morning at 8:00 a.m., I often see over a dozen people who have taken refuge in the back parking lot to safely sleep. They notice my truck, begin to wake up, and pack up their blankets. I make sure to greet them each morning, because I’ve learned that something as simple as a “good morning” goes a long way.

No one living on the streets got there overnight. They are there because of trauma, abuse, unaddressed mental health problems, and failed systems. I hear from residents that “some people just don’t want the help.” I strongly disagree with that statement. 

Since July, my office has gone forward at full speed to address the housing and homelessness crisis in San Antonio, and to understand what barriers keep people from accepting services. We brought on an intern to help us formulate an approach for addressing individuals experiencing homelessness. We took on a “boots on the ground” approach and had an outreach team meet with folks every day. We encountered situations after hours on a Friday, when weekly resources were unavailable and the only outlet of support left was 911. 

And restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated existing and longstanding shelter problems. At the start of the pandemic, Haven for Hope, which can house over 700 people and offers services to about 1,700 people daily, limited access to only those who had previously been on the campus or could prove they were Bexar County residents. The Salvation Army, which can shelter over 200 people, had closed its doors. Restrictions to shelters were put in place to adhere to the health guidelines, which meant less access to safe spaces to take shelter and more individuals displaced on the streets across the city. 

Shelters in San Antonio are largely inaccessible to those who need them. They require individuals to be able to care for themselves independently, pass a drug test, and remain sober. This is simply not the case for many who are displaced across the city. In addition to this huge hurdle, there are nowhere near enough available beds to support those who need detox support before entering a shelter. One such facility only has 28 beds—20 for men and eight for women. And the facility does not even specifically help those living unsheltered; it also takes patients in from a local hospital along with residents who are on Medicaid and Medicare.  

Without shelters, people turn to encampments. But people living in encampments usually have three days, or 72 hours, to accept services from outreach specialists and outside agencies before their homes are cleared out by the city. People who are distrustful because of their lived experiences are now expected to trust a stranger they’ve just met with an offer to take them “somewhere” else. If they don’t go along, the consequences are to sit across the street and watch as their belongings are swept up and dumped into the belly of large garbage trucks. Any sense of security and property they had has been cruelly and abruptly ripped away from them while they are forced to watch it happen. Where will they go? Now that they have no tent, no place to lay their head, and no belongings, they are now back to square one. 

Abatements sweep these folks from one area into another to make it look like the problem was solved, much like children who move the vegetables around their plate to make it look like they ate them.

In February, the city “cleaned out” a mass encampment under Interstate 37 that sprung up during the pandemic. According to outreach workers, the sweep displaced over 100 people, many of whom sat across the street, watching their homes be removed and trashed by solid waste trucks. Some just waited for the cleanup crew to leave and went right back; others moved on. Several individuals from that abatement relocated near my field office, which is approximately six miles from the encampment that was cleared out. 

San Antonio needs a housing first approach to support our community experiencing homelessness. Housing first models are successful because they build a bridge of trust and safety between specialists and clients by removing the trauma of being on the streets from the equation. When support services are offered, clients feel safe and then lower their guard, opening themselves up to truly listen. 

And the public agrees: A majority of likely voters in Bexar County want the city to provide housing for the homeless and housing insecure. According to a poll by The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, 62 percent of people surveyed said San Antonio should house people in underused hotel rooms, and 70 percent said the city should purchase underused buildings and convert them to housing for people experiencing homelessness. 

Living on the streets means you live in a constant vulnerable state. The reality of it is truly overwhelming, especially when one is struggling with substance use and mental illnesses. In speaking with some of the people who have found shelter at my field office, they’ve candidly shared how their substance of choice is an outlet for them to escape their pain and numb them from the realities of their very real circumstances. This difficult state is where outreach specialists find the people who need help desperately. 

Roberto C. Treviño is the District 1 representative for the San Antonio City Council. Treviño has served on the city council for six years and has used his time to advocate for better housing and infrastructure support for his community.   

COVID-19 Is Still Here But Connecticut’s Sympathy for Hardest Hit Renters Has Run Out

The governor has rolled back eviction protections for those struggling most to pay rent.

Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut
Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

COVID-19 Is Still Here But Connecticut’s Sympathy for Hardest Hit Renters Has Run Out

The governor has rolled back eviction protections for those struggling most to pay rent.

When Governor Ned Lamont extended Connecticut’s eviction moratorium in September, he added a new catch: Landlords are allowed to begin eviction proceedings in the case of “serious nonpayment” of rent, or against tenants who owe six months or more. 

Each time the governor has extended the moratorium, he has included a new exemption that loosened restrictions for landlords to bring cases against tenants. But the Sept. 30 change is far broader and more troubling to housing advocates. It’s had “the biggest impact in expanding [landlords’] access to eviction court,” said Melissa Marichal, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

Numbers gathered by her organization and shared with The Appeal show that eviction filings jumped from 198 in September to 308 in October and climbed to 599 in February. And although nobody was actually evicted last year from mid-March through July, 1,034 people were removed from their homes between October 2020 and mid-March of this year. 

“For the first five or six months of the pandemic we were understanding and very supportive of people who were losing their jobs,” said Shelley White, litigation director at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association Inc. But then, in September, it shifted. “We just lost all sympathy for them.” 

Lamont signed the eviction moratorium on April 10, permitting evictions only in the case of a tenant creating a “serious nuisance,” such as harming other residents. But when the governor extended it at the end of June, he added a new exemption for rent that was owed before Feb. 29, or before the pandemic began. 

“That didn’t make any sense from the public health perspective,” said Marichal. Even if a tenant was struggling to pay rent before the pandemic, making her move in the middle of a public health crisis still risked the spread of COVID-19. Even low eviction rates have been found to spread the virus; moratoriums, on the other hand, reduce it

Lamont again extended the moratorium toward the end of August and included yet another opening for eviction, this time for landlords who wanted to move into a unit as their primary dwelling. Marichal started seeing eviction filings from “landlords claiming that they wanted to move back into the unit, but it’s obviously very hard to disprove that intent,” she said.

Now, the latest version, Marichal said, “is going to place a burden on the tenants that are in the most financial distress.” 

Marichal’s and White’s clients who face eviction under the exemption include those who’ve lost their jobs, who haven’t been able to enroll in unemployment insurance, or who’ve gone back to work but are making much less because of continuing pandemic-related restrictions.

White said she is seeing a “huge” number of cases where tenants aren’t showing up for their court dates, possibly because they believe they’re protected from eviction during the pandemic. Others may not know they can be protected, or may owe so much in back rent that they feel like there’s no chance they could ever pay it back. 

Marichal has also seen cases where the tenant didn’t owe as much as six months of rent, but the landlord filed an eviction anyway. Many renters may have difficulty proving how much they’ve paid. “It definitely seems like it creates a perverse incentive a bit to claim that a tenant is more behind than they are,” she said.

That’s what happened to Courtney. She had just started a new business in Connecticut when the pandemic began and she had to shutter it. The lack of income made paying rent on her home difficult, but for many months, she was protected by the state moratorium.

Courtney was only three months behind on rent and had told her property manager she’d applied to a state rental assistance program. But once the serious nonpayment exemption was enacted in September, her property manager handed her an eviction notice anyway. (The Appeal is using a pseudonym for Courtney because she is still in court trying to get the eviction proceedings expunged.) “They still went forward with the eviction,” she said. “I just felt like they don’t care.”

Even after the rental assistance program paid back everything she owed, the property owner kept the case moving forward until Courtney called so many times the owner relented and dropped it. “It was like a mental abuse,” she said of the experience.  She is baffled that the property manager thought it could get away with it. “How dare you rush it just because you can? ” she said. “How could you be so heartless, especially in a time like this?”

Those facing eviction in the state are also disproportionately people of color. Using  data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, Marichal’s organization found that tenants in over half of the eviction cases filed in Connecticut between April 10 and Dec. 31, 2020, were Black or Latinx, even though these groups make up less than a quarter of the state’s population. 

Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In a press release issued when he signed the extension with the exemption for serious nonpayment of rent, he said, “Public health experts at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] have determined that supporting renters and landlords during this public health crisis is critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19,” adding that “tenants who can pay their rent on time should do so, and landlords and tenants should work together to develop reasonable payment plans for these extraordinary circumstances.”

The governor also signed the September exemption before meaningful rental assistance could be distributed to tenants. In July, Connecticut launched a program to do so, but two months later, it had issued aid to only two families, despite receiving 30,000 applications. That was in large part due to burdensome documentation requirements and intake being paused just six weeks into the program’s existence. Lamont’s administration later promised to overhaul it, but the program closed in December with plenty of applications unapproved, Marichal said.

This month, the state launched a rental assistance program funded by $235 million from Congress’s year-end relief package, which will offer up to $10,000 per tenant who earns up to 80 percent of area median income, is at risk of homelessness, and has suffered job or income loss as a result of the pandemic. 

But Marichal pointed out there will still be a wait time for applications to be processed.  She argues the state should pause all evictions, perhaps except for serious risk of harm, until renters get a chance to get some relief. White added: “Why are we evicting people, why are we putting people out on the streets, when there’s an opportunity to get rental assistance?” 

The CDC has issued a national moratorium on evictions that’s still in place and could, in theory, protect Connecticut renters from losing their homes, even under the state’s exemption. But tenants have to know about the protection and raise the issue with their landlords and the courts. Many are unaware and assume that they have to leave and move on their own when they receive the first eviction filing.

Even if tenants do raise the CDC protections with their landlords, judges in the state have allowed landlords or their attorneys to cross-examine tenants about whether they qualify. Some judges have decided that tenants shouldn’t be shielded from eviction, allowing the cases to move forward, Marichal and White said. 

As is the case in much of the country, tenants who successfully fight off an eviction still have the initial attempt on their records. This makes it harder for renters to find new housing, as landlords are less likely to rent to someone with an eviction in their history. Under Connecticut’s latest exemption, a tenant’s unpaid and owed rent must be included in court filings, too. “It’s right there for any prospective, new landlord to see,” White said, whether the amount the landlord claims a tenant owes is accurate or not. “It’s almost a kiss of death for tenants being able to move.” 

The clients that Marichal and White are assisting are the lucky ones, able to secure legal counsel in their eviction cases. Seven percent of Connecticut tenants have legal representation in these cases, compared to 81 percent of landlords. That could change if the legislature were to pass a bill creating a right to counsel in eviction proceedings, which would make Connecticut the first state in the country to guarantee such a right. Housing advocates are also pushing the legislature to pass a bill that would require all eviction records to be sealed, giving tenants a better chance of securing housing in the future.

The latter would help Courtney because the eviction attempt remains on her record. “That should never have happened,” she said. But, she added, “it’s easy to break something, but it’s hard to fix.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Will Curb Prosecutions of Low-Level Traffic Violations

A new diversion program will allow people charged with driving with a suspended license or without insurance to avoid jail time and fees.

Marilyn Mosby at Morgan State University in Baltimore on Oct. 23, 2019
Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Will Curb Prosecutions of Low-Level Traffic Violations

A new diversion program will allow people charged with driving with a suspended license or without insurance to avoid jail time and fees.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is taking steps to end the most severe penalties for some of the most minor traffic offenses.

On Monday, her office launched the Slow Traffic Offense Prosecution, or STOP, initiative, which allows people charged with minor traffic violations, like driving with a suspended license, to first come into compliance with the law and have their case dismissed, rather than face hefty fines and potential jail time. The initiative was developed in conjunction with the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Under the STOP initiative, Mosby’s office will no longer prosecute cases where the person is charged with driving without a license, driving with a suspended license, driving without insurance, and driving with a falsified registration—so long as the person successfully completes a state-approved driver improvement program. The program generally requires anywhere from two to eight hours of class time and costs around $50.

Along with completing the program, people seeking to go through the STOP initiative must come into compliance with the law. For individuals without a license or who drove on a suspended license, this means legally obtaining a driver’s license, if permitted by law. For people charged with offenses like driving without a registration or insurance, they must either legally register the vehicle or obtain insurance.

People charged with driving on a suspended license because of a prior DUI conviction or because their license was suspended by the state Medical Advisory Board do not qualify for the STOP initiative. Cases involving a crash or victims also do not qualify for the program unless approved by the victim.

“We know that thousands of people every year will wind up with a driver’s license suspended, revoked, or canceled, and what they need is assistance to fix the problem and to address whatever the underlying cause might have been, rather than fines and jail time,” Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, told The Appeal. “Simply criminalizing that kind of conduct too often is going to force people to make a very difficult decision between driving themselves to work or their children to doctors appointments, or facing the threat of criminal prosecution.”  

According to a memo announcing the program, Mosby’s office prosecuted more than 8,300 cases of driving without a license and more than 12,400 cases of driving on a suspended license in 2019. Driving without a license and driving with a falsified registration currently carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Driving on a suspended license and driving while uninsured can lead to up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a law that ends the practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid traffic fines and fees. The move was heralded by advocates as a step towards ending the cycle of poverty created by law enforcement and the courts. 

Police disproportionately pull over and search Black people for low-level traffic offenses. A 2020 New York University study of millions of traffic stops nationwide found that Black drivers were 20 percent more likely than white drivers to be pulled over, and 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be searched.

The STOP initiative announcement comes just days after Mosby said she would reduce prosecutions for sex work and low-level drug crimes. She told the Washington Post that the announcement was not related to an ongoing federal investigation into her campaign finances.

Other top prosecutors across the country are ending police enforcement and criminal prosecution of low-level traffic infractions. Boulder County, Colorado District Attorney Michael Dougherty introduced a similar diversion program that allows drivers charged with low-level traffic offenses, like driving without a license or driving without insurance, to have their cases dismissed if they can show they have obtained a valid license or insurance. Hillsborough County, Florida State’s Attorney Andrew Warren implemented a program in 2017 where people charged with driving on a suspended license can have their cases dismissed by paying any back fines and fees. Warren said in November that his office has dismissed more than 7,000 cases under this program.

Mosby’s announcement is part of a larger movement among state and local elected officials to reduce the harms caused by police enforcement of traffic offenses.  Earlier this year, Florida state lawmaker Omari Hardy introduced a bill that would take some traffic enforcement from armed police officers by hiring trained traffic monitors. In February, the Berkeley, California City Council voted to approve a sweeping set of reforms that prevent police officers from stopping motorists for minor traffic violations. Similar reforms were instituted in Oakland, California in 2016 and the number of traffic stops were cut more than in half, while overall crime also fell. 

The STOP initiative “is a step in the right direction,” Krinsky said.

Sheila Nezhad Says Police Are Not the Path to Public Safety in Minneapolis

Nezhad, a community organizer, is seeking to unseat incumbent Jacob Frey on a platform of transforming public safety without police, providing housing for all, and addressing poverty through direct economic support.

Sheila Nezhad
Photo courtesy of Sheila for the People. Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.

Sheila Nezhad Says Police Are Not the Path to Public Safety in Minneapolis

Nezhad, a community organizer, is seeking to unseat incumbent Jacob Frey on a platform of transforming public safety without police, providing housing for all, and addressing poverty through direct economic support.

In May, millions of people watched a video of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the back of George Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes, killing him. “The first thing I saw before I saw the video was what I saw out on the streets,” said Sheila Nezhad, a policy organizer with Reclaim the Block who is running for mayor. “I went two blocks from my house on Chicago Avenue to join the community in protests.”

What could have been a moment of citywide unity—and an opportunity for the police to regain trust in the community—quickly turned ugly, Nezhad said. “I expected the police to be on their best behavior, but they came out of their squads with wooden billy clubs and big cans of mace in hand,” she said. “They were looking at the community with such contempt, such pure hate in their eyes.”

After several weeks of jury selection, the murder trial against Chauvin began Monday morning. Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter for killing Floyd.

But Nezhad believes institutions, like police and the government, also bear responsibility for Floyd’s death. “If there is an individual conviction, that is not enough,” said Nezhad. She pointed to the case of Mohamed Noor, who was convicted of murder in 2019 for shooting and killing an Austrailian woman while responding to a call for a suspected sexual assault in 2017. “We have sent a Minneapolis police officer to prison,” she said of Noor, “and that didn’t change anything.” 

In recent years, Minneapolis has implemented several policies aimed at reforming police, including attempts to diversify the department, stricter body camera regulations, and ending “warrior-style” training. But Floyd’s killing—and the national uproar it caused—suggests there remains a long road ahead to ensuring true safety for the public, especially the Black community.

Nezhad hopes to lead the city in this effort. She is running to unseat Mayor Jacob Frey in November’s race, the first major local election since Floyd’s death, by advancing a platform of progressive populism, focused on reshaping public safety by eliminating the police department, emphasizing prevention, and addressing root causes of violence. Her policies are also aimed at making housing affordable for all people and ending poverty.

“I have a different theory of change about how we get to a safe Minneapolis,” Nezhad said. “It’s about changing the core conditions that lead to crime and harm happening and developing alternative ways of dealing with conflict that don’t rely on guns and cages.”

I have a different theory of change about how we get to a safe Minneapolis.Sheila Nezhad, candidate for Minneapolis mayor

For Nezhad, that means starting off by significantly reducing the role of police in society. Nezhad said most of the calls that police respond to are not violent crimes and could be better served by having trained professionals, like social workers and mental health teams, to respond to them. She said she also wants to see street-response teams and unarmed violence interrupters added to deal with potential acts of violence.

Nezhad and Reclaim the Block are part of a coalition gathering signatures for a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would eliminate the police department. The proposed amendment would eliminate the current requirement that the city employ a minimum number of police officers—roughly one police officer for every 590 people—and would create a Department of Violence Prevention, which would replace most or all of the police department with a “holistic approach” to public safety. The City Council tried to undertake a similar effort last year but it failed. The council is trying again this year with a new proposed charter amendment that would maintain some police officers, while moving most responsibilities to non-police alternatives, like mental health and social workers.

Frey has been a serious impediment to police reform efforts, Nezhad said. She recently penned an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune opposing Frey’s decision to request that National Guard troops be deployed to the city during Chauvin’s trial. Frey’s request, she said, was an unnecessary escalation that would likely provoke violence rather than quell it.

“We need a mayor who can get on board with change and can work with the City Council,” Nezhad said. In December, City Council President Lisa Bender blasted Frey on Twitter after a combative budget process, saying he had threatened to veto the entire budget if it did not include funding for vacant positions within the police department.

“What I’ve seen is resistance from some of our city leaders, especially our current mayor, to changing the systems we have and the result of that is we keep seeing the same cycles of police violence and failed police reform over and over again,” said Nezhad. 

But her plans go beyond policing. She aims to decriminalize sex work, drug use, and homelessness. “I think we need a mayor who can be accountable to working class folks, accountable to renters, to people of color, to Indigenous folks, and queer and trans folks,” Nezhad said.

The police department has been the “primary resource” for dealing with issues like homelessness, she said, which results in police breaking up encampments and displacing the people living there, while not addressing the underlying need for no-income and low-income housing.

“Over and over again, we saw the city deploying MPD to evict these people without giving them an alternate place to go,” she said. “So, it would just move from park to park to park.”

What I’ve seen is resistance from some of our city leaders, especially our current mayor, to changing the systems we have.Sheila Nezhad, candidate for Minneapolis mayor

Nezhad said to truly address public safety, the city needs to invest in solving problems like housing and homelessness, rather than continually sending the police department to deal with problems after the fact.

“That’s how we build safety, too, is through greater communication and showing folks that there is a path forward to building a stronger community, rather than our only path to safety is by having more officers on the street,” she said.

Nezhad said she supports investments in public housing as well as instituting a rent control policy that would create limits on the amount landlords could charge tenants for rent.

The City Council is considering proposals for a charter amendment to implement rent control in the city. However, Frey has previously opposed such measures. Frey has also supported privatization of public housing to address the city’s housing need, something Nezhad said puts the desires of wealthy developers over the needs of Minneapolis residents.

“Everyone deserves housing,” Nezhad said. “It’s a human right.”

Nezhad also said she supports addressing poverty through job training and direct support from the city government. She sees implementation of a universal basic income through direct payments to all residents in Minneapolis as a long-term goal but would like to see targeted financial support to people in need in the short term.

“We have the resources,” she said. Minneapolis has spent more than $1 million on fences and metal barricades ahead of Chauvin’s trial. “Imagine if we had put that $1 million into direct economic relief for families that are suffering right now. What would that have done to advance peace in the city?”

Minneapolis Activists Could Put Police Reform Directly on the Ballot

Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of advocacy organizations, is on track to place a proposed charter amendment on November’s ballot that would fundamentally change policing and public safety in the city.

Demonstrators march in honor of George Floyd on March 7 in Minneapolis.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Minneapolis Activists Could Put Police Reform Directly on the Ballot

Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of advocacy organizations, is on track to place a proposed charter amendment on November’s ballot that would fundamentally change policing and public safety in the city.

Last year, after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him, public officials in Minneapolis vowed to disband the police department and replace it with a whole new model of public safety. But the gears of bureaucracy ground those efforts to a halt.

Now, the people of Minneapolis are taking it upon themselves to make the idea of fundamental transformation of public safety a reality. The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, a coalition of advocacy organizations in the city area, are gathering signatures for a petition to place a proposed charter amendment on the November ballot. It would move police under a newly formed Department of Public Safety and eliminate a requirement that the city employ a minimum number of officers—one for every 588 residents.

“The Minneapolis residents have made it clear that they want something different,” Corenia Smith, campaign director for Yes 4 Minneapolis, told The Appeal. “They deserve safety and folks deserve to have a number and response team to call and receive care and dignity in that process.” 

Smith said the new department would take a public health approach to public safety. “Being able to implement mental health responders, being able to have social workers – folks who are well versed in domestic violence prevention and able to deescalate – those are a lot of the services our city needs right now,” she said. “Being able to have better responses to addiction and substance abuse, people being unhoused and economically displaced, those are just not things police are equipped to handle.”

Smith said the campaign was on track to exceed its goal of 20,000 signatures by April 30, though only about 12,000 are needed to get on the ballot. 

Several cities have taken up plans to reduce police budgets and rethink public safety since Floyd was killed. Earlier this year, Ithaca, New York Mayor Svante Myrick proposed a plan to fully disband its police department and replace it with a Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety that would include armed and unarmed civilian first responders. Lawmakers in Albuquerque are currently considering a proposal that would divert some non-violent calls from the police department to a newly formed Community Safety Department.

The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign—which includes TakeAction Minnesota, Reclaim the Block, Women for Political Change, and Color of Change—is one part of a two-track effort to get a charter amendment on the ballot this year. The City Council is making its second attempt and passed an amendment similar to the campaign’s earlier this month. The city’s Charter Commission blocked the council’s amendment last year, saying it needed more time to review the proposal.

Elianne Farhat, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, placed the blame for the failed amendment on the commission and Mayor Jacob Frey, who is up for reelection in November. “They chose to slow it down and they chose to continue to play politics with people’s lives,” Farhat said.

By proposing an amendment through a petition, the City Council, mayor, and Charter Commission have less power to block or slow down the proposal. Under Minnesota law, the Charter Commission and City Council generally provide oversight that the petition was legally submitted and help craft the language of the ballot question but cannot change the substance of the initiative as long as the petition met all the legal requirements.

The Charter Commission has broader authority to approve, deny, or change proposals when dealing with recommended charter amendments created by the City Council.

Both Farhat and Smith said the City Council amendment and the petition proposal were not in competition but were aimed instead at making sure residents definitely have a proposed charter amendment to vote on in November. Smith said council members have agreed to drop their proposed amendment if the petition campaign is successful. 

“Derek Chauvin and the officers who stood by Derek Chauvin while he killed George Floyd are part of an infrastructure that perpetuates a culture of violence and is operating totally unaccountable to the public,” Farhat said. “It is our moral obligation as citizens, as neighbors to hold that system and infrastructure accountable and transform that system into one that doesn’t do harm and damage but actually keeps us safe.”

The Successes and Shortcomings of Larry Krasner’s Trailblazing First Term

Philadelphia’s top prosecutor has made good on promises to reduce incarceration in the city. His re-election bid will be a litmus test for the progressive prosecutor movement he helped start.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

The Successes and Shortcomings of Larry Krasner’s Trailblazing First Term

Philadelphia’s top prosecutor has made good on promises to reduce incarceration in the city. His re-election bid will be a litmus test for the progressive prosecutor movement he helped start.

Three years ago, when Larry Krasner took office as the Philadelphia district attorney, he was something of a pioneer. He had promised to combat mass incarceration and undo the damage done by his punitive predecessors.

And as his first term draws to a close, Krasner has delivered on several of his campaign promises: The number of people in jail in Philadelphia has fallen by nearly 30 percent. He has not sought the death penalty in a single case. He has prosecuted significantly fewer cases than his predecessors. He has reduced the use of cash bail and limited parole and probation terms. And he has reinvigorated his office’s conviction integrity unit.

“I think the short, concise version of it is promises made, promises kept,” Krasner told The Appeal in a wide-ranging interview. “That doesn’t mean everything got fixed but promises made, promises kept.”

Now Krasner finds himself in a high-stakes race for re-election. He is facing at least one other opponent, former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, in May for the Democratic nomination and will likely have a Republican challenger, criminal defense attorney Chuck Peruto, in the general election in November.

Critics on the right say Krasner’s policies threaten public safety and have caused a surge in violence in the city. Critics on the left argue that he has not gone far enough: His office still seeks cash bail and asks that people convicted of certain crimes be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or death by incarceration. Krasner’s office has at least once used the threat of the death penalty to resolve a case.

“We took a lot of heat,” Krasner said of his first term. “Oh boy, was there heat. But that is to be expected when you are in year 11 of a 30-year arc of being part of a movement for social justice. You take a lot of heat because you’re getting things done.”

Krasner was one of the first progressive prosecutors to capture the national spotlight, and his re-election bid will be a test for a movement that has grown and accelerated rapidly in the years since.

“As movement folks, we’re going to continue to build power together to arrive at solutions to problems that plague us,” Nicolas O’Rourke, Pennsylvania organizing director for Working Families Party, which is endorsing Krasner for re-election, told The Appeal. “When you have someone in the DA’s office, you want to make sure there is always someone who’s willing to share what’s going on, who’s going to provide transparency and accountability, and I think he’s done that.”

Krasner has drastically changed how the Philadelphia district attorney’s office had been pursuing and handling cases. 

For nearly 20 years beginning in the early 1990s, Lynne Abraham led the office and became known as one of the “deadliest” district attorneys in the country because of how frequently she sought the death penalty. Her office also oversaw numerous wrongful convictions of Black and Latinx people for murders they didn’t commit. Krasner’s immediate predecessor Seth Williams sued newly elected Governor Tom Wolf in 2015 when the governor instituted a moratorium on executions. Williams said Wolf’s action was “flagrantly unconstitutional,” but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the moratorium later that year. Williams was released from federal prison about a year ago after pleading guilty to bribery charges in 2017.

“For far too long, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has been driven by a win-at-any-cost culture that prioritizes high conviction rates and harsh sentencing over more effective approaches that are proven to reduce crime,” Krasner’s first campaign website says. His platform included reducing over-prosecution by declining to take on “insignificant” cases and cases where the evidence provided by police wasn’t sufficient or legally obtained. 

In 2018, Krasner’s first year in office, the number of cases brought by the district attorney’s office fell by about 6,000 cases, or roughly 16 percent compared to the previous year. Charges remained largely flat in 2019, and they fell by more than 8,000 cases in 2020 as police made significantly fewer arrests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the first actions Krasner took was directing his assistant district attorneys in February 2018 to no longer prosecute possession of marijuana. The office prosecuted only one minor possession case the rest of that year. For comparison, the district attorney’s office prosecuted more than 400 people during the same time period a year earlier, The Appeal found.

You take a lot of heat because you’re getting things done.Larry Krasner, Philadelphia DA

Krasner has not sought the death penalty in a single case—another promise he made while campaigning. He also supported an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn the death penalty in Pennsylvania. In a brief to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Krasner’s office wrote that the death penalty disproportionately harms people of color and indigent people. According to Department of Corrections data, Philadelphians make up nearly a quarter of people on death row in the state. Of that number, 84 percent are Black and more than 90 percent are part of a racial minority group.

More than 70 percent of all death sentences imposed since 1978 were overturned on appeal, according to Krasner’s brief, and a majority of those cases were overturned because of ineffective counsel—often underfunded court-appointed lawyers or public defenders. 

“It’s professional malpractice,” Krasner told The Appeal. “It’s professional malpractice planned by a system that was utterly unwilling to pay what it actually cost to do that litigation properly.”

Krasner said he supports giving people serving life sentences a chance at parole, and his office has supported commutations for people serving life. He has, however, prosecuted dozens of cases that have resulted in life without the possibility of parole sentences: In Pennsylvania, a conviction for first- or second-degree murder carries a mandatory minimum of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Krasner has also worked to limit parole and probation terms. In March 2019, he instituted a policy where his office now only seeks a maximum of 12 months of probation or parole for a person convicted of a misdemeanor and a maximum of three years for a person convicted of a felony.

Since taking office in 2018, Krasner has collectively reduced future incarceration of people convicted of crimes in Philadelphia by more than 20,000 years, compared to what was imposed during the four years preceding his tenure. Future probation and parole sentences have been reduced by more than 81,000 years, according to data published by his office.

Krasner has also attempted to correct past harms by investigating and overturning wrongful convictions secured by his predecessors. In 2018, he hired Patricia Cummings to lead the office’s conviction integrity unit, which was started under Williams in 2014. Under Williams’s tenure, only three people were exonerated by the unit. Since taking over, Cummings, who had run a similar unit in Dallas, has helped exonerate 18 people, who served more than 350 years combined in prison for crimes they did not commit. Of those who have been exonerated, 11 were Black or Latinx people convicted during Abraham’s tenure and served more than 240 years combined in prison. One man, Terrance Lewis, was arrested and convicted of murder in 1999, and exonerated and released in 2019.

The district attorney, however, has faced criticism from the left and right for his office’s bail practices. 

Krasner promised to stop asking for cash bail for people charged with nonviolent offenses, and once in office, he stopped seeking cash bail in cases where the person was charged with any of a list of 25 offenses including forgery, drug possession, prostitution, and retail theft. “I actually had people tell me [the bail policy] was the end of civilization,” he said. “We had to listen to that nonsense for a year.” A 2019 study of the bail policy found it increased the likelihood a person would be released without having to pay bail or undergo pretrial supervision by 22 percent, without resulting in an increase in people failing to appear for trial or committing new crimes while out on bail.

But in March, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, his office instituted a binary policy to either request judges hold people pretrial if they are charged with certain violent crimes, or release people without cash bail. The office asked to hold any person it felt was a public safety threat, including people charged in a shooting, people charged with rape, and people with felony convictions charged with illegal possession of firearm. And it asked for extremely high bail amounts in those instances—$999,999. (One dollar more would have triggered certain holding conditions, Krasner’s spokesperson Jane Roh said, including requiring the person be held in isolation.)

Pennsylvania law allows for judges to deny bail in all cases where the person is a risk to public safety and no bail conditions will “reasonably assure” that safety. But state law also requires that cash bail only be set at a level to “reasonably ensure the defendant’s appearance and compliance with the conditions of the bail bond” and not just be used to hold someone pretrial. 

Krasner explained to The Appeal that the policy, a response in part to the pandemic, is meant to ultimately keep fewer people in jail and to echo the model in Washington, D.C., where the use of cash bail has been essentially eliminated.

A 2019 study of the bail policy found it increased the likelihood a person would be released without having to pay bail or undergo pretrial supervision by 22 percent, without resulting in an increase in people failing to appear for trial or committing new crimes while out on bail.

But the result has inflamed tensions on all sides. Bail magistrates, judges who ultimately set bail and have been sued in recent years for setting it at unreasonable levels, only complied with Krasner’s nearly $1 million requests in 2 percent of cases, setting lower bail amounts in 90 percent of them, according to Roh. Krasner criticized magistrates for setting bail in an amount that the person charged is able to pay, amid criticism from his opponents on the right that some people who were released went on to commit new crimes.

In September, William McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at the time, held a press conference in which he attacked Krasner and blamed his policies for causing a “culture of lawlessness” resulting in violence.

Krasner has also become so much of a target of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, that the union has begun a campaign to get Republicans to change party registration so they can vote against Krasner in the May primary.  

Advocates on the left are upset over the office’s continued use of bail and accuse Krasner of abandoning his commitments. Krasner has even found himself at odds with the city’s bail funds following a report that alleged he was continuing to seek excessive bail even in some cases where the person was charged with minor offenses like drug possession. 

Roh did not respond directly to the allegation but said the report lacked context. For example, the report says a higher percentage of cases were referred to the district attorney’s office for violent offenses but that is because the total number of arrests fell as a result of the pandemic, she said. 

“We knew that this would be controversial, we didn’t know from whom,” Krasner said. “Sometimes the activist voice is a prophetic voice. It’s an absolutist voice. It’s a very, very ideological voice. It’s also an easy voice that doesn’t deal with the real flaws in the system or the reality that a decision has to be made right now about a human being and that person’s life right now.”

Hannah Sassaman, policy director for the Movement Alliance Project, told The Appeal: “The vision of this system that not just we but millions across this country are looking for is one where there is the right to be innocent until proven guilty and, unless there are no other circumstances that will keep that person or identifiable people in the community safe, for that innocent until proven guilty person to [be able to] fight their trial from home. That is the vision we were fighting for.”

Since Krasner has taken office, several other prosecutors who support decarceration have been elected. Chesa Boudin took office in 2020 in San Francisco and quickly took steps to eliminate cash bail in the city, reduce pretextual stops, and end the use of California’s three-strikes law. Late last year, George Gascón, Boudin’s predecessor, was elected and became district attorney of Los Angeles County—America’s largest county. Gascón ran on a platform to deliver many of the same reforms that both Krasner and Boudin promised.

“It’s really exciting to look around three years into the administration and realize 10 percent of all people in the United States reside in a jurisdiction with a progressive prosecutor and they elected that progressive prosecutor,” Krasner said. “A decade ago, that number would have been 0 percent.”

But now, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a summer of protests, and the rise of the defund the police and abolitionist movements, the man once dubbed the “most radical district attorney in the country” finds himself to the right of some of the most vocal activists as he begins his run for a second term in office.

“This is really where the tire meets the road. I am not an abolitionist,” Krasner said. “I do not think there should be no jails whatsoever. I do not believe there should be no cops whatsoever.”

For Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, abolition is the long-term goal. However, in the short-term, Holbrook said progressive prosecutors like Krasner are a form of harm reduction.

“I have to look at the big picture here,” Holbrook said. “It’s a culture change. Is it a culture that I want? No, I’m an abolitionist. Krasner is still going to prosecute, and I don’t agree with a lot of his prosecution. But, when I look at this office from a harm reduction [perspective], I see how it has changed.”

Holbrook was charged with murder in 1990 when he was 16 years old because he participated in a robbery where a woman was killed. The Philadelphia district attorney’s office at the time sought the death penalty against Holbrook, but he ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. He was released after nearly 30 years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional for people who were children at the time of their crime.

“As someone who that office tried to kill when he was 16 years old, it’s a 180,” Holbrook said of Krasner’s tenure, “and I can’t act like I don’t see that.” 

Although Krasner said his office has made major strides in just three years, he acknowledged that the work was far from over.

“In every area, we have achieved,” Krasner said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re done.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified George Gascón’s title. He is the Los Angeles County district attorney, not the Los Angeles district attorney.

The U.S. Economy Won’t Recover Until Black Workers Do

Biden’s American Rescue Plan is a start, but more public investment is needed to address racial inequality in the labor market.

Recently fired Marriott Copley hotel workers unite in front of the Copley Square hotel in Boston on Nov. 20.
Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The U.S. Economy Won’t Recover Until Black Workers Do

Biden’s American Rescue Plan is a start, but more public investment is needed to address racial inequality in the labor market.

Now that President Biden has signed the American Rescue Plan into law, millions of struggling families will get some of the relief they have so desperately needed for the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents will have more money in their pockets to make ends meet for their families. Millions of children will begin to be lifted out of poverty. And state and local governments will be able to resist buckling under the pressure of stretched budgets and resources.

The American Rescue Plan means that relief is around the corner, and is a major down payment on a commitment to creating a more resilient, inclusive economy. Recovery, however, is not yet guaranteed: The U.S. will not reach full recovery until we reach full Black employment. For that, more will be required—including further rounds of major public investment to meet long-neglected priorities to address racial inequality in the labor market. 

The Federal Reserve has a “dual mandate” from Congress: to aim for the lowest possible unemployment while keeping prices stable. To uphold the first part of its mandate, the Fed often looks to the official unemployment rate. The problem is that the official unemployment rate does not illustrate the full economic picture—it is mostly indicative of how white workers are doing, not of how all workers are doing. Prominent economists, including Janelle Jones, who is now chief economist at the Department of Labor, and Jared Bernstein, a current member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, echoed this sentiment over the summer, calling on the Fed to focus on reducing the Black unemployment rate and address the employment gaps that persist between Black and white workers.

Black and Latinx workers are routinely hit the hardest by economic downturns, and the recession caused by the pandemic has been no exception. A deeper look at both current unemployment data and pre-pandemic numbers tells us that the economy has not worked for all of us for decades. Building back better means that we cannot return to this economy.   

The pandemic exacerbated the already shocking levels of racial inequality in our economy. Last month, the unemployment rate for Black workers was a devastating 9.9 percent while the unemployment rate for white workers was 5.6 percent. But a year ago, before the pandemic, the Black unemployment rate was 6 percent while the white unemployment rate was 3 percent—a major and troubling gap. 

The disparities are even greater when broken down by gender and age. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Black women (age 20 and up) was nearly 9 percent in February, compared to just under 5 percent in February 2020. The numbers for white women were 5.2 and 2.8 percent. For Black men of the same age range, the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent, compared to 6 percent in the same time period last year. For white men the numbers were 5.3 and 2.8 percent. And for Black youth between the ages of 16 and 19, the unemployment rate was at a stunning 19.8 percent this February while the rate for white youth was 13.1.

The significant gap between Black and white unemployment—about double throughout history—is a long-standing, systemic problem. For nearly 50 years, we have tolerated recession-level unemployment levels for Black workers while lauding low unemployment rates overall, as well as labor conditions and policies that have primarily benefited white workers. The Black unemployment rate is persistently double the white unemployment rate. It is long overdue that we set the standard for a new, more inclusive normal.

The U.S. cannot risk making the same major mistake it did during the Great Recession—declaring victory on economic recovery while Black workers remained excluded from the labor market. But the hand wringing has already begun from familiar conservative and neoliberal corners of the economy policy world, including Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, an austerian organization the holds more mainstream political influence than it deserves. These voices fearmonger about the federal deficit, inflation, and the national debt, and wrongly say that we risk overheating the economy.

The real risk remains going too small on public investment, failing to focus on the communities most devastated by our unequal economy, and cutting off the help we need to fully recover too soon. Ending or slowing the pace of public investment before Black workers can reap the benefits—like wage growth and a low unemployment rate—means that white workers will recover while Black workers won’t. This threat far outweighs the risk of inflation. We know from the aftermath of the Great Recession—and economic downturns before it—that it takes Black households longer than white households to recover financially. Add to this that the pandemic eliminated about a decade of job gains

If we truly want to recover, we must reach full Black employment, and that will take the type of big, bold public action that we’ve long neglected. We must work to eliminate systemic barriers in the labor market, to start to overcome the racist policy choices that have made this economy fragile and unfair to the tens of millions of Black workers whose labor goes undercompensated and undervalued. For example, the reduction of jobs in the public job sector, a significant source of middle-class employment for Black workers, has hit the Black community hardest. Because the public sector is so critical to providing job opportunity and economic security, we must invest in funding state and local budgets. 

We must finally deliver on an economy that meets the needs of not only this moment, but of those past and those to come. We have the money to spend, and what we cannot afford is an economy that allows such inequality to persist.

Ashley Mitchell is director of communications at Groundwork Collaborative.

Misdemeanor Convictions Cause Real Harm. New York Needs a New Approach

Getting convicted of a “minor offense” inflicts serious, long-term harm. The state can and must divert more people to counseling, group meetings, or other interventions.

Photo by Getty Images.

Misdemeanor Convictions Cause Real Harm. New York Needs a New Approach

Getting convicted of a “minor offense” inflicts serious, long-term harm. The state can and must divert more people to counseling, group meetings, or other interventions.

A growing number of Americans now understand that misdemeanors, despite often being called “minor offenses,” can be devastating, especially for the poor and people of color. 

One misdemeanor can result in hefty fees and fines or jail time, and even cost you your job, professional license, or housing application. Misdemeanor convictions reduce people’s earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars, roughly 16 percent annually, according to recent research by the Brennan Center for Justice. 

And misdemeanor convictions disproportionately affect Black people. In 2019, Black individuals accounted for 35 percent of New York State’s misdemeanor convictions, despite representing less than 20 percent of the state population. By the end of a career, a white person in the U.S. with a criminal conviction earns an average of $49,000 a year, while a similarly situated Black person who has no criminal conviction earns $39,000 a year.

Reducing the number of people who carry these charges—more than 45 million nationwide—is vital, and New York has developed tools to do just that. But one such tool —pretrial diversion, which allows someone cited for a misdemeanor to avoid being charged with the offense—is underutilized, underfunded, and at risk of collapse because of budget cuts. That’s unacceptable, especially during a pandemic, where thousands of cases have spread through New York’s jails and prisons, endangering the lives of incarcerated people and corrections staff. City and state leaders should be taking every step possible to reduce the risk of incarceration for misdemeanor convictions, and that includes funding and expanding these vital initiatives.

Pretrial diversion works like this: After a person is cited for an offense and before they have been officially charged, they are offered an opportunity to participate in some form of intervention, such as counseling or group meetings designed to confront—and change—the behaviors that led them to be arrested. Upon completion of the program, the prosecutor declines to pursue the case, and the person’s record stays clean, without the corresponding consequences that misdemeanor convictions carry. By providing services instead of punishment, pretrial diversion can help people get back on track and protect their economic futures. 

Until recently, one pretrial diversion program called Project Reset served all five boroughs in New York City. Like other initiatives, it aims to give people cited for specific misdemeanors—including shoplifting, trespassing, and other low-level, nonviolent offenses—the option of participating in interventions like counseling sessions or community service to resolve their cases without conviction. 

And it worked: By one count, Project Reset has helped at least 3,976 people avoid becoming further ensnared in the criminal legal system since 2015. Studies show that young people who completed the program were significantly less likely to be convicted of a new crime within a year, compared to a similar group of defendants. Additionally, program participants reported that Project Reset helped them develop skills to manage challenging situations and chart a better path forward for their lives.

Yet despite its success and efficacy, several branches of Project Reset lost funding in October. As a result, its branches in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens eventually shut down, despite calls for support from all five of the city’s district attorneys. And more cuts could be coming. Funding for the Manhattan branch is only secured until August 2022, and the City Council has yet to fund another year for the Bronx.

Letting Project Reset dissolve would be a mistake. Now is the time for the City Council and other leaders across the state to evaluate diversion programs and consider how to adapt them to their own jurisdictions. Although most pretrial diversion programs focus on misdemeanors, it’s worth exploring whether they could be expanded to cover even some felony charges. 

This kind of intervention is inexpensive and cost-effective. New York City paid around $710,000 to run Project Reset in one borough in fiscal year 2020. That’s a small up-front cost that pales in comparison to the potential long-term savings, and the city should reinvest in June when the budget comes up for debate. Indeed, city and state leaders should develop more programs like Project Reset, and they must keep them fully funded. A misdemeanor conviction can permanently harm a person’s future. That should be our last resort.

Diversion programs can help reorient the criminal legal system away from a framework that prioritizes punishment and toward one focused on rehabilitation, redemption, human dignity, and economic stability—an important step toward truly ending mass incarceration and its consequences.

Jackie Fielding is the Robina Public Interest Scholar Fellow and Counsel with the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.

Chloe Sarnoff is a public policy analyst at Robin Hood, specializing in criminal justice reform and housing policy.

The Housing Justice Group Fighting to Put Power Back in Tenant Hands

KC Tenants has secured passage of a tenant "bill of rights" and successfully blocked hundreds of evictions through civil action in the Kansas City, Missouri area.

Photo by Carly Rosin. Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

The Housing Justice Group Fighting to Put Power Back in Tenant Hands

KC Tenants has secured passage of a tenant "bill of rights" and successfully blocked hundreds of evictions through civil action in the Kansas City, Missouri area.

Brandy Granados’s road to activism began in November 2018 when the heater in her Kansas City, Missouri, apartment exploded. She went without heat for two months during a winter that included multiple blizzards. She continued to pay rent, she said, but in response her landlord didn’t fix the heater; instead he tried to evict her and her children. 

Desperate for help, she was connected with Tara Raghuveer, an area native who had returned after graduating from college with the goal of solving residents’ housing insecurity. “I figured I could either just sit there and be mad about my situation, or I could do something about it,” Granados said. 

She was able to fight off the first eviction attempt in court, but the landlord removed her to retake possession of the house. She ended up in a homeless shelter for three months. The loss of her home has left her son suffering from anxiety and trauma.

By early 2019, she, Raghuveer, Diane Charity, and Tiana Caldwell would form the housing justice group KC Tenants. Since its formation, KC Tenants has changed the city’s political landscape, putting housing instability at the center of the conversation.

Raghuveer grew up in a wealthy white suburb outside of Kansas City. So when she returned in 2013 to study evictions for her senior thesis in college, “it burst this little bubble I had grown up within,” she said. The experience transformed the issue from an intellectual pursuit to “something I felt really compelled to take action around.”

I figured I could either just sit there and be mad about my situation, or I could do something about it.Brandy Granados, co-founder of KC Tenants

Charity has deep roots in the city and has been fighting slumlords and corporate landlords for decades. In 1991, her son was shot in the stomach and almost died, and it nearly prompted her to move, until she realized she wanted to stay and fight to make her neighborhood safer for everyone. She’s brought the same attitude to KC Tenants. “For every person we talk to, for every person that joins, we know we’re that much stronger,” she said. “There’s such strength in numbers and we can get this stuff done.”

KC Tenants held its first meeting of about a dozen people in February 2019. The next had 35 people, according to Raghuveer, the third attracted around 55, and the one after that had about 100 supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall to launch its housing policy platform. “We were off to the races,” Raghuveer said.

Since then, KC Tenants has become a force to be reckoned with, going toe to toe with landlords and lawmakers alike, most recently during the 2019 City Council and mayoral races. “There’s a really low bar for engaging in local elections because people just don’t turn out,” Raghuveer noted. KC Tenants aimed not just to increase voter turnout, but to get them activated on the issue of housing.

Members started showing up at candidate forums as a bloc, dressed in matching KC Tenants shirts with its recognizable bull logo. To get housing on the agenda, members disrupted the meetings and demanded that their questions about housing be answered. They sent their own housing questionnaire to every candidate, produced a voter guide based on the answers, and even held their own candidate forum. 

They left a mark. Mayor Quinton Lucas, who made housing his key issue, beat nine other candidates in the primary and his opponent in the general. “They certainly played a role in not just my election, but in the City Council’s election,” Lucas said of KC Tenants. “I really appreciated their voice.” His interest in housing is personal: Lucas, who is  Black, grew up with a single mother in Kansas City who is a lifelong renter and was sometimes homeless. He and his sister are also lifelong renters, and his sister has struggled to hold on to her home. He compared that history to a white ex-girlfriend who bought a house with the help of her parents. Housing policy perpetuates inequality in the U.S., he noted. “I’ve known that since my childhood.”

“I don’t agree with all of their tactics, I don’t agree with all they have to say,” Lucas said of KC Tenants. “But I sure as hell support somebody making a point about it.”

A KC Tenants protest on Jan. 7 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Carly Rosin

The group’s first major win was the passage of a Tenant Bill of Rights in December 2019. At first, lawmakers assured KC Tenants that they would write a bill and get it passed. “We told them, ‘No, you won’t. You won’t write us anything, we’ll write it ourselves,’” Charity said. The City Council eventually passed a legislative package based on KC Tenants’ work that, among other things, institutes a right to working amenities like water and heat and the right to form tenant unions, and that bans discrimination based on disability, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other factors.

The final bill did not include some provisions KC Tenants pushed for, like a ban on source of income discrimination that protects people who use housing vouchers and a requirement that evictions only be allowed for a just cause. Lucas contends that the choice was between dropping those provisions or not getting anything passed at all. “I take value in the 90 percent of their ordinance that we were able to get passed,” he said. 

And the Office of the Tenant Advocate, created under the Tenant Bill of Rights, has yet to receive what KC Tenants says is adequate funding or staffing. The office didn’t get a mention in Lucas’s first budget proposal and has so far only received about $328,000, a fraction of the more than a million dollars that KC Tenants has requested.

Fresh off their policy victories, KC Tenants had to face something it never saw coming: a pandemic that cost thousands of city residents their jobs and incomes and put their homes at risk. Need for rental assistance jumped abruptly. KC Tenants quickly created a hotline that has since received thousands of calls from tenants seeking help. It launched a mutual aid fund in March 2020 that has raised over $51,000. It’s also distributed literature to at least 15,000 tenants’ doors informing them of their rights.

And the group has staged protest after protest. Activists physically blockaded the courthouse multiple times to shut down the eviction proceedings inside and dialed into remote hearings to disrupt them. It even staged a car caravan along the shoulder of Interstate 70.

There’s such strength in numbers and we can get this stuff done.Diane Charity, co-founder of KC Tenants

It’s been a rocky road. Although members of KC Tenants think their actions played an instrumental role in securing an eviction moratorium at the start of the pandemic, the moratorium expired at the end of May. Eviction cases were allowed to proceed even under the moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The group’s demand to cancel rent at the local and federal levels hasn’t been met. 

“We got a dose of reality during the pandemic around how entrenched these systems are,” Raghuveer said, and that as the group takes on bigger and deeper problems, “it’s going to get consistently harder and harder for us to win.”

The frustration led to what KC Tenants called Zero Eviction January. Through a series of blockades and online protests throughout that month, the group delayed over 850 eviction hearings. It also rallied at judges’ homes to demand they stop hearing eviction cases. It was in the midst of that protest activity that Presiding Judge Dale Youngs signed an order halting the entire eviction process through Jan. 24.

The organization isn’t hitting pause after that significant effort. Members have decided to continue disrupting online eviction hearings with the goal of delaying them and buying time for tenants. “That was the biggest bang for the buck,” Raghuveer noted, as having a few people dial in can potentially disrupt hundreds of cases on a given day. 

The group aims next to build its base by knocking on 500 doors each week, expanding its literature drops, and calling people who have faced recent eviction for a wellness check and invitation to join. The policy team is also working on a proposal to finance a housing trust fund—money that can be used to create and repair affordable housing—by redirecting funds from the police budget. The funding is one of Lucas’s campaign pledges that hasn’t yet been realized. Eventually the organization will get involved in the municipal elections in 2023—not just by interrogating candidates, but by running some of their own members for office. 

Granados will be at the front of the fight. “I never thought I’d be a leader of anything,” she said. But she ended up helping to create an organization that has pushed the politics of her city in a new direction.

Philly Cops Are Solving Fewer Homicides. The City Keeps Paying Them Millions

Community members and advocates question why Mayor Jim Kenney and the City Council continue to fund the police department at record levels, despite the department’s low murder solve rate.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from AP Images.

Philly Cops Are Solving Fewer Homicides. The City Keeps Paying Them Millions

Community members and advocates question why Mayor Jim Kenney and the City Council continue to fund the police department at record levels, despite the department’s low murder solve rate.

Between 2013 and 2020, the Philadelphia Police Department budget rose by nearly a quarter. At the same time, murders doubled, but police only solved half of all murders in the city. 

Community members and lawmakers want to know why those who control the city’s budget—the City Council and the mayor in particular—keep funneling money into a department that they say is failing to keep the community safe. 

During last summer’s protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the nation’s mayors drew scrutiny for their role as the elected official who oversees and sets the tone for the police department. But mayors are less often held accountable for ensuring police are fulfilling one of their core functions: solving the most serious crimes. 

“Mayors are part of a political apparatus that is in many respects much more in control of these harms than the police are,” Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of nonprofit group Civil Rights Corps, told The Appeal. “The police are a bureaucracy wielded by local governments to achieve specific goals.”

In Philadelphia, despite ballooning budgets, the rate at which police solve the most serious crimes has plummeted over the last four decades.

In the 1980s, Philadelphia police cleared nearly 80 percent of all murders. Between 2010 and 2015, that number had declined to 65 percent before falling to below 50 percent in the years since 2016, where it has stayed ever since.

Clearance rates for assaults with a firearm have also fallen substantially from a high of 86 percent in 1969 to less than 20 percent last year.

As the city’s chief executive, Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, oversees the police department. He has the authority to hire and fire the police commissioner, to veto legislation passed by the City Council, and use his position to bring stakeholders together, said Diane Goldstein, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and a retired police lieutenant.

One area in which Kenney wields significant authority is in the city’s budget process. Each year in March, Kenney proposes a budget, but he also can influence the final budget passed by the council. Like all cities, Philadelphia has scarce resources. Therefore, when it comes to preventing and mitigating violence, the budget question is: Does the city allocate more dollars to the police department or, instead, provide resources to other critical community services and programs?

“Government budgeting is a reflection of the values of the city,” Goldstein said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to throw this money at the police and let them solve it, but that’s shortsighted.” 

Kenney’s 2021 budget initially called for a more than $3 million increase for the police in March and then a more than $11 million increase in May while cutting funds to homeless services, public art programs, and mental health services. He scrapped both plans in favor of budget cuts after protests in the city, sparked by the police killing of Floyd in May.

Dave Kinchen, spokesperson for the mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention, said Kenney was not ready to discuss his latest budget yet, but the mayor was “committed to investing as much as we can in education and social services that prevent violence, while upholding our commitment to public safety and enacting necessary police reforms.” 

Kinchen also pointed to Kenney’s successful 2017 effort to re-establish the city’s police advisory commission, which is supposed to investigate residents’ complaints about police and provide guidance for Kenney. But some City Council members have said the commission lacks authority to make any real changes. And Kenney himself proposed cutting the board’s funding by about 20 percent in his 2021 budget. (The final budget included a roughly 40 percent increase for the commission.)

Although the City Council voted to cut the police department’s budget by $22 million for the current fiscal year, it now stands at $727 million—the second-highest police budget in 20 years. For comparison, the city spends less than $160 million from its general fund on the Department of Public Health and less than $55 million on parks and recreation.

City Council member Kendra Brooks, who voted against the budget, questioned continually spending so much money on law enforcement, who she said has overpoliced nonwhite communities through excessive arrests for minor offenses like drug possession, yet underprotected them from serious violence. Since 2018, Philadelphia police have made more than 12,000 arrests for drug possession alone, according to data published by District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office.

“We’re writing blank checks and not getting a return on our investment,” Brooks told The Appeal.

A similar dynamic has played out in other major U.S. cities. In Houston, the police department’s budget has risen by nearly $300 million since 2013 despite murder clearance rates plummeting. In 2011, the department cleared nearly 90 percent of all murders and had never had a year below 55 percent. But, since then, the clearance rate has been cut in half and fewer than half of all murders result in an arrest. 

Cleveland increased its budget by $10 million between 2016 and 2018 while solving less than 20 percent of murders during that time.

Nationally, the homicide clearance rate fell from 72 percent in 1980 to 64 in 2008 and now sits around 60 percent, despite significant expansions in spending on technology and personnel, like forensic crime labs, that are supposed to help solve serious crimes.

“When policing appears to be working, the argument is we just need more of that,” Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of “The End of Policing,” told The Appeal. “When policing doesn’t appear to be working, because crime rates are going up, then the argument is we just need more of it. No matter what happens, they will argue that’s a justification for more money for policing.”

Vitale described that dichotomy as a political problem that requires political leaders to push for solutions outside of policing to address violence and harms in the community. This includes providing funding for housing, public health services, and employment programs.

“[Police] are not held accountable for performance or lack thereof,” council member Brooks said.

Police have blamed a lack of cooperation from witnesses as the reason for the city’s low solve rate. 

But community members should not be at fault for the police’s failure to solve crimes, said Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center. He called it a “cop-out” to blame the low solve rate on “a community that has been traumatized by the violence, has been traumatized by the harm, has been traumatized by mass incarceration and police.”

A recent survey found that a majority of Philadelphia residents did not believe the police department was good at preventing violence. The feeling was even more extreme in communities affected by gun violence. More than 80 percent of residents in those neighborhoods believed the police were bad or very bad at preventing violence.

“If you go to North Philly, Southwest Philly, where right now there’s wars going that constitute a majority of the homicides in Philly, you go down there with those statistics and they’re like ‘it’s always been like this,’” Holbrook said.

Frank Vanore, chief inspector of Philadelphia police, told The Appeal that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, “there were a lot of people who didn’t want to be a witness and had issues coming forward.” He acknowledged that lack of cooperation from witnesses was at least in part because of lack of trust between community members and police, and that the police department needs to undertake efforts to rebuild trust. 

According to Vanore, the department’s homicide clearance for 2021 as of Feb. 17 was up slightly to 50 percent. However, the clearance rate was around 60 percent at the same time last year and the year ended below 50 percent. 

The inability of police to solve violent crimes contributes to the community’s lack of trust and in turn an increase in violence, according to Richard Rosenfeld, criminologist at the University of St. Louis.

“People expect the police to protect them from crime and quite obviously from violent crime,” he said. “When the perception spreads that they are not able to solve those cases, that diminishes confidence in the effectiveness of police.”

Brooks, the Philadelphia City Council member, said that instead of continually increasing the police budget without seeing added benefits for public safety, the city could be putting some of that money toward addressing the root causes of violence by investing in quality education, reducing unemployment, increasing food security, and providing more stable housing.

Berkeley City Council Passes Sweeping Reforms to Limit Police Traffic Stops

In an effort to end systemic racism, the California city will aim to reduce the number of police-involved traffic stops for expired registrations and other small violations.

The Berkeley Police station at Martin Luther King Jr Civic Center Park in October 2017.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

Berkeley City Council Passes Sweeping Reforms to Limit Police Traffic Stops

In an effort to end systemic racism, the California city will aim to reduce the number of police-involved traffic stops for expired registrations and other small violations.

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a package of policy changes aimed at reforming policing in the city by reducing racial disparities in traffic enforcement.

“While Berkeley has a long history of progressive leadership, we are not immune from issues of systemic racism in policing and our criminal justice system,” Jesse Arreguín, mayor of the California city, told The Appeal.

Berkeley police will no longer be able to stop drivers for only minor traffic violations like equipment violations, expired vehicle registration, or not wearing a seatbelt. Instead, police will be directed to conduct traffic stops only for violations that endanger public safety, such as excessive speeding, running a red light or stop sign, and driving under the influence.

A person can still be cited for low-level offenses if they are pulled over for a public safety reason. For example, if a person is pulled over for speeding and they are driving with an expired registration, they will get ticketed for both, Arreguín said.

The Berkeley Police Association opposed the reforms, saying in a statement that they “will turn officers into filing clerks, gutting their much-needed time on the streets within our community.”

The policy package grew out of a working group Arreguín convened last year on fair and impartial policing, which formed after the release of a 2018 study by the Center for Policing Equity. The study found that Black and Hispanic people were more than six times more likely than white people to be stopped by the Berkeley Police Department while driving and more than four times more likely to be stopped while walking. 

Between 2012 and 2016, Berkeley police also searched Black people at a rate nearly 20 times that of white people. Latinx people were searched more than four times as often as white people. Despite disproportionate stops and searches of people of color, police were significantly less likely to uncover contraband during those searches than during searches of white people, according to the study.

The new policies mean Berkeley police must also obtain written consent from motorists before doing a search without a warrant. The working group report cited research that showed requiring written consent reduced the number of warrantless vehicle searches by roughly 75 percent.

Officers are also no longer allowed to search a person who is on probation or parole unless the officer believes there is evidence of imminent danger, or that the person has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime.

California law gives police wide discretion to search all people on probation or parole, and people of color are heavily overrepresented among those under community supervision. As of the end of June 2019, nonwhite Californians are nearly twice as likely to be on parole as their white counterparts, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the U.S. Census.

Arreguín said the reforms would allow officers to focus on more serious and dangerous crimes—and the people who commit them.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the group Berkeley Copwatch presented a video that showed a recording of a Black man being shot by Berkeley police, as well as recordings of Black men on whom the group said Berkeley Police had used excessive force. All of the recordings were created during the last year.

NAACP Berkeley president Mansour Id-Deen told the City Council Tuesday that Black people “are people of lived experience” and “the lived experiences that have been dropped on our souls are not of our choosing.”

Neighboring Oakland instituted similar reforms and saw the number of traffic stops drop from more than 19,000 in 2017 to about 7,300 in 2019. The drop in traffic stops does not appear to have negatively affected public safety: Overall crime fell during that same time.

Arreguín said the city is looking at other ways to enforce low-level offenses, including investing in technology like cameras and automated license plate readers, and creating a department for minor traffic enforcement that would be staffed with unarmed officers.

“We are actually really serious about addressing racial disparities in stops, we have to look at why those stops occur,” Arreguín said. “We have to find a new approach and that’s what we are proposing here in Berkeley.”

How George Floyd’s Death Is Pushing Minneapolis to Rethink Public Safety

The police killing has accelerated a years-long effort by advocates and lawmakers to shift resources and money away from law enforcement.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty images.

How George Floyd’s Death Is Pushing Minneapolis to Rethink Public Safety

The police killing has accelerated a years-long effort by advocates and lawmakers to shift resources and money away from law enforcement.

For more than eight minutes in May, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the back of George Perry Floyd’s neck. Several officers stood by and made no effort to help as Floyd gasped for air and begged Chauvin to get off him until he died.

“We don’t feel like he deserved to die the way he did because he was a human being,” Floyd’s aunt Angela Harrelson, told The Appeal. “He will always be Perry to me, six-foot-eight comedian. I miss him dearly.”

Nationwide, Floyd’s death sparked protests against police brutality and a conversation about the role of law enforcement. And mayors, state legislators, and members of Congress have faced increasing pressure to address police brutality and police spending.

In Minneapolis, lawmakers and advocates say Floyd’s death is a rallying point in a years-long effort to transform policing in the city. The killing—a painful scar that will be revisited shortly when Chauvin, who was charged with murder and manslaughter, will be tried next month—has pressed the case for reforms, like diverting law enforcement funds to social programs and non-police alternatives. Still, efforts to implement such changes have faced challenges.

“We might have been on a five-year track, or a 10-year track or a 25-year track, but we don’t have that kind of time,” City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents several northern Minneapolis wards, told The Appeal. “We’ve got to grow these programs now.”

Recent movement within city government to reform the police department began in November 2015, when Minneapolis grappled with another high-profile police killing of an unarmed Black man, according to Elianne Farhat, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing progressive policies in the state.

That month, officers shot and killed 24-year-old Jamar Clark while responding to a domestic violence call. His death, the 2016 death of Philando Castile, and the 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond led to mass protests in Minneapolis, and police violence became a central topic during the 2017 mayoral race

Jacob Frey, then a candidate and now the city’s mayor, responded by calling for some reform, including more diversity in police hiring, and for police to live within the communities they patrol as a way to build the relationship between police and residents. “I want to make community policing more than just a catchphrase,” he said in 2017. “I want to give police officers the time to engage in the community and the impetus to do so.” 

Once elected, Frey banned officers from taking “warrior-style” training classes, which critics say lead to officers using excessive and sometimes deadly force. In 2018, he and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo implemented new consequences for officers who failed to properly use body cameras.

The City Council also voted that year to move $1.1 million from the police department’s budget to create an Office of Violence Prevention, increase funding to the Office of Police Conduct Review, and provide more stable funding to a pilot program that paired mental health professionals with police officers.

But not enough has been done, said Farhat. “Minneapolis is in many ways the poster child for police reforms,” she said. “All the reforms that folks say are supposed to end police violence and improve public safety and trust, Minneapolis has tried and, as we saw in Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, failed.”

Frey did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

Floyd’s killing has created a new urgency in making significant changes to how police and public safety operate in the city, said Ellison.

In June, Ellison was one of a veto-proof majority of councilmembers who vowed to disband the police department and replace it with a Department of Public Safety and Violence Prevention that would be responsible for “public safety services prioritizing a holistic, public health-oriented approach.” However, that plan quickly ran into problems.

Because the police department and a minimum number of officers—at least one officer for roughly every 590 residents—are enshrined in the city’s charter, the City Council alone cannot disband the police department; it must put the question before local voters. 

Although the council voted in June to approve a ballot question, that initiative was blocked by the Minneapolis Charter Commission, which approves ballot initiatives. Commissioners voiced concerns that the proposed change did not give voters an “informed choice” and that the amendment gave too much power to the City Council. The city attorney’s office also released a report in August stating the proposed amendment may violate state law that says only police can perform some law enforcement functions.

Critics say the charter commission overstepped its authority and ignored the will of Minneapolis voters by blocking the amendment. 

The council was able to pass an $8 million cut to the department’s 2021 budget and reinvest that money into a mental health crisis team, additional training for 911 operators, and other non-police actions to reduce violence.

Council President Lisa Bender took to Twitter after the passage of the budget and blamed Frey for blocking larger reforms. Bender said that Frey—who is up for re-election this year—threatened to veto the entire city’s budget if it did not include funding for 140 vacant police positions.

Sheila Nezhad, who is running to unseat Frey, told The Appeal that police violence “is one of the top issues I hear from constituents about.”

Nezhad, a community organizer, said she wants to fundamentally change how public safety is achieved by moving away from policing and investing in addressing root causes of crime and violence like creating stable housing, providing youth programming, and making mental health care accessible to all.

“Right now, we’re locked into a bad contract where policing is our primary model that we have to use,” she said.

Ellison said he intends to “drastically reduce the role police have and reinvent public safety altogether.” However, he said the City Council cannot agree on a clear path at this point.

In January, council members Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher, and Jeremy Schroeder introduced a plan aimed as a workaround to the concerns about state law with the original proposal to disband the police department. It would create a Department of Public Safety that includes the police department and would allow the council and mayor to change the size of the department as they see fit. It would also provide a path for eventually disbanding the use of police except for in a limited number of circumstances as required by state law.

But last week, the City Council voted unanimously to spend $6.4 million to hire dozens more police officers. The number of officers employed by the department has fallen by roughly 200 since Floyd’s killing as officers quit, retired, or took extended medical leave since late May. Ellison told The Appeal the money was allocated in the 2020 budget and does not affect the $8 million cut for the current fiscal year.

Farhat said TakeAction is part of a coalition working to get voter signatures for a charter amendment that would eliminate the requirement that the police department employs a minimum number of officers based on the city’s population and create a Department of Violence Prevention.

Nezhad is also part of that coalition.

Farhat said “a person of good conscience and who cares about human life” can’t let “a system that allows for people to be treated and for Black men to be killed in the way George Floyd was to continue and not do anything.” 

“You are either on the side of the status quo that hurts and harms Black and brown people or you’re on the side of changing it.”

New York Moves A Step Closer To Decriminalizing Sex Work

After organizing to repeal the “walking while trans” ban, advocates in the state—and around the country—are looking ahead to the next fight.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

New York Moves A Step Closer To Decriminalizing Sex Work

After organizing to repeal the “walking while trans” ban, advocates in the state—and around the country—are looking ahead to the next fight.

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that repeals a decades-old statute that advocates say disproportionately targeted trans people who are simply walking or standing on the street. The legislation also automatically seals any previous arrest records under the statute. 

“It’s a beginning of a new era,” said TS Candii, executive director of Black Trans Nation and a Black trans woman who has likened the statute—often called the “walking while trans” ban—to stop and frisk, the NYPD tactic of randomly stopping pedestrians to look for guns that disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx people. 

The repeal of the 1976 law, which was ostensibly meant to target those “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” comes at a time when similar laws are being rolled back across the country. The Seattle City Council unanimously repealed a similar “prostitution loitering” law in June, and California lawmakers are considering pushing for a similar repeal this year. Activists have also started organizing against similar statutes in Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans.

Next, advocates in New York plan to move forward on efforts to make it the first state to decriminalize sex work. (A bill introduced in 2019 never advanced.) They’ll also advocate for a bill that would vacate sex trafficking-related convictions from people’s records, and push to defund the NYPD’s vice unit. And they’ll have to compete with a bill in the state legislature that decriminalizes sex work while still cracking down on sex workers’ clients, a model that advocates argue won’t protect them.

“We know we’re going to win because we have a majority” of the public’s support, Candii said. A 2019 national poll of registered voters shows a majority of voters support decriminalizing sex work.

The “walking while trans” statute repeal and sex work decriminalization legislation both stem from a growing movement for sex workers’ rights across the U.S. The same year the decriminalization bill was introduced in New York, another was introduced in Washington, D.C. In the recent election, a number of Democratic presidential candidates embraced the idea of decriminalizing sex work.

Although the “walking while trans” statute was intended to target sex workers, its vagueness allowed police to harass trans people of color, advocates say. A 2016 civil rights class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society alleged that 85 percent of people arrested under the statute were Black or Latinx, and that women had been arrested for “wearing a ‘short dress,’ ‘a skirt and high heels,’ ‘tight black pants,’ or ‘a black dress.’” 

Those arrests and charges can make it more difficult to get government benefits or even employment, Candii said. “It leaves them more vulnerable.”

A surge of protests in New York after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, including a 15,000-person rally for Black trans lives last summer, helped bolster the movement to repeal the law. But reform has been a long time coming, the result of years of organizing and activism by Candii and others. 

The law was passed when New York was trying to clean up its image and clear out Times Square, a popular area for sex work. Candii said the law was used again in the 1990s against LGBTQ youth of color to push them out of gentrifying neighborhoods like the West Village. “It has been affecting my community for 44 years now,” said Bianey Garcia, an organizer with Make the Road NY and a trans woman. 

The Legal Aid Society sued over the law in the late 1970s. Organizations like Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment, or FIERCE, later started working against it. The law, Candii said, was “like old milk in a refrigerator.”

The movement picked up in 2018, the year that Congress passed two bills—Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or FOSTA, and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or SESTA—that sex workers say put them in danger because they led to the shutdown of personals sections. 

“That really reenergized the sex worker community,” said Jared Trujillo, policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union and a former sex worker. 

Advocates thought they had enough support to repeal the ban last spring, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, disrupting the legislative session. The repeal bill was never brought to the floor. 

Still, Trujillo said, the Black and Latinx trans women leading the movement “made sure that they were not erased and that their issues mattered.”

“We kept doing things to make sure that the momentum didn’t die and this is something you couldn’t ignore,” Trujillo said.

Activists started “bird dogging” lawmakers, driving up to scheduled events and jumping out in front of the cameras to confront them about where they stood on the legislation, Candii said. “We had to meet them in the streets,” she said, showing them there would be “consequences” if they didn’t support it. They held lobbying meetings with lawmakers and weekly phone and text banks. 

A key ingredient to their success was people sharing stories of their  experiences with police harassment under the law. “Hearing about the true human cost to having the statute on the books really made a difference,” Trujillo said.

Still, “it was very hard for them to speak about this,” Candii said of trans people who were harassed or arrested. “To have to relive it, and relive those experiences, was traumatizing.” She also struggled when she spoke in public. “I was always nervous, my stomach was always flipping and flopping,” she said. 

But the personal accounts made the issue urgent. “Sharing those experiences of how the NYPD stopped us, arrested us just for expressing ourselves, was very crucial,” said Garcia. “We just want to walk free through our neighborhoods, we want to go out and have dinner with our boyfriends or partners without there being arrests.”

Both Garcia and Candii say they have been harassed or even assaulted by police for being trans. 

When Garcia was 18, she said, plainclothes police officers appeared suddenly from an unmarked van as she and her boyfriend made their way home from a bar. Garcia said they pushed her into a wall, emptied the contents of her purse onto the ground, and accused her of engaging in sex work. (Garcia had taken some free condoms from the bar before leaving.) The officers arrested her and she spent the rest of the day in jail, she said. 

It was the first time she was arrested. “Because of my gender expression, the NYPD can arrest me just for being me, for being trans,” Garcia said. “I was so scared, so frustrated. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.” As an immigrant, she was afraid she would be deported.

Candii recalled leaving a shelter one day, when a police car rolled up beside her. The officer gave her two options, she said: become an informant or perform oral sex on the officer. She did the latter and avoided arrest, she said, but “the trauma, it’s still there.”

Now the repeal of the loitering law makes advocates optimistic that they have built the skills and connections they’ll need to finally decriminalize sex work. “You don’t really see a lot of laws passed that really prioritize trans folks,” Trujillo pointed out. “People who have traditionally not always seen themselves in politics, it lets them know how much political power they have. … It makes you feel like the wind is at your back.”

New York City Mayoral Candidates Blast de Blasio’s Housing Record

In a forum with people experiencing homelessness, Democratic candidates criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plans, embraced a ‘right to housing,’ and rejected police intervention on homelessness calls.

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

New York City Mayoral Candidates Blast de Blasio’s Housing Record

In a forum with people experiencing homelessness, Democratic candidates criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plans, embraced a ‘right to housing,’ and rejected police intervention on homelessness calls.

Several candidates running for mayor of New York signaled a sharp break from the city’s current approach to housing and homelessness during a candidate forum held Thursday evening.

In what organizers labeled a “first-of-its-kind” event, 10 of the 22 formally announced mayoral candidates, broken up into three groups, fielded questions from homeless New Yorkers. 

Most of the participating candidates took the opportunity to rebuke current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s large-scale affordable housing development programs, which have mostly failed to reduce homelessness and rent for low-income residents during his two terms. The number of rent-burdened low-income New Yorkers and the number of people sleeping in shelters remained effectively unchanged from 2014, when de Blasio took office, to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

Many instead advocated for more direct city intervention to get people experiencing homelessness into secure housing as quickly as possible.

“Housing first,” said candidate Maya Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio and former chairperson of the city’s police oversight agency. “Everybody is housing ready.”

Organizers saw Thursday’s forum as a small way to get homeless people a seat at the policymaking table. Shams DaBaron, also known as “Da Homeless Hero,” is an activist housed by the city at the Lucerne Hotel in Manhattan. He co-moderated the event with Corinne Low of the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, a neighborhood group founded to offer support to hotel occupants amid anti-homeless backlash. Several other New York-based advocacy groups were co-sponsors. 

“Homelessness in particular is the kind of issue where a lot of the solutions are thought about in rooms that don’t include any people who are actually impacted by the problem,” Joseph Loonam, housing campaign coordinator for VOCAL-NY, told The Appeal. “[The forum has] really been led by, not just homeless New Yorkers, but specifically homeless New Yorkers that have … come under a lot of NIMBY-ist attacks.” 

In August, residents of Manhattan’s wealthy and predominantly white Upper West Side launched a hostile campaign against the temporary placement of around 300 homeless men in the Lucerne—part of the city’s efforts to provide safe shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the residents threatened a lawsuit, de Blasio relinquished, agreeing to move the men to a new location and prompting outrage from housing and racial justice advocates. A series of legal battles have so far kept the men at the hotel.

The candidates, all Democrats, railed hard against de Blasio’s affordable housing initiatives. The mayor’s programs largely hinge on compelling real estate developers to produce “affordable” units along with their luxury and market-rate projects, but they have failed to increase housing stock that is accessible to low-income and homeless people. Despite building and preserving tens of thousands of units of varying affordability, the administration didn’t create enough new extremely low- and very low-income housing.

“The de Blasio administration … built affordable housing that was unaffordable to the people who needed it most,” said candidate Scott Stringer, who is currently the city comptroller. “He worked with luxury developers, gave them all the land, then, in return, hoped for affordable housing.”

Alternatively, several candidates voiced their desire to scrap de Blasio’s affordability metrics, eventually eliminate the shelter system, and implement a housing-first approach to homelessness—or, as Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, put it, “reimagine our ‘right to shelter’ as a ‘right to housing.’”

“Everyone that is currently in the shelter system or on the streets should be immediately housed,” said Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive who has spent much of her career developing programs for homeless youth. “If we had the political and moral will to make it happen, every single person could have access to a permanent home.”

In achieving universal housing, several candidates expressed a willingness to abandon the real estate industry as an equal partner. Morales, Stringer, and Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member representing Sunset Park in southwest Brooklyn, proposed increasing housing stock for homeless and low-income people by handing city-owned vacant lots over to nonprofit developers or land trusts. Wiley, the former police oversight agency chairperson, suggested taking over recently shuttered hotels and turning them into permanently affordable housing.

“I am skeptical of working with the private community,” said Menchaca. “There are a lot of strings that get attached, and a lot of bottom lines that are different.”

Joycelyn Taylor, owner of a contracting firm and founder of a nonprofit for minority- and women-owned businesses, agreed with that skepticism. “We have partnerships with corporate developers, and we see how that 75-25-percent deal is working out,” she said, referring to housing policies, like those under de Blasio, that have mandated that new private development projects include a certain percentage of affordable units. Such policies have yielded tens of thousands more middle-, moderate-, and low-income units than needed, and hundreds of thousands fewer very low- and extremely low-income units.

Not every candidate supported such aggressive government interventions, however. Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, denounced “divisive language” about corporations, and encouraged partnerships with business “to grow our way out of this.” McGuire’s solutions focused on increasing rental subsidies and vouchers, while Brooklyn borough president and former police officer Eric Adams focused on increasing subsidies and partnering with local faith-based institutions to develop new affordable properties—ideas seen as necessary but insufficient by most of the other candidates.

Similarly, many of the candidates expressed a need to end NYPD homeless outreach tactics, like those used during de Blasio’s now-defunct “diversion” program, through which police would refer homeless people sleeping on subways to shelters under threat of arrest. In addition to ending the criminal enforcement of homelessness, Wiley advocated for a “CAHOOTS model,” referring to the Eugene, Oregon, program that sends medical and social worker teams, rather than police, to assist people in mental health crises.

Kathryn Garcia, a former city sanitation commissioner, and Loree Sutton, former head of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services, disagreed, and argued that police should have a role in homelessness and crisis outreach—at which point DaBaron, the homeless rights activist moderator, decided to jump in.

“I’m a victim of the diversion unit,” he said. “They were telling me they were going to help me, and I submitted to the help, and I ended up in handcuffs. … The trauma from that experience, I mean, I don’t want to speak to it.”

“I completely am hearing your experience,” Garcia said.

New York will hold its primary elections on June 22.

Trump Turned the Justice System Into a Black Box. Biden Could Fix It

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has suffered from years of poor funding and political interference by the Trump administration. Fixing it could be one of the most important tasks on Biden’s criminal justice reform agenda.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Trump Turned the Justice System Into a Black Box. Biden Could Fix It

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has suffered from years of poor funding and political interference by the Trump administration. Fixing it could be one of the most important tasks on Biden’s criminal justice reform agenda.

As the Biden administration begins to implement its criminal justice reform goals, experts say that access to timely and accurate data will be essential for the success or failure of the administration’s agenda. Key to that effort is reforming the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nation’s main source of data on the criminal legal system.

“Your policies have to rest on something, and the outcome of your policies, the goals that you want to achieve have to be measurable,” said Peter Wood, chairperson of the Crime & Justice Research Alliance. “And if you have no data, how are you going to know whether what you’re doing is having an impact?”

But decades of poor funding have left the agency struggling to fulfill its mission as the nation’s official provider of data and statistics on police, prisons, jails, courts, and other components of the criminal legal system. And politically biased leadership during Donald Trump’s presidency contributed to delays in report releases and an atmosphere of censorship, former BJS officials told The Appeal.  

During its more than 40 years as the Justice Department’s statistical agency, the BJS has become the primary source for national data on the United States’s highly fragmented criminal legal system, which comprises roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies, 3,000 jails, 55 state and territorial prison systems, and hundreds of state and municipal criminal court systems.

The agency’s largest and most expensive data collection, the National Crime Victimization Survey, gathers information from households each year about the number and types of crimes they experience. Because the majority of crimes are never reported to police, the survey provides an important counterpoint to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which collects crime data from law enforcement agencies. 

The BJS also produces dozens of surveys and reports on subjects including deaths in prison and jails, contacts between police and the public, and probation and parole systems, which include the majority of the more than 7 million people under correctional control in the United States.

Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Prison Policy Initiative, says the BJS is one of the few sources of transparency for some of the criminal legal system’s most opaque institutions, such as local jails.

“Nobody else is putting that all together. That’s just a huge undertaking. So the BJS is really the only agency I can think of that’s positioned to give us big picture data about what’s going on in local jails, which is where we see some of the worst features of the criminal justice system,” Sawyer said.

According to Sawyer, BJS surveys also provide one of the few platforms that allow researchers and the public to learn from incarcerated people about their experiences with the criminal legal system.

“We get to learn about their family history. Do they have children? What are their medical issues?” Sawyer said. “Nobody can really collect that kind of data that’s nationally representative except for the government. They have so much access.”

Politicization under Trump

Under BJS director Jeffrey H. Anderson, appointed by the Trump administration in 2017 despite concerns that he lacked relevant experience, the agency’s publication pipeline ground to a halt.   

New reports and data output plummeted, with much of it released years behind schedule. According to a former BJS statistician who worked under both Barack Obama and Trump, statisticians continued to write reports and collect data at roughly the same rate as before, but Anderson refused to release reports until he had personally reviewed them.

“[Anderson] would work on one paper at a time, and I mean one paper, and he would not pick up another one until that one paper was published,” said the statistician, who requested anonymity because they are considering working with the Department of Justice in the future. “[The publications unit has] probably got at least 50 or 60 reports, many and most of which are probably publication ready. Somebody could easily look at them and publish them. They’ve been edited multiple times.” 

When he reviewed reports, Anderson edited them in ways that seemed to reflect political bias, the statistician said.

“There was, you know, an official list of banned words … certain things we couldn’t say, certain things that we couldn’t emphasize, certain headlines that they wanted to bury,” said the statistician.

Banned words and “politically roadblocked” topics included words and phrases like “re-entry” and research on access to legal representation, according to the statistician. In 2017, the Washington Post reported on a similar list of “language to avoid” at the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, including “substance use disorder,” “underserved youth,” and “overrepresentation of minorities (in the juvenile justice system).”

Before his appointment, Anderson was a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. He also briefly ran the 2017 Project, a political organization that sought to influence Trump’s agenda during his first year in office, before joining the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017. And he was a regular contributor to the National Review, where he penned “Why Trump Should Oppose ‘Criminal-Justice Reform,’” a May 2016 article that argued that criminal justice reform, along with immigration reform, was only supported by “D.C.-N.Y. elites.” The article also falsely claimed that crime rose during the Obama administration and incorrectly predicted that federal legislation that reduced sentences for some drug offenses would lead to a spike in drug crime.

Under Anderson, the BJS released reports and press releases that independent analysts and advocates said presented a misleading picture of crimes committed by non-U.S. citizens. “They painted this very rosy picture, unless it had to do with undocumented [immigrants] committing crimes,” the statistician said. 

The agency also released reports that “fuel[ed] myths” and “overstate[d]” recidivism rates, according to Sawyer and other researchers. 

Wood, the Crime & Justice Research Alliance chairperson, heard from multiple academics who complained about politicization from the BJS and its sister agency, the National Institute of Justice.

“They were being asked to change language in their reports, to remove language that they thought was appropriately descriptive, and then replace it with what arguably was language that might have a political bent to it,” Wood said.

Anderson did not respond to requests for comment sent to his personal email address and social media profile before publication.

This wouldn’t be the first time political concerns have influenced BJS research. In 2005, George W. Bush’s administration faced criticism after it fired then-BJS director Lawrence Greenfeld. According to the New York Times, “political supervisors” at the department asked Greenfeld to delete references to racial disparities in a press release announcing the results of a study on police and traffic stops. Greenfeld refused. In May 2017, he and three other former BJS directors wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging that he appoint a director who would support “evidence-based, data-driven policy making.” 

Funding issues

Despite its importance, the BJS has been effectively flat-funded for years, meaning that its budget has not kept pace with the rate of inflation. 

As a result, “the agency has for some years walked a tight line of small cuts of sample or measurement, short delays of publications, and temporary hiring freezes—each of these tolerable in itself, but cumulating over the years such that core functions have broken down,” according to a 2009 review of the agency by the National Research Council. 

In the 11 years since that report’s release, the BJS’s budget fell from $60 million in fiscal year 2010 to $45 million in fiscal year 2021, a more than 30 percent reduction after adjusting for inflation.

Partially as a result of these shortfalls, many BJS data collections have been canceled or postponed over the last two decades, including the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails (last released in 2002), the National Survey of Prosecutors (last released in 2007), the State Court Processing Statistics data collection (last released in 2009), and the Arrest-Related Deaths Program (last released in 2012).

“Other government research agencies do get properly funded and do have regular data releases,” Sawyer said. “I think that really reflects what a low priority criminal justice reform or criminal justice policy in general has been.”

Missing data has hurt researchers and policymakers

Politicization, mismanagement, and funding issues have left researchers and policymakers waiting, sometimes years, for basic information about the criminal legal system. 

Policymakers would often call the agency asking questions that the agency wasn’t able to answer, the former BJS statistician said.

“Do you know how many times I was asked, how much did it cost to incarcerate somebody in this state for this? How much does this facility spend for mental health care? What’s the average cost for such and such?” the statistician said. “And I would just be like, ‘I don’t know. Nobody in the nation collected it.’”

Citations of BJS products in congressional records and testimony fell by more than 60 percent between fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2019 because of “a decrease in the number of reports released during that time period,” according to a DOJ report last year. 

According to John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and author of “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform,” a lack of data has hindered reform efforts, particularly around what he calls the “middle” of the criminal legal system: prosecution and sentencing.  

“In this time of a major push for ‘progressive prosecution,’ we’ve lost what little ability we had to see what prosecutors are doing, or to see how (or whether!) their behavior is changing, or what the impact of any such changes are,” he wrote in an email to The Appeal. “All these omissions make it really hard to figure out what is working and what is not, no matter where on the reform continuum one falls.”

Fixing problems

Addressing these problems, of course, requires more money. In 2009, the National Research Council noted that “to fill any of these gaps in BJS’s portfolio would require increased and sustained support from Congress and the administration in terms of staff and fiscal resources.” 

Although Congress voted to increase the agency’s budget by $2 million for 2021, it specified that the agency must use $3 million to fund a new study on suicide in law enforcement, effectively cutting funds for the agency’s other programs by $1 million. 

The BJS budget accounts for less than 1 percent of the Department of Justice’s total spending and pales in comparison to what is spent on incarcerating people in the U.S. For perspective, doubling the agency’s now $45 million budget costs roughly the same as incarcerating 1,200 people in federal prison for one year. There are roughly 152,000 people in federal prison today.

Despite budget cuts, the next director still has ample opportunities to expand the BJS’s role as a resource for researchers and policymakers, said former BJS director William Sabol, who served under Obama. 

During Sabol’s tenure, the BJS collaborated with other federal agencies and used open-source resources, such as reports of police shootings collected by media outlets like the Washington Post, to gather more data on arrest-related deaths. It found more than 100 deaths that were never reported in the press during a three-month period in 2015. 

The BJS can take a similar approach in the future, according to Sabol. For instance, he suggested that the agency could use records of arrest and prosecution (“rap sheets”) collected by state governments to answer questions about prosecution and sentencing, an approach some researchers have used to estimate the effect of guilty pleas on sentence length. 

“My guess is that’s not a one-year project, it’s a multi-year project,” Sabol said. “It’s like planting trees, and the metrics are the fruit.”

Sabol also suggested that the BJS could shed light on police funding by combining data on police expenditures from the Census Bureau with its own information and that of the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the FBI. The data could help researchers and the public better understand why police budgets have remained high even as crime has approached historic lows in many jurisdictions: Are agencies hiring more officers? Buying more equipment? Expanding their civilian workforces? 

“There’s a whole slew of efforts that could rely on expanding this data-collecting community,” Sabol said. “The same thing could happen in corrections, jail, all that.”

Regardless of how the BJS expands its data portfolio, Wood says that simply getting more data would be a huge boon for policymakers.

“You need the best data that you can get in order to have effective policy and find out whether it’s working or not, or whether it’s counterproductive,” Wood said. “To the degree to which the information you’re getting is seven or eight years old, or has some political taint associated with it, that’s a problem.”

The California District Attorneys Association Is Failing Californians

After years of misappropriating millions of dollars, opposing criminal justice reform, and ignoring the will of voters, the CDAA must be held to account by the governor and the attorney general.

Izzet Keribar/Getty Images

The California District Attorneys Association Is Failing Californians

After years of misappropriating millions of dollars, opposing criminal justice reform, and ignoring the will of voters, the CDAA must be held to account by the governor and the attorney general.

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a recent audit of the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) revealed the organization misused nearly $3 million in funding intended for public services programs. 

Since 2007, the association had used the money—meant to help prosecutors in handling complex cases, including environmental and worker safety violations—to pad its general revenue fund, which pays for, among other things, lobbying, media, and political campaigning. 

The funding for these public service programs is usually obtained through court settlements and judgments, and these restricted funds are what sustain the programs. This practice of “borrowing” funds drained the CDAA accounts that cover these special programs and left prosecutors in Madera County without support in a fight against a company mishandling hazardous waste. It also left at least 10 other counties with pending cases without the necessary resources to tackle them. 

Though the CDAA published the audit’s findings on its website in December, the full audit, made public by the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests that the CDAA board was in no rush to correct the misappropriation. In June 2020, the group’s CEO presented the results of an internal investigation to the board, under the leadership of then-President Nancy O’Malley, the Alameda County District Attorney, showing that $2.88 million had been misappropriated. It wasn’t until August, under new leadership, that CDAA retained a financial consulting firm to perform an independent audit.

Californians can’t let this behavior stand. The attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the audit, but the office must also conduct a full investigation. Governor Gavin Newsom should request that the misappropriated funds be returned to the state so that it can serve its intended purpose of holding big corporations accountable for harming workers and the environment. The governor should also remove the CDAA as a leader of the newly announced task force fighting unemployment insurance fraud. And I am calling on my colleagues in the California legislature to ensure the integrity of our criminal legal system and hold a hearing to investigate the misconduct of these elected officials and the misappropriation of public funds.

The CDAA’s misconduct is simply more evidence that the association has no interest in promoting justice, as its mission states. Instead, it lobbies to subvert the will of the voters, attacks progressive prosecutors, keeps in place the tough-on-crime laws of the past, and, evidently, misappropriates public funds to do so. It’s past time that the state steps up and holds the group accountable for these actions.

It appears that the CDAA’s real purpose is to fight every criminal legal reform that comes to California. While it lobbies behind the scenes to water down reform legislation, the association’s public face is also one of vehement opposition to any policy with the potential to reduce California’s prison population. It opposed laws that would prevent children under 16 from being tried in adult court, protect sex workers who come forward to report crimes, overturn a draconian felony murder rule that allowed DAs to charge accomplices with murder despite no involvement in the killing, and fight racial discrimination in jury selection. 

CDAA also fights progress at the ballot box, consistently campaigning against ballot initiatives, including ones to remove harsher punishments for non-violent crimes, reform the state’s “three strikes” laws, allow earlier parole, and grant rehabilitation credits for reduced sentences. 

CDAA’s campaign to stymie any significant criminal justice reform even extends to attacking other California district attorneys. When progressive George Gascón was elected Los Angeles County District Attorney, he was immediately challenged by judges and other prosecutors, who filed a lawsuit in response to his new directives. Last week, the CDAA filed an amicus brief in the case against him and, in an open letter, cited overblown “concerns” that Gascón’s directives around bail, sentencing, and parole “subvert our system of justice.”

The CDAA fights tooth and nail against reforms that are popular among Californians and are rooted in the pursuit of justice and equity. Gascón campaigned on a progressive platform and beat incumbent Jackie Lacey, who was well-known for opposing criminal justice reform. At least three of the ballot initiatives CDAA fought against—propositions 36, 47, and 57—passed with between 59 percent and 70 percent of the vote. A Republican district attorney even left the CDAA because of its unwillingness “to find new approaches to criminal justice” demonstrated that they were “out of touch.” 

The California District Attorneys Association has proven that it is not interested in justice, does not respect California voters, and is not even up to the task of managing a public service program without corrupting the process for their own gain. It’s now up to the state to hold the CDAA and its board responsible.

Update: This commentary was updated to reflect that the audit said the CDAA funds were misused, not misappropriated. It was also updated to reflect that the CDAA published the audit’s findings in December, before the San Francisco Chronicle published the full audit. And in an email, following the publication of this commentary, the CDAA said that the two months “it took to initiate the audit was due entirely to soliciting bids to perform the audit.” 

Sydney Kamlager is a state assemblymember, representing California’s 54th district.

Man Recommended For Prison Release Dies Waiting For Pennsylvania Governor’s Sign-Off

The Board of Pardons unanimously recommended Bruce Norris for a commutation in December, but Tom Wolf had yet to approve it.

Man Recommended For Prison Release Dies Waiting For Pennsylvania Governor’s Sign-Off

The Board of Pardons unanimously recommended Bruce Norris for a commutation in December, but Tom Wolf had yet to approve it.

Mercy delayed was mercy denied for Bruce Norris. The 69-year-old man died Saturday while waiting for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to approve his application for commutation from a life sentence in prison.

Norris was unanimously recommended to Wolf by the Board of Pardons in December but was still waiting for Wolf to act when he tested positive for COVID-19 last month, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He is at least the 94th incarcerated person to die from the disease in Pennsylvania prisons and at least the 12th at State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.

“The tragic and avoidable death of Mr. Norris while awaiting his commutation should trouble the soul of every Pennsylvanian,” Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania policy director for FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), told The Appeal.

Norris was arrested in June 1975 for participating in a robbery in which a man was killed. He was tried and convicted four months later and ultimately sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The board heard his case in September 2019 but delayed a final vote for more than a year before recommending him to Wolf.

Norris, a father or three, earned a degree from Villanova University during his incarceration. He was one of 13 people the Board of Pardons recommended for commutation from life sentences in 2020. Of that group, Wolf has only signed off on one recommendation.

“Inaction has real-life consequences,” Trusty said. “Mr. Norris’s family should be planning years of birthdays, holidays, and celebrations together. Not a funeral.”

Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s press secretary, said applications for commutations do not go straight to the governor after being approved by the Board of Pardons. Instead, they go through a legal review first and then are considered by Wolf individually.

She noted that the number of applications for commutations have increased since Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who is chairperson of the Board of Pardons, took office in 2019. No additional resources were allocated for staff to process those applications, she said, so “there is no ability to process the recommendations any faster.”

However, Wolf approved six applications in 2019 in less than 50 days, including three applications that he signed off on in just 32 days.

Seven of the people recommended by the board last year have been waiting more than 150 days for Wolf to take action. Charles Goldblum, whose application went through legal review nearly a year ago, has been waiting for more than 500 days.

Although Wolf has to wait for the Board of Pardons to recommend applications for commutations, he can unilaterally issue reprieves, which allow for the temporary release of people in prison. Advocates have called on him to issue more reprieves to protect vulnerable people in prison from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to Norris’s death, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which provides independent oversight of conditions in jails and prisons in the state, has urged Wolf to approve or deny all of the remaining applications for commutation within 14 days.

“We call on Governor Wolf to act immediately on the many clemency recommendations sitting on his desk,” Claire Shubik-Richards, the prison society’s executive director, told The Appeal. “Especially during a pandemic, this lack of action and seeming indifference is inexcusable.”

Eviction Bans Saved Lives During The Pandemic, New Research Says

Policies that helped keep people in their homes—and keep the utilities on—reduced COVID-19 deaths and infections.

A Jan. 27 protest outside the Santa Clara County Courthouse in San Jose to halt eviction proceedings.
Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

Eviction Bans Saved Lives During The Pandemic, New Research Says

Policies that helped keep people in their homes—and keep the utilities on—reduced COVID-19 deaths and infections.

A new working paper from researchers at Duke University has found that policies that secured access to housing and utilities like water and electricity played a major role in preventing COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Counties with a moratorium on evictions reduced county-level infections by nearly 4 percent and led to 11 percent fewer deaths, the paper found. And policies that prevented the disconnection of utilities like water and electricity brought infections down by a little more than 4 percent and reduced deaths by more than 7 percent.

“We know from research that not being able to pay your water and electricity is the first signal that a household is headed towards being at risk of eviction,” Kay Jowers, co-author of the paper and senior policy associate at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, told The Appeal.

She noted that in some municipalities, utility cutoffs can act as a de facto eviction because some states and municipalities require running water or other utilities to be active for a home to be deemed inhabitable.

“This shows how important it is to public health that we have access to housing and water and electricity overall,” Jowers said.

Housing insecurity and evictions make it difficult for people to social distance and isolate themselves because they force people to become reliant on living with someone else or rely on using another person’s home or public areas for running water, she said. Lack of running water also makes it more difficult for people to do basic mitigation efforts like proper and frequent handwashing.

This leads to greater infections from increased exposure, which is then compounded as people in the household go out in public to their jobs or shop for necessities.

It is that compounding effect, Jowers said, that constantly and exponentially increases the number of people exposed to COVID-19 who would not have been if people were able to remain in their homes and if they had access to things they need inside the home.

And the effect grows over time. “More infections yesterday means that we’re going to have more infections today,” said Jowers. “More infections in the last two to four weeks, means you’re going to have more deaths today.”

Although the CARES Act, passed by Congress in late March, provided a reprieve on evictions for some people living in federally backed properties, the first national eviction moratorium did not go into effect until September when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its guidance. Even then, the CDC moratorium only provides protection for people who can’t pay rent because of a financial hardship that happened during the pandemic. State and local governments also implemented their own moratoriums.

Jowers and her colleagues found that if a national moratorium on evictions and utility cutoffs had been implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, the rate of death would have dropped nearly 56 percent compared to if no policies were ever implemented.

A study published in December by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab estimates that national and local eviction moratoriums prevented 1.6 million evictions since March. Despite this, landlords filed evictions against more than 227,000 people from their homes in five states and 27 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab. Last week, more than 4,500 evictions were filed in those areas, and even these numbers are a potential undercount.

Advocates across the country have been pushing local, state, and federal officials to protect people from evictions during the pandemic. In Philadelphia, advocates set up two encampments in public parks and moved people into unused public housing units. Other groups have formed renters’ unions and even physically blocked access to courthouses and disrupted proceedings to help prevent people from losing their homes. 

More than 25.6 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of today, and more than 429,000 people have died from the disease in the United States. For perspective, even a 5 percent reduction in deaths would have meant more than 20,000 fewer deaths.

“The benefits of these policies, it’s not just to the housing insecure or the housing precarious,” Jowers said. “It’s to us all.”

New Jersey Could Force Cuomo’s Hand on Pot Legalization

The New York governor has released a plan to legalize marijuana, months after voters in the Garden State approved legalization in November. Advocates say the pressure could have ripple effects regionally.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

New Jersey Could Force Cuomo’s Hand on Pot Legalization

The New York governor has released a plan to legalize marijuana, months after voters in the Garden State approved legalization in November. Advocates say the pressure could have ripple effects regionally.

New Jersey was one of four states to legalize recreational marijuana in November, and advocates say the move is likely putting pressure on surrounding states to act. 

Two days after New Jersey’s ballot initiative passed, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo renewed calls for legalization. His plan, details of which he released on Jan. 19, would allow for retail sales of marijuana. Cuomo had been calling for marijuana since 2018, after opposing it for years.

“The idea that the New York legislature would be sitting there and watch the towns of Hackensack and Union [New Jersey] reap all the tax benefits from all of Manhattan’s marijuana sales, I don’t think is going to sit very well with them,” Chris Goldstein, regional organizer for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told The Appeal.

Pressure of revenue lost to neighboring states could also push Pennsylvania to legalize marijuana, advocates suggest. 

Officials in the state are already embracing reform. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has embraced legalization as a central issue. He went on a 67-county listening tour about legalization shortly after taking office. According to a report published by Fetterman’s office shortly after the tour, 65 to 70 percent of attendees supported recreational marijuana legalization. 

Fetterman also successfully lobbied Governor Tom Wolf to support legalization publicly. Wolf had opposed legalization in his first term but changed course after Fetterman was elected.

In August, Wolf called on the legislature to legalize marijuana as a way to bolster the state’s budget after the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican-led legislature has made no effort to take up legalization.

“New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are very much one big political region,” Goldstein said. “This is the most densely populated area of consumers. Arguably this region is the biggest market for marijuana in the country.”

Some advocates of legalization welcomed Cuomo’s proposal but said it did not go far enough.

Melissa Moore, state director for New York at the Drug Policy Alliance, said she applauds Cuomo for continuing his push to legalize marijuana but said she had concerns with his current proposal.

The plan projects that legalization would draw $300 million in tax revenue to the state annually, a figure competitive with that of New Jersey. Part of that money is slated to be used for “social equity purposes” and reinvested in “areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs.” But aside from calling for expunging old marijuana convictions, Cuomo’s plan provides little detail about how he will address those harms.

According to Moore, the allocation of funds for social equity purposes in this iteration of Cuomo’s proposal was “in response to the organizing that has come from the advocacy community and the clear damage that has been wrought by the war on drugs in New York.” But she said the money was only a fraction of what was needed and falls short of other plans in the state legislature.

Cuomo’s proposal provides for $10 million to go toward social equity purposes for the first year. That amount is supposed to then increase by $10 million each following year until hitting a cap of $50 million annually.

Under Cuomo’s plan, while people 21 or older would be able to purchase marijuana, sales to people under the age of 21 would be classified as a felony. It is currently a misdemeanor to sell a small amount of marijuana to a person between 18 and 21 years old.

Eli Northrup, a public defender and policy counsel to the criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, told The Appeal that Cuomo’s plan raises the maximum penalty for selling or even sharing marijuana with someone over 18 but under 21 to more than two years in prison from three months in jail.

“I assume what they’ll say is they want to crack down on youth usage, but marijuana is illegal right now for everybody,” Northrop said. “It shouldn’t be more illegal after it’s legalized.”

A 2019 study found no link between legalization in other states and increased use by children. In fact, the study’s authors found some indication that legalization of recreational marijuana actually led to a decrease in children using the drug.

A law passed in 2019 in New York decriminalized the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and allowed for the expungement of some prior convictions. About 160,000 old convictions for possession of small amounts of marijuana are expected to be expunged under the law.

Although convictions for marijuana possession are not the main driver of prison incarceration, they remain a significant criminal justice and racial justice issue. Police made more than 545,000 arrests for marijuana possession and sales in the United States in 2019 alone, accounting for roughly 35 percent of all drug arrests.

Nationally, Black and Latinx people are arrested at rates nearly four times that of white people despite studies showing rates of use are roughly the same across races. Even in areas where marijuana possession has been decriminalized, Black people are still more likely to be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

While arrests for marijuana possession in New York have fallen precipitously in recent years, they still fall disproportionately on Black people. In New York City, 60 people were arrested in the third quarter of 2020, but 41 were Black and 17 were Latinx. Court summonses were also disproportionate: Over 800 Black people were given summonses during the third quarter of 2020 compared to 58 white people. The disparity persists upstate. According to data from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, about 12 Black people were arrested in 2017 for every one white person in upstate cities.

Support for legalization has risen sharply. In the early 2000s, only a third of Americans believed marijuana should be legal, while 60 percent opposed legalization. By 2019, the reverse was true: According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans now support legalization.

Advocates, like Northrup, have called for the passage of Senator Elizabeth Krueger’s marijuana regulation and taxation act that has been introduced in the New York Legislature every session since 2013.

Like Cuomo’s plan, the bill allows legal sale of marijuana to people 21 and over. However, the bill differs in a few key areas including allowing home cultivation and home delivery and it does not increase the penalties for prohibited sales. Krueger’s bill also provides that half of the net revenue be reinvested in communities most affected by marijuana prohibition.

Retail sales of marijuana have not begun in New Jersey because Governor Phil Murphy declined to sign bills that roll back criminal punishments for marijuana possession and set up the legal framework for retail sales passed by the legislature in December.

Earlier this month, Murphy and lawmakers signaled a potential end to the stalemate with new legislation that would clear the way for sales.

“Marijuana laws are still affecting people in housing, in family court, in immigration,” Northrup said. “People are being stopped because police say they smell the odor of marijuana on the streets of New York. The New Jersey [legalization] brings a sense of urgency, but there should be a sense of urgency because these laws are really unjust the way they’ve been used to target certain communities.”

L.A. County Jails Are Locking People Up For Longer During the Pandemic

The percentage of people held pretrial for six months or longer is up six percent from January of last year, according to a UCLA School of Law report.

Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail
Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images.

L.A. County Jails Are Locking People Up For Longer During the Pandemic

The percentage of people held pretrial for six months or longer is up six percent from January of last year, according to a UCLA School of Law report.

COVID-19 is ripping through jails and prisons in the U.S. Over 355,000 people held in jails and prisons have been infected with the disease, according to the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, of which I am a part. At least 2,000 incarcerated people have died. 

Now Los Angeles County has become the epicenter of the coronavirus, and its jail population is suffering. As of Thursday, the sheriff’s department has reported 4,136 cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people and 12 deaths of incarcerated people from the disease. 

Despite the high numbers of COVID-19 cases, people are spending more time in LA County jails than before the pandemic. According to a UCLA School of Law report I co-authored, 41 percent of people held pretrial were in jail for six months or longer as of Sept. 10. Before the pandemic, in January 2020, that figure was 35 percent. These delays for incarcerated people threaten their constitutional rights to a speedy trial and access to counsel, and expose them to a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

Two issues in particular have contributed to more people sitting in jail awaiting trial during the pandemic. First, the former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Kevin C. Brazile, issued nearly a dozen orders in 2020,  which delayed trials from March through September and created a backlog of at least 7,000 criminal cases. Second, the failure of the sheriff’s department to minimize exposure in the jails has caused people to be quarantined, leading to people missing court dates and having difficulty getting access to counsel, which often lead to delays in release. 

Responsible officials should be doing everything possible to decrease the number of people in jails and the time they spend there, rather than letting people languish in dangerous and deadly conditions. That entails releasing and prioritizing jury trials for those in custody. If court and jail policies and practices are not immediately and significantly altered, the rates of COVID-19 in our jails will steadily increase, potentially leading to more deaths and further community spread.

In writing the report, we reviewed state and local policies on pretrial release and quarantining practices, local jail data, and over 400 accounts submitted between June and September from people incarcerated in Los Angeles County. A harsh picture of reality emerged: Over half of people we heard from who were being held in jails were incarcerated pretrial and a staggering 66 percent had underlying health conditions, placing them at high risk if they contract COVID-19. Eighty-eight percent of the incarcerated people had been placed in quarantine or isolation at some point, and nearly two-thirds stated they had missed court dates. 

One individual incarcerated in an LA County jail reported missing seven court dates because of being exposed to COVID-19 numerous times. Another person was held pretrial for over a month after a judge ordered him released because he was placed on quarantine.

The sheriff’s department has repeatedly allowed people inside to be exposed to deputies moving between dorms and to people whose test results have not yet been returned. After this exposure, if a later test comes back positive, or someone begins to display symptoms, that housing unit is immediately quarantined. The exposure and the subsequent quarantine are preventable, and yet both are happening at alarming rates. 

Our analysis shows that this prolonged detention heavily affects Black and Latinx communities, who make up the largest percentage of the jail population and who often face unaffordable and higher bail amounts than their white counterparts. While 34 percent of the white jail population was incarcerated pretrial for six months or longer, that figure was 40 percent for Latinx people and 44 percent for Black people, according to our data analysis. 

Jailing people for longer periods of time during a deadly pandemic is unconstitutional and unacceptable. In law school, we are taught that speedy trial rights and access to counsel are paramount. It is disturbing to see how utterly false this notion is in practice in our state and county when it comes to people who are incarcerated pretrial.

LA County has a duty to protect all of its residents and abide by the Constitution. Local officials need to immediately reduce the jail population by releasing people pretrial (with special attention to those who are medically vulnerable), stop the overreliance on quarantine practices that prevent people from attending multiple court dates, and prioritize jury trials for those held in custody. Although LA County resumed jury trials in September for a brief period, the Superior Court continues to issue extensions that delay trial dates for weeks. This means that people will continue to be held pretrial for unacceptable periods and exposed to COVID-19, well into the new year. 

Too many people are suffering, and too many people have died. And the more the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons is ignored, the more we also endanger those on the outside. LA County must depopulate its jails and uphold the rights of those who are imprisoned to prevent the dangers of further illness and death. 

Amy Munro is a third-year student at the UCLA School of Law.

Years After Freddie Gray’s Death, Baltimore Police Misconduct Persists

A new report de-anonymizes hundreds of officers in the city and shows more than 1,800 cops have had complaints filed about them.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Years After Freddie Gray’s Death, Baltimore Police Misconduct Persists

A new report de-anonymizes hundreds of officers in the city and shows more than 1,800 cops have had complaints filed about them.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland published a report today detailing continued officer misconduct in the Baltimore Police Department, despite promises of reform following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

According to the report, complaints were submitted about more than 1,800 officers between 2015 and 2019, a period that coincided with a Department of Justice investigation and the implementation of a federal consent decree. More than 400 officers have been “the subject of at least one complaint of physical violence against a member of the public.” 

A complaint is any allegation of misconduct submitted by a resident or internally by the department. The report notes that a complaint “does not imply that the officer has committed a crime, or that the officer committed the offense for which the complaint was submitted if it is not listed as sustained.” The report only lists officers with 15 or more complaints.

According to the police department’s data, available through the law enforcement transparency tool Project Comport, officers who had complaints had an average of 6.5 complaints each between 2015 and 2019. In the past 12 months, about 20 percent of officers have received complaints, according to the data. The department has about 2,600 officers. 

The report also documents use-of-force incidents among officers, or each time an officer used force, which could mean anything from restraining someone to discharging one’s weapon. Over 90 percent of officers’ use of force between 2015 and 2019 was targeted toward Baltimore’s Black residents, who account for more than 60 percent of the city’s population.

“Although a few officers will undoubtedly continue to be arrested and charged with criminal behavior,” the report reads, “countless others will escape responsibility, and be known as a danger only to those in the neighborhoods they patrol.”

The report, written by ACLU of Maryland public policy counsel Joe Spielberger, makes officers already notorious in Baltimore’s overpoliced yet underserved communities known to the world. In Maryland, where even basic information about an officer’s internal affairs file is shielded by the state’s Public Information Act, the report is a rare accounting of misconduct. 

Using anonymous complaints and use-of-force incidents that Baltimore police uploaded to Project Comport, Spielberger was able to identify and name specific officers with misconduct complaints by cross-referencing the data with news articles, court databases, and other publicly available information.

“Although Project Comport was only able to release a fraction of BPD’s internal affairs data, I was still able to comb through and analyze more than 13,000 misconduct complaints, and more than 22,000 use-of-force incidents,” Spielberger said. “And I found that by sorting by an officer’s identifying number, their unit, personal characteristics, and circumstances around a specific incident, I could identify them by cross-referencing with other sources.”

The Appeal has reviewed the report and detailed some of the allegations against a number of officers named in the report.

Steven Mahan is among the officers with the most complaints—86 over the five-year period Spielberger looked into. 

Mahan was implicated in a 2016 arrest that made headlines the following year, after body-worn camera footage of the arrest was released to the media. Defense attorney Joshua Insley identified Mahan in the video, which shows officers including Mahan searching a car for drugs, finding none, and turning their cameras off. Thirty minutes later, their cameras are turned back on after and an officer is then seen finding drugs in the car. Mahan still works for the Baltimore Police Department.

“It’s cyclical: BPD has aggressive cops who get caught and they pretend to go into reform mode and soon people forget about it and they do it again,” Insley said. 

Another officer involved in that arrest was Charles Baugher, who according to the ACLU report, has had 48 complaints, including seven excessive force allegations. A 2017 federal lawsuit filed by Baltimore resident Charles Feagin alleged that in 2015, officers including Mahan and Baugher punched, tackled, and slammed Feagin to the ground during an arrest. Baltimore settled the lawsuit, paying out $15,000 in January 2019.

This month, on Jan. 8, Baugher was indicted on two counts—for second-degree assault and misconduct in office—as a result of a 2019 incident in which he allegedly grabbed a 17-year-old by the neck and pushed him against the wall and slammed him to the ground. The teenager was recording an arrest. Baugher is currently suspended with pay.

According to Open Justice Baltimore, a nonprofit group focused on using data analysis to increase police accountability, Mahan and Baugher have worked on 402 cases together.

Protestors rally in Baltimore on April 21, 2015 after a march for Freddie Gray, days after he died of spinal injuries.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Like Mahan and Baugher, former Baltimore police officer Joseph Donato is well-known to residents who have encountered him and to the defense attorneys who represent them. Between 2015 and 2019, Donato has had 66 complaints—11 of them involving excessive force—according to the report. 

In 2017, public defender Deborah Katz Levi obtained Donato’s Internal Affairs file and cross-examined him during a pretrial hearing in which many complaints against him were made public for the first time. Among them was a case in 2009 where Donato allegedly entered a man’s home without a warrant and, according to the man, beat him with a walkie-talkie. Photos taken after the incident and presented to Donato in court show the man with his chest and jeans drenched in blood.

“The records that were admitted in court at least demonstrated a pattern of abusive conduct, a pattern of bias, a pattern of violence, and instances of failing to report misconduct,” Levi told The Appeal. “That’s what the records showed and what was not regularly disclosed.”

Donato was subpoenaed more than a dozen times after failing to appear in court for subsequent hearings and left the police department soon after the hearing. Misconduct complaints against Donato continued to be submitted after his departure.

Another former officer Levi frequently confronted in court is Fabien Laronde, who between 2015 and 2019, had 52 complaints, according to the ACLU report. Thirty-five of those complaints were sustained, three of them for assault and three for theft.

Laronde was fired in 2016 after information pertaining to his records was exposed—and after attempting to record someone inside the courthouse who was testifying against him. 

“Once we got to the records, they finally terminated Laronde after that,” Levi said. “It just goes to the point that exposing this misconduct is what’s going to help eliminate it.”

Valentine Nagovich, who according to the ACLU MD report had 21 complaints with eight sustained between 2015 and 2019, often worked with Laronde: Open Justice calculates Nagovich and Laronde had 92 cases together. In 2006, Nagovich was suspended for “improper handling of property” when suspected drugs were found in his police jacket. In 2013, Nagovich was sued along with Donato over a warrantless search. A federal judge described Nagovich and Donato’s actions as “unacceptable behavior by members of the Baltimore Police Department.” Nagovich remains on the force.

According to Open Justice, Nagovich and Donato had 272 cases together.

It's cyclical: BPD has aggressive cops who get caught and they pretend to go into reform mode and soon people forget about it and they do it again.Joshua Insley, defense attorney

The report cites a 2019 study conducted in Chicago that found “officers who are partnered or in units with officers who have high numbers of excessive force complaints are more likely to receive such complaints themselves in the future.”

Indeed, seven of the eight members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force now serving federal prison sentences are named in the report for their high number of complaints.  Members of the task force were federally indicted in 2017 for robbing citizens, stealing drugs, and dealing drugs. Wayne Jenkins, the task force’s sargeant who is currently serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison, is listed as having 227 complaints with 36 of them sustained, including six for false imprisonment and four for theft. 

“You look at this report and there are these officers that everybody’s known about for years,” defense attorney Ivan Bates, who ran for state’s attorney in 2018, told The Appeal. “And the thing that’s always gotten me with BPD and the state’s attorney’s office: You know about these officers, do something.”

The report also names police officers whom activists have been trying to expose. In 2018, in the aftermath of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, the police abolitionist group Baltimore Bloc released a list of officers that it believes should also be investigated. That list included Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz and Edward Creed, both of whom are also in the ACLU of Maryland’s report.

Bernardez-Ruiz, who had 18 complaints between 2015 and 2019, was involved in the high-profile death in police custody of Tyrone West in 2013 and just weeks before West’s death, the beating of Abdul Salaam. Last year, a 2016 video of Bernardez-Ruiz surfaced showing him kneeling on a man’s neck and removing his gun from his holster as a crowd of people gathered. In July, the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office said it would review the video and the police department said it would investigate Bernardez-Ruiz, who was promoted to sergeant in 2020.

According to the report, Creed had 56 complaints. In October 2017, Baltimore City’s Civilian Review Board investigated a complaint based on a video that “revealed sever[e] misconduct,” according to the board’s meeting minutes. Additional Project Comport data, provided to The Appeal and de-anonymized by Spielberger, appears to show the complaint was against Creed for false arrest and planting evidence. A person familiar with Creed’s cases also verified the complaint was about him. Internal Affairs investigated and found these accusations “unfounded” but the review board noted “that the officer had a negative reputation in the community,” and recommended Creed be terminated. In 2018, Internal Affairs investigated Creed for abusive/discriminatory language and excessive force, but found the complaint unsustained. The board, however, recommended termination again. He was not fired and remains with the police department.

Creed has frequently worked with Sharod Watson, who according to the report has had 40 complaints between 2015 and 2019. Watson is also one of the few cops named whose record is explored further in the report. The report notes that in 2017 Watson “lied on the witness stand by falsely claiming to have seen a defendant ‘on a daily basis’ and witnessing him selling drugs, even though the defendant was already in jail at the time.” Watson admitted under oath that what he said was “factually impossible.” Internal Affairs investigated the perjury complaint and ruled it was not sustained. Watson is still with the department.

According to Open Justice, Creed and Watson have worked 401 cases together.

The report also challenges claims that the “bad apples” are on their way out and rookie training is different and more effective. 

Arthur Williams received 24 complaints in just one year and three months with the force. In the summer of 2018, Williams was recorded beating a man in East Baltimore. He resigned after the video gained national attention and was later found guilty of second-degree assault and official misconduct

Another officer listed, Luke Shelley, joined Baltimore police in February 2016, less than a year after he was deployed to the city as a member of the National Guard during protests over Freddie Gray’s death. Shelley was profiled by Baltimore’s ABC affiliate and held up as an ideal new recruit for a department marred by poor morale, corruption, and low enrollment.

“I want to be where the challenge is and where the need is for good police,” Shelley told the station.

According to the report, Shelley has had 28 complaints as well as 67 use-of-force incidents over three years and eight months. 

“It is only the names that change,” the report says. “The cycle continues, uninterrupted.”

Following the release of the report, the Baltimore Police Department provided a statement to The Appeal challenging the report. BPD spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge told The Appeal that the report “misidentified” allegations by referring to them as complaints. She also noted that the report included complaints, regardless of whether the department found them unfounded, not sustained, or exonerated. 

Eldridge also said that the department “cannot confirm” the report’s methodology but would be “reviewing all of its contents.” The department will not be releasing information about any of the officers named, she said, citing the Maryland Public Information Act.

“While it is certainly important to identify officers who should not be on the force,” Spielberger said of his report, “the larger goal must be to transform the whole system of policing to prevent further harm.”

Toward that goal, the report says, “contact-tracing research would help identify newer officers who are more at risk of causing harm because of working alongside seasoned officers with high complaint totals.” It also recommends improvements to the police department’s early intervention system, or EIS. 

EIS is supposed to flag cops who accrue misconduct complaints in order to curb bad behavior, but the report says the system remains “inadequate at intervening with problematic officers.” One example the report gives is Akeem Nelson who “had a sustained DWI complaint in 2015, and remained on the force after subsequent complaints for excessive force, sexual misconduct, and theft before he was arrested for a hit-and-run in March, 2020.” Nelson remains a Baltimore police officer.

Officers who should have been flagged by the EIS generated more than a fifth of allegations submitted between mid-2018 and the end of 2019, the report says. BPD did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment about EIS and why officers named in the report remain on the force. 

The release of the report is timed to coincide with Maryland’s legislative session, which began Wednesday. Spielberger encourages legislators to “reform the Public Information Act” and “repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights,” or LEOBR, controversial legislation that allows police officers unprecedented workplace protections. 

This session, Delegate Gabriel Acevero is sponsoring bills that would change the Maryland Public Information Act and repeal LEOBR.

“LEOBR deals with protecting officers. [The Public Information Act] reform deals with how police agencies do their jobs, what kind of info is accessible to the public,” Acevero said. “Access to police misconduct records would not only provide the public and communities with relevant and important info about those policing their streets but would allow for the rooting out of the problem officers.”

Both Spielberger and Acevero cited as a model New York’s 2020 repeal of the section of the Civil Rights Law that shielded police misconduct records. An October poll by Goucher College showed that 87 percent of Marylanders “support creating a record of police misconduct cases that would be available to the public.” 

Levi has long argued that much of what is considered “personnel records” should be public.

“People refer to these as ‘confidential personnel records’ and they don’t really know what’s in them and what’s in them is patterns of abuse, patterns of deceitful conduct,” Levi said. “These are not records that in anyone’s imagination we would want to protect from the general public.”

The information contained in the ACLU of Maryland’s report could be easily available if police were compelled to release it. For now, it only exists because of Spielberger’s months of data-crunching and database cross-referencing.

“I hope that this report helps reinforce and validate the experiences of Black residents and communities in Baltimore City who have known the names of BPD officers and what they’ve done,” Spielberger said. “Even though internal departmental policies and practices have not held them accountable.”

Update: This article was updated to include the number of police officers employed by Baltimore Police Department and to include BPD’s response to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

A Judge Suspended Evictions in Kansas City. Advocates Say That’s Not Enough

The order halts evictions in the city and surrounding area until Jan. 24, but a housing rights group says greater protections are needed for the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

A Judge Suspended Evictions in Kansas City. Advocates Say That’s Not Enough

The order halts evictions in the city and surrounding area until Jan. 24, but a housing rights group says greater protections are needed for the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Housing rights advocates are championing a recent order in Missouri, halting evictions for the next two weeks.

Judge J. Dale Youngs, of the 16th Circuit Court of Missouri, issued an administrative order Monday suspending all eviction hearings, summons, and writs of restitution through Jan. 24, or until Youngs or another judge lifts the order, in Jackson County, Missouri, which includes most of Kansas City, the state’s largest city.

KC Tenants, a housing rights group that represents tenants in the city, touted the order as a victory but said it still leaves far too many people vulnerable to being removed from their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This is the strongest moratorium that we’ve won through our organizing to date,” Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, told The Appeal. “But it’s only for two weeks. It has the potential to be extended, but for us that’s not even close to being good enough. It’s not good enough for all of the people who are scheduled for evictions after that two-week period is up and it’s not good enough for all of the people who have been evicted between June and yesterday.”

The order comes in response to a shooting on Friday. While attempting to serve a man an eviction notice in Blue Springs, Missouri, a court deputy shot the man in the stomach. He and another deputy were in the man’s home when the shooting took place, according to local police. According to a court statement, the man pulled out a gun and pointed it at the officers.

Youngs wrote in his order that “recent social and political unrest has combined with the societal stress associated with the spread of COVID-19” to create a significant safety risk to court staff tasked with carrying out evictions.

The order extends beyond the temporary eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will expire at the end of the month. Raghuveer said the CDC moratorium provides inadequate protections because it still allows for evictions for reasons other than failure to pay rent and it puts the burden on the tenant to declare their need for protection from eviction.

“What yesterday’s order proves is that the judge could have, and could still, issue an actual eviction moratorium,” Raghuveer said. “He could have done it all along.”

Raghuveer said advocates will continue to push for a true eviction moratorium to last until the COVID-19 and economic crisis brought on by the pandemic are over, but that they were also pushing for state and federal responses to cancel rent and debt, as well as expunge tenants’ eviction records.

“If the pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis have shown us anything, it is the utter failure of the system that treats housing as a commodity rather than guarantees housing as a public good and a human right,” Raghuveer said. “This is our opportunity to forge ahead, to overhaul this fundamentally rotten system.”

KC Tenants are campaigning to prevent evictions this month as part of their Zero Eviction January campaign. On Jan. 7, the group rallied outside of the county courthouse and successfully disrupted eviction hearings scheduled that day, which provided the tenants a temporary reprieve. According to the group’s leadership, KC Tenants stopped more than 300 evictions that day by blocking access to the courthouse.

Grassroots advocacy groups across the country are organizing to prevent evictions. This includes traditional calls for legislation or executive action but also across the country, groups have directly gone to courthouses and even to rental properties to disrupt eviction proceedings. 

In July, advocates in New York blocked access to a rental property so the landlord could not carry out what they described as an illegal eviction. 

In New Orleans, advocates blocked access to the courthouse and city hall, prompting similar actions in New York, Houston and Los Angeles. 

Nationwide there are roughly 101 million people living in rental properties. A study published in August found that around a third of those people were at risk of losing their homes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found that as of Jan. 2, landlords have filed for nearly 209,000 evictions across five states and 27 cities, including 2,828 in Kansas City alone. During the final week of 2020, more than 3,000 evictions were filed in the same states and cities.

Evictions have been linked to more than 10,000 COVID-19 deaths nationwide, according to public health researchers.

In December, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas asked the courts for a moratorium on evictions through the first six months of 2021. Lucas described the moratorium as one of the “most important public health and economic interventions” needed during the pandemic.

“Eviction is already a fundamentally traumatic event, both a cause and a condition of poverty,” Lucas wrote. “The pandemic only adds more anguish.”

Cities Are Pressuring Landlords to Evict People Under ‘Crime-Free’ Housing Laws

In Granite City, Illinois, landlords have been penalized for refusing to evict tenants who have criminal records or are simply living with someone who does.

Houses in Granite City, Illinois.
Paul Sableman/Flickr

Cities Are Pressuring Landlords to Evict People Under ‘Crime-Free’ Housing Laws

In Granite City, Illinois, landlords have been penalized for refusing to evict tenants who have criminal records or are simply living with someone who does.

One morning in June 2019, Mike Parkinson, a lieutenant with the Granite City Police Department in Illinois, left a voicemail for Bill Campbell, a local landlord. 

“If I have to present you to the mayor to revoke your business license, I guess I’ll have to do that,” he said. “We’ll be looking for you today.” 

Parkinson was calling because Campbell refused to evict his tenants—one of whom was alleged to have committed a crime—under the city’s crime-free housing ordinance

Though the city has since altered its crime-free ordinance in response to a change in state law and federal lawsuits, critics say problems remain. Rather than forcing direct evictions and going after landlords’ licenses, the city has saddled landlords with additional licensing and fee requirements if they house people convicted of or people associated with those convicted of crimes.

The new ordinance no longer focuses on removing the tenant from the property,” the city’s updated landlord training documents explain. “It now focuses it’s [sic] efforts on rewarding the landlord based on performance.” 

Some suggest that the change is not meaningful, as landlords who can’t afford the new fees will likely opt for eviction instead.

Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute of Justice who is suing Granite City in federal court over its crime-free ordinance, described the city’s new landlord fee structure as burdensome.  “In many cases,” he said, “the end result will likely be the same: to avoid the special licensing requirements, landlords will feel pressure to simply evict entire families when there has been a crime-free violation.”

Campbell and other Granite City landlords say Parkinson’s voicemail was part of a pattern of behavior that they endured for roughly the last 10 years until the ordinance changed. And they are still facing the consequences.

“For over a decade, Granite City has coerced the eviction of quite literally hundreds of families in this modest sized city,” said Gedge, who has represented other tenants challenging the crime-free ordinance in federal court. “In midsize towns, the police have a lot of power and the mayor has a lot of power. If you’re a small landlord, you don’t really have a lot of leverage—you do what they say. If you have gumption like Bill or Kevin, you can fight.”

Granite City is one of thousands of municipalities across 48 states—from El Cajon, California to nearly 50 towns in the Twin Cities metro area and Appleton, Wisconsin to Norristown, Pennsylvania and beyond—that have enacted similar ordinances, according to the International Crime Free Association, whose founder developed the crime-free model in the early 1990s. 

Sometimes known as nuisance property ordinances, these laws can take slightly different forms but their goals are often the same: to penalize landlords and tenants by encouraging or requiring eviction for contact with the criminal legal system, including suspected criminal activity and calls for police services. These ordinances often encourage or require private landlords to evict tenants as a result. In many places, tenants are often required to sign an addendum to their lease agreement, acknowledging the law and agreeing to its consequences.

Campbell and Kevin Link, his friend and fellow landlord, have been pushing back for years on the enforcement of the Granite City ordinance. The two, who used to work together, have organized and attended protests with other local landlords and have stopped renewing their business licenses because they say the ordinance is in breach of the Constitution and amounts to harassment of both them and their renters. 

Cynthia Cross was living in one of Link’s rental properties for roughly five years before leaving in 2019. While she was living there, the Granite City police showed up. “They said they was gonna get him and all of that,” she recalls the police saying of Link. Cross added that the police told her Link wasn’t paying his taxes when he stopped renewing his business license.

“I told them I can’t conduct business until this stuff’s addressed,” Link said. “How can I in good conscience buy the license, when in order to keep it I’ve got to throw innocent people out of their homes, not even accused of anything? It’s just not right.” 

If you’re a small landlord, you don’t really have a lot of leverage—you do what they say.Sam Gedge, Institute of Justice

Link was charged with multiple counts of no business license in October 2019. In January 2020, Granite City filed for a summary judgment against Link and the cases remain ongoing. Link says he has appeared for several hearings but the city has failed to do the same, instead filing for multiple continuances.

Campbell became familiar with his city’s crime-free ordinance about 10 years ago when Granite City Police Department Captain Michael Gagich, who led enforcement of the ordinance before retiring in 2017, called him to say that he had to evict one of his tenants. 

“I stood up for her and stuff, but 10 years ago, I didn’t have no experience with this and cops yelling at you that he’s going to take away your business license and stuff,” Campbell said. “I caved and finally got rid of the poor thing, but I felt bad about it the whole time and since then I vowed never to get pushed around and bullied into stepping on somebody’s civil liberties.”

Link has a similar story. “He called me up,” Link said of Gagich, “and said something about one of my tenants, like one of their friends or something, had gotten into trouble. It wasn’t the tenant or anybody registered there. It was somebody that wasn’t even at the building itself.”

The property in question burned down before the issue progressed further, but it wasn’t long until Link was confronted again a few months later when Granite City police found a marijuana plant growing in one of his tenant’s yards.

Link refused to evict the tenant, who was on dialysis, and his family. After meeting with the mayor and attending a court hearing, Link relocated the family to another one of his properties. “At that point, it cost me all kinds of money—moving and everything else. Now, I got a vacant house that I wouldn’t normally,” he says, adding that the process saddled him with roughly $5,000 in legal fees and moving expenses.

The Granite City ordinance has left both Campbell and Link—small landlords who rely on rent as their only source of income—teetering on the edge of going out of business. Campbell is either selling his properties at a loss or arranging contracts for deeds. Link, too, is selling his properties for what he says are pennies on the dollar.

“My whole life, working and saving and everything, and I’m drawing on [my savings] every year now just to make ends meet over this thing,” Link said of his ongoing conflicts with the city. He’s been able to get by lately thanks to pauses on mortgage requirements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he doesn’t know what he’ll do after that. “At some point the banks are going to want their money back and I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” he said.

The pandemic has also made the evictions that crime-free ordinances mandate exponentially more harmful. Although states and cities have imposed and extended their own eviction bans in response to COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal moratorium that covers the entire country expires on Jan. 31. A wave of evictions numbering into the millions is expected in February. 

Without another extension of the Illinois’s eviction moratorium from Governor J.B. Pritzker, up to roughly 542,000 renter households are estimated to be at risk of eviction filings next month. The state’s rent shortfall, affecting landlords like Campbell and Link, is estimated to be as high as $680 million

Gedge doesn’t have a hopeful outlook for the future of crime-free housing ordinances without intervention from the courts.

“Cities can do the right thing and get rid of these laws, but most don’t seem interested in doing that until they get sued and there are lawyers representing the people they’ve been victimizing.”

‘Hand of One, Hand of All’: 50 Years for a Teen Who Didn’t Pull the Trigger

At 15, Kenneth Lamont Robinson was convicted for murder under South Carolina’s accomplice liability law, despite not committing the shooting that killed Kedena Brown.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

‘Hand of One, Hand of All’: 50 Years for a Teen Who Didn’t Pull the Trigger

At 15, Kenneth Lamont Robinson was convicted for murder under South Carolina’s accomplice liability law, despite not committing the shooting that killed Kedena Brown.

In the early morning of May 10, 2015, Kedena Brown was driving her Chrysler 300 in North Charleston, South Carolina, when a dark blue Honda CR-V pulled up and shot into her car. 

Three people—Richard Simmons, 20; Kenneth Lamont Robinson Jr., 15; and Keon Marquell Cortez Anderson, 19—were in the CR-V. They had been chasing a different Chrysler 300, full of people who they thought had shot at them earlier that day, but lost the car in the process. 

When they spotted Brown’s Chrysler, Robinson and Anderson told Simmons, who had by then taken Robinson’s gun, that it was the wrong car and warned him not to shoot. There was a woman inside, and it was going in the wrong direction, they said. Simmons fired. Brown, a mother of three, died soon after in the hospital. It was Mother’s Day. 

All three people in the car were arrested. At first, Simmons lied to police, claiming that Robinson was the shooter. Going on this information, a judge moved Robinson’s case from family court to adult court. 

But between then and Robinson’s trial, Simmons admitted that he was the shooter. Robinson’s lawyers asked that his case be remanded to family court in light of the new information; the judge refused. 

Robinson was tried for murder under South Carolina’s accomplice liability law, commonly known as “hand of one, hand of all.” According to the law, all participants in a crime can be charged with any crimes committed in pursuit of that crime. 

“Everyone in that Honda CR-V is guilty of murder,” prosecutor Culver Kidd said in closing arguments. “Everyone.” 

In June 2018, Robinson was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Months later, Simmons accepted a plea bargain of 30 years, the state’s minimum sentence for murder. Anderson pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

Robinson appealed his case in June 2020. His lawyers argue that the sentencing disparities among all three defendants suggest Robinson’s punishment was unduly harsh and that the court was wrong to apply the “hand of one, hand of all” doctrine to a juvenile case.

“Because Kenneth’s jury was not able to use a reasonable child standard in determining whether he should be convicted as an accomplice,” the appeal reads, “his murder conviction should be reversed.”

Accomplice liability laws exist in some form in most states. They are similar to felony murder rules, which stipulate that if a murder occurs during the commission of a felony, like a robbery, anyone who participated in the felony can be charged with murder.

To convict someone under an accomplice liability law, prosecutors must prove intent—that the person should have foreseen that they were about to be involved with a crime. In other words, courts rely on interpreting the mental state of the accomplice, rather than their specific actions. 

Michael Heyman, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The Appeal that this means that “you can be guilty of something that you should have known would flow naturally and probably from the actions you take.”

In Robinson’s case, his guilt hinged not on whether he pulled the trigger but whether he could have foreseen that someone might be killed after getting in the CR-V. But research suggests that when it comes to children, intent is a particularly ill-suited basis on which to judge one’s actions. 

In a 2003 journal article, Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg and Columbia University law professor Elizabeth Scott wrote that children “should not be held to the same standards of criminal responsibility as adults, because adolescents’ decision-making capacity is diminished, they are less able to resist coercive influence, and their character is still undergoing change.” Teens’ prefrontal cortexes––the part of the brain that determines impulse control, judgement, and the ability to deliberate––are still not fully developed, according to the article. The authors argue this greatly affects their ability to develop intent at all. There is sufficient evidence, Steinberg and Scott wrote, to “support the position that youths who commit crimes should be punished more leniently than their adult counterparts.”

In 2015, the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimated that 75,900 people under the age of 18 are tried in adult court every year.

The article was first cited in March 2005 in the U.S. Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the practice of sentencing minors to death. The article was also cited in the landmark 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court court ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose on children a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. 

Yet the U.S. criminal legal system continues to treat children as adults in many instances. In 2015, the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimated that 75,900 people under the age of 18 are tried in adult court every year. But exact transfer data is difficult to obtain; many states don’t  publicly report total transfer data, including that of children to adult court, according to the federal. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Steven Drizin, clinical professor of law at Northwestern University and co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, said in an email to The Appeal that a law like accomplice liability “fuels mass incarceration.” It sweeps an inordinate number of people into the carceral system, he said. Over 40,000 children are incarcerated in the U.S. on any given day, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Referring to Robinson, Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, told The Appeal: “You have a 15-year-old who was a participant in a homicide who will not be the same person in 20 years, so what is the point of him being incarcerated for so long?”

Jobi Cates, the executive director of Restore Justice, said accomplice liability and felony murder rules also result in labeling people as violent offenders even when “they may never have so much as thrown a punch.” This often makes them ineligible for clemency initiatives. For example, California Governor Gavin Newsom, in response to the spread of COVID-19, expedited the release of about 3,500 nonviolent prisoners; people incarcerated for violent crimes on accomplice liability were not eligible.

In South Carolina, the “hand of one, hand of all” doctrine frequently draws children “from family court into adult court, because they have adult co-defendants,” said John Blume, one of Robinson’s lawyers.

University of South Carolina law professor Josh Gupta-Kagan described the state as still relatively tough on crime. “They’re behind the curve on sentencing legislation for kids tried and convicted as adults,” he said. The state continues to automatically transfer some types of felonies to adult court and is not yet in full compliance with the ruling in Miller v. Alabama, as other states are. 

However, “things are generally moving in the right direction,” noted Gupta-Kagan. In the 2014 case Aiken v. Byars, the state Supreme Court ruled that 15 people sentenced to life without parole as children were entitled to resentencing under Miller, and in 2019, the state raised the age at which someone must be tried in adult court to 18 from 17. Last year, lawmakers in the state proposed the South Carolina Juvenile Justice Reform Act which would, among other reforms, allow judges to impose sentences less than the mandatory minimum for children convicted of murder.

A few other states have begun to chip away at accomplice liability. Three states—Hawaii, Kentucky, and Michigan—have abandoned the felony murder rule. Illinois has limited the automatic transfer to adult court of children by ending the transfer of children under 15 and only moving 16- and 17-year-olds in the case of serious crimes. In September 2018, California enacted Senate Bill 1437, which requires prosecutors prove intent in order to charge someone with felony murder. The state also passed a series of laws starting in 2014 that eased parole guidelines and mandated resentencing for incarcerated people who committed crimes as children. 

One beneficiary of the resentencing guidelines is Philip Melendez, a community organizer in California who was incarcerated at age 19. He served 20 years in prison before he was resentenced and released in 2017. 

“At 19, I did not feel like I was part of the community.” Melendez told The Appeal. “I had a lot of trauma I had to work through.” Parole, he said, “gave me a second chance at life. A second chance to take a different path.”

During Robinson’s stay in a juvenile justice facility, he completed his GED—the first in his family to do so. Multiple guards testified to his good conduct at his sentencing, something almost unheard of in South Carolina, Blume told The Appeal.

Still, during sentencing, the judge faulted Robinson for getting in the car. Blume said that the worst aspect of the judge’s logic was that it essentially punished Robinson for being a kid. 

Even if Robinson is resentenced, great damage has already been done, his lawyers noted. If he had been tried in family court, he likely would have been out of prison at 21. 

The problem with accomplice liability for children, critics say, is that it contradicts what science tells us about the adolescent brain, ignoring its capacity for change. 

“We have forsaken the notice of second chances,” Levick said, “and certainly for kids, that is unacceptable.”

‘Basically Cyberbullying’: How Cops Abuse Social Media to Publicly Humiliate

Law enforcement agencies are creating online content, often at the expense of people they have arrested.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.

‘Basically Cyberbullying’: How Cops Abuse Social Media to Publicly Humiliate

Law enforcement agencies are creating online content, often at the expense of people they have arrested.

On Oct. 22, the Mobile County sheriff’s office in Alabama featured Jordan Brown as its “thug” of the week. Along with Brown’s mugshot, the department posted a 150-word caption (including joking hashtags and emojis) to its Facebook page, calling on Brown to turn himself in after allegedly stealing a car while being out on bail for another offense. “Today our THUG is JORDAN SCOTT BROWN #weknowhimwell,” it reads. The post garnered hundreds of likes, shares, and comments, many poking fun at Brown’s troubles, criticizing his appearance, and mocking his intelligence. One comment crudely alluded to sexual violence Brown could encounter if incarcerated.

Six weeks after the initial post, Mobile County sheriff’s office featured Brown’s mugshot on its “Thug Tree,” a picture of a Christmas tree photoshopped to look like it was decorated with mugshots and topped with the orange sandals similar to ones that are issued to people entering Mobile Metro Jail. The tree’s image was posted to the office’s Facebook account.

The caption accompanying the post invites all “thugs” in the county to pick a stolen item from its property room, after which “your very own personal concierge #correctionsofficer” will “take you for a ‘custom fitting’ to receive your Holiday jumpsuit.” 

The post was widely shared and drew condemnation from criminal justice advocates, the faith community, and the public. Reverend David Frazier Sr. a Mobile pastor and vice chairperson of the Faith in Action Alabama Mobile hub, said leaders in the community were shocked by the “Thug Tree,” which he called a “sacrilegious” act. Several local organizations, including Faith in Action Alabama, organized a protest outside the sheriff’s office, demanding an apology. One commenter on Twitter asked: “Why does law enforcement have to be so heartless?”

Police departments have said that maintaining a presence on social media and direct engagement with the community builds trust and leads to arrests of people with outstanding warrants by soliciting crime tips. But a trend has emerged on social media accounts run by law enforcement: a hypermalicious form of voyeurism and public humiliation targeting people who have been arrested or just suspected of a crime. Critics argue that this form of “engagement” does not reduce recidivism and can often do more harm than good.

The Mobile County sheriff’s office deleted the post, telling a local NBC affiliate it had received threats to deputies’ safety. But despite the outcry, the office has continued the “Thug Thursday” Facebook series at the request of its followers, said Lori Myles, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. 

“Our goal is making the arrest and getting that criminal off the street,” Myles said. “We use the definition of THUG as what is in the dictionary…a criminal.”

This is not the first time Mobile’s law enforcement agencies have been criticized for their social media posts. Last year, the Mobile Police Department came under fire for a photo of two officers holding a “homeless quilt,” a collection of taped cardboard signs that had been seemingly confiscated from unhoused people. 

Law enforcement has even gamified digital mugshots in recent years. In 2011, Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, created an online program called “Mugshot of the Day,” which allowed the public to “vote” on a favorite mugshot each day. In 2017, Florida’s Escambia County sheriff’s office debuted its “Wheel Of Fugitives,” a show broadcast on local news during which officers spin a game-show style wheel that lands on mugshots of people wanted for arrest; the mugshot that the “Wheel of Fugitives” selects is also featured on billboards throughout town. In Florida’s Brevard County, Sheriff Wayne Ivey produces YouTube segments called “Fishing for Fugitives,” where the sheriff solicits tips on a person he dubs the “Catch of the Day,” in addition to hosting his own “Wheel of Fugitives” show. 

In Maryland, the Harford County sheriff’s office uses Old West-style wanted posters sometimes paired with derisive captions to release information about people with warrants. Florida’s Pasco County sheriff’s office drew criticism in 2016 for its “Sad Criminal of the Day” Facebook and Twitter posts that showed Marquis Porter, a man detained for drug possession and other charges, sitting on the ground and crying as deputies held chunks of his hair.

In the United States, mugshots are classified as public record, and most law enforcement agencies can use them on social media at their discretion. One theory of why the public reacts with such zeal to mugshots is the concept of “penal spectatorship,” a term coined by sociologist Michelle Brown that explains ways in which society participates in determining people’s guilt. 

Sarah Lageson, an assistant professor of sociology at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, said that people often engage with posts like the Mobile County sheriff’s office’s because it allows them to “get in on the action,” as much of the criminal legal system is not public-facing. Their engagement works like a “dopamine trigger” for police, she said, which fuels them to keep pushing for likes and shares. “It’s just a very, very different public role than law enforcement has ever played,” she said. 

Many of these posts feature people with warrants for violation of parole, failure to pay fines and fees, minor drug offenses, trespassing, or petty theft. Since April, only three of 23 ,“Thug Thursday” posts calling for tips were for alleged violent crimes. A study from the Vera Institute of Justice found that in 2016 over 80 percent of arrests in the U.S. were for low-level offenses, “such as ‘drug abuse violations’ and ‘disorderly conduct.’” 

When [police are] using social media to shame people who have been arrested, it’s also creating narratives that justify ongoing policing and ongoing arrest.Rachel Kuo, co-author #8toAbolition

Additionally, mugshots and news coverage often disproportionately link Black people with criminality. In 2015, several news outlets reported on the difference between two sets of photos used in similar stories in Iowa, only days apart. When three white men were arrested on alcohol-related charges and suspected of burglary, their wrestling team portraits were used in news coverage; when four Black men were arrested for burglaries, the news report featured their mugshots. Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki, authors of “The Black Image in the White Mind,” found that mugshots were more likely to be shown in news stories about Black defendants. In 2015, a Florida police department was caught using mugshots of Black men as target practice at a gun range. 

“Mugshots … reflect who the police decided to arrest, which is structured by race, class, gender, and where you live,” Lageson said. “And then we use the mugshot to evaluate a person. We use it as a marker of somebody’s worth and it’s before guilt, before conviction.” The police using mugshots on social media “doesn’t comport with due process and our constitutional rights,” Lageson said.

When police use social media to humiliate, the person in question isn’t the only one who feels the sting. Family, friends, and loved ones are swept up into the wide net of shame cast by agencies whose duties include protecting and serving them.

Karlee Brown, Jordan’s sister-in-law, learned that the Mobile County sheriff’s office  featured Jordan on its Facebook page after her sister sent her the “Thug Thursday” post. Karlee was appalled after reading the crude caption and comments left by others about Jordan, who is struggling with a methamphetamine addiction. She said Jordan is a sensitive person and the social media pile-on since his arrest has put him at a higher risk to use drugs and self-harm. Karlee also pointed out that the use of a Christmas tree in the “Thug Tree” post adds insult to injury for the loved ones of those featured since many will be incarcerated on Christmas. 

“These officers and departments are supposed to be there to protect the public,” Karlee said. “It seems to me that all they are doing in these posts are basically cyberbullying these people, and opening the door for others to join in and do the same.”

Jordan Brown with his stepdaughter.
Jennifer Collier

Jennifer Collier, Jordan’s mother, was deeply affected by a comment left by a stranger on the “Thug Thursday” post that said her son will “never change” and that he should be “put to sleep.”

Some research suggests that certain types of shaming can be counterproductive to the rehabilitation of someone who committed a crime. Criminologist John Braithwaite posits in a 1989 study that “reintegrative shaming” separates the person from the criminal act and focuses on changing behavior, while “disintegrative shaming” focuses on stigmatizing the individual, leaving them “isolated and humiliated.” And a 2011 study, which cites Braithwaite’s work, found that shame is “associated with outcomes directly contrary to the public interest” including denial of responsibility, substance abuse problems, and psychological symptoms.

An unfavorable digital history can make it harder to find employment, secure housing, and develop relationships. “You would think that [the police] would want them to get their life together and prosper instead of just continually trying to bring them down and bring them down and break them down. And that’s what I feel it does,” Collier said. “Jordan is a great person. He loves his children. He’s just kind of lost.” 

The stigma surrounding any involvement with law enforcement can make re-entry difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals. “Stigmatizing people, public humiliation, and basically ensuring they can’t get a job or find a partner or have stable employment leads to more crime,” Lageson said. “If you really care about public safety, you should care primarily about rehabilitation and preventing this stuff in the first place.” 

Over the summer, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott announced that the department will no longer post mugshots online or release them to the public unless they pose a threat to the public, a move that aims to curb “an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias.” Media conglomerate Gannett has removed all mugshot galleries on its digital properties. Last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released a proposal that would bar state law enforcement agencies from releasing mugshots to curtail “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 

For some, these measures represent a step in the right direction but more is needed to address the critical failings of the U.S. criminal legal system. 

Researcher and educator Rachel Kuo is a co-author of #8ToAbolition, a detailed, eight-step action plan for abolishing police. “When [police are] using social media to shame people who have been arrested, it’s also creating narratives that justify ongoing policing and ongoing arrest,” Kuo said. 

Kuo also noted that when police use social media to shame, blame, and exact revenge on people, those carceral attitudes and that culture of punishment seep into our communities. Divesting from police departments and reinvesting in accessible healthcare, housing, and education, and building models for “non-coercive mental-health support, crisis intervention, and community-based violence prevention” are part of the structural changes she says are needed to dismantle the punitive institutions currently in place. 

“Many of the things people are criminalized for have to do with survival,” Kuo said, noting that people who are unhoused, for example, may be more vulnerable to arrest.

Frazier, the Mobile pastor, said that people who have been arrested “shouldn’t allow those who are in law enforcement to demean them in such a way that they lose hope in themselves. Good people make bad decisions sometimes.”

Confront and Remedy the Black Community’s COVID-19 Vaccine Skepticism

Decades of exploitation, abuse, and racism in medicine have cost many Black Americans their lives during the pandemic. Now the government can act to prevent further harm.

Illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Getty Images.h

Confront and Remedy the Black Community’s COVID-19 Vaccine Skepticism

Decades of exploitation, abuse, and racism in medicine have cost many Black Americans their lives during the pandemic. Now the government can act to prevent further harm.

After months of anticipation, the first rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine were dispensed this week. Some of the conversation about this historic event has centered on who should be given the vaccine first. But we must also discuss who may not want it at all: the Black community. 

Despite being one of the most affected and at-risk groups for COVID-19, Black communities remain largely skeptical about the vaccine. Rejection of this life-saving measure constitutes a huge risk to the Black community and the entire country, which requires an intensive national effort to confront and remedy it. 

But what are we remedying? 

Data bears out the personal frustration and pain Black people experience in seeking and receiving medical care, even before the pandemic. Black patients are less likely to have their pain acknowledged and treated by doctors. Black maternal mortality was 3.2 times higher than that of white women between 2007 and 2016. Black infant mortality was 2.3 times higher than that of white babies in 2018. Additionally, a disturbingly large fraction of medical trainees believe racist myths about Black bodies.

These disparities persist regardless of class: Even tennis star Serena Williams, with her wealth and status, faced a life-threatening ordeal when a nurse initially dismissed her medical concerns following the birth of her daughter in 2017.

Beyond the everyday mistreatment of the Black community, there is a disturbing history of medical exploitation and abuse. Modern gynecology, for example, was developed through experimentation on enslaved Black women. During the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the U.S. government studied Black men without getting informed consent or providing any treatment, resulting in decades of community spread of the disease, and suffering for these men and their families. As recently as 1996, Pfizer conducted an experimental drug trial on 200 children in Nigeria during a meningitis epidemic there. The study lacked basic ethical standards and resulted in the deaths of 11 children and permanent injury of many more

But what truly stands in the way of the Black community’s trust in the COVID-19 vaccine today is a complete lack of faith in the government’s desire or will to protect Black people in this pandemic. Systemic racism has pervaded our country’s COVID-19 response (or lack thereof), resulting in increased risk for Black communities in particular. Black people are disproportionately employed as essential workers, meaning that many are unable to shelter at home and socially distance themselves. This harm has been compounded by the fact that most essential jobs do not provide paid sick leave and many predominantly Black neighborhoods lack hospitals. Even if Black people leave their neighborhoods for hospital care, they are often turned away or released without receiving necessary treatment. Instead of addressing these issues, government officials have blamed Black people for racial inequities in COVID-19 infections and deaths, using unsubstantiated claims of biological, genetic, or cultural differences. 

As a result, Black people are 2.8 times more likely to die and 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID compared to white people. The numbers are even worse for Black children

The history of exploitation and the continued disregard for Black lives is perpetuated by the government, which appears to be more focused on getting Black people vaccinated than on making sure that they have access to adequate employment protections, housing, food, and healthcare. This translates into a deep-seated and justified skepticism as well as caution when it comes to government-backed medical efforts, with only 42 percent of Black adults saying they would “definitely” or “probably” get the COVID vaccine if it were available today, compared to 61 percent of white adults. 

It’s not all hopeless. If the government acts quickly enough, there are many things that can be done to increase vaccination rates and protect Black communities from further harm during this pandemic. If the federal government and drug companies demonstrate to the Black community’s satisfaction why their vaccines are trustworthy, we can avoid some of the deaths from undervaccination. 

But we must do more. The government must inform and reassure the Black community that the vaccine is safe as well as value the health of Black communities beyond vaccine metrics. If the government releases the vaccine responsibly, prioritizes distribution in vulnerable Black communities, and packages it with the resources desperately needed in those communities—such as food, clean water, access to housing, and legal services to avoid eviction—we will get higher vaccination rates and actually holistically promote the health of Black people, ultimately avoiding more unnecessary deaths. 

And it doesn’t stop with the vaccine. If our government implements thoughtful, equity-focused public health measures, like protecting essential workers, releasing incarcerated people, suspending rent payments, and providing additional economic relief checks, we can avoid the deaths caused by our government’s neglect of the health and safety of Black people during the pandemic. 

We cannot accept any criticism that blames the Black community for low rates of vaccination or the resulting negative impacts on public health. Media, public officials, and academics all need to place blame where it belongs—with the government and medical industry. To address Black skepticism of the vaccine, the government must invest heavily in public outreach efforts that are culturally appropriate, come from the right messengers, and acknowledge the very real institutional harm the Black community has endured. Medical experts, including the director of the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics, suggest that the government needs to create an Operation Warp Speed-like task force to invest in solutions. This task force needs to partner with and pay Black community leaders, grassroots organizers, and religious leaders to deliver this message, not just Black doctors or celebrities. By investing in the Black community and existing efforts like the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, the government can demonstrate that it actually values Black health and Black lives.

This is just one step in the long process of building trust and reckoning with racism in healthcare. To make sure we break this monstrous cycle of abusing and neglecting Black bodies, we must invest in Black communities and make serious commitments to transform the medical industry and public health policy to honor Black lives. 

Ruqaiijah Yearby, JD, MPH, is a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law and the executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity.

Don’t Delay on Closing Rikers

The city says COVID-19 budget constraints will set back its plans to close the jail but people incarcerated there are suffering from the disease right now.

A nurse protests conditions at Rikers Island jail complex on May 7.
Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.

Don’t Delay on Closing Rikers

The city says COVID-19 budget constraints will set back its plans to close the jail but people incarcerated there are suffering from the disease right now.

Funding for the construction of four borough-based jails in New York City—a key step in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex—has been budgeted through the end of fiscal year 2028, according to the city’s latest financial documents. This opens the door to the possibility that Rikers won’t be shut down until June 2028, a year and a half after the initial deadline.

In June, The Appeal reported that COVID-19 budget constraints would likely push construction past the city’s 2026 deadline. Since June, however, the budget crisis has only gotten worse. The city will face a deficit of about $3.8 billion next year, and lawmakers will probably face pressure to make cuts wherever possible. Any delay in the jail construction timeline could have drastic consequences: As one City Council budget memo noted in May, postponing construction reduces the chances that the jails will be built at all. 

These delays underscore the absurdity of constructing jails in order to close Rikers. Beyond its vicious legacy of violence and abysmal conditions of confinement, Rikers became one of the nation’s hotspots for COVID-19 infections this year. Waiting until 2026 to close Rikers was unacceptable to begin with, and pushing that deadline back even further could cost the lives of people incarcerated there.  

The Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice insists that construction will be completed by August 2027, but as The City reported this month, the timeline laid out in budget documents shows that funds can be spent any time in that fiscal year, which ends in June 2028. 

Ultimately, though, how and when that money will be spent is a question for the city’s next mayor, since most of the spending won’t happen while de Blasio is in office. Even then, they are likely to be able to wriggle out of the closure deadline using discretionary power. Among the wide field of 2021 mayoral candidates, only Dianne Morales and Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (who voted against the city’s jail construction plan in 2019) are on the record in favor of closing Rikers with no new jails. 

And the city is further delaying its plans to close Rikers by failing to curb its growing jail population. The city says its overall jail population must be fewer than 3,300 people in order for Rikers to close. But July rollbacks to the state’s historic bail reform law—rollbacks de Blasio supported—have likely contributed to an increase in people being held in jails pretrial, or without yet being convicted of a crime.

Because of releases in response to the first wave of COVID-19, fewer than 4,000 people were incarcerated in the city’s jails in May, the lowest jail population the city’s seen in 70 years. But that number rose to more than 4,800 this month. A November report from the Center for Court Innovation found that the bail reform rollbacks account for “a 7 to 11 percent increase in the pretrial jail population from what it would otherwise have been.” People detained pretrial and charged with burglary in the second degree—a charge that was ineligible for bail under the reform law but made bail-eligible in July—increased by almost 70 percent, the report shows. 

“Prosecutors now have additional incentives to charge felony burglary rather than misdemeanor theft, even in cases where no one was hurt,” Maryanne Kaishian, senior policy counsel at Brooklyn Defender Services, explained in an email. 

Still, the mayor’s criminal justice office confirmed a commitment to reducing the jail population. “We continue to grow our programming and services at every point of the justice system, giving us the tools to continue to prevent unnecessary detention as we move towards the 3,300 goal,” said B. Colby Hamilton, the office’s chief of public affairs.

At the same time, COVID-19 cases are spiking again within city jails—as of Dec. 11, 253 incarcerated people had tested positive for the disease, up from 229 as of Nov. 28. This makes the push to close Rikers all the more urgent, and should raise questions about why the city must spend billions of dollars it doesn’t have on a seemingly endless construction project instead of moving to close jails immediately. 

“Closing the Rikers Island jails cannot be contingent on building new jails,” Sylvia Morse, an urban planner who supported the No New Jails campaign last year, said in an email to The Appeal. “As activists and advocates have shown, the city can lower the number of people it cages on Rikers and across NYC jails through reforms including reducing arrests and ending pre-trial detention with state-level legislative changes.”

But New York City policymakers have short-term options. As I argued in a previous Appeal column, reducing jail capacity can pressure police into reducing arrests. After the NYPD’s malicious protest suppression tactics this spring, it seems obvious that arrest numbers have more to do with preserving police power than ensuring our safety. Instead of waiting to get to a population of 3,300 to close jails, the city can get to that number by closing them. It is a mistake to assume that NYPD arrests will remain (or should remain) at current levels if jail capacity is reduced. 

Additionally, in response to city judges setting bail for a greater proportion of cases and in higher amounts, the City Council could create a bail voucher fund to ensure that people are not trapped in unsafe jails before their trials. 

The city should also make long-term investments outside of the criminal legal system that would improve safety and quality of life. New York City Housing Authority residents, for example, continue to report power outages, heating problems, and shoddy lead repairs. Yet NYCHA is slated to receive $1.1 billion less than the jail construction plan will receive over the next four years. Beyond public housing, the city should reallocate police and other carceral funding streams to support education, employment, healthcare, and more targeted interventions like violence interruption. 

If New York City does not act quickly to shutter the dangerous Rikers Island jail complex, incarcerated people will be at the mercy of the next mayor’s commitment to decarceration and budget constraints. The best way to protect incarcerated people and avoid an endless cycle of jail construction delays and budget cuts is to close Rikers now with no new jails. 

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a journalist and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.

Philadelphia Jails Have Black Mold, Rats, Poor Heating, Say Women Held There

The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which recorded and published the complaints, paid for the release of some incarcerated women on Saturday.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Philadelphia Jails Have Black Mold, Rats, Poor Heating, Say Women Held There

The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which recorded and published the complaints, paid for the release of some incarcerated women on Saturday.

After receiving complaints about Philadelphia jail conditions from women held there, a bail fund group spent more than $240,000 to release 19 women on Saturday.

Candace McKinley, lead organizer for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, says she has heard complaints from women that the jails are infested with rats and roaches and have black mold. Some have no heat, McKinley said the women told her.

The women whose release the group secured were being held pretrial, meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime. McKinley said the goal was to release as many people as possible who were sitting in jail because they could not afford to pay bail.

“We’ve been really focused on getting people out of these conditions as much as we can,” she told The Appeal.

In August, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons moved about 200 women out of the Riverside Correctional Facility, which opened in 2004, and into other jails in the city—the Alternative and Special Detention Unit, Alternative and Special Detention Modular Unit (Mod 3), and the city’s Detention Center. 

The department said the move was done to try to maximize “operational efficiency” and coincided with moving more than 500 men to Riverside.

McKinley said she has received reports from women in Mod 3 that there was mold in the ventilation system and that the women have limited access to clean water or showers.

“We have inmates literally crying, screaming because they’re cold,” one woman held in the basement of the Detention Center said in a phone call, recorded and published by the bail fund group last Thursday. “I woke up this morning and showed the nurse that half of my head had turned pale, pink and pale, because I’m so cold.”

In another call, published in August, a woman being held in the Alternative Special Detention Unit said, “My life is in danger.” 

“Like, I need to get out of here. I need your help,” she said.

As of Tuesday, there were more than 4,200 people held in jails in Philadelphia. Nearly a quarter of those people were being held simply because they could not afford to pay bail, as of the end of last month.

Most people had cash bail set so high they were unlikely to be able to post it even with the help of a bail fund. Of the roughly 1,000 people being held pretrial at the end of November who were not charged with murder and had no other legal reason to be held, like a probation violation, just over 200 had cash bail set below $50,000. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the number of people held in U.S. jails pretrial has doubled between 2002 and 2017. Cash bail also disproportionately affects Black people: In 2002, the most recent year national data was collected, Black people accounted for 43 percent of people held pretrial, despite accounting for only 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Pretrial incarceration can also lead to a person being more likely to plead guilty, according to a 2018 American Economic Review paper. Even short stays in jail pretrial can have negative effects on a person’s life: It could mean losing a job or making the job hunt more difficult, the paper states.

Several cities have recognized these harms and moved to eliminate cash bail. 

In January, both San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and State’s Attorney Sarah George in Chittenden County, Vermont, directed their staffs to not seek cash bail in any circumstances.

Newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón announced last week that his office—the largest prosecutor’s office in the country—will stop seeking cash bail next year. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner stopped seeking cash bail for many nonviolent crimes in February 2018.

McKinley said the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund has bailed out close to 530 people since its inception in 2017. Most of that work has occurred this year: Since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the organization has spent roughly $3 million to help bail out nearly 330 people.

She noted that the group—like bail funds nationwide—saw a large increase in donations after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and the subsequent uprisings across the country against police brutality and systemic racism in the criminal legal system. 

“We can impact change on the local level,” McKinley said. “We can change the way cash works or even the existence of cash bail and pretrial detention in Philadelphia.”

People in Prisons and Jails Should Get COVID-19 Vaccines As Early as Possible

The coronavirus has ripped through our prison and jail populations, infecting and killing hundreds of thousands of people most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

People in Prisons and Jails Should Get COVID-19 Vaccines As Early as Possible

The coronavirus has ripped through our prison and jail populations, infecting and killing hundreds of thousands of people most vulnerable to COVID-19.

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a public defender, fighting to get people out of cages. I’ve witnessed the violence our legal system does to people of color: the war on drugs, draconian three strikes laws, broken windows policing, militarized police—all policies that have locked up millions of Black and Latinx people and destroyed the stability of our communities. The racial disparities of the penal system are overwhelming. 

I have watched mass incarceration plague people who look like me. Now another plague is tearing these communities apart in a similarly disproportionate way.

For the last 10 months, we have seen COVID-19 rage through jails and prisons, killing people at double the rate of the general population and creating hotbeds of infection across the U.S. It’s no surprise the virus thrives where social distancing is impossible, hand sanitizer is banned, and soap is a luxury. The danger the virus poses means that even a minor offense—even a minor accusation—that leads to getting locked up is a potential death sentence. 

Now, with multiple vaccines on the horizon, there’s genuine hope we may be finally turning the corner on the pandemic. But as we start to figure out who gets the first, precious shots, we must add to the list those same people our society has put in cages. People in our prisons and jails should be among the first to get vaccinated.

It would be easier to forget about these people. After all, they must have done something to end up there, right? That is false and immoral thinking. We must resist it. It’s also poor public health management.

Just last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices met to determine who gets priority in vaccine distribution.  The committee voted 13-1 to recommend that both healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities be first in line for any coronavirus vaccines. 

This makes sense. People who are living and working in circumstances that put them at highest risk of dying from COVID-19 should be first. That’s why people incarcerated in our jails and prisons must also be prioritized.

Prisons and jails are just like other congregate living facilities—but many times worse. Two people often share a cell roughly the size of a large clothing closet. Because of overcrowding, others live in large dormitory-style rooms with poor ventilation. They share toilets, sinks, showers, and dining spaces. Many jails and prisons do not provide free soap. Masks and proper personal protective equipment, like gloves or face shields, are rarely provided. Because of these living conditions, most of the largest COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S. have been jails or prisons. Nearly 230,000 people incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons have tested positive for the disease, and that number is increasing. 

People in prison are also at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of the physical toll prison exacts on physical health. Each year served in prison takes two years off a person’s life expectancy. Research shows that incarcerated people have health issues at rates comparable to people 10 to 15 years older on average. That acceleration makes incarcerated people more vulnerable to chronic health conditions. Those conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and respiratory diseases, are “among the most frequent causes of death in state prisons,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative—and all increase the risk of death from COVID-19.

In California, where I live and work, the coronavirus has ripped through prisons, infecting 25,000 people in custody and killing more than 90 incarcerated people and 10 staff members. In Texas, nearly 27,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19, 167 of whom have died from the disease. According to one study, nearly 80 percent of the people who’ve died of the disease in Texas jails were incarcerated pretrial, meaning that they had not even been convicted of a crime. 

But it’s not just about the lives of the incarcerated. Prisons and jails operate like mini cities. Thousands of people come and go every day—law enforcement officers, pastors, teachers, nurses, social workers, family members, sanitation workers, vendors. If the virus goes unchecked, all these people will bring it to schools, groceries stores, gas stations, and other public places. 

Vaccinating prison populations is essential to maintain community health. 

It’s also necessary to push back on the compounding racial disparities of pandemics and prisons. Prisons in the U.S. are disproportionately filled with low-income and Black and Latinx people—communities the disease has disproportionately killed. People of color account for almost 70 percent of the prison population. Black and Latinx people are almost 3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. The dangerous, unsafe living conditions of those who are incarcerated and the racial disparities of incarceration and COVID-19 mortality must be factored into the decision-making process about vaccine priority.

Unfortunately, because of our nation’s history of medical experimentation on communities of color, many in prison may not trust a vaccine that is administered by a correctional facility. Experiments like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study—where over a 40-year period, the federal government told Black men they were receiving free healthcare when, in fact, they were observed to see the long-term effects of untreated syphilis—have created a distrust that may be difficult to overcome.

We are already planning to give prison staff the vaccine earlier than most because they are essential workers. We could provide the same vaccine to people in prison at the same time the staff receives it. That would not just demonstrate to them that the vaccine is safe but also push against the longstanding fears engendered by past unethical government experimentation. Good choices here wouldn’t just save lives but could be a critical step in repairing longstanding systematic racism.

Nelson Mandela said “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” 

This virus has taken many things from us. Let’s not let it take away our compassion and humanity. 

Brendon Woods is the first Black chief public defender in Alameda County, California, and currently the only Black chief public defender in California.