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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.

Shifting Incarceration Costs to Counties Could Mean Fewer People in Prisons and Jails, Study Suggests

A new study suggests that if counties—rather than states—bear the cost of incarceration, they may be less likely to incarcerate people.

Orange County Juvenile Hall in 2013.
MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images.

Shifting Incarceration Costs to Counties Could Mean Fewer People in Prisons and Jails, Study Suggests

A new study suggests that if counties—rather than states—bear the cost of incarceration, they may be less likely to incarcerate people.

If counties are responsible for the costs of incarceration, they may be less likely to imprison people, a new study suggests.

In the November edition of the Journal of Public Economics, Aurélie Ouss, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, found reforms implemented in California in the mid-1990s that increased the cost for counties to incarcerate children lead to a significant drop in children being sent to juvenile prisons.

California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 681, or “juvenile justice realignment,” in 1996. Prior to the reform, counties paid a flat fee of $25 per month to incarcerate a child. The new law created a sliding scale, which required that counties pay between $150 a month to incarcerate children convicted of the most serious offenses like murder or armed robbery to $2,600 a month for parole violations or misdemeanor convictions.

Upon its adoption in August, the law resulted in an almost immediate drop in new admissions to youth facilities: The likelihood that a child would be incarcerated in a state juvenile prison fell by more than 40 percent during the four years following the reform.

Ouss found that 1,543 fewer children were sent to juvenile prisons in the year after the law passed than in the year prior. However, she did find a slight increase in children being incarcerated in adult facilities, which were not subject to the increased costs to counties.

The law did not appear to adversely affect public safety either. Arrests, reported violent crimes, and reported property crimes all fell in the six years following the law’s passage, according to the study.

In 2011, in response to overcrowded prisons, California implemented similar reforms for adults. Under the reforms, some crimes that previously mandated prison time were made eligible for jail time instead. This effectively shifted some costs of incarceration to counties from states.

A study by Magnus Lofstrom, policy director and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, and Steven Raphael, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, found that, by 2013, incarceration in the state had fallen by 9 percent. The authors found little evidence that changes in violent crime coincided with the law change and the change only correlated to a small increase in property crime. 

Ouss said that when judges and prosecutors do not bear the costs of carrying out the sentence, there is little to be lost for them and a whole lot to be gained. Harsher penalties allow prosecutors to look tough on crime and score personal political points with voters, despite the fact that those penalties do not necessarily result in less crime.

“If costs are not internalized,” Ouss said, “then that can lead to high levels of punishment without gains in terms of crime reduction.”

Adam Gershowitz, a law professor at William and Mary Law School, called this phenomenon the “correctional free lunch.” 

It’s “the idea that the prosecutors and police can bring in all these cases but they don’t have to account for the jail spots or the prison spots,” he told The Appeal. “They can bring prosecutions without really having to worry about what happens after the case leaves the courtroom.”

Gershowitz published a paper in 2016 arguing that one way to fix this disconnect could be to put prosecutors in charge of jail budgets, intake, and release. Sheriffs would still be in charge of the day to day safety and operations under Gershowitz’s proposal.

He argued that if prosecutors were required to deal with balancing a budget for a jail or directly deal with the ramifications from overcrowding, they might begin the plea bargaining process with a shorter sentencing offer than they usually do, potentially resulting in fewer people in jails and prisons. On any given day, roughly 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

“[Prosecutors] are putting the people in that building,” Gershowitz said about jails. “They should bear some responsibility for the capacity of that building.”

Newly Elected Los Angeles DA Will End Cash Bail in Nation’s Largest Prosecutor Office

On his first day in office, George Gascón said prosecutors will not seek bail starting Jan. 1, a win for criminal justice reformers.

George Gascón on Nov. 3
Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Newly Elected Los Angeles DA Will End Cash Bail in Nation’s Largest Prosecutor Office

On his first day in office, George Gascón said prosecutors will not seek bail starting Jan. 1, a win for criminal justice reformers.

Los Angeles County’s new district attorney George Gascón used his first day in office to announce wide-ranging progressive policy changes, including an end to the use of cash bail, in a major victory for proponents of criminal justice reform. 

Over the next few weeks, prosecutors cannot seek bail in misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases, Gascón said during his inauguration speech on Monday. And cash bail will be completely eliminated by January 2021.

“We know that our system of money bail is as unsafe as it is unjust. The rich can be dangerous while the poor can pose zero threat to society,” Gascón said. “Today there are hundreds of people languishing in jails not because they represent a danger to our community, but because they can’t afford to purchase their freedom.” 

The policy change affects a county that includes over 10 million people and whose notoriously overcrowded jail system is the largest in the nation. The reform will also affect people currently held in pretrial detention, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. Gascón said hundreds of people will be eligible for release starting tomorrow and defense attorneys can immediately schedule a court hearing to request bail be withdrawn. 

Cash bail, which requires that people in jail pay for their release while awaiting trial, is disproportionately imposed on Black and Latinx people, who are also less likely to be able to afford bail. 

The issue has gained more attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people held in jails on cash bail have died from the disease. According to one study, 80 percent of people who died from COVID-19 in Texas jails were not convicted of a crime. 

Several jurisdictions around the country have temporarily suspended bail to reduce prison overcrowding amid the pandemic. In April, California issued a temporary emergency bail schedule of $0 for people accused of misdemeanors and some low-level felonies. An Alaska judge temporarily suspended cash bail for people accused of misdemeanors. 

A spokesperson for Gascón would not comment on what pretrial detention mechanisms will replace cash bail starting Jan. 1. Gascón, who served as San Francisco’s district attorney from 2011 to 2019, championed risk assessment algorithms as an alternative to cash bail. Gascon’s successor in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin, replaced cash bail with a data-driven risk assessment program in January of this year.

But risk assessment programs remain controversial. In November, the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union opposed a ballot proposition to end cash bail in California, saying the algorithmic tool used in its place would perpetuate racial disparities. Criminal justice reformers said the algorithm’s use of zip codes to determine risk was a roundabout way to further incarcerate according to race and economic status. Over 56 percent of Californians and a majority of LA County voted against the measure. 

Ending cash bail in Los Angeles County will be one of the largest-scale tests of a national movement to eliminate cash bail. New York State also passed sweeping bail reform last year, but parts of the law were rolled back after pressure from law enforcement unions, which used disputed statistics to argue that the reforms caused an uptick in violence. Advocates and experts reject that bail reform has resulted in higher crime and are urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to end bail and release people from its jails as COVID-19 cases rise in the state. 

Gascón beat incumbent DA Jackie Lacey in the November election by over 260,000 votes. Police unions sided with Lacey, pouring millions of dollars into her campaign, while the local Black Lives Matter chapter effectively backed Gascón in a race that centered around police accountability and mass incarceration. 

Along with bail reform, Gascón on Tuesday pledged to review up to 20,000 cases in which people were sentenced under the state’s three strikes law or other enhancements that can result in decades-long prison terms.

“The status quo hasn’t made us safer,” Gascón said on Tuesday.

The House Just Passed a Historic Marijuana Bill. Now the Senate Must Act.

After decades of harm, wrought by the war on drugs, the federal government has finally listened to the American people by voting to decriminalize marijuana.

Photo by Caravan Images/Getty Images.

The House Just Passed a Historic Marijuana Bill. Now the Senate Must Act.

After decades of harm, wrought by the war on drugs, the federal government has finally listened to the American people by voting to decriminalize marijuana.

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

On Friday, the Democratic-led House of Representatives made history by passing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 228-164 vote. The vote fell along party lines, but six Democrats voted against and five Republicans voted in favor. 

The MORE Act removes marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act, removing all federal criminal penalties for any individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana. To begin the process of repairing decades of harm done to communities of color and wrought by the drug war, the act also includes several criminal justice and economic reforms, like expunging prior marijuana convictions and prohibiting the denial of public benefits on the basis of cannabis use or arrests. 

“If you want to know what systemic racism is, look no further than the war on drugs,” Udi Ofer, director of the Justice Division at the American Civil Liberties Union, said Friday in a joint statement with the Drug Policy Alliance. “Today we celebrate passage of the MORE Act through one chamber of Congress, and tomorrow we will work in the Senate to remove last-minute amendments that diluted the impact of this historic bill.”

Maritza Perez, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, was similarly celebratory but emphasized that the drug war is far from over: “We are cognizant of the work ahead to ensure we improve this bill in the next Congress to truly reflect our principles.”

Passage of the MORE Act marks the first time a chamber of Congress has even considered marijuana decriminalization at the federal level, a monumental sign that America’s cannabis prohibition is truly beginning to unravel. But the fate of the act ever becoming law now rests within a Senate currently controlled by Mitch McConnell, a staunch opponent of progressive drug laws. He has not said whether he will allow a vote on the bill.

To begin bridging the widening gap between state and federal drug laws, the Senate must pass the MORE Act.

Federal drug laws still lag far behind state policy and are increasingly out of step with an electorate hungry for major drug policy reform. The November election, for example, brought the total number of states that have legalized cannabis to 15. 

Recognizing the pain and misery of the drug war on Black and Latinx communities, the MORE Act includes meaningful criminal justice reforms. According to the FBI, Black people were nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that more white people use the drug. To remedy this racial disparity in marijuana arrests, people with prior marijuana convictions will have their records expunged. 

The measure also seeks to ameliorate economic disparities in the booming, billion-dollar cannabis industry dominated by wealthy white people. A 2017 survey shows that very few Black people––only 4 percent––have a stake in the existing cannabis industry in states where cannabis is commercially legal. To right this economic injustice, the MORE Act would create a fund for small-business loans that allow access to marijuana licensing and employment opportunities for people of color who have been priced out of the legal cannabis industry. Using tax revenue on cannabis sales, the bill also creates job training, legal aid, and avenues for addiction treatment to those who have been disparately affected by overzealous drug enforcement, policing, and incarceration. 

Few Republicans vocally support the end of marijuana prohibition. During a debate on the House floor, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida said, “The federal government has lied to the people of America about marijuana for a generation.” Meanwhile, Gaetz’s GOP colleagues have leaned on old and discredited arguments from the 1980s, including that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to using other illicit drugs.

But Republicans in the Senate have mocked the very idea of decriminalizing cannabis during a pandemic and described the MORE Act as a frivolous endeavor. If Senate Republicans decide to block the measure, they will wield their power for only a small minority of moral crusaders—and Americans will take note. Deep-red states like Montana and South Dakota voted to legalize marijuana last month, so the GOP would be ignoring their own constituents’ desire for the end of the drug war. 

The House’s approval of the MORE Act is indeed an enormous achievement and victory for racial justice. Just a few years ago, the notion of descheduling cannabis at the federal level and reinvesting in communities harmed by the drug war was a pipe dream among drug policy reformers. 

Though cannabis use is increasingly destigmatized, and state after state has eased previously draconian marijuana laws, it’s important to recognize that many people, most of them Black and Latinx, are serving lengthy prison sentences for marijuana offenses. The MORE Act could have an enormous effect on their lives and return them their freedom.

Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist in Chicago and fellow at the Health in Justice Action Lab, a policy think tank at Northeastern University School of Law. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, and Wired, among others.

The Limitations of Police ‘No Chase’ Policies

Two moped riders were left dead or injured after recent police pursuits in Washington, D.C., and Providence, Rhode Island.

A police car in Washington, D.C. on May 29.
Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

The Limitations of Police ‘No Chase’ Policies

Two moped riders were left dead or injured after recent police pursuits in Washington, D.C., and Providence, Rhode Island.

Jhamal Gonsalves, 24, has been in a coma for over a month.

On Oct. 18, during a community “ride-out” event organized to encourage picking up bikes and putting down guns, Gonsalves was followed extremely closely by Providence Police Department Officer Kyle Endres in a police cruiser. He veered right on his moped. The cruiser then struck Gonsalves, a witness said and video from the scene suggests. 

Five days later in Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department Officer Terence Sutton Jr. pursued 20-year-old Karon Hylton-Brown on his moped for, according to MPD’s press release, operating a moped on the sidewalk without a helmet. Hylton-Brown was chased into an alleyway and struck by a passing vehicle. He died three days later.

Both Providence police and MPD have rules that restrict vehicular pursuits to cases threatening the lives and safety of others, but officers have violated the rules repeatedly, lawsuits allege.

According to federal class action lawsuits in 2009, 2013, and 2020, MPD officers have repeatedly used deadly force against Black men on dirt bikes, at times intentionally hitting riders. The District of Columbia settled the 2009 case for an undisclosed amount in 2016. 

About two and a half years ago, MPD seemed to violate its chase policy, according to witnesses, when an officer chased and killed Jeffrey Price on his dirt bike.

In 2017, Providence and state police fired more than 40 rounds during a highway pursuit of Joseph Santos, killing Santos and injuring a passenger in the vehicle.  

None of the officers involved in the pursuits of Gonsalves or Hylton-Brown have been fired or placed on administrative leave. MPD told The Appeal that it is “currently conducting a thorough and proper investigation” of the Hylton-Brown pursuit. MPD said involved officers are on “non-contact status,” meaning they are still paid and working, but are not interacting with the public. 

The city of Providence did not respond to a request for comment, but Providence Safety Commissioner Steven Paré disputed that Endres pursued Gonsalves, describing it instead as “escorting.” Endres was on paid desk duty as of Nov. 13. 

Jhamal’s father, Mark Gonsalves, told a local NBC affiliate that he wants the officer fired. “It is just humiliating and disgusting that I get a paycheck, I got paid today, and some of the taxes that I got paid for are paying for this cop,” he said.

From 1979 to 2013, pursuits in Washington have killed at least 38 people and 29 in Providence County. But lethal and injurious pursuits are not anomalous to these cities. 

Nationally in the same time period, police chases resulted in the deaths of at least 139 police officers, 6,301 suspects, and 5,066 bystanders and passengers, and 270,000 additional injuries, according to a 2015 USA Today report analyzing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data. A later investigation, however, revealed that NHTSA statistics undercounted deaths by an estimated 31 percent largely because of how the agency codes and gathers information on crashes.

Still, NHTSA is the only federal agency that tracks victims of police chases. From 2014  to 2017, NHTSA tracked 1,594 deaths from police chases.    

An increasing number of police departments have adopted restricted pursuit policies, but chases that violate those policies still take place.  

After Florida Highway Patrol restricted chases to suspected felons, drunk drivers, and reckless drivers in 2012, pursuits fell by about half. Still, 35 percent of chases in 2013 and 2014 violated the policy, according to state reports.

In November 2019, Buffalo police violated policy when officers chased a vehicle with a tinted license plate cover, which resulted in a crash that left passenger Nikir Brown paralyzed from the waist down. This was one recent violation of several.

Newark, New Jersey, police officers attempted to cover up a chase that violated department policy by shutting off their dashboard camera and body cameras. 

A handful of states, like Minnesota, California, and Connecticut, have laws requiring formalized vehicular pursuit policies, but the specifics are generally left up to individual police departments.

Providence City Councilmember Katherine Kerwin told The Appeal that the police department must enforce its no-chase policy and hold its officers accountable, adding that such policy is “just one small part of why we need sweeping police reform.” 

Valerie Wexler, an organizer with Stop Police Terror Project DC, an organization committed to “changing the system of racist, militarized policing in the nation’s capital” told The Appeal that, absent full defunding of police, the D.C. City Council must put in place laws that ban police chases and implement consequences for violating them. 

“Individual officers should be subject to severe penalties for violations, and if those violations actually lead to someone’s death they should be immediately fired and stripped of their pension,” she said. Refusing to enforce violations should result in a funding freeze, an independent investigation, and any legal fees or lawsuit settlements should be paid from the department’s budget, Wexler said. 

“And bans on practices like chasing need to only be the beginning. We also need bans on consent searches and must fully ban stop-and-frisk in D.C.,” Wexler added.

Abolitionists argue that police have never been, and are unlikely to ever be, accountable to the public because of their vast institutional power. 

“Our demand is no longer about the accountability of law enforcement. Law enforcement is unable to be accountable,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors told Atlanta Black Star in May. “We must defund law enforcement and reimagine a world that relies on an economy of care versus an economy of punishment.” 

Philadelphia-based community activist Jondhi Harrell wrote recently that cities could designate park space for ATV riders or find other ways to honor this Black subculture rather than criminalize the activity.   

Until then, Black people, at risk of being brutalized, are left without recourse, Wexler said. 

“Karon had every reason to believe that being stopped by Sutton would put him in danger,” she said. “This is the reality and the choice that Black and brown members of our community face every day—don’t run and risk dying or run and risk dying, there is no safe option.”

America’s Biggest City Was Hit Hard By COVID-19. Its Jails Are Filling Up Again

New York City’s jail population is close to reaching pre-pandemic levels. Advocates say dishonest fearmongering about bail reform—and the politicians who capitulated to it—have created a very real safety crisis.

A rally outside Rikers Island on June 19.
Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images.

America’s Biggest City Was Hit Hard By COVID-19. Its Jails Are Filling Up Again

New York City’s jail population is close to reaching pre-pandemic levels. Advocates say dishonest fearmongering about bail reform—and the politicians who capitulated to it—have created a very real safety crisis.

Like much of the country, New York City is facing a steadily rising number of COVID-19 cases as winter approaches. The city’s positivity rate was close to 4 percent as of Sunday, and officials are scrambling to keep children in school while trying to contain rapidly expanding microclusters.

The number of people in its jails—where social distancing is often impossible—is also soaring, with no signs of slowing down. 

The city’s jail population, now over 4,700, is largely the result of a growing number of people held awaiting trial. According to a recent report by the Center for Court Innovation, between the end of April, when the city took emergency COVID-related decarceration measures, and Nov. 1, the pretrial population incarcerated in city jails has increased by more than 28 percent.

That same report finds that the sharp rise in pretrial incarceration has been driven at least in part by the legislature’s decision to roll back landmark bail reform measures in the middle of the pandemic. In April, as New York City became a global coronavirus epicenter, the state legislature retreated on the law it passed last year and made more than a dozen charges once again bail-eligible, even as the city jails where pretrial detainees would be held became major COVID-19 hotspots.

The decision to undo certain bail reforms that took effect on Jan. 1 followed a coordinated campaign of fearmongering by police leadership, prosecutors, and conservative politicians who sensationalized individual stories and pushed false narratives. In one instance, tabloids, and even the Trump administration, seized on the story of a Black woman recently released from jail after being accused of slapping several Jewish women; the new law, however, likely would not have been a factor in her release.

Advocates condemned the rollbacks. One letter, signed by law professors in New York, called the fear-based tactics and false claims “Willie Horton-like.” Advocates instead called on state and city leaders to significantly decrease the number of people in jails and prisons. Other states, for example, suspended cash bail or took other measures to cut jail populations. 

However, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo lent their support to the rollbacks. “The bail reform law needs to be amended. I believe this strongly,” de Blasio said at the time, aligning himself with the state’s Republican and moderate Democrat lawmakers. Soon after, Cuomo signed the rollbacks into law.  

“It’s not a good look,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told Politico in January. “It seems whenever we try to make a real progressive step forward, if it gets a little hot, there seems to be an immediate retreat, and that’s very concerning.”

The rollbacks and their proponents have now helped create a real and broad safety risk to those who are incarcerated, those who work in jails, their families, and all New Yorkers. In just the first 100 days after the rollbacks took effect, the city’s pretrial population increased by 16 percent, according to an analysis by the Queens Daily Eagle. And city jails are already dangerously overcrowded, according to data recently released by the Legal Aid Society. 

One Rikers Island unit, which has a capacity for nearly 3,000 people, has had its dorm units operating at 85 percent capacity. A report this month by the city’s Board of Corrections, a jail oversight body, found that as of Oct. 31, 40 percent of people in city custody were held in a dorm where alternate spacing of beds was not available, and a third were held in a dorm that was above 75 percent capacity.

Those conditions may be causing an outbreak on Rikers Island, even while reported cases across the city are still relatively low. 

Like prisons, jails are especially dangerous virus incubators because they are typically overcrowded, unsanitary, and filled with people who are especially vulnerable to medical complications, often because of the detrimental health effects of incarceration itself. Jails, however, especially in large cities, experience a tremendous amount of turnover: The Prison Policy Initiative found that American jails have over 10 million admissions each year.

As winter approaches, the virus is continuing to surge in jails and prisons across the country, threatening the lives of incarcerated people as well as those in surrounding communities. And jails and prisons have consistently been among the most infectious hotspots and sites of uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks. Early in the pandemic, Marion Correctional Institute in Ohio had a sky-high infection rate that fueled a major outbreak in the surrounding community; at San Quentin State Prison in California, the virus has infected thousands and killed more than two dozen people, leading a state court to require the prison to cut its population in half to mitigate spread.

Bail reform afforded New York a head start in cutting its jail population ahead of the pandemic: The Center for Court Innovation found that the number of people held pretrial in New York City jails on cash bail dropped by 40 percent following the bill’s passage. This confirmed the predictions of an earlier report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which anticipated that the law could cut the pretrial jail population by exactly as much.

But those gains have effectively been undone. Another report published this month by the Center for Court Innovation found that pretrial detention is 7 to 11 percent higher than it would have been had the rollbacks not been implemented. And as jails across the state continue to fill with people awaiting trial and unable to afford bail, its authors say, that figure will only continue to grow.

Further, judges have been especially eager to set bail and detain New Yorkers pretrial however and whenever possible. According to The City, judges have exploited loopholes in the bail reform law to set exorbitantly high bail amounts. And city data provided to The Appeal shows that, since the rollbacks took effect, judges have been significantly more likely to require bail in all felony cases. Whereas judges required bail in 44.1 percent of violent felony cases in early March, by early November, that number was at 57.9 percent—even though bail eligibility in those cases was mostly unaffected by the initial bail reform law as well as its rollback.

“The fact still remains that bail is a fundamentally unjust system that allows those with financial privilege to walk free, while criminalizing New Yorkers living in poverty,” state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a vocal supporter of bail reform, told The Appeal. “New York State should be doing everything in its power to safely reduce the jail population during the pandemic in compliance with basic public health principles. The decision to roll back bail reform achieves the complete opposite of that.”

Families Urge Cuomo to Release Loved Ones from Prison During COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the releases he has already ordered, the New York governor can grant commutations to free more incarcerated people to protect them from the disease. He has issued only three since the pandemic began.

Activists rally outside the governor's office on Monday.
Photo by Brian Romero.

Families Urge Cuomo to Release Loved Ones from Prison During COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the releases he has already ordered, the New York governor can grant commutations to free more incarcerated people to protect them from the disease. He has issued only three since the pandemic began.

More than 1,700 people in prison in New York State have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March. Eighteen incarcerated people have died. Now, family members with loved ones in prison are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to release them in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect lives.

Cuomo responded to the pandemic by ordering the release of about 3,000 people convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes who were within 90 days of their scheduled release date and of pregnant women who were within 180 days of their scheduled release date.

But state law also provides Cuomo with the power to issue commutations, a form of clemency that reduces the sentences of people convicted of crimes. However, Cuomo has issued only three commutations since the pandemic began and only five in all of 2020.

“Look at the track record to see what they have done today, and not what crime they were convicted of,” Kimberly, a member of the Alliance of Families for Justice, said of those incarcerated, one of whom is her fiancé. The Appeal has agreed in some cases to use first names only because of concerns that family members and those incarcerated might face retaliation from prison staff.

“Many people inside, many incarcerated individuals lost lives,” and Cuomo’s inaction, Kimberly said, is “like leaving them to die.”

Asia’s husband Claude was recently approved for parole after more than 23 years in prison following a murder conviction, but he is still awaiting release. “[People in prison] don’t have the capacity to social distance, so it’s just going to happen,” Asia said of the spread of COVID-19. “You can’t run from it. If you can relieve some of the space … it will make a difference, hopefully.”

Asia said Claude began showing symptoms of COVID-19 in April. He lost his sense of taste and smell and a few days later tested positive for the disease.

“He was OK, then he started feeling fatigued and then it was just like oh, my God,” Asia said. “It was scary, just very scary.”

Claude has since recovered, but Asia said she was concerned Claude could get sick again as the country faces a new wave of COVID-19 cases. On Tuesday, the U.S. reported more than 2,100 deaths from the disease, the highest number of deaths in a day since May. In New York State, hospitalizations because of the disease have more than doubled over the last three weeks. 

The combination of COVID-19 and incarceration can be fatal, with a few weeks making the difference between life or death. That was the case for Leonard Carter, who died of COVID-19 just a few weeks before his release date after serving more than 24 years in prison for murder.

“My brother died,” said Cynthia Carter-Young, Leonard’s sister. “He walked into the hospital from the correctional facility, but he left in a body bag. That was his freedom.” She maintains that Leonard was innocent. 

Emelissa’s son, who is 11 months away from his release date, has spent the last four months in Greene Correctional Facility, where there has been a reported COVID-19 outbreak. He has asthma, which may put him at higher risk of getting very sick from the disease, and Emelissa, a member of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, worries for his health. 

She keeps his Christmas stocking mounted above the fireplace, even though she knows he won’t be home for the holidays. “He’s the one who’s missing from the family, but his stocking is actually up there,” Emelissa said.

Tessa said she and her son, who has been incarcerated for over six years, agreed that he should not use the telephones at his prison because they are concerned the phones are not properly sanitized. He is currently at Elmira Correctional Facility, where almost 40 percent of people incarcerated tested positive for COVID-19 last month.

She no longer hears his voice regularly. Instead, she relies on Cuomo’s press briefings, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) website, and calls to DOCCS to receive information about prison conditions, the number of people infected, and other pertinent information regarding releases. But she hasn’t heard much that’s proved helpful. 

“I really listened every day to hear [Cuomo] say something about what was being done in the prison system,” Tessa said. “And day after day after day, nothing was said, as if it didn’t exist.”

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan last week ordered 1,200 incarcerated people eligible for early release, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill that allowed more than 2,000 people to be released from prisons in the state this month. 

“It is a blight on the state’s record that governors across the country have done far more to stem the spread of the virus in their prisons,” said Sophie Gebreselassie, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Prisoners’ Rights Project. “By failing to act, the governor is putting the lives of New Yorkers both within and outside prison walls at risk.”

Progressive lawmakers like Assembly member Harvey Epstein have been pushing Cuomo to use his clemency power while also aiming to make structural changes to the system. Epstein is co-sponsoring legislation known as the “elder parole” bill, which would allow people who are at least 55 years old and have served at least 15 years in prison to apply for parole.

“There’s some real criteria available to provide clemency for people and we’ve been really encouraging our governor and his staff to look at clemency, to look at parole, as a way to save the lives of so many incarcerated New Yorkers,” he said.

For Jolene Russ, those changes can’t come soon enough. Her husband Bryon Russ has been incarcerated for 20 years and has 14 more years left of his prison sentence for robbery and assault.

Jolene said Bryon is rehabilitated and has atoned for the harms he caused. She said she just wants her husband home safe to be with their family.

Bryon applied for a commutation nearly four years ago and is still waiting for Cuomo to take action.

“I’ve always taken comfort that my husband has a release date because there are unfortunately lots of people in state prisons that don’t have a release date,” Jolene said. “But now with [COVID-19], there’s this fear that his sentence could become a death sentence.”

Andrew Cuomo Promised Criminal Justice Reforms, But New York Is Still Waiting

The governor has rolled back bail reform, not released enough prisoners during the pandemic, and failed to rein in police abuses, advocates and prisoners say.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference on Sept. 8, 2020
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Andrew Cuomo Promised Criminal Justice Reforms, But New York Is Still Waiting

The governor has rolled back bail reform, not released enough prisoners during the pandemic, and failed to rein in police abuses, advocates and prisoners say.

When Joshua Harris first heard about the job bottling hand sanitizer in Shawangunk Correctional Facility, it seemed too good to pass up. Jobs in prisons pay notoriously low wages to incarcerated workers—in New York State, base wages are between 16 and 65 cents per hour—yet this job could include a bonus, Harris said. The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) told The Appeal it pays bonus wages in certain cases

The main selling point for Harris, however, was the promise of a letter of commendation: In exchange for taking on the work of bottling the hand sanitizer touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo early in the pandemic, Harris says corrections staff told the men they’d earn letters they could later use to supplement parole hearings or clemency applications.

“These letters go a long way in terms of guys trying to receive clemency,” Harris, 34, told The Appeal. Harris has served 11 years of an 18-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter and second-degree weapon possession and hopes to win early release.

But after two months of bottling hand sanitizer, as people in the prison became sick with COVID-19, Harris says staff denied workers the commendation letters they initially promised to make the job more attractive. Harris says corrections workers told him the letters would be signed by Shawangunk Superintendent Jaifa Collado and DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci. But when Collado came to visit the men working the bottling line this summer, she said she had no intention of writing the letters. 

“She just said she’s not writing them; she heard rumors about this but that was never official, that never came from her,” Harris said.

According to DOCCS, the department still plans to issue letters to those who worked the hand sanitizer job. But the bottling line was shut down entirely in September, and as of late October, Harris says he and the other workers have seen no sign of the letters. “Guys tried to get letters and the superintendent wouldn’t budge,” he says. “It was an uphill battle and guys just kind of gave up.” 

This hit hard for Harris, who has applied for clemency before but heard nothing from the governor’s office. Even if Harris could get that letter from Collado and Annucci, Cuomo has given incarcerated people and their advocates little reason to believe he’ll show mercy, even during a global pandemic that is now seeing a resurgence in the state’s prisons. In 2019, the governor granted no commutations, despite receiving more than 6,000 applications between 2016 and August 2019. In 2020, following pressure from advocates and community groups, Cuomo has granted slightly more clemencies—11 in January, three in June—an uptick that looks generous only when compared to a year of not exercising his executive clemency power at all. 

“In New York we believe in giving a second chance to deserving individuals who have demonstrated remorse and undergone successful rehabilitation,” Cuomo said in a June 17 statement. But advocates say his actions don’t match this redemptive tone.

“The governor has never been a progressive on criminal justice issues,” said Claudia Trupp, a senior supervising attorney at the Center for Appellate Litigation, which represents clients in New York prisons seeking to earn clemency or early release. “He’s just not at the forefront of these issues. I don’t think they are particularly of interest to him.”

This inaction is even more troubling as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout correctional facilities, which are ill-equipped to cope with the disease. In late July, Harris says he issued a grievance to DOCCS regarding the lack of social distancing on the hand sanitizer bottling line, which was rarely sanitized, after three of his co-workers got sick. After the men tested positive for COVID-19, Harris says staff “put up boxes in between us, as if this was supposed to protect us or help stop the spread.” Just days after he filed the grievance, Harris himself tested positive. Months later, he struggles with daily headaches and a chronic cough.

As of Oct. 17, there have been 18 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths among people held in New York State prisons and five staff deaths. As of Nov. 23, 1,676 prison staff members and 1,713 incarcerated people have been infected with the disease. According to DOCCS data, 101 people at Shawangunk have tested positive, and one has died, as of Nov. 20. There’s little reason to believe, as the pandemic drags on, that this number won’t continue to rise; nationally, more than 1,400 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have died of COVID-related causes.

“This is really about just trying to save lives … if you’re [COVID-19] vulnerable, you’re [COVID-19] vulnerable,” says Trupp. “Our clients don’t deserve to die in prison simply because they committed a crime. They weren’t sentenced to a death sentence. For people who are truly vulnerable and are at extreme risk … the unresponsiveness of the courts and politicians has been really disappointing.”

Although roughly 3,055 people have been released early from New York state prisons as of late October because of the pandemic, after enormous outside pressure, this is hardly the large-scale decarceration effort advocates say is necessary. One major barrier, Trupp says, is how narrow the criteria for release established by Cuomo’s office are. In order to be eligible, a person must already be within 90 days of their planned release date, be convicted of a nonviolent offense, and be over 55. Some pregnant women were also deemed eligible for release, following public criticism. Trupp says her office has filed roughly 30 petitions for release on behalf of clients, but only two or three have been granted by the governor. 

“The criteria was so narrow that it really didn’t reach a lot of people, and yet the governor’s office was touting it as a great diminishment of our prison population,” Trupp tells The Appeal. “I really didn’t see that.” 

Trupp added: “There has been some diminution of the prison population, but just not what you would expect in my view if you were really taking the steps to prevent the most harm to the most people.”

In response to this criticism, a representative from the governor’s office emphasized to The Appeal that the state’s total correctional population is the lowest it has been since 1986, and cast these releases as a use of the governor’s clemency power. This decrease has been attributed to a combination of declining crime rates, decreases in felony arrests in New York City, and the expansion of prison diversion programs, among other factors, many of which preceded or were unrelated to Cuomo’s tenure. On Oct. 27, activists held protests at Elmira Correctional Facility, where 603 people have tested positive, and outside the Capitol in Albany, demanding that Cuomo release elderly and vulnerable incarcerated people.

For years, Cuomo has talked the talk of a politician who is well aware of the groundswell of public support for criminal justice reform. His 2018 State of the State address boasted “a sweeping, five-pronged reform package to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system,” including an effort to reduce the use of cash bail for people faced with misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges.

Yet two years later, as the chaos of COVID-19 tore through New York City, killing thousands, Cuomo pushed to roll back nascent bail reform efforts. This erosion of hard fought, years-long efforts of advocates to reduce the use of cash bail came at a time when the unnecessary detention of people who pose no threat to public safety was deadly because of the virus’s spread, and as law enforcement stakeholders across the country took action to reduce jail and prison populations. 

And in spite of years of work from community groups urging Cuomo to rein in abusive police practices, it wasn’t until June—following weeks of protests throughout the state after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—that the governor signed the Safer NY Act. The series of bills intend to increase transparency and accountability among police departments statewide.  

On the eve of August’s March on Washington, Cuomo’s office issued a statement: “I stand in solidarity with the thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding police reform, criminal justice reform, and racial equality, shouting in one collective voice: Black Lives Matter.” 

But the sentiment hardly squares with Cuomo’s record and does nothing to help Black people like Harris, who has a wife and children he’s eager to get home to. He says he has spent his time behind bars doing everything he can to better himself and prove he is ready for release, and is disappointed that he can’t seem to get a response to his clemency application. 

“People really do change. … It’s disheartening to not even get a simple response, not even a ‘No, try again,’” he said.

“I can’t fix my past. I can’t give back what I’ve taken away,” Harris added. “But I’ve chosen tremendous growth.”

Two Rising Democratic Stars May Be Vying for Pennsylvania Governor. On Criminal Justice, They’re Very Different

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has jumpstarted the state’s pardons process, while Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s self-styled progressivism isn’t winning over advocates.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty Images.

Two Rising Democratic Stars May Be Vying for Pennsylvania Governor. On Criminal Justice, They’re Very Different

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has jumpstarted the state’s pardons process, while Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s self-styled progressivism isn’t winning over advocates.

Pennsylvania, the swing state that ultimately clinched Joe Biden’s victory, took center stage during the presidential election. Soon, the state will be home to another political battle: the 2022 governor’s race. 

Political insiders in the state have long speculated that Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a former state representative who was re-elected this month, will be vying for the Democratic nomination. His Republican opponent in November’s election even raised the issue in campaign ads. 

But Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman recently told The Caucus, a local newspaper, that he is also considering a run. Fetterman, who gained considerable national attention in the days after the election for his TV appearances disputing President Trump’s voter fraud claims, was elected lieutenant governor in 2018. Prior to that, he was mayor of Braddock, a small post-industrial town in western Pennsylvania outside Pittsburgh. 

While both men may be seeking the same nomination, they could embrace starkly different policy positions on criminal justice issues, advocates say.

The governor can play a pivotal role in shaping how the criminal legal system works across the state, said Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania state policy director for FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums).

“Pennsylvania’s next governor should prioritize an agenda that embraces second chances for Pennsylvanians who have had contact with the legal system,” Trusty said. “We have more than 41,000 residents in our state prisons here in Pennsylvania, and many of these people are older and have valuable experience and skills they are ready to contribute to their home communities.”

“Attorney General Shapiro’s record shows he has been a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform,” Shapiro’s spokesperson Jacklin Rhoads told The Appeal in an email. She pointed to his support this year for a statewide database of police misconduct, which Shapiro said would prevent departments from “unknowingly hiring officers with past records of misconduct.”

Rhoads also said Shapiro “ended cash bail for non-violent offenses.” However, an Appeal review of nearly 1,000 cases filed by Shapiro’s office in 2018 found more than 100 instances where the state asked for bail in nonviolent drug offense cases and fraud cases.

Shapiro has drawn sharp criticism over his record as a member of the Board of Pardons. Advocates say he has not provided deserving people with second chances.

An analysis by the Harrisburg news outlet Pennsylvania Capital-Star found that Shapiro, who is a member of the state Board of Pardons, has repeatedly denied clemency to those serving life without the possibility of parole. In 2019, he voted against recommending a commutation of a life sentence more than any other board member—nearly 60 percent of the time. A person seeking a commutation of a life sentence must receive unanimous approval from the board before the governor can grant clemency.

Shapiro has countered that he has voted in favor of more commutations than any other attorney general in recent history, though the board has been largely stagnant for much of the last several decades. Between 2000 and 2018, the board voted on just 30 applications and recommended only 12 to the governor. However, under Fetterman, who is chair of the board of pardons, the board has voted on 40 applications and recommended 17 in 2019 alone.

Shapiro’s office has also defended Pennsylvania State Police in cases alleging misconduct. In one instance, his office defended state police after officers used a bulldozer to run over a man fleeing a drug arrest. Though Shapiro’s office is the first tapped to defend state agencies like PSP, advocates say he could decline these cases and request that the state Office of General Counsel prosecute them instead.

Shapiro has also supported homicide charges for people who sell or share drugs in cases where the drugs have resulted in someone’s death. He has publicly opposed the development of a supervised injection site in Philadelphia. In a 2017 meeting with reporters about the opioid crisis, when asked about the proposed site, Shapiro said “there is no safe way to inject heroin, fentanyl or carfentanil into your system.”

Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, told The Appeal that “we observe [Shapiro] governing as a traditional prosecutor and maintaining the mass incarceration status quo.” 

“His record at the Board of Pardons would warrant a D- because he has cast votes against people who have been in prison for decades, rehabilitated themselves and have the support of the Department of Corrections,” he said.

In February, Shapiro announced the creation of a conviction integrity unit, a division of the attorney general’s office that aims to right wrongful convictions. To date, the unit’s work has not led to any exonerations. A conviction integrity unit set up by Philadelphia district attorney in January 2018 has exonerated 15 people.

Fetterman’s criminal justice record, while shorter, has focused on broad reforms and giving voice to people directly affected by the criminal legal system.

Besides pushing for the Board of Pardons to hear more clemency cases, Fetterman spearheaded the elimination of fees for pardon applications, as a way to lower the barrier for people to clear low-level and drug offenses off their records.

Fetterman has also made a concerted effort to place people affected by the criminal legal system in positions of authority. He appointed Brandon Flood, who developed a distinguished career after his release from prison, as secretary of the Board of Pardons. Wolf signed off on a pardon for Flood shortly before Flood took over as secretary.

Fetterman hired George Trudel and Naomi Blount, two people formerly sentenced to life without parole, to serve as commutation specialists to help process applications and act as liaisons with people seeking clemency. Trudel and Blount both were released from prison last year after their sentences were commuted.

More than anyone in the state, [Fetterman] has resurrected the commutation’s process and provided a fair gateway to release for geriatric prisoners who have served decades in prison and have rehabilitated themselves and pose no threat to public safety,” Holbrook said. “He has met with communities most impacted by not just mass incarceration but also harm and violence and he’s listened to people and made principled positions.” 

Beyond his official role, Fetterman has been a vocal advocate for legalizing marijuana. He has touted the economic revenues the state could reap from legalization but has also acknowledged the disproportionate effect that prohibition has had on communities of color. Shapiro had initially opposed legalization but changed his position late last year and now says he supports it.

Fetterman from the beginning has positioned himself as a progressive politician and for the most part when it comes to criminal justice reform has lived up to it,” Holbrook said. “His policies also appear to be strongly driven by personal conviction and public safety.”

Fetterman declined The Appeal’s request for comment.

The Democratic primary is not until May 2022, but it is likely both men will announce their plans to run for the office, if they intend to do so, by the end of next year or at the very beginning of 2022.

Florida Activists Flood Polling Sites With Volunteers to Combat Voter Suppression

A grassroots coalition is showing up at locations across the swing state to ensure Black and Latinx voters can cast their ballots safely.

Voters prepare to cast their voting ballot at the C. Blythe Andrews, Jr. Public Library during the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch Souls to the Polls voter drive on Nov, 1. in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images.

Florida Activists Flood Polling Sites With Volunteers to Combat Voter Suppression

A grassroots coalition is showing up at locations across the swing state to ensure Black and Latinx voters can cast their ballots safely.

Recent polls suggest that the presidential election may be decided by a razor-thin margin in Florida. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the state could turn on a few thousand votes.

But an unprecedented election season, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and police violence against protesters, has raised fears over voter intimidation and suppression in the state. And with early voting underway for nearly two weeks, there have already been dozens of reports of confrontations and accusations of intimidation at polling sites. 

An armed Miami police officer appeared at a polling site in uniform, wearing a “Trump 2020” face-mask. On Oct. 21, armed security guards showed up at an early polling site in St. Petersburg, allegedly claiming to work for the Trump campaign. The campaign denied it had hired the guards, and the security company denied it had employees “engaging in poll watching.” Threatening emails were sent to Florida voters, supposedly by far-right group the Proud Boys, telling them to vote for Trump or “we will come after you.” The federal government has since blamed Iran for the emails. Those were just the highest profile incidents.

Michael Pernick, an attorney with NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that the organization has “received a significant number of complaints from voters that we categorize as aggressive electioneering that could in some cases be construed as intimidation.”

But grassroots state activists are responding. Last month, four progressive Black and Latinx groups formed the Coalition for Black and Brown Ballot Access (CBBBA) to combat voter intimidation, suppression, and disqualification. 

“If there is an attempt to intimidate someone or give out misinformation, we have people at the same polling site that can stop it and intervene,” Nancy Batista, a Guatemalan immigrant and the Florida state director of Poder Latinx, a member group in CBBBA, told The Appeal. “We’ve got the ground covered.”

CBBBA’s initial focus was on driving registration and turnout among typically disaffected voters and helping voters fix issues encountered when using mail-in ballots. 

“We organized this last-minute effort because we saw that there was a gap in terms of the work being done to reach out to Black and brown voters in places where they aren’t traditionally reflected in the electorate,” campaign manager Phillip Jerez told The Appeal. “We know Black and brown voters are the target for voter suppression.”

According to Jerez, CBBBA has a digital campaign hyper-targeting 600,000 voters of color across the state, as well as a phone-banking and texting campaign targeting 120,000 voters of color who have only voted in one out of the last four federal elections.

“This is a nonpartisan effort,” said Jerez. “We just want Black and brown voters to vote.”

The coalition, which is composed of the Hispanic Federation of Florida, Black Voters Matter, Poder Latinx, and the Equal Ground Education Fund, has volunteers at “just about every polling location” in Orange, Osceola, Lake, Polk, and Seminole counties, all of which have significant Latinx and Black populations, said Batista. It will also place volunteers at polling sites on Election Day. 

The volunteers are relaying to community members how long the lines are at particular voting locations and recommending better early voting locations within their county or alerting county officials if the lines are overly long. They are also intervening when voter intimidation occurs, whether by overzealous election officials, partisan poll watchers, or someone else unaffiliated.

Nationwide, over 100 progressive and voting rights groups have joined together to create the Election Protection Coalition to monitor voter intimidation and advocate for voters across the country through a hotline run by over 20,000 volunteer lawyers. Common Cause Florida, one of the organizations in the coalition, has said it will deploy close to 1,000 trained poll watchers to monitor alleged voter intimidation on Election Day in approximately 55 of Florida’s 67 counties.

Though progressive groups are putting forward a significant effort to combat voter intimidation, law enforcement in Florida is moving in as well.

In response to last week’s incident in St. Petersburg, the sheriff’s department there announced that it would station deputies at early voting sites through Election Day as a precaution. Plantation, Broward, and Alachua counties have said separately they will have police officers patrol near local polling stations regularly through Tuesday. After a flood of fearful messages from residents, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez deployed plainclothes officers near early-voting sites.

“The level of anxiety and fear from residents and business owners is really unlike anything we’ve seen in the past,” Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina told the Herald last month.

Many fear that police presence at polling stations meant to protect the vote could end up deterring those most likely to face voter intimidation: people of color. Dating back to the Jim Crow era, law enforcement has often been used to intimidate nonwhite voters, particularly in the South. For that reason, many states have laws banning police from appearing at polls unless directly called by an election official to deal with an issue. In Florida, law enforcement is prohibited from being stationed inside polling locations, but the rest is largely up to county law.

Last week, a group of civil rights and voting rights organizations, including the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund released a letter condemning the decision to deploy deputies at polling stations in Pinellas County, saying that it could “amplify” voter intimidation, rather than combat it. The Advancement Project, a nonprofit focusing on racial justice issues, has said it has received frequent calls and reports about police on site at polling stations in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties.

“Whether it’s an armed police officer patrolling a polling place or just having a police car with lights blaring in front of a polling place, all can serve as a form of voter intimidation and certainly can have a chilling effect, particularly in Black and brown communities,” Gilda Daniels, litigation director for the Advancement Project and author of “Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America,” told The Appeal in July.

The reports don’t seem to have dissuaded people. As of Friday, 9 million of the 14.4 million registered voters in Florida had already mailed in ballots or visited a polling site, according to the state.

The Past, Present, and Future of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office

The DA’s office has been home to bribery, corruption, and more since it was formed 170 years ago. What could a progressive prosecutor do to change that?

Illustration by Lex Roman.

The Past, Present, and Future of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office

The DA’s office has been home to bribery, corruption, and more since it was formed 170 years ago. What could a progressive prosecutor do to change that?

As people across the country cry out to overhaul policing, the calls for defunding district attorneys ring softer. Yet prosecutors play a major part in upholding systems of policing and incarceration. 

District attorneys are often mentioned in the media, but their role is rarely explained. They are not merely receiving cases to try. They are both part of law enforcement and work with law enforcement. Their investigators have the same powers as police officers. They develop predictive crime units. They decide who to prosecute and what the charges are. They also lobby for or against laws.

As history shows, there has never been anything impartial about this highly political role. 

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office—the largest in the country—is no different. Los Angeles has an opportunity to redefine what progress in a prosecutor’s office could look like for other prosecutor offices around the country. 

Although LA County’s current district attorney, Jackie Lacey, has taken a lot of criticism  for wielding the law in fatal and unequal ways, she is also a product of a flawed machine. The DA’s office has been home to bribery, corruption, lies, manipulation, and even murder since its formation. The question now is what should happen next and who is willing to make positive changes.

Illustration by Lex Roman.

The Role of the Los Angeles DA

The district attorney is a prosecutor who represents the state and the county. That person is responsible for deciding when to bring charges against someone, what those charges are, and for winning convictions. 

But lawyers can also be politicians. The district attorney, like the city attorney and the attorney general, is an elected position. The United States is the only country that elects prosecutors

The LA district attorney’s office oversees criminal cases for LA County, with some exceptions. Its prosecutors handle all county felonies like murder, arson, burglary, forgery, and the sale of illegal drugs. They also handle smaller crimes, or misdemeanors, for most of the cities in the county with the notable exception of the city of Los Angeles. 

The DA’s work extends past the courtroom. The office collaborates with law enforcement, sometimes embedding prosecutors at police stations; investigates crimes, sometimes at the crime scene; investigates any complaints about law enforcement and crimes committed by law enforcement; and offers services to victims, though they do not represent them.

Where the DA’s office is most indistinguishable from the police, though, is in its ability to develop special units. In LA County, the office has several special units like the Hardcore Gang Division and the Organized Crime Division, which target people to prosecute and incarcerate, sometimes with no evidence that they have committed a crime.

LA District Attorney's Office
Illustration by Lex Roman.

The Los Angeles DA’s office has a couple thousand employees broken down into three main categories: deputy DAs, DA investigators, and support staff. 

Deputy DAs work under the guidance of the DA and in collaboration with law enforcement to bring charges and prosecute crimes. Deputy DAs often run for judgeships. 

DA investigators work alongside the deputy DAs to gather evidence, find witnesses, and conduct investigations to aid cases. They may conduct independent investigations but mostly work to augment law enforcement, including collaborating with federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals. When an officer shoots someone, DA investigators and a deputy DA are among those who respond to the scene. 

There are about 1,000 deputy DAs, 300 DA Investigators and 800 support staff members.

It’s worth noting that the LA public defender’s office, which provides legal representation to defendants who cannot afford lawyers, has half the staff and half the budget of the DA’s office, even though the office has a higher caseload.

Patch and badge from the District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigation. Certificate for Detective Harley Mosteller of the DA's office and a deputy sheriff for LA County.
Illustration by Lex Roman.

The History of the Los Angeles DA’s Office

The LA district attorney has historically reinforced the idea that crime is inevitable and can only be handled with carceral consequences. 

But the motivations of Los Angeles DAs have been varied and often immoral. William C. Ferrell was the county’s first DA in 1850, and his salary was augmented by winning cases. It wasn’t very lucrative when people weren’t found guilty. When his caseload was cut by the state legislature, Ferrell’s salary was also reduced, so he resigned. Isaac Ogier, the county’s second DA, was a founder of The Rangers, a vigilante mob. It is documented that they lynched at least 22 people. After serving as DA, Ogier went on to become a U.S. attorney and a federal judge.

The LA DA’s office has also been home to white supremacists who fought to preserve slavery. At least two of the county’s earliest DAs pledged their allegiance to the Confederacy. Cameron Thom, who had three separate terms as DA, went back to the South and fought in the Confederate Army between terms. He also lobbied in the California state legislature to allow for the enslavement of Black people under the age of 21. A few years after Thom’s first term, former DA Edward J.C. Kewen was briefly imprisoned on Alcatraz for his publicly Confederate views.

By the 1900s, Los Angeles DAs had built an engine for convictions and had sold the public on the idea that this meant justice and safety. Yet behind closed doors, some DAs were making deals and offering favors.

Harold L. Davis on the myths of justice.
Illustration by Lex Roman.

In 1929, DA Asa Keyes was convicted of accepting bribes to acquit executives in the Julian Petroleum Corporation scandal. One of Keyes’s deputy DAs, Harold L. Davis, was also convicted of bribery. Davis published a change-of-heart, tell-all article in the Los Angeles Record, writing, “I watched the selection of a jury, and for once I hoped the jurors would not be tools of the district attorney. I saw and recognized all the familiar tricks of a prosecutor used against me.”

Buron Fitts took over for Keyes. After prosecuting both Keyes and Davis, Fitts and his sister were indicted on bribery and perjury related to dropping a friend’s charge of statutory rape. Fitts was acquitted and his sister’s charges were dropped. He continued to serve as DA until 1940.

Tough on Crime, Soft on Cops

Los Angeles DAs have prosecuted each other, but it is strikingly rare how often they have prosecuted the police. 

Jorge Gonzalez, a longtime civil rights and criminal defense attorney who has been involved in several cases where the police have killed people, told The Appeal it’s because district attorneys and law enforcement are on the same side. They drink a Kool-Aid that turns people into “true believers” who hold that the system can do no wrong, he said.

One of the rare cases in which a DA has prosecuted police officers was that of Rodney King in 1992. DA Ira Reiner prosecuted the four officers who brutally beat King, but they ultimately were acquitted. Many historians believe this was because the trial venue changed, which resulted in a mostly white jury. When Reiner ran for re-election, he lost to Gil Garcetti and dropped out of politics entirely.

In the late 1960s, when Garcetti was a deputy DA, he helped establish a unit that sent a prosecutor and investigator to the scene when a police officer allegedly shot someone. But once elected in 1992, he quietly cut the unit. “I’d rather be prosecuting violent criminals than going out and ratifying that police officers did not commit improper shootings,” he said once in office. The unit had been investigating approximately 200 cases a year at that point. 

Since Jackie Lacey took office in 2012, there have been over 600 police shootings in LA County. Like many prosecutors, Lacey has said that the law ties her hands when it comes to prosecuting police for fatal use of force. Under California law, a police officer can legally kill someone if they reasonably believe that their life or someone else’s life is in danger or they feel that the person could cause someone serious bodily harm. 

Critics say Lacey’s reluctance to prosecute cops is tied to the support that her campaigns have received from police unions and law enforcement special interest groups.

Even in cases when police shootings have been found to be out of policy by civilian oversight groups and the chief of police, Lacey wouldn’t file charges against officers. She didn’t charge the Los Angeles Police Department officer responsible for fatally shooting Brendon Glenn in 2015 after Chief Charlie Beck recommended that the officer be prosecuted.

And Lacey has appeared to accept police narratives without digging further. While the LAPD Board of Police Commissioners determined in its report that the 2018 shooting of 30-year-old Albert Ramon Dorsey was lawful, it also found that “the tactical decisions made by [Officer Edward Agdeppa] leading up to the use of deadly force were at odds with tactical training.” The report also noted that officers used profanity, failed to coordinate with the 24-Hour Fitness Center at which the shooting occurred, and never called for backup. Still, Lacey did not pursue the case; she declined to charge Agdeppa this summer.

On Tuesday, LA County voters will decide between Lacey and George Gascón, a former LAPD officer turned prosecutor who resigned from his position as San Francisco’s district attorney to run in Los Angeles.

Although Gascón has positioned himself as a “justice reform advocate,” both he and Lacey have been criticized for their failure to prosecute police. Lacey has only prosecuted one law enforcement officer for a fatal shooting during her tenure and Gascón didn’t prosecute any when he was San Francisco district attorney. 

Despite Gascón’s similar track record when it comes to prosecuting police, he gives reformists more hope than Lacey. He co-authored Proposition 47 which reduced some nonviolent offenses (like drug possession) from felonies to misdemeanors, thus keeping some people out of prison. Gascón has also pushed to reform laws that protect police from prosecution, and he’s said that he’ll reopen notable use-of-force cases if he’s elected, including Glenn’s.

The Future of the DA’s Office

Gascón might reopen some use-of-force cases, but what happens to less notable ones?

In March, Lionel Morales was at a strip mall in Historic Filipinotown when a car backed up and ran over his leg. The driver fled but Lexis-Olivier Ray, one of the writers of this story, got the driver’s license plate number and reported it to LAPD Central Traffic Division the next day. Morales, then homeless, was in a hospital and then a nursing home for weeks, before he returned to the streets and connected with Ray.

Ray gave police the victim’s name and contact information, handed over the driver’s license plate number and a short video of the driver fleeing, and identified the driver in a photographic lineup. But the district attorney’s office rejected the case. According to a “charge evaluation sheet” from the office obtained by Ray, the DA declined to charge the driver in part because prosecutors “couldn’t locate” the victim.

“How could that be?” Morales said when Ray broke the news to him in October. In April, Morales had secured a temporary hotel room through Project Room Key—a program to house the unhoused during the COVID-19 pandemic—after Ray publicized what happened to Morales on Twitter and a coalition of doctors from the VA Hospital, staff members from Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority responded.

The conviction rate for hit-and-runs in Los Angeles is low. Between 2014 and 2018, according to Curbed LA, the district attorney’s office won convictions in 169 out of over 23,000 felony cases. 

“There’s a whole culture around winning,” John Raphling, a former defense attorney who represented the family of Brendon Glenn, said of why prosecutors don’t take up these kinds of cases.  

But even if Morales’s case was re-examined, he still has a lot of other hurdles to overcome that can’t be solved through punishment. Putting the driver in prison isn’t going to repair what happened to his leg, it’s not going to put a roof over his head, and it’s not going to get him the medical help that he desperately needs. 

“There’s a reward system for being harsh, there’s no thought of ‘what is the impact on the victim, on the victim’s family, on the victim’s community?’” Raphling said. “It’s ‘we’re protecting society by locking this person up.’ The role of the DA is not really conducive to problem solving.” 

District attorneys have weaved a deep narrative about what keeps us safe. But there’s a new culture emerging with prosecutors like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. George Gascón counts himself among them. These prosecutors are considering options beyond prison, reducing sentences, and looking at wrongful convictions. 

But how much progress can a “progressive DA” actually make? On a recent panel, Ivette Alé from the JusticeLA Coalition said, “It’s not about electing a better DA. It’s about deconstructing this system so we no longer rely on it. Electing a better DA is a harm reduction measure.”

Candace Valenzuela Is Running to Give All People a Chance at the American Dream

If she’s successful in her bid to represent Texas’s 24th Congressional District, Valenzuela will flip the district to blue and become the first Black and Latinx member of Congress.

Candace Valenzuela.
Candace for 24

Candace Valenzuela Is Running to Give All People a Chance at the American Dream

If she’s successful in her bid to represent Texas’s 24th Congressional District, Valenzuela will flip the district to blue and become the first Black and Latinx member of Congress.

Candace Valenzuela’s fight for a congressional seat is personal. 

Both of her parents served in the U.S. Army, continuing a tradition of military service in her family. Her grandfather served in World War II, and her great-grandfather served in World War I after he emigrated from Mexico to the United States.

But after her parents left the military, her family became homeless. Valenzuela was able to go to college on a full scholarship, ultimately graduating and working in education before getting elected to the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board, an independent school district in Dallas and Denton counties, in 2017.

“I’m running for Congress because the opportunities that allowed me to go from being homeless as a kid, sleeping in a kiddie pool outside a gas station, to become the first in my family to go to college should be available to everyone,” Valenzuela told The Appeal. “But right now, those opportunities are under attack by this administration.”

Valenzuela is running to represent the 24th Congressional District in northern Texas, which includes parts of Dallas, Fort Worth, and the surrounding suburbs. About 45 percent of the district is white, 24 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian, and 13 percent Black. More than 90 percent of residents have a high school education, while less than half have a college degree and about 7 percent live below the poverty line. 

Valenzuela, who would become the first Black and Latinx member of Congress if elected, is running on a platform that includes raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, providing direct financial compensation to employers to keep workers on the payrolls during the COVID-19 pandemic, extending increased unemployment compensation during the pandemic, ending no-knock warrants and qualified immunity, and increasing access to vocational training.

“Public schools changed my life; they provided the opportunities that allowed me to go from being homeless as a kid to become the first in my family to graduate from college,” she said. “But we need to build new ladders of opportunities for the 21st-century economy.”

Valenzuela is also hoping to turn the district blue for the first time in 16 years. Republican Representative Kenny Marchant, who now holds the seat but is not seeking re-election, won in 2018 by only three points. Valenzuela defeated retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Kim Olson in the primary and will face Republican Beth Van Duyne, a former Trump administration official, in the general election. Politico rates the race as a toss-up.

“Right now, we’re seeing what happens when leaders focus on wealthy corporations instead of working families,” she said. “We need a real change in Washington, and that’s what I’m offering.”

3 Transformational Candidates That the Working Families Party Is Excited About

The party's national director tells The Appeal about candidates in New York, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico that the WFP would like to see oust the establishment.

Janeese Lewis George, candidate for Washington D.C. City Council

3 Transformational Candidates That the Working Families Party Is Excited About

The party's national director tells The Appeal about candidates in New York, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico that the WFP would like to see oust the establishment.

In the run-up to Tuesday, the Working Families Party has made hundreds of endorsements in federal, state, and local elections.

The party, which was founded in 1998 as a grassroots effort to elect more progressive candidates, separate from the two major parties, aims to bring equality and prosperity to all people and repair the harms caused by systemic racism.

The Appeal asked Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, to share information about three candidates—one local, one state, and one national—that the party is excited to support this election. 

Janeese Lewis George – Washington D.C. City Council

Even before the defund police movement made national headlines after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Janeese Lewis George was calling for funds to be stripped from the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia and reinvested into the community

George defeated incumbent Brandon Todd in the June primary for the Democratic nomination for the Ward 4 seat on the Washington D.C. City Council. 

Ward 4 is in the northeast corner of D.C. About 50 percent of the ward’s population is Black and about half of the population has at least a bachelor’s degree. About 11 percent of Ward 4 residents have an income below the poverty line.

“She is, I think, the first defund candidate to win a primary during this uprising,” Mitchell said. “That was a really important signal not just locally, but nationally that you could run a viable campaign on the interests and issues coming from the movement.”

Prior to running for office, George was an assistant district attorney in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office before becoming an assistant attorney general in the Juvenile Section of the Public Safety Division of the Washington, D.C., attorney general’s office.

George is running on a platform that includes creating affordable housing, seeking statehood for the district, and pushing for single-payer healthcare.

She is the presumptive winner in the general election. George is facing a challenge from Perry Redd of the D.C. Statehood Green Party. However, no candidate for any office from Redd’s party received more than 73 votes in Ward 4 during the primary, compared to 11,000 ballots cast for George.

Carrie Hamblen – New Mexico state Senate

For 20 years, New Mexico’s 38th Senate District was represented by Democrat Mary Kay Papen. The district is in the southwestern portion of the state and includes Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city. Roughly 70 percent of the district is Hispanic, and the median income is around $30,000.

But Papen’s tenure will end after this session. Carrie Hamblen, CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce and first-time political candidate, beat Papen in the Democratic primary. 

Hamblen is running with the slogan “the time is now for a new perspective,” and her campaign platform includes expanding public transportation, developing renewable energy sources, protecting access to abortions, helping small businesses, and protecting public lands.

Carrie Hamblen
Carrie Hamblen for NM Senate 38

Papen, who is the president pro tempore of the state Senate, drew criticism last year for voting against repealing a state law that criminalizes abortion. Mitchell described Papen as a conservative member of the Senate.

He said Hamblen’s win in the Democratic primary is “an important symbolic victory demonstrating the rise of the progressive movement against the establishment.”

Hamblen will face Republican Charles Wendler in next week’s election. The last time Wendler ran for the seat in 2016, he lost to Papen by 34 percentage points.

Jamaal Bowman – New York 16th Congressional District

Jamaal Bowman is a middle school principal and a public school advocate. In January, he will most likely have a new title: representative.

Bowman defeated Eliot Engel for the Democratic nomination for New York’s 16th Congressional District, which includes Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Scarsdale, Eastchester, and Yonkers. About 28 percent of the district is Black and 28 percent of the district is Hispanic. Roughly 12 percent of people in the district live below the poverty line and more than half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of income on rent.

Jamaal Bowman, Democratic nominee for New Yorks 16th Congressional District, on Sept. 23.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

Engel has been in Congress for more than 30 years, and in the 2014 midterms, the Working Families Party backed his candidacy.

Mitchell said Engel had lost perspective on what was important to his constituents and only visited the district when he realized he was in a competitive race with Bowman.

Bowman’s platform includes reconciling with the country’s history of slavery and systemic racism by implementing reparations, reducing jail and prison populations through efforts like ending cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences, creating a single-payer healthcare system, increasing taxes on the wealthiest people, investing in public schools, and implementing the Green New Deal.

“Jamaal is an educator, born and raised in the Bronx,” Mitchell said. “He’s an educator and principal in a Bronx school district and through his time as an educator surfaced all of the failings of our society through the needs and demands of his student base, his community, and his parents. His political journey is informed by what is going on on the ground in a very, very real way in the community.”

For Illinois Democrat Marie Newman, Progressive Is ‘Practical’

Newman, who is running for a U.S. House seat, wants Medicare for all, green jobs, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Photo by Marie Newman for Congress.

For Illinois Democrat Marie Newman, Progressive Is ‘Practical’

Newman, who is running for a U.S. House seat, wants Medicare for all, green jobs, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Like many women candidates, Marie Newman finally moved from volunteering for various political campaigns to running one of her own at the continued suggestion of others and after realizing that there was no reason to doubt her qualifications.

She scrubbed floors to get through college, lived without insurance for several years in her 20s, and ran her own small business. “It all started to merge into service and advocacy,” Newman said of the culmination of her experiences.

Newman is running to represent Illinois’s Third Congressional District, which encompasses the southwest side of Chicago and its southwest suburbs. She made her first run for the seat in 2018 but fell a few thousand votes short of Representative Dan Lipinski, a Reagan Democrat whose father held the seat before him.

Newman faced Lipinski again in this year’s Democratic primary race and focused on voter outreach, she told The Appeal. This time, she beat him, ending his decades in office.

“He was bad on immigration, very bad on all of civil rights and human rights. He voted against the [Affordable Care Act],” she said of Lipinski and his record in office. “It all pointed toward this policy of supporting inequity. That was the only umbrella that fits him.” 

A spokesperson for Lipinski responded, “If it is the case that Newman is looking backwards and continuing her Trump-like false and hateful rhetoric rather than focusing on the upcoming election, that may explain why her campaign is struggling against a vastly underfunded Republican.” 

A Cook County GOP poll conducted in early September puts Newman ahead of her opponent, Mike Fricilone, by 2.2 percentage points, and Vice President Joe Biden endorsed her for the seat last week.

Newman’s platform is a cornucopia of progressive policies that includes Medicare for All, a $15 federal minimum wage, green jobs, COVID-19 relief, protection for DACA recipients, and an “unambiguous” path to citizenship for immigrants.

As a white woman hoping to represent an increasingly diverse district, Newman is under no illusions. “I’m not a white savior. I’m the best ally you can have, and I keep learning how to be a better one,” she said. To accomplish this, she told The Appeal she relies on a diverse staff, advisory councils, and continual meet and greets with her constituents, from small business owners to fire fighters, EMTs, and police officers.

She’s chosen to focus her efforts on addressing what most Americans share in common: the struggle to get through the day while the rich get richer.

“Working families and the middle class are getting the short straw every time. This economy doesn’t work for everyone; it works for very, very few people,” Newman told The Appeal. “Unemployment and underemployment are huge issues in the nation, and they’ll keep growing and growing until we get serious about the super practical path. Progressive policy is the more practical path.”

For Newman, this means an intersectional, restorative justice approach to solving complex issues. For example, Newman sees the affordability of healthcare as closely tied to criminal justice reform. “Mental health and healthcare access are a problem. People don’t seek healthcare because they can’t afford it and many end up in the criminal justice system,” she says.

She advocates legalizing marijuana and wants to pass a comprehensive federal law that allows people in jails and released prisoners the right to vote, in line with Illinois’s law. She also supports passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that endeavors to radically reform policing on the federal level. However, the bill ignores more progressive calls from communities around the country to replace police departments with public safety organizations and redirect police funding across areas like education and housing.

When it comes to the pandemic, getting the country into “relief and recovery mode” is her primary goal. And to address economic inequality, Newman has her sights set on the unbanked and underbanked. 

“We should not only be using the post office for postal banking,” she says, but as a center for information on everything from jobs and affordable housing to paths towards citizenship for immigrants. “There should be a kiosk in every post office—they’re already in every zip code.”

Despite a platform full of positions that are at odds with the Republican-held Senate and the  “quite frightening” Supreme Court, as well as the chance that Nov. 3 could mean the continuation of the current administration’s policies, Newman remains hopeful. 

She expects the Senate to flip, but regardless, her philosophy involves “rolling up your sleeves and working really hard with colleagues—Republicans, independents, and Democrats—and [making] it clear that we’re running out of choices … Inaction is costly and deadly.”

Amy Coney Barrett’s Record on Criminal Justice Is ‘Deeply Troubling,’ Reform Advocates Say

In the midst of a national debate about changing the criminal legal system, Barrett is set to take a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Advocates see her addition as a potential setback to creating a more fair system.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Oct. 21.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images.

Amy Coney Barrett’s Record on Criminal Justice Is ‘Deeply Troubling,’ Reform Advocates Say

In the midst of a national debate about changing the criminal legal system, Barrett is set to take a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Advocates see her addition as a potential setback to creating a more fair system.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s expected confirmation by the Senate on Monday to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court will be an enormous blow to criminal justice reform, advocates say.

“She has a deeply, deeply troubling record when it comes to people who are caught up in the criminal justice system,” Daniel Goldberg, legal director for the Alliance for Justice, told The Appeal.

Barrett was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, despite all of the Democratic members boycotting the vote. Before her appointment by President Trump to the Seventh Circuit in 2017, Barrett, a conservative, had no judicial experience. She worked as an attorney for a private practice for two years before becoming a law professor in 2002. But during her short tenure on the bench, she has taken positions in several cases that could signal a setback for criminal justice reform. 

In 2019, she penned a dissent in McCottrell v. White, siding with two prison guards who fired shotguns to break up a fight. The buckshot from the guns struck multiple men in the prison, including several who were not involved in the fight.

Although the majority of the court decided that there was enough evidence for a jury to find the guards acted with excessive force and remanded the case to the trial court, Barrett took the guards at their word, finding they didn’t intentionally harm the men because they had fired the guns into the ceiling.

In January, Barrett joined a majority opinion reversing a lower court order that found two Indianapolis police officers should be held accountable for leaving an 18-year-old handcuffed while he complained of having difficulty breathing until he died from lack of oxygen. Barrett and the circuit court decided the officers were entitled to qualified immunity from being held liable for the death of the teenager, who was accused of stealing a watch from Burlington Coat Factory.

Barrett has even attempted to undermine Trump’s signature criminal justice reform legislation. Less than two weeks before her nomination last month, Barrett wrote a dissent in United States v. Uriarte, contending that a man sentenced to more than 40 years in prison for drug and firearm offenses was not entitled to relief under the First Step Act.

The majority of the court disagreed and resentenced the man to 20 years in prison under the new guidelines.

Even before taking the bench, Barrett has taken positions that could be disastrous for people seeking relief from the Supreme Court.

In law review articles, Barrett has argued that the constitutionality of Miranda rights is disputed and argued that non-U.S. citizens being held in the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are not entitled to protest their detention once convicted.

Trump nominated Barrett to replace liberal champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg after Ginsburg’s death in September. “Justice Ginsburg was a giant in the fight for equality and civil rights,” Black Lives Matter wrote in a public statement denouncing Barrett. “Judge Amy Coney Barrett shouldn’t even be in consideration, as she has no plans but to roll back on RBG’s initiatives.”

With Barrett’s confirmation securing a conservative majority in the court, advocates should focus on pushing criminal justice reform issues in other areas by electing local leaders who will enact reforms and pushing Congress to change laws, Goldberg said.

“The reality is, not just at the Supreme Court but the lower courts—which have been packed with right-wing ideologues—there are judges who are not going to be on the side of ensuring racial equality and ensuring equal justice under the law,” Goldberg added. “That will require advocates and all people who care deeply about these issues to press them in different forms.”

Michigan Lifers Are Organizing Their Families to Vote

The Adolescent Redemption Project, a new group organized by Michigan prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, is advocating for progressive prosecutors.

A voter casts their absentee ballot in Detroit, Michigan on Oct. 15.
Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Michigan Lifers Are Organizing Their Families to Vote

The Adolescent Redemption Project, a new group organized by Michigan prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, is advocating for progressive prosecutors.

Earlier this year, as COVID-19 ravaged G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, Joshua Puckett and his fiancée Cassandra Anzalone hatched an idea. 

Puckett, who is incarcerated at Cotton, has been in the Michigan prison system for 25 years. When he was 18, he was convicted of aiding and abetting first-degree murder because he gave directions to somene he knew who carried out a drive-by shooting and later removed a gun from the scene. He was not in the vehicle.

Over the summer, with the November election approaching and issues around mass incarceration gaining steam with voters and leaders alike, Puckett and Anzalone founded The Adolescent Redemption Project, or TARP, a 501(c)4 organization dedicated to ending the mass incarceration of people ages 18 to 25 through political advocacy. 

But because the roughly 35,000 people incarcerated in Michigan’s prisons cannot vote, TARP is creating a “voting bloc” of friends and family of incarcerated people who support criminal justice issues and progressive prosecutors.  

“If even approx. 20,000 [prisoners] that we got to influence just 2 family members to vote for justice reform progressive candidates we then have 40K votes!” Puckett wrote in an email to The Appeal. “That’s powerful. Prison[ers] have never before had a lobby that moves on their interests.” 

TARP estimates that it has spread its “Redemption Voting Bloc” flyers to about 20,000 prisoners since the summer by posting them in dayrooms and on bulletin boards. The flyers use a tear-off form that prisoners can share with their families to register with TARP as part of the “bloc” and receive TARP’s mailings on candidates and issues. 

The flyers describe TARP’s mission as “a campaign for mercy,” calling for an end to the “mass incarceration of late adolescent offenders” through eliminating mandatory minimums and allowing judges to retroactively consider adolescent brain development. 

The group is also supporting Carol Siemon, a prosecutor running for re-election in Ingham County, which includes parts of Lansing, the state capital. She won handily in 2016, besting three other candidates in the Democratic primary, and she represents a county that votes reliably blue

Since taking office, Siemon has reviewed life without the possibility of parole cases, beginning with people who committed a crime at age 17 or younger. She said she saw people who had “transformed”—not because of anything the Michigan Department of Corrections had done—but because they found a good mentor, “aged out” of their violent behavior, or they had a child they wanted to see grow up.  

“In 20 years, and hopefully sooner, but I say in 20 years, we’re going to look back and say, how did we ever do life for people in prison without the possibility of parole?” she told The Appeal.

In January, Siemon told the Lansing City Pulse about her plans to review and possibly seek commutations for 90 people convicted of first-degree murder serving life without parole. She later apologized after backlash over her comments, saying she regretted not speaking to the victims’ families first. 

Still, Siemon has remained true to her philosophy. According to the City Pulse, after Siemon’s election, “nearly all murder defendants have had the chance to plead to a lesser charge [of] second-degree murder.” (Michigan does not have the death penalty.) 

“We knew right there we had to support her. If she loses, no other prosecutors will do this kind of work,” Puckett said. Siemon co-wrote a commentary calling for an end to juvenile life without parole and cited the adolescent brain science TARP relies on. She also signed on to a letter committing to reject police contributions and endorsements to her campaign, the only Michigan prosecutor to do so. 

“I’ve been a lawyer for 39 years, and I’m really annoyed that the same conversations I was having 35 years ago, we’re still having,” Siemon said, pointing to alternatives to incarceration such as after-school programs and drug addiction rehabilitation.

TARP has also supported Karen McDonald’s candidacy for prosecutor in Oakland County. McDonald won the Democratic primary with 66 percent of the vote, besting incumbent Jessica Cooper, a “tough on crime” Democrat who gained national attention for punishing a 15-year-old Black girl for failing to complete schoolwork while on probation.

The group’s organizing comes amid growing public support for voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, though there is still progress to be made. In 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow people who served felony sentences to vote again. But in 2019, the state legislature passed a law requiring them to pay all fees before being eligible to vote, effectively disenfranchising thousands, despite questions over its constitutionality. Felony disenfranchisement laws are a Jim Crow relic, but they prevent more than 5 million Americans from voting. 

TARP is still new—all volunteers—but its organizers say that it’s growing and empowering incarcerated people. “We’ve created somewhat of a sensation [among] the Michigan prisoners,” said Stephen Silha, a TARP board member. DeAndrea Taylor, one of Breonna Taylor’s sisters, recently joined the board to advocate for their father, Everette Taylor, who has been incarcerated in Michigan since he was 22. 

In addition to pushing for change through the courts, TARP is also working on drafting  second look legislation, which allows courts to re-evaluate people’s sentences after a significant period of time. Some states have already considered similar legislation, and a version has been introduced in Congress. 

“If you can get the legislators to change the law,” said Laurel Kelly Young, Puckett’s attorney and a TARP board member, “things will happen a lot quicker than, like, trying to create precedent to the court.”

‘Democracy Pressure-Tested’: Voter Suppression Efforts Underway As Election Nears

Efforts by elected leaders in several states are making it harder to get to the polls and fomenting misinformation about the election amid a pandemic.

Voters stand in line for the first day of early voting at the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center in Houston, Texas on Oct. 13.
Photo by Mark Felix for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

‘Democracy Pressure-Tested’: Voter Suppression Efforts Underway As Election Nears

Efforts by elected leaders in several states are making it harder to get to the polls and fomenting misinformation about the election amid a pandemic.

In the lead-up to next month’s election, some states have made it more difficult to cast a ballot even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread.

“We hold ourselves out as one of the greatest democracies on Earth and a barometer of that is whether or not we allow people to have a voice in our democracy,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, told The Appeal. “A pandemic shouldn’t be an excuse to keep people from being able to exercise their voice. This moment is one where we are seeing democracy pressure-tested.”

Early voters in several states have had to wait in long lines, in part because lawmakers there have closed some polling locations because of the pandemic. In Texas, some voters reported hours-long waits to cast a ballot in person on the first day of early voting. Atlanta’s first day of early voting had some voters waiting at the polls for as long as 10 hours

Though Texas and Georgia are seeing larger than normal turnout—breaking their early voting turnout records—there are also fewer polling places today than in years past. An investigation by The Leadership Conference Education Fund found lawmakers in Texas closed more than 750 polling places statewide since 2012, nearly doubling the number of people expected to vote at each polling place in some heavily Black and Latinx counties.

Some states have tried to lessen the number of people congregating at polling places by expanding vote by mail, but Texas is one of five states that require an excuse beyond concerns over COVID-19, like not being able to get to a polling place, to cast an absentee ballot. On top of that, Governor Greg Abbott has restricted the number of secure ballot drop boxes to one per county. That move remains in legal limbo, as it has been struck down in state court and upheld in federal court.

A similar situation played out in Alabama as people attempted to cast their absentee ballots this week. On Monday, University of North Carolina law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick wrote on Twitter that her sister waited in line for more than six hours to cast her absentee ballot in Alabama. Hessick said that her sister, a nurse whose work involves administering COVID-19 tests, had to take off work to wait in line to vote.

“Anything that is a cost on voters, a burden on voters—whether that is a literal cost like the fines and fees of Florida’s pay to vote system for people with past convictions or the burden of driving farther to a polling place or ballot drop box—anything that increases those costs or that burden is going to have a negative effect on turnout and on participation,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Appeal.

The proliferation of mail-in voting, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has also created some confusion among voters, which has been seized on by groups looking to sow discord over the election.

In California, the state Republican Party set up ballot drop boxes labeled as “official” that were not sanctioned by the state. Critics say these drop boxes could create confusion among voters who believe they are handing their ballots over to state and local government officials, instead of a partisan organization. The party has defied a cease and desist order from the state secretary and state Department of Justice, and officials with the party said they plan to keep the boxes up, but would remove the word “official.” 

Republicans in Pennsylvania have also challenged a move to extend the mail-in voting deadline in their state by three days. On Monday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court left the extended deadline in place, voting 4-4.

Beyond making it harder to vote, attempts to undermine the legitimacy of voting have become more pronounced this election cycle, according to Sweren-Becker. President Trump has said on numerous occasions that mail-in voting is ripe for manipulation and would lead to “fraud like you’ve never seen.” But when a federal judge in Pennsylvania ordered the Trump campaign to provide evidence of voter fraud as part of a lawsuit the campaign brought to restrict mail-in voting in the state, the campaign produced only 14 instances of alleged voter fraud over the last 30 years.

Misinformation is also being used to attempt to intimidate people from voting. On Oct. 16, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law brought a federal lawsuit against Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman—two far-right conspiracy theorists—alleging that they produced a robocall meant to intimidate nonwhite voters and prevent them from casting a ballot. In the call, a woman falsely claims that information from vote-by-mail ballots will be used by police to serve outstanding warrants, debt collection agencies, and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to force people to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Wohl and Barkman are also facing felony charges in Michigan over the robocalls.

In Florida, an unknown donor paid $500,000 to send out mailers in support of unaffiliated candidates in key state Senate races—an apparent effort to siphon votes from Democrats and increase the likelihood of Republican victories. A campaign adviser to state Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, the Democratic incumbent in one of the races targeted, told Politico the mailers are “scare tactics designed to confuse voters.”

“The thing that is going to decide this election is the votes cast by eligible voters,” Sweren-Becker said. “To give in to that kind of disenchantment or to give in to the lack of confidence that this rhetoric intends would satisfy the voter suppression that is being sought out. Voters should cast their ballots this year with confidence.”

How Organizers Are Defending Against Evictions Amid a Pandemic

Tenants rights groups in Brooklyn, Kansas City, New Orleans, and elsewhere are using physical blockades and direct action to keep people in their homes.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

How Organizers Are Defending Against Evictions Amid a Pandemic

Tenants rights groups in Brooklyn, Kansas City, New Orleans, and elsewhere are using physical blockades and direct action to keep people in their homes.

Ginger Ging-Dwan Boyd was napping in her apartment in Brooklyn to recover from a migraine on June 12 when she woke up to the sound of a power drill being used on the lock on her door to force it open. It was a representative from her building’s property manager, Parkway Realty Associates LLC.

The incident was the culmination of what Boyd said has been an ongoing onslaught of “manipulation, gaslighting, and harassment” since May aimed at getting her and her roommate—who has since left—to leave the apartment so that it can be turned into a luxury unit, despite COVID-19 raging throughout the city. 

After the power drill incident, Boyd’s resolve stiffened. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m staying. This is my home,’” she said. And in the middle of a pandemic, she worried about infecting the friends and family whose couches she would have to stay on as she searched for a new place to live.

So in July she reached out for help from the Crown Heights Tenant Union, which organizes tenants in Brooklyn. She and two organizers mapped out how to respond as she got closer to the eviction date she’d been given, Aug. 3. That day she and organizers from various housing justice groups staged a 12-hour rotating vigil. Supporters brought by necessities such as food, water, hand sanitizer, and masks. 

Boyd’s landlord never showed up, which she credits to the number of people at the vigil. She hasn’t received another notice about getting evicted. Parkway Realty Associates didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I think that he knows that everybody’s eyes are on this,” she said of her landlord.

The organizers who helped Boyd, as well as other neighbors and activists, had gathered in early July to physically stop the owners of 1214 Dean St. in Brooklyn from illegally and forcibly evicting their tenants. They and a number of housing justice organizations formed The Brooklyn Eviction Defense Network, which helps people physically ward off being removed from their homes.

Their tactic is borrowed from Depression-era organizing, when tenants not only staged rent strikes but physically resisted eviction. As local and state eviction moratoriums issued in response to the pandemic lapse, and organizers worry a federal ban issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t do enough to keep people housed, the tactic is catching on across the country. 

Eviction defense serves a number of purposes. At the most basic level, it’s meant to keep people in their homes. But it also spotlights an event that typically happens behind closed doors and can be shrouded in shame. It attracts not just attention from the public and the media, but hopefully from lawmakers and other officials. And that can lead to the larger goal, which is to galvanize support for policy goals like a broad eviction moratorium and the cancellation of rent.

“It’s a direct action related to keeping someone in their home,” explained Tara Raghuveer, the founding director of the Kansas City, Missouri, housing advocacy group KC Tenants, but it also “helps to bring us closer to a world in which we could maybe win some of our demands.” 

Before the pandemic, KC Tenants had focused on making housing a key issue in last year’s mayoral and City Council elections. Next it campaigned for and won a tenants’ bill of rights. “We had a nice, neat plan for 2020, and then [COVID-19] hit,” Raghuveer said. 

Within a week of the pandemic lockdown, she started hearing from people who had lost their jobs but were being threatened by their landlords if they couldn’t pay rent. “We’ve been kind of sprinting and adjusting ever since.” 

At first KC Tenants was focused on demanding that state officials impose an eviction moratorium. In nearby Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly imposed one that was set to expire on May 1 until she extended it into next year. But in Jackson County, where Kansas City is located, an eviction moratorium expired on June 1. The group then focused on trying to get moratoriums extended, but quickly realized that lawmakers and judges weren’t going to grant its requests. Meanwhile, as landlords were given the ability to evict again, the eviction numbers started to “rise and rise and rise,” she said. 

“We had asked nicely, we had demanded,” Raghuveer noted. “We didn’t get it, so we had to shut it down.” 

Our politicians who are supposed to protect us, they’re not listening. So we have to do radical actions.Shanice Taylor, a leader with KC Tenants

So at the end of July, KC Tenants organized actions to disrupt and, it hoped, halt evictions proceedings in court. On one occasion,  a handful of KC Tenants activists stormed into the courtroom where an eviction proceeding was taking place and began shouting that evictions spread COVID-19 and kill people. When they were escorted out, another group went right back in and continued the disruption. The judge decided to stop the proceeding altogether. It was a big risk: Activists could have been held in contempt of court and spent months in jail. Two of the activists were arrested, although they were released some hours later.

Meanwhile, three to six activists called into each of the two eviction dockets for the day and took turns reciting a script about the danger of evictions. Those, too, were halted because of the disruptions.

Given that the court typically processes about 100 to 200 evictions every Thursday, Raghuveer estimates that they effectively kept that many cases from proceeding that day. Her organization has been in contact with some of the tenants whose cases were postponed, who have said it bought them useful time. “Frankly I think it’s the best direct action we’ve ever pulled off,” Raghuveer said. The group again staged a courthouse shutdown on Oct. 15, which it said shut down all of the morning dockets, although the court later said that all dockets proceeded.

“Our politicians who are supposed to protect us, they’re not listening,” said Shanice Taylor, a leader with KC Tenants. “They don’t understand the urgency of the issue. So we have to do radical actions.”

Organizers are prepared to stage more courthouse shutdowns, but they’re also focusing on building the capacity to perform eviction defense blockades, similar to what’s happening in Brooklyn, Raghuveer said. 

“We know if landlords want their tenants out they will find ways to get them out, to get around the moratorium. So we’re not slowing down,” she said.

As in Kansas City, activists in New Orleans have felt the need to “create a series of escalations” to send a message to those in power, said Y. Frank Southall, lead organizer with the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. The group started with a petition to demand an eviction moratorium, and when that went unheeded, staged a letter-writing campaign. 

Eviction courts closed for three months in response to the pandemic, but courts began processing evictions in early July. “Our government just don’t give a fuck,” Southall said. “So consequently we just have to shut it down.”

On July 30, the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly, a semi-autonomous project incubated by Jane Place, gathered activists to block and defend the two courthouse entrances, as well as City Hall, which is connected to the courthouse. Not only did the activists keep all but two landlords from making it into court, but Southall thinks it inspired similar actions in Houston, New York, and Los Angeles.

Indeed, in California, just before the state’s moratorium on evictions was set to expire on Sept. 1 and Governor Gavin Newsom signed an extension, activists with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) shut down courts in Los Angeles for several hours, blocking every entrance and refusing to allow landlords in. They staged a similar action once courts were open and plan to keep disrupting court hearings whenever they happen. 

Members of ACCE say sheriffs have yet to show up at their doors to evict them, but the organization is gearing up for that possibility and the need to stage defense blockades to keep them housed. Ultimately, they’re demanding that state lawmakers pass a bill halting all evictions, whether related to the pandemic or not. “No one should be evicted right now,” said Anya Svanoe, communications director at ACCE.

Activists in New York are also crowding together at courthouses to stop evictions. Those actions have been “incredibly successful,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All. Although the group hasn’t yet halted evictions from being processed, it has “kept this issue in the public eye.” 

“The crisis can’t happen silently,” Weaver said. The actions don’t just aim to keep people in their homes, but to make the damage of eviction “tangible and visible” outside of a home’s walls. 

The Center for Popular Democracy has been staging national actions on the first of each month to call attention to the people who can’t make rent, but the largest was on Sept. 1, when 18 groups across the country participated in protests, seven of them staging eviction blockades—not just in Los Angeles but in smaller towns like Reading, Pennsylvania. 

“Sometimes disruption is the only thing the opposition will listen to,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “Mass direct action will be the only thing that will get us to where we need to go.”

“We’re not going to be putting Band-Aids on anything anymore,” Boyd said. “That’s why we’re taking such big, bold risks, creating an entire eviction defense network. We can’t afford not to, and nobody else is going to do it for us.”

Democrats Could Flip the Ohio and Michigan Supreme Courts

Shifting control of the states’ highest courts next month will prove critical on a number of major issues, including redistricting in 2021.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Democrats Could Flip the Ohio and Michigan Supreme Courts

Shifting control of the states’ highest courts next month will prove critical on a number of major issues, including redistricting in 2021.

A handful of down-ballot races in Ohio and Michigan could determine each state’s partisan and political makeup for the next decade.

Democratic candidates in both states are vying to take over seats on their Supreme Courts in November to flip the ideological majority from conservative to liberal. Justices for the Ohio Supreme Court serve six-year terms and justices in Michigan serve for eight years.

“It’s true that judges are interpreting the law, but their assessment about the world in which we live, the underlying facts on the ground and different competing principles that animate or are relevant to our government often vary by ideology,” said Leah Litman, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a host of the podcast “Strict Scrutiny,” a project of The Appeal.

In Ohio, Judge Jennifer Brunner, who serves on the 10th District Court of Appeals, is looking to unseat incumbent Judith French. John P. O’Donnell, a trial court judge in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, is challenging incumbent Sharon Kennedy.

The court is currently made up of five Republicans—including French and Kennedy—and two Democrats. (While candidates for supreme court justice can be affiliated with a political party, their names appear on the ballot without that affiliation.) If both Brunner and O’Donnell win, it would shift the balance of the court 4-3 in favor of the Democrats for “the first time in a generation,” Jessica Dickinson, outreach manager for the nonpartisan Ohio Fair Courts Alliance, told The Appeal. 

And because the state will redraw its districts in 2021, Dickinson said control of the state Supreme Court will be pivotal to future political battles. Republicans have enjoyed a heavily gerrymandered congressional map in Ohio over the last decade. Even though President Barack Obama won the state in 2012, he only carried four of its 16 congressional districts.

Last year, federal courts separately ordered that Ohio and Michigan redraw their district lines because they had been illegally gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. “The bottom line is that the dominant party in state government manipulated district lines in an attempt to control electoral outcomes and thus direct the political ideology of the state’s congressional delegation,’’ a three-judge panel for the federal District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Western Division wrote in its opinion. In May 2019, however, the U.S. Supreme Court put the lower courts’ rulings on hold.

It’s unclear how much fairer the next decade’s map will be. In 2018, voters in the state overwhelmingly approved a new, bipartisan plan to draw congressional districts before the 2022 midterms. The new plan encourages bipartisan agreement to adopt a new congressional map, but if the two sides cannot agree, the Republican Party may still end up empowered to push through a plan to its liking.

But litigation could ensue over a map’s alleged unfairness, and candidates for the court are signaling that they may need to rule on redistricting challenges. Earlier this decade, the Supreme Courts of North Carolina and Pennsylvania flipped to Democratic majorities, and they subsequently struck down maps that Republicans had gerrymandered.

Now, Ohio’s redistricting issue has drawn national attention to the court race. Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, recently sent out a letter in support of French saying she was needed on the court because “liberal interest groups from outside Ohio” were trying to take the seat so they could draw district lines in favor of Democrats. Rove himself is not from Ohio and lives and works in Texas.

A similar situation is playing out in Michigan where Republicans hold a 4-3 majority in the state Supreme Court.

Two of the seven seats are up for grabs in this election, one held by Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, a Democratic nominee, and one held by Justice Stephen Markman, a Republican nominee. McCormack is seeking re-election, but state law prevents Markman, who is 71, from running; any judge over 70 cannot be elected or appointed. The Michigan Democratic Party has endorsed McCormack and attorney Elizabeth Welch for the available seats.

If McCormack retains her seat and a Democratic nominee wins Markman’s seat, the court’s majority would shift to Democrats, which could mean more rulings that could expand or preserve voting rights, reduce gerrymandering, and protect the powers the executive branch has in responding to emergencies, Litman said.  

This month, for example, the state supreme court struck down efforts, 4-3, by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to extend her emergency powers and issue orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including new waiting room procedures for healthcare facilities, requirements that doctors offices provide special hours for high-risk patients, and expanded telemedicine and telehealth procedures.

“We all understand how important the U.S. Supreme Court is,” said Litman, “and one reason why the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court is in some ways dangerous is because we don’t have a say in who the justices are.” 

Supreme Courts in states like Michigan and Ohio, Litman said, are different. “You have the opportunity to select the justices who will be making the law for your state on incredibly important issues ranging from voting rights, democracy, criminal justice—it just runs the entire gamut. It’s really important to have a say who the people who are making laws in your state are.”

Sara Innamorato Is Fighting to Reduce the Harms of COVID-19’s Economic Crush

The state representative wants to bar landlords in Pennsylvania from reporting missed or late rent payments to credit agencies.

Sara Innamorato in Pittsburgh on Feb. 21, 2019.
Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Sara Innamorato Is Fighting to Reduce the Harms of COVID-19’s Economic Crush

The state representative wants to bar landlords in Pennsylvania from reporting missed or late rent payments to credit agencies.

Roughly 15 percent of renters were behind on payments in Pennsylvania as of the end of August, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and more than 10 percent of all renters surveyed in the state didn’t think they would be able to afford their next payment.

Although a national moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent means these people can remain in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, these missed payments may be wreaking havoc on their credit scores, causing lasting damage to their financial futures.

State Representative Sara Innamorato, who represents part of Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas, introduced a bill in late August to mitigate those harms caused by financial hardship during the pandemic.

Innamorato’s bill would prevent landlords from reporting missed or delinquent rent payments to consumer credit reporting agencies during the pandemic.

“We know that the credit scores are abused in America,” Innamorato told The Appeal. “It not only impacts your ability to get a house in the future, but [employers] might look at it when you’re applying for a job. Your ability to access credit or capital or mortgages in the future is going to be impacted by this.”

She said her bill was meant to reduce the number of barriers people face in trying to recover from the pandemic.

Her bill does not absolve tenants from the payments and does not prevent landlords from taking other actions like evictions or refusing to renew a tenant’s lease. The moratorium on reporting to credit agencies would apply as long as Governor Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency declaration is in effect and would remain in effect for six months after the declaration is terminated.  

“This is just a tiny, tiny, tiny drop in the bucket for individuals if something happens to them and they can’t pay their rent or they don’t qualify for [rent relief], it’s just giving them a little more of a fighting chance,” she said. “Quite frankly, people shouldn’t have to be fighting this hard.” 

The United States is experiencing nearly 8 percent unemployment, a rate more than double what it was before the pandemic hit. More than 17 million credit card and car loan accounts went into financial hardship status, meaning the owner was behind on payments, during the first full month of the pandemic. The Census Bureau estimates that more than 8 million renters nationwide were behind on rent in August and roughly 10 percent of all renters surveyed in September said they had no confidence they would be able to make their next month’s payment.

U.S. Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced similar legislation in March. In addition to preventing landlords from reporting missed rent payments, their bill calls for halting all reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic that would affect a person’s credit negatively, like missed credit card and car payments.

The Senate has taken no action on the legislation since Schatz and Brown introduced it. Chances that Congress will take up and pass COVID-19 relief before the election also dwindled this week after Republicans and Democrats reached an impasse over the scope of future stimulus bills.

“During these uncertain economic times, Americans shouldn’t have to worry about their credit scores as they work to make ends meet,” Brown said in a press release for the bill.

Innamorato is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She ousted establishment Democrat and former Pittsburgh Police Chief Dom Costa in 2018. 

While she didn’t initially plan to run, Innamorato said she realized Costa was not representing the values of the district, which Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders carried in the 2016 primary.

In his final session, Costa introduced legislation to create new criminal offenses, increasing the fine for littering, expanding the state’s hate crime statute, and other law-and-order bills

Prior to joining the state legislature, Innamorato co-founded She Runs SWPA, a nonprofit organization that aims to get more women running for elected office.

Innamorato has sponsored legislation aimed at addressing what she describes as structural social problems, including bills that prohibit non-compete clauses for low-wage workers, expand how people register to vote, help undocumented people obtain driver’s licenses and prevent hazardous waste from oil and natural gas drilling from reaching drinking water.

“We just want to get back to the roots of the Democratic Party, which was centering working people and not corporate interest, and not the folks who make the biggest donation to your campaign,” she said. 

Innamorato is up for re-election next month and is facing Republican challenger John Waugh. The district has nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Her bill on credit reporting is still awaiting action by the House Consumer Affairs Committee.

“Let’s just work to make people’s lives better,” she said. “Let’s work to expand democracy, not only at the ballot box but in our workplaces and in our community. Let’s just build a better world.”

California’s Proposition 20 Would Roll Back Years of Criminal Justice Reform

The ballot initiative, supported by police, corporations, and even big grocery chains, would use more taxpayer money to incarcerate people, rather than invest in other social services.

A voter wears an 'I Voted' badge after casting their ballot in a mail-in ballot drop box outside of a library ahead of Election Day on Oct. 5 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

California’s Proposition 20 Would Roll Back Years of Criminal Justice Reform

The ballot initiative, supported by police, corporations, and even big grocery chains, would use more taxpayer money to incarcerate people, rather than invest in other social services.

A proposition on California’s November ballot could weaken years of reforms to the state’s criminal legal system by reclassifying misdemeanor theft charges as felonies. 

Opponents of Proposition 20 say that if passed, the state’s carceral system would balloon. In a letter sent last month to the mayors of more than a dozen California cities, a coalition of victims’ rights organizations wrote that as many as 10,000 more people could end up incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails—and taxpayers would foot the bill.

The letter also argues that reducing the number of people in California’s prisons and jails has freed up money to create more than a dozen trauma recovery centers for victims. Sophora Acheson, executive director of Ruby’s Place, which signed the letter, said that people from all economic backgrounds suffer from violent crime, but low-income people simply don’t have the resources to move or seek medical and mental health care. Victim services help create a safety net for low-income survivors of crime, she said. 

“They are literally trading victim services for more incarceration,” Acheson, who is a survivor of childhood domestic abuse and sexual violence, said of the ballot measure’s supporters.

Proposition 20 would roll back Propositions 47 and 57, both of which California voters approved in the last decade. Together, the two ballot items helped to reduce the number of people incarcerated in state prisons, increase funding for victim services, and begin to ameliorate the impact of a tough-on-crime policy mentality that targeted Black and Latinx people. 

Opponents to the proposition have raised more than $6.5 million from wealthy progressive donors, including Patty Quillin. Quillin is the director of Meadow Fund, a donor-advised fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The foundation has given to The Justice Collaborative, which sponsors The Appeal, through Tides Advocacy.

Major donors in support of Proposition 20 include a police union, a PAC benefiting Republican Representative Devin Nunes of California, and an energy corporation. Supporters argue that the ballot measure will prevent “organized retail crime,” an industry term to describe coordinated theft, and that it will keep communities safe by increasing penalties for those convicted under the revised legislation. 

Large grocery chains, like Safeway, Costco, and Ralphs have collectively donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote Proposition 20’s passage. Costco said that it is no longer supporting Proposition 20 and requested a refund of their $50,000 contribution last year. Neither Safeway nor Ralphs responded to The Appeal’s request for comment on why they are supporting the ballot measure.

In the summer, amid a national reckoning with the systems that criminalize people of color, immigrants, and low-income people, the same grocery store chains released statements of support for corporate accountability. “We are committed to listening, learning and doing better as a company to support the advancement racial equity and justice,” Ralphs Grocery said in a tweet.  

Acheson said the bill intends to invoke fear during a time of considerable upheaval, which could deter voters from the fact that incarceration is costly and ineffectual. The California criminal legal system is a $50 billion industry, she noted, and of that sum, just 1 percent goes toward victim services such as trauma recovery centers, of which there are 15 across the state. 

Diana Becton, the district attorney for Contra Costa County, said Proposition 20 “is going to slash funding from what is and has been working.” Moreover, the savings to public funding made possible by previous reforms to the state’s carceral system have been significant. “They have gone into programs [and] funding to have staffing and services available for victims of crime and the other critical priorities [like] schools,” Becton said.

California is just one of many states across the country that has begun to re-evaluate punitive policing and incarceration, both because of the cost to taxpayers and because incarceration just has not led to lower crime rates or healthier communities. 

In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy is expected to sign a slate of legislative proposals that includes ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related charges. The change would retroactively apply to those currently incarcerated, 2,000 of whom would be immediately eligible for parole. 

In Mississippi, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bipartisan act that would have released thousands from state prisons who were convicted for violent crimes and made eligible for early parole under the act’s guidelines. In August, Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed the legislation

Tinisch Hollins, the California state director for Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which also signed the letter, said the proposition is about protecting property over supporting Black and Latinx communities, which are already overpoliced and overrepresented in prisons and jails. These are the same companies, Hollins said of the grocery chains, “that profit off of our communities.” 

“We buy our groceries [from them] and feed our families,” Hollins said. “It’s really disgusting and an insult to our intelligence that this approach could benefit any one of us in a way that’s gonna help us stay safe in our community.”

In order to support public health and community well-being, Hollins said that the state needs to spend public money on systems, services, and programs that “actually address the cause, as opposed to loading all of our resources into the response.”

Prison Labor Is on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

States like California, New York, and Arizona have relied on prisoners to continue working, with little pay and in precarious conditions, during the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Prison Labor Is on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

States like California, New York, and Arizona have relied on prisoners to continue working, with little pay and in precarious conditions, during the coronavirus pandemic.

As record-shattering wildfires rage throughout California, the state’s incarcerated population is doing the backbreaking work at the front lines. They plow fire lines and battle blazes, for $1 an hour, plus reduced prison time—a program that saves the state tens of millions of dollars annually. While the state’s prison authority promotes the program as a cost-saving measure that benefits prisoners, criminal justice advocates have long said the program exploits incarcerated labor while offering them little in return.

But California’s prison firefighters are just one example of the essential work prisoners are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly half of the 1.4 million people in state and federal prisons work behind bars, and many of them are doing the jobs that are keeping prisons afloat during the pandemic—mopping, serving food, and sanitizing cells. Another 6 percent of incarcerated people work in state-run prison industries, which have undergone a nationwide shift to supplying government agencies with essentials to battle the coronavirus, like hand sanitizer and protective gear. 

Meanwhile, many of these same prisoners often lack protective equipment and face widespread prison lockdowns. According to data collected by the University of California, Los Angeles, COVID-19 has killed more than 1,000 people behind bars nationwide and infected over 140,000.

In July, Adnan Khan, a formerly incarcerated person who heads Re:Store Justice, a criminal justice reform organization, shared audio on Twitter of a man in San Quentin State Prison who said he was forced as part of a “strike team” to clean hospital areas of fellow prisoners infected with COVID-19. The man said he later tested positive for the disease.

“I’m being treated as though I’m not a person, I’m not a human being,” he said during a phone call with Khan. “That’s how you treated slaves.” 

In Arizona, the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry has housed roughly 150 women from the Perryville Prison at a temporary labor camp at a farm since March, helping to ensure a “stable supply of eggs” while protecting the general prison population from COVID-19. Since then 28 women stationed at the farm tested positive—nearly half of the confirmed cases at Perryville. All have since recovered, according to the corrections department. Meanwhile, in-person visitations have been suspended at all the state’s prisons for over six months. 

“We have gotten reports of the AC not working for many of these working stations for months,” Isis Gil, development director of Puente Human Rights Movement, said about the farm, which is operated by Hickman’s Family Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the United States. Despite facing Arizona’s over 110-degree summer weather and acrid fumes on the farm, the incarcerated women did not want to return to a prison facing lockdown conditions, said Gil. 

“They are just kind of desperate for anything that can give you an outside feeling,” Gil added. “Frustration, boredom, exhaustion of being inside of the prison, inside of those four walls and not having anything to do.” 

Hickman’s Family Farms did not respond to a request for comment. The corrections department said the prisoners at Hickman’s are housed “with all necessary accommodations, including air conditioning, and reasonable security measures.” 

“If they no longer want to continue working there, they may return to the Perryville Prison and seek different employment opportunities,” the department said in a statement, adding that the women are provided with two masks and undergo medical monitoring. 

Over 40 states have used prisoners to make hand sanitizer and protective equipment, according to Worth Rises, which works to end profiteering in the prison system. Meanwhile, incarcerated people in the federal prison industry, UNICOR, are manufacturing essential products for the Department of Defense. 

Megan French-Marcelin, director of campaigns at Worth Rises, said the pandemic has highlighted the dependence on incarcerated labor throughout the country. She points to data her organization obtained showing that nearly every municipality in New York State has bought pandemic-related products made by prisoners. “We have tacitly agreed to slave labor, upon which we all benefit,” French-Marcelin said.

I’m being treated as though I’m not a person, I’m not a human being.Incarcerated man, San Quentin State Prison

In March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo faced intense criticism for unveiling a prison-manufactured hand sanitizer program, while those same prisoners were barred from using the product because of the alcohol content. Cuomo touted the hand sanitizer’s “floral bouquet” and cost-effective pricing, without mentioning that incarcerated people would be bottling the gel for far below the state’s minimum wage. New York has since lifted its ban on hand sanitizer in prison, but advocates say access to antibacterial products—along with access to masks and the ability to socially distance— is severely lacking. 

Roughly 3,000 prisoners are working in California’s prison industries. The state has approved overtime wages—up $1.50 an hour—but those wages can be garnished by 40 percent for victim compensations or parole violation fines. 

In California, the massive wildfires combined with the pandemic have exposed how essential prison labor is to the state. Nearly 1,900 prisoners worked fighting fires pre-pandemic, but California is struggling to cope with 1,350 incarcerated firefighters because of  coronavirus-related early releases and scheduled releases. 

Cheap prisoner labor saves prisons so much in labor costs that authorities have in some cases called for keeping people imprisoned to maintain a cheap labor pool. In 2017, a Louisiana sheriff said sentencing reform would release “good ones” including those that “we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money.” 

California’s prison firefighter program, the largest in the nation, has also incentivized incarceration. As part of a court-ordered process to reduce the state’s chronically overcrowded prison population, the office of then-Attorney General Kamala Harris argued against expanding sentence reduction credits for many working nonviolent offenders. Harris’s office said in 2014 that the expanded program would undermine the fire camps, which offers the “good time” credits, because incarcerated people would choose other jobs “rather than endure strenuous physical activities and risk injury in fire camps.”  A three-judge panel ultimately ordered California to expand the credits as long as the expansion did not deplete the firefighting crews.

Proponents for prison work programs say labor during incarceration will help smooth the transition back into society by teaching skills. “We believe in second chances and our goal is to provide real-world job skills, good work habits, basic education, and job support in the community so that when a person is released from prison they never return,” the California Prison Industry Authority, California’s prison industry, said in a statement. 

But prison reform advocates say intensive skill-based programs behind bars are few and far between and in some cases incarcerated people are prohibited from working the same jobs they had inside prison. 

Until mid-September, California prison firefighters were unable to obtain the certification to become a firefighter once released from prison, because of their criminal record. Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation giving courts the discretion to expunge some formerly incarcerated firefighters’ criminal records, but many felony charges are still excluded. 

That includes Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart, who served 18 years in prison for an armed robbery where he stole $80. Stanley-Lockheart said he found transformative work on a fire crew at San Quentin State Prison for over two years. 

“They know I will willingly volunteer for this job, this life-changing opportunity. They’ll make whatever adjustments they have to make for you to go out there with a violent felony [while incarcerated],” said Stanley-Lockheart, who now works for Planting Justice, an Oakland-based food justice program. “But what happens when I’m released?”

Prison reform advocates have long sought changes to the incarcerated labor system, saying that people behind bars should be paid prevailing wages and granted other protections afforded to workers outside prison, including the right to unionize. In 2018 prisoners across the country launched a strike, including work stoppages, that in part sought to raise their wages and abolish the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and indentured servitude except “as punishment for a crime.” 

According to David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the labor system is ripe for abuse. Even during a pandemic prisoners may face punishment for refusing to work a job they previously volunteered for, he said.

“The inherently coercive nature of the prison environment means that there is very little that is truly voluntary in prison,” he said. “So we just have to be extra careful to make sure that there is no coercion.”

Stanley-Lockheart echoed the sentiment of reform advocates who say the end goal of incarcerated work should be to help incarcerated people transition back into society, not exploit a cheap labor pool to save prisons hundreds of millions of dollars. That means equal pay, worker protections, and a real pathway to employment after release. “The incarcerated firefighter population wants to do this job,” he said. “But what needs to also happen is we need to have equality in pay for putting our lives on the line.”

Federal Judge Halts Trump’s Law Enforcement Commission

The ruling said the commission wasn’t diverse enough and gave little voice to communities affected by policing.

U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images

Federal Judge Halts Trump’s Law Enforcement Commission

The ruling said the commission wasn’t diverse enough and gave little voice to communities affected by policing.

A federal judge brought President Trump’s commission on law enforcement to a screeching halt Thursday after advocates argued the commission was overtly biased and in violation of federal law.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), which brought the lawsuit, argued that the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which requires such groups to ensure transparency and that their membership be “fairly balanced.”

The 18-person commission—created by Trump by executive order in October 2019 and under the control of Attorney General William Barr—includes no one who has “a criminal defense, civil rights, or community organization background,” U.S. District Judge John Bates wrote in his ruling. Instead, all were former or current members of law enforcement.

“The Commission’s function is to improve policing, including relations between law enforcement and the communities they protect,” wrote Bates. “Yet the Commission does not include a single member who represents elements of those communities, rather than law enforcement.” 

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and direct counsel for the LDF, wrote in a statement: “The country has been demanding accountability for police misconduct and violence, and clamoring for a reimagined notion of public safety for many months following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people.”  

“Any federal committee designed to make recommendations about law enforcement must include representation from people and communities impacted by police violence, civil rights organizations, the criminal defense bar, and other stakeholders,” she wrote.

Bates ordered the commission to cease its work and not to release its final report, expected at the end of the month, until it could meet FACA’s diversity requirements. The commission has already sent a draft report to Barr, according to the Washington Post.

Last month, John Choi, county attorney of Ramsey County, Minnesota resigned from his position on the commission as a working group member.

Choi sent a letter to the commission leaders in May along with Mark Dupree, DA of Wyandotte County, Kansas,, raising concerns about the process. They requested that the panel’s hearings be open to the public, that recommendations from other working groups be available for review, and that the commission have a chance to review the final report before it was publicly released.

Choi said he never received a response to the letter.

“It became very clear to me as the election started to ramp up … this president was pretty much doubling down on this law enforcement narrative that is propagated by police unions across the country,” Choi told The Appeal. 

According to emails included in the LDF’s lawsuit, Tim Richardson, senior legislative liaison for the Fraternal Order of Police, was a member of a commission working group that explored the “trend of diminished respect for law enforcement” and “under-enforcement of the criminal law in certain jurisdictions.”

“I feel very strongly that what we really need to be doing is getting away from that narrative and we need to be listening to our communities, engaging them and trying to bridge the divide together,” said Choi.

In June, more than 70 former and current prosecutors and law enforcement leaders filed an amicus brief in opposition to the commission as part of the LDF lawsuit.

Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and the founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, has been highly critical of the commission’s makeup.

On Tuesday, she and Joe Brann, the founding director of the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and a former Hayward, California, police chief, wrote in The Appeal that the commission failed to address police accountability, racial disparities in policing, and civil rights.

“With so many taking to our streets and calling in frustration and pain for a reset in policing and a rebuilding of trust with communities,” Krinsky told The Appeal, “a process that is non-inclusive and flawed and potentially in violation of the law is pouring fuel on a burning fire.”

Joe Biden Should Use Federal Dollars to Fund Alternatives to Police

If he becomes president and Democrats win the Senate, Biden should push a federal spending bill that includes money for civilian first-responder programs.

Joe Biden during the first presidential debate in 2020.
Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images.

Joe Biden Should Use Federal Dollars to Fund Alternatives to Police

If he becomes president and Democrats win the Senate, Biden should push a federal spending bill that includes money for civilian first-responder programs.

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

With state legislative sessions wrapped up, it’s hard not to feel like the window for reducing the footprint of American policing, spurred by this summer’s protest movement, has closed. That’s because the federal government—even before Congress was locked in a paralyzing stasis—has traditionally played a limited role in reforming police.

The federal Justice in Policing Act, now stalled in the Senate, suggests that pattern could continue. The act intends to curb the worst excesses of policing, but it would not significantly shrink its scope. Although the act does end federal qualified immunity, it is otherwise largely toothless; it would nudge attorneys general to investigate misconduct and bolster oversight of federal officers, of which there are many fewer compared to local police.

And distressingly, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has also called for investing more money in the same old police reforms. This includes the kind of stale community policing initiatives that are a vestige of the post-Ferguson Obama-era Department of Justice, including increasing funding to the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office by $300 million. 

Neither Biden’s platform nor the Justice in Policing Act offer much that is consistent with building community-based approaches to public safety that activists have long sought and that many others have demanded during the recent wave of protests against police violence. 

Should he win the presidency, and should Democrats reclaim the Senate in November, Biden’s administration should use reconciliation to pass an expansive spending bill that includes a federal program to fund civilian first responder programs that contain the seeds of promise for a public safety future that does not center law enforcement. 

This would include trauma-informed mobile crisis teams staffed by mental health professionals—like CAHOOTS in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon—that respond to homelessness and mental and behavioral health crises. The bill could incorporate dollars to help cities set up divisions of unarmed, civilian transportation agents to enforce traffic and parking laws instead of police, like BerkDOT, the new transportation department that Berkeley, California, began creating in July. It would mean investing in public health-centered approaches to tackling gun violence, like cognitive behavioral therapy and programs like Cure Violence that exist in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and employ credible messengers like street violence interrupters to diffuse conflict before turning to criminal enforcement. 

We already have a sense of what model legislation might look like. In August, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced the CAHOOTS Act, which would amend Title XIX of the Social Security Act to allow state Medicaid programs to accept federal dollars to provide for community-based mobile crisis intervention services. The legislation would permit the federal government to fund 95 percent of the cost of these services for three years, as well as offer $25 million in planning grants for states to create new programs. The CAHOOTS Act would also require more rigorous national data collection by states to reduce racial and other disparities in the delivery of services and evaluate outcomes for people with mental illness when compared to a traditional law enforcement approach, which would be summarized and disseminated by the Department of Health and Human Services to promote best practices. The bill now sits with the Senate Finance Committee. 

Federal dollars for alternatives to policing could easily be tucked in the broader omnibus stimulus bill that is rumored to be a chief initial legislative priority of Biden’s policy team. A Democrat-controlled Congress will have the political capital that a new majority and the reconciliation process provides to push a series of relief packages that could add up to be the largest since the Great Depression. Creating new funding streams for cities that want to create public safety alternatives fits naturally into a federally funded jobs program to combat our COVID-19-catalyzed recession and a paucity of federal income support that has left many workers in exhausted labor markets facing a crisis of long-term unemployment. It would also be timed perfectly with the beginning of the 2020-21 budget planning process that begins this fall in many municipalities. 

Biden has called for a multi trillion-dollar relief package that centers job creation through infrastructure spending and economic greening; he should commit to building a new public safety infrastructure as well.

Programs that create community-based public safety alternatives are already very popular with the general public. New polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative shows that 68 percent of likely voters (and 62 percent of Republicans) support increased investment in community-based violence interruption programs. Sixty-eight percent of likely voters also support a non-police response to mental and other behavioral health crises. (The Appeal is an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative.) 

These programs are also cheap and cost effective. CAHOOTS is funded at $2 million, about 2 percent of annual police spending in Eugene and Springfield, but saves the city roughly $8.5 million a year.

The CAHOOTS Act, unfortunately, does not require jurisdictions to divest from their law enforcement agencies. But funding this program instead of COPS or other DOJ initiatives that have had middling success would be a worthwhile commitment to moving beyond the type of police reform championed in the Obama years. Just as states opted out of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, not every jurisdiction will be willing to accept the federal government’s largesse. But those that do will serve as worthwhile experiments to continue to build an evidence base (and public support) for the most effective version of these models. 

If Democrats are victorious in November, they will have the opportunity to both mount a robust recovery effort in the face of cataclysmic suffering and make good on a promise to make ambitious structural changes to our existing public safety systems. They can accomplish both objectives by making community-based alternatives to policing a piece of the bold New Deal-style stimulus plan they will need to pass to pull us back from the brink. 

Aaron Stagoff-Belfort works for the Policing Program at the Vera Institute of Justice. He is based in Brooklyn. His views are his own.

With Little Evidence, Pennsylvania State Police Seized $600,000 From Drivers

An investigation by The Appeal and Spotlight PA found that troopers in three counties have taken big money from drivers, many of whom were never charged.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

With Little Evidence, Pennsylvania State Police Seized $600,000 From Drivers

An investigation by The Appeal and Spotlight PA found that troopers in three counties have taken big money from drivers, many of whom were never charged.

This article is a collaboration with Spotlight PA.

Since 2017, Pennsylvania State Police has seized $608,000 in cash from drivers in the south central region of the state, much of which was taken from people who were never charged with a crime, Spotlight PA and The Appeal have found. 

Legal experts say the practice is a form of “highway robbery,” in which police take money — largely from people of color — to pad their yearly budgets and those of prosecutors.

Pennsylvania, like other states, allows law enforcement to seize property and keep it even if someone is acquitted of a crime or not charged at all. A 2017 law raised the burden of proof required to seize property in the state, but it is still below the standard in federal criminal forfeiture cases, where people who are acquitted can get their property back. 

“Regardless of what you set the standard of proof at, the problem is you’ve got something that’s less than is necessary for a criminal conviction,” said Dan Alban, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice who researches forfeiture. “Judges will frequently defer to law enforcement, and sometimes it’s these pretty Mickey Mouse justifications and Mickey Mouse evidence.”

The Appeal and Spotlight PA reviewed 32 cases in Cumberland, Dauphin, and Franklin counties where state police seized assets during traffic stops. 

In about one-third of the cases reviewed, police seized cash from people who were never charged with a crime or even issued a traffic ticket. One-quarter of the cases resulted in misdemeanor convictions, and another quarter resulted in felony convictions.

State police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski defended the practice, saying the seizures and forfeitures are “done in accordance with state and federal law and department regulation,” and that the forfeiture process is overseen by the state attorney general’s office.

But, as The Appeal and Spotlight PA uncovered in a previous investigation, the justifications that troopers use to stop vehicles and then conduct a search can be questionable or outright illegal. Roughly a third of all criminal cases in the region since 2016 that arose from traffic stops by the state police drug interdiction unit were thrown out of court because the searches were later deemed illegal, the investigation found. As a result of the inquiry, Governor Tom Wolf requested the Office of State Inspector General to conduct a review of all such traffic stops, which is underway.

Police justified the searches in some cases by saying the driver was nervous or “their carotid artery was pulsating.” In one case, troopers seized $50,282 after a traffic stop and charged the owner of the vehicle, who was not present at the time. In another, they took $525 from a passenger. Judges ultimately dismissed the charges in both cases, finding the searches were illegal. The state returned the $525, but kept $20,000 in the other case.

In several other cases, police seized money and property from people whose cases were expunged after they completed a court program for first-time offenders.

Court records show in one such case that the state took a car and money from someone accused of possessing cigarettes that weren’t properly taxed. The attorney general’s office kept $24,309, including $10,000 in money orders the man said he was planning to use to pay rent for a restaurant he was starting with his brother. The state returned his car.

A legal battle few can afford

Forfeiture cases in Pennsylvania are brought against the property, meaning prosecutors file suit against items like cash, cars, or homes. The courts then require the owners to prove that they have the legal basis to challenge the state, and then argue to get their property back. Since the process is handled in civil court, people seeking to get their money back are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer.

Although the burden still lies with the attorney general to prove the money or property was used in criminal wrongdoing, it’s often harder for property owners to prove they did not commit a crime.

In one case, police seized $19,000 during a traffic stop in Franklin County in 2018 from a Mister Softee ice cream truck driver who said he intended to use the money for truck repairs. He was convicted in the past for possession of drug paraphernalia, and prosecutors demanded he provide a litany of evidence to get the money back, including several years of tax records, receipts of bank withdrawals, and an explanation of what legitimate use he had for the money. His forfeiture case is still ongoing, and he is still trying to get his money back.

Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank, said innocent people often have to jump through hurdles just to get their property back. 

Without a lawyer, people stand little chance. Of the 32 cases The Appeal and Spotlight PA reviewed, the state returned cash or property only when a lawyer got involved, according to case records from the Office of the Attorney General. Out of the $608,000 seized and subsequently prosecuted, the attorney general’s office gave back less than $60,000 after negotiating with property owners’ lawyers. 

“Do you think you can do that yourself?” Neily said. “The answer is no, you cannot because you’re not a lawyer, you don’t specialize in this area, and you don’t know the procedures.”

In more than 75 percent of the cases, the person did not challenge the forfeiture or did not challenge it properly in order to take it to trial.

‘It’s not very good proof’

Because police may not actually see someone exchange money for drugs, oftentimes troopers will seize cash and scan it for drug residue. Prosecutors make the assumption in court that if there is a high trace amount of drugs on currency, that money could have been used to purchase or sell drugs. 

But defense attorneys and legal scholars say that kind of evidence is circular reasoning because almost all currency has some form of drug residue on it. 

A 2008 study by researchers at the Department of Justice Sciences at the University of Alabama found that 42 percent of the currency they examined had traces of methamphetamine on it. A study published a year later by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found that roughly 90 percent of U.S. currency was contaminated with cocaine. Unlike many prior studies, which typically only sampled small numbers of $1 bills, it tested larger denomination bills in higher numbers.

Danielle Brown, the chief deputy attorney general who oversees Pennsylvania’s forfeiture and money laundering cases, said there are usually other reasons cash is seized, but that law enforcement can take money if it detects a trace amount of drugs that is higher than expected. The office accounts for that by comparing the bills against money already in circulation and tested by the National Guard in other parts of the state and nation. 

Out of 11 cases reviewed by The Appeal and Spotlight PA in which no charges were filed, the attorney general’s office justified seizing people’s money after testing the cash for drug residue in 10 of them.

People are giving up rather than fighting the governmentLouis Rulli, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania

In one case, state police pulled over two Middle Eastern men traveling from Brooklyn to  Tennessee for speeding. When the trooper asked if they had large sums of cash on them, they answered yes, and said they had the money because they were worried about their car breaking down and wanted cash for repairs. Whatever was leftover, they said, would be used for a trip for one of them to go to Egypt. 

The men gave the trooper permission to search the vehicle, which turned up no contraband. The trooper then took their $10,000, tested the cash for drugs a week later, and found “high levels of PCP” on the currency. The attorney general’s office concluded the cash was used to buy or sell drugs through an unknown drug trafficking ring. 

“It’s not very good proof, right?” said Alban, the Institute for Justice senior attorney. “But if you have a judiciary that kind of rolls over and defers to law enforcement, as kind of a knee-jerk thing, then that’s really all you need.”

Neither man was charged with a crime or cited for a traffic violation. But because the men did not try to claim their money in court, the state was able to keep it.

It’s common for people to not show up in court to claim their property, said Louis Rulli, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, especially people who can’t afford a lawyer.

“People are giving up rather than fighting the government because the amount of cash being seized, it doesn’t warrant getting an attorney and fighting the government,” Rulli said. 

In the review by The Appeal and Spotlight PA, people of color accounted for roughly 80 percent of all forfeiture cases. White, non-Hispanic people accounted for only about 20 percent of those whose property was seized, but they make up nearly 80 percent of the state’s population.

Although carrying large sums of cash may appear suspicious, it’s not uncommon in communities of color, said Rulli, who researches civil asset forfeiture across the nation. Many people in these communities are unbanked or underbanked, meaning a person either has no bank account, or has a savings or checking account but also uses alternative, cash-heavy services like check cashing or payday loans. According to a 2017 FDIC national survey, more than half of Black and Hispanic, and roughly a third of Asian, households in the United States were either unbanked or underbanked.

“I think a lot of Americans would look at this and go, ‘Why the hell are they carrying so much cash? Obviously, they’re doing something criminal,’” said Rulli. “But, first of all, you know, it’s the government’s burden to prove that. But secondly, there are very justifiable reasons why particular groups may be carrying more cash. And parts of our society are much more in the cash economy where others are in the credit economy.”

A financial windfall

Pennsylvania law stipulates that seized money go directly into the coffers of law enforcement agencies, creating what experts say is an incentive to take as much property as possible. 

Money taken during traffic stops and then charged with forfeiture under the state’s drug law goes into a specific fund for combating drug trafficking. 

“You combine those perverse incentives with extraordinarily lax procedures, meaning a low bar for doing the initial seizure … that adds up to a policy that is rife for abuse and is demonstrably abused,” said Neily, with the Cato Institute.

But the state attorney general’s office balked at the contention that it pursues forfeiture cases for financial gain, calling it “completely false.”

“To effectively combat the heroin and opioid epidemic that is killing 12 Pennsylvanians a day, our commonwealth has focused efforts on stopping narcotics from being pumped into our communities by pharmaceutical companies and major drug traffickers and expanding treatment for those suffering from addiction,” said Jacklin Rhoads, communications director for Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “It has been well-documented that Interstate 81 is a major drug trafficking route.”

But Nora Demleitner, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who has studied and written about civil forfeiture, said the state’s low bar for evidence, along with the use of legally questionable traffic stops, makes the process appear to be more like state-endorsed “highway robbery.”

“That’s really what this is,” she said.

Demleitner said one of the main reforms a state could make to rein in civil forfeiture is to eliminate financial incentives and require police and the attorney general to place the money in a state or city’s general fund rather than directly benefiting the police. 

Thirty-five states, including Pennsylvania, allow law enforcement to keep most of the money seized. Only seven states and the District of Columbia bar police agencies from keeping any of the money they take.

Only 11 states require a criminal conviction when seizing property. Notably, in 2015, New Mexico’s governor at the time, Susana Martinez, signed a bill that was unanimously passed by the state legislature to completely eliminate civil forfeiture and require a criminal conviction for forfeiture.

Pennsylvania Representative Chris Rabb of Philadelphia recently introduced a bill that would require money obtained through civil forfeiture be put into a fund to help compensate people exonerated of crimes and their families. Currently, Pennsylvania does not provide any compensation to people who were wrongfully convicted or incarcerated.

Although there have been court decisions in the past trying to limit excessive seizures, the limits remain a legal gray area, Demleitner said. 

“It seems randomly in the eye of the beholder what is declared excessive and what is not declared excessive with the exception of the extreme cases,” she said. “I just don’t know where the limit is and I don’t think anybody does.”

In one case reviewed by The Appeal and Spotlight PA, a state trooper seized $38,500 from a driver who had three cartons of cigarettes from Virginia in his vehicle that were not taxed in Pennsylvania as required. He was carrying the money, he said, after his sister sold her restaurant, and he was headed to deposit the money in a bank account back where he lived in New York. 

State police accused the man of evading roughly $90 in taxes, and issued him $400 in fines and fees for the summary offense––akin to a traffic ticket. 

In the end, the state kept the $38,500.   

Philadelphia Housing Advocates Declare Victory After Monthslong Battle With City

The city will give advocates 50 vacant homes to be used for permanent housing for low-income residents, according to a tentative agreement.

Residents have vowed to resist until their demands for permanent, safe, affordable housing for all unhoused residents have been met, in Philadelphia on Sept. 9.
Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Philadelphia Housing Advocates Declare Victory After Monthslong Battle With City

The city will give advocates 50 vacant homes to be used for permanent housing for low-income residents, according to a tentative agreement.

After months of pressure and direct action by protesters, Philadelphia has tentatively agreed to give 50 vacant homes to housing rights advocates, who will use them to provide very low-income residents with housing.

Philadelphia Housing Action, a coalition of local advocacy organizations that fight for housing equity, announced the agreement Saturday with the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority to transfer the homes to a community land trust set up by the coalition.

In a news release, Occupy PHA organizer Jennifer Bennetch described the tentative deal as a “landmark agreement” and said her group would continue to pressure the city on more low-income housing.

The homes, which will be overseen by local committees, will be for people with extremely low incomes, defined as no more than $25,000 a year per household, the press release states.

As The Appeal reported in August, the Philadelphia Housing Authority owns thousands of units that are left vacant or sold to private developers. Advocates have pushed for the city to instead rehabilitate the units and use them to house low-income or homeless people.

Nearly 6,000 people in the city are considered homeless on any given night and roughly 1,000 are living without shelter. At the same time, there are roughly 50,000 people on the housing authority’s waiting list, which has essentially been closed to new additions since 2013. Many of the housing authority’s properties currently have an average wait time of 13 years.

Saturday’s announcement comes after months of direct actions by advocates and protesters, including the construction of two permanent protest encampments and 15 families taking over vacant homes owned by the housing authority.

The 15 occupied homes are expected to be transferred to the land trust in addition to the 50 included in the agreement, Bennetch told The Appeal. She said all of the homes included in the agreement are properties that were slated to be sold off and not used by the city or housing authority.

The encampments and housing takeovers have persisted for more than 100 days, despite efforts by the city to clear them out. Advocates said the protest encampments will continue to operate as residents are moved to permanent housing and more long-term solutions to the city’s housing crisis are developed.

This could become a sticking point in finalizing the deal. A city spokesperson, who would not confirm that a deal had been reached, told the local NBC affiliate Sunday that any agreement between advocates and the city “will require a date certain by which the protest camps will be resolved.”

Philadelphia is among many cities that need for solutions to the housing crisis. On any given night in the United States, more than half a million people are without a home and roughly 200,000 people are considered unsheltered. 

Tens of millions of people have lost their jobs or were laid off because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and advocates worry about looming mass evictions that could exacerbate the problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an eviction moratorium, but landlords throughout the country have still filed tens of thousands of eviction notices.

The moratorium, however, only puts a pause on evictions. Without a long-term solution, renters will be left with significant back due payments and little means to catch up. Advocates have called on Congress to provide significant federal rental assistance to those in need.

In May, the city of Houston opened up $15 million in rent relief, but was overwhelmed with demand and the funds were depleted within two hours.

“I feel like it’s a really big step,” Bennetch told The Appeal about the agreement in Philadelphia. “It’s clearly not enough houses given the volume of vacant PHA houses, but it could be a start of a really big change in the city.”

California Prison Guard Union Responsible for ‘Bullseye’ Ad Donates $1 Million to Jackie Lacey’s Re-election Campaign

Late-stage donations to the Los Angeles DA race increase concerns about the influence of law enforcement money on politics.

A flag is set up in front of the Hall of Justice during a demonstration asking for the removal of District Attorney Jackie Lacey, in Los Angeles on June 17.
Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images.

California Prison Guard Union Responsible for ‘Bullseye’ Ad Donates $1 Million to Jackie Lacey’s Re-election Campaign

Late-stage donations to the Los Angeles DA race increase concerns about the influence of law enforcement money on politics.

On Sept. 16, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), a union that represents prison guards, posted an ad online depicting a bullseye target placed over a photo of Black state Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer—a move that many lawmakers interpreted as a racist threat.

The bullseye over Jones-Sawyer’s face is hardly the ad’s only provocative image. The two and a half minute video also features scenes of a man in a hoodie pressing a knife against a terrified white woman’s face, and a white sheriff’s deputy shackling a Black person in an orange jumpsuit. “On this date, we further our commitment to the legislators who aren’t afraid to stand with law enforcement,” the narrator intones. “CCPOA is prepared to take the lead and speak the loudest.” 

After pushback by lawmakers and advocates, CCPOA quickly took the ad down, but it appears the union wasn’t bluffing. On Sept. 11 and 17, the CCPOA quietly donated a total of $1 million to two law enforcement PACs supporting controversial Los Angeles incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey, according to campaign filings. These late-stage contributions have heightened the stakes in an already close and highly scrutinized contest—and furthered some experts’ and activists’ suspicion that law enforcement is trying to buy the race.

In Los Angeles, police contributions to Democratic campaigns are not unheard of. But these enormous, late-breaking sums are still significant. The influx of cash from the CCPOA follows a Sept. 10 $200,000 donation to a PAC supporting Lacey from the Los Angeles Professional Peace Officers Association, a union representing the sheriff’s department, the coroner’s office, and the DA’s office. 

Lacey is the clear favorite of police, sheriff, and prison guard unions: During the primary, the overwhelming majority of her donations came from law enforcement, and the Los Angeles Police Protective League alone donated $1 million to a PAC opposing her challenger, George Gascón. 

“Jackie Lacey has demonstrated that she is incapable of policing the police, and these unions are going to spend millions to make sure that does not change,” said Gascón in a press release Wednesday night in response to news of the CCPOA’s two recent donations. Neither Lacey nor the CCPOA responded to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

A screen capture from a CCPOA political advertisement.

Lacey, a Black woman from South LA, has drawn the ire of criminal justice reform advocates for aggressively pursuing the death penalty—exclusively against people of color—and declining to prosecute cops who kill civilians while on duty.

Such last-minute contributions suggest that the race may be tipping in favor of Gascón, San Francisco’s former district attorney and a former assistant chief of the LAPD. Though he has an imperfect progressive record, the LA activist network has held up Gascón as the necessary alternative to Lacey. 

Black Lives Matter Los Angeles has been organizing “Jackie Lacey Must Go’” protests at the  Hall of Justice, where the DA’s office is located, every Wednesday since October 2017. Sheila Hines-Brim, whose niece, Wakiesha Wilson, died in sheriff custody in 2016, has attended many of the weekly protests. Yesterday, she led the crowd in chants calling for Lacey’s ouster because of her failure to hold police accountable for civilian killings. 

Hines-Brim called the donations from the CCPOA “ridiculous.” “These officers have declared war on Black folks, and Jackie Lacey has not prosecuted them,” she told The Appeal. “It’s sad that she’s even accepting the money.”

“CCPOA is doing what it’s supposed to do, which is to support the interests of its members,” said John Rappaport, a University of Chicago law professor who specializes in criminal procedure and the criminal justice system. Rappaport told The Appeal that he sees such donations as both “unsurprising” and “deeply concerning”—“especially given current public sentiment, when it’s coming from a union whose interests point toward more incarceration rather than less.”

Amid worries about the influence that law enforcement money can buy, some prosecutors have eschewed it entirely. Cristine Soto DeBerry is the executive director of the nascent Prosecutors Alliance of California, which was formed after continued resistance to reform by police and prosecutors, even after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis in May. “Contributions from police unions create so much doubt in the public’s eye as to whether a prosecutor’s decision is impartial and driven by the facts and the law—or whether they are payback for the support,” she told The Appeal. “It’s a conflict that contributes to the ever-expanding gulf of distrust between law enforcement and the communities we serve.” 

Her group doesn’t just want prosecutors to voluntarily forego law enforcement cash. In June, Soto DeBerry and a number of other influential prosecutors appealed to the California State Bar, asking the organization to prohibit DAs from taking police union contributions.  

Jackie Lacey has opposed their efforts. 

Tiffany Cabán: Why I Am Running For New York City Council

In the face of a pandemic and police violence, elected leaders have failed to keep us safe and to champion the voices of marginalized communities like mine. Now it is time to determine our own future.

Tiffany Cabán on June 25, 2019.
Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images.

Tiffany Cabán: Why I Am Running For New York City Council

In the face of a pandemic and police violence, elected leaders have failed to keep us safe and to champion the voices of marginalized communities like mine. Now it is time to determine our own future.

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

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we know it in New York City. It halted our economy and took almost 24,000 of our neighbors from us, disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities.  

We have seen makeshift morgues in the form of refrigerated trucks camped outside hospitals, as our healthcare systems were overwhelmed by the virus due to chronic underfunding and inaction by elected leaders.

COVID-19 highlighted what the communities I come from have known all along: The system was not built for us to survive, let alone thrive. 

The pandemic exacerbated every social inequality that existed. And to top it off, the murders of Black people at the hands of police sparked one of the largest, if not the largest, protest movements in American history.

Since shocking the establishment and falling just 55 votes short of becoming the Queens district attorney last year, I’ve been asked repeatedly when I was going to run again. I would smile and say, “I don’t know. I am just focused on doing good work in this moment.” In truth, “never” was the answer I wanted to give sometimes. Instead, I threw myself into political organizing, joining the Working Families Party to help get decarceral DAs elected all over the country. 

As the saying goes, “never say never.” On Sept. 10, I announced a run for New York City Council. 

I am running because it’s time for the marginalized communities that raised me to seize the power to determine our own future. Our time is now. 

I am running to end the carceral system, establish a care economy, and implement a Green New Deal for New York City to build the kinds of communities we all deserve to live in. 

I am running because our current City Council is failing our communities. Protesters who marched against police violence were met with more police violence: batons and rubber bullets to the body and pepper spray that assaulted the eyes. I watched police meet our pain, trauma, and righteous anger with weapons of war. Our City Council responded to the protests and calls to defund the NYPD by leaving the department’s $6 billion budget almost entirely intact—billions that equip our police force with violent tools of oppression, instead of uplifting communities with the tools of support that are the source of safety. 

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Aiyana Jones, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Deborah Danner, Daniel Prude, Sean Bell, David McAtee. The list of names turned hashtags runs too long. It is heart-wrenching and tragic but no surprise—our policing and carceral systems were built on re-enslaving freed Black people and continues that legacy in its current iteration. 

City councils across the country are already laying out the roadmap for transformational changes while New York stalls at the starting line. In Minneapolis, members of the City Council committed to disbanding the police. In Austin, Texas, the City Council slashed the police budget by one-third, and created a healthcare responder corps, separate from law enforcement, for 911 calls. In Los Angeles, City Council members organized an abolition coalition and created pressure that prompted members to cancel a jail contract and invest in communities instead. 

Elected officials championed the voices of communities and advocates, relying on their record of calls for change and activism, while presenting holistic alternative visions for public safety. 

We can do that in New York City. We have the organizing, we have the people and we will get the power when we elect those who will enact the change we want to see.

We need public health solutions to public health problems, including violence. That means we need to defund and ultimately disband the NYPD, and invest that money in our communities instead. We need to invest in a Green New Deal for New York City that includes guaranteed sustainable housing; integrated and fully funded public education; and holistic, community-led models for safety, emergency response, and participatory government. We must elect people who continuously rely on our impacted communities’ track record and experience, and put their solutions into practice—including 911 options like a community health corps or violence interrupters, separate from law enforcement. 

I am running for City Council because our communities need something different than the prison industrial complex we have today. I am running because I see a slate of new leaders emerging, representative of New York City’s unique diversity, demanding justice and change, and because I know that together we can champion and uplift the voices of our most vulnerable neighbors. 

I am running because Black lives matter, Latinx lives matter, trans lives matter, and working people matter—we matter here in New York, we matter everywhere in this country. We matter, and together we will win.

Our municipal government failed the tests of political courage and moral clarity by starving our schools, hospitals, and social safety nets of the critical resources needed to meet the needs of the people in this moment. We will ensure that never happens again. 

The changes we seek to champion are both necessary and possible. The City Council is where the work is—so that’s where I’ll be.

Tiffany Cabán is a former public defender, organizer, activist, and queer Latina who is running for City Council. A Queens native, Tiffany was born in Richmond Hill to Puerto Rican parents. She lives in Astoria.

After Atlanta Teen Is Injured in a Police Encounter, Lawyers Call for Change

The 17-year-old, who his lawyers say was pushed off a fence by a police officer, survived the fall but suffered serious injuries.

A still of Robert from Atlanta Police Department body camera footage.
Atlanta Police Department

After Atlanta Teen Is Injured in a Police Encounter, Lawyers Call for Change

The 17-year-old, who his lawyers say was pushed off a fence by a police officer, survived the fall but suffered serious injuries.

Robert was a football player. The 17-year-old was headed into his senior year of high school with hopes of playing the game that he loved with his friends again in the fall. (The Appeal is withholding Robert’s last name because he is a minor.)

That changed in December when an interaction with an Atlanta Police Department officer ended with Robert shattering his legs. His mother Koranda told The Appeal that her son has trouble walking normally because of his injuries.

“When I see him walk, it hurts because he didn’t do nothing to nobody to deserve that,” Koranda said.

On Dec. 28, two police officers were dispatched to the intersection of 17th Street Northwest and Spring Street Northwest where Robert was standing on a median in the street. A bystander had called police because they thought Robert was selling drugs. As the officers approached him in a squad car, they expressed skepticism, according to body camera footage worn by Officer Erik Clanton and provided to The Appeal by Zack Greenamyre, a lawyer with Mitchell & Shapiro LLP who is representing Robert. 

“There’s no way this kid’s selling dope in the middle of the street,” the officer in the driver’s seat, listed as J. Douglas in the police report, says 55 seconds into the video. 

But Douglas continues, suggesting there was another way to apprehend Robert. “You can’t just hang out in the median … I need the code section, you know. There’s got to be something.”

At about two minutes and 20 seconds, the police car approaches Robert and he runs. In his report, Clanton wrote that Robert threw two water bottles he had under his sweatshirt onto the road as Clanton chased him. Greenamyre told The Appeal that Robert ran because had been told by friends and family members that police harass and arrest people for petty offenses, like selling water bottles without a license, and he didn’t want that to happen to him.

Clanton exits the police car and chases Robert across a parking lot and to a fence, which Robert starts to climb. Clanton runs into the fence forcefully, despite knowing, as he acknowledged later in his report, that there was a 20- to 30-foot drop onto the highway on the other side. Robert, now at least partially on the other side, appears to lose his grip and falls off.

Greenamyre contends that Clanton struck the fence twice, first loosening Robert’s grip from the fence and then again, causing him to fall. But in his report, Clanton wrote that he tried to grab Robert first but couldn’t reach him.

“As I approached the male has almost climbed over the fence and I attempted to reach for him to pull him down but he threw his body over the fence to where I could no longer reach him,” Clanton wrote. “The male then dropped onto the concrete below and appeared to still be moving.” Clanton noted the cuts on his own legs as well, which he attributes in the video to striking a concrete ledge near the fence.

After Robert falls, Clanton turns away from the fence and appears to yell, “Fuck!” He walks away, and nearly a minute passes before he returns to the fence to look down at Robert. Several other officers and emergency medical staff arrived shortly after to tend to Robert.

“He’s lucky to be alive,” Greenamyre said of Robert. “He’s a young kid going through something difficult. I think in some ways I think he’s still getting his head around all of this and what he’s lost.”

Beyond the fractures to his legs, Robert suffered a broken shoulder and facial fractures. He spent nearly a month in the hospital as a result of his injuries and underwent multiple surgeries. Robert is also supposed to receive physical therapy, but that has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Koranda said the medical bills associated with Robert’s injuries have put a significant strain on her. “I have no idea how I’m going to pay for none of these surgeries,” she said. “I’m stressed. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for this stuff.”

As Robert was being loaded into the ambulance on a stretcher, other officers suggested that Clanton, who suffered two cuts on his legs, join him. “You got Aflac?” an officer asks at 32 minutes and 45 seconds, referring to the insurance company. “Just have them document for you that you’re injured as well and being transported … you’ll get 200 bucks for it.”

Sgt. John Chafee, a spokesperson for the Atlanta police, said the department does “not comment on pending litigation.” A spokesperson for the city did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

Prosecutors charged him with being a pedestrian soliciting rides or business, darting into traffic and two counts of disorderly conduct. Greenamyre said Robert potentially faces several years of incarceration for these offenses.

On Sept. 10, Robert’s lawyers sent a letter to the Atlanta City Council and mayor, demanding that the charges against him be dismissed, and that the city cover his medical bills and make significant changes to its police department, including ending custodial arrests for minor offenses like jaywalking and solicitation.

Greenamyre shared the letter with The Appeal.

“We write you directly as our city’s elected officials because we have little faith that the city’s law department will do anything other than reflexively defend the status quo,” Greenamyre and Samantha Funt, who is also representing Robert, wrote. “The misconduct presented here, and its heart-breaking consequences, is too severe and too systemic to wait years for justice.”

The letter follows months of nationwide protests, including in Atlanta, against police brutality. Despite the public’s calls to defund the city’s police department, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asked to increase its budget by more than $13 million. And a vote to set aside about one-third of the police budget for community-based initiatives and social services failed 7-8 in the City Council.

In June, Atlanta police officers, responding to a report that a Black man was asleep in his car in the Wendy’s parking lot, shot and killed Rayshard Brooks as he ran from them. Protests quickly followed his killing and Erika Shields resigned as police chief within hours of Brooks’s death. Former Officer Garrett Rolfe, who killed Brooks, was charged with murder and Officer Devin Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault. Rolfe, who is fighting the charges, has sued the police department to be reinstated. 

Greenamyre did not place a timeline on the demands submitted to the city but said if it does not respond soon, he planned to file a lawsuit to force the issue.

“I want justice for my son,” Koranda said. “And I want to make sure this don’t happen again.”

The Pervasive Violence of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department

Several recent killings have put the spotlight on the largest sheriff’s department in the U.S., but many of the LASD’s abuses go unseen, advocates say.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies on Sept. 8, ready to disperse a crowd of demonstrators in the wake of Dijon Kizzee's killing.
Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

The Pervasive Violence of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department

Several recent killings have put the spotlight on the largest sheriff’s department in the U.S., but many of the LASD’s abuses go unseen, advocates say.

On the night of June 3, Mari Drake was arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) for breaking a countywide curfew in order to protest police violence toward Black people. For several hours, she sat in a sheriff’s wagon with 40 other women, ziptied and unable to move. People sang songs to pass the time. 

Drake was one of a handful of Black protesters on the wagon. “I was just tired and ready to go home,” she told The Appeal. But when she was finally led off the wagon a little before 4 a.m., a female deputy started searching her aggressively, reaching her hand into her underwear. Drake asked her why. 

The deputy responded with shocking force, Drake said. She dragged Drake toward the wagon, throwing her up against its metal side as several other deputies joined her. Then, they pushed Drake to the ground, grinding her face into the concrete. She screamed that she couldn’t breathe. (The sheriff’s department did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment about the incident.)

“They put their knees into my back—after everything we had been protesting,” Drake said. When they finally pulled her to her feet, she was upset. One of the deputies told her she was just being dramatic. “Calm down,” Drake recalled him saying. He told Drake that she had thrown herself to the ground. 

In the past two weeks, the LASD has drawn attention for a series of violent clashes between protesters and police. On Sept. 8, deputies fired “nonlethal rounds” at demonstrators who had gathered to demand justice for Dijon Kizzee, a Black man who was shot and killed by two LASD deputies on Aug. 31. On Saturday, after an unknown suspect shot two deputies in their squad car, KPCC reporter Josie Huang was violently arrested outside the hospital where the officers were being treated. Huang released video footage the following day that contradicted the LASD’s account of the arrest. 

Political leaders condemned the shooting of the two deputies: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called it “unconscionable” and President Trump suggested that the shooter receive the death penalty. But no similar public outcry has come after Kizzee’s death, nor that of Andrés Guardado, an 18-year-old Salvadoran American security guard who was shot in the back by a sheriff’s deputy in June. 

The killings of Guardado and Kizzee, the resulting violence, and recent revelations about gang activity within the department have shed new light on LASD’s practices. Local advocates argue that these latest developments are representative of a long and troubled history toward the people LASD is sworn to protect—especially Black and Latinx residents of Los Angeles County.  

“On the one hand, we’re glad that the conversation is there now,” said Lex Steppling, the director of campaigns and policy at the LA-based advocacy organization Dignity and Power Now. “On the other hand, every single day we’re still watching people get killed and brutalized.”

Though sheriff’s rangers were the first official law enforcement to patrol the streets of Los Angeles, today they take a symbolic back seat to the LAPD, a police force notorious for its racism and brutality not just in LA but throughout the world. 

“The sheriff’s department isn’t top of mind, despite the fact that they operate the largest jail in the country, and they’re still one of the largest police forces in the state and in the country,” Priscilla Ocen told The Appeal. Ocen, a professor at Loyola Law School and former civil rights attorney, is one of nine community members who currently sits on the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which was created in 2016 to monitor the department. 

The LASD’s jurisdiction and funding conspire to preserve its low profile, Ocen said. The department patrols unincorporated areas of LA County and cities without their own police force; its budget is controlled by the County Board of Supervisors, not the Los Angeles City Council.

But the LASD is also in the habit of actively stonewalling any attempts to peer into its inner workings. A former county sheriff, Lee Baca, is currently in federal prison for his role in blockading an FBI investigation into mistreatment and abuse within the department, and the head sheriff, Alex Villanueva, recently defied a subpoena from the Civilian Oversight Commission to testify about jail conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ocen herself speaks plainly about the limits of the Civilian Oversight Commission’s influence: “We simply don’t have the authority to do the kind of work that the public thinks we do,” she said.

LASD is entangled in a litany of scandals: gang affiliations, on-duty sexual assaults, and the hiring and rehiring of deputies accused of misconduct and domestic violence. In recent days, Spectrum News 1 obtained and reported on the sworn testimony of an LASD whistleblower, Deputy Art Gonzalez, who alleges that the deputy who shot and killed Guardado in June was seeking entry into a LASD clique called the “Executioners.”

In a claim filed against LA County, Gonzalez says that the gang has set illegal arrest quotas, intentionally used deadly force against civilians, and celebrated doing so by getting tattooed, sometimes with Nazi-related imagery. According to Gonzalez’s attorney, Alan Romero, three other whistleblowers have corroborated his allegations; former Undersheriff Larry Waldie and two deputies who wish to remain anonymous have all filed similar claims against the county. 

Sheriff Villanueva “is unable and unwilling to take ownership of the gangs in the department,” Romero told The Appeal. He also confirmed that one of the deputies recently found a dead rat on his doorstep. All four whistleblowers, Romero told The Appeal, fear retaliation for speaking out against the LASD’s abuses. “The sheriff’s department has provided zero protection to any of the whistleblowers and has not investigated the dead rat incident,” he added. (LASD also declined to respond to a request for comment regarding Romero’s allegations.) 

Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies and police have been responsible for hundreds of civilian killings since 2000, as an LA Times database details. Additionally, an ABC7 data analysis of LASD interactions with civilians during 2018 and 2019 found that Black Angelenos are more than twice as likely to be stopped as white Angelenos, and significantly more likely to be handcuffed, removed from their vehicle, have a gun pointed at them, or be searched—even as those searches found Black people in possession of illegal material less frequently than white people.

Many of the LASD’s abuses of power are obscured from the general public because they happen behind jail walls, noted Steppling of Dignity and Power Now. 

“We’ve been working for a long time around issues of what we call state violence,” Steppling told The Appeal. “What other people might call police brutality,” he continued, “goes beyond what has been captured in videos on the street.”

John Thomas Horton III is one name that will not be found in the LA Times database of police and sheriff killings. Horton died in the LA Men’s Central Jail in 2009, under Baca’s tenure as sheriff. Horton’s mother, Helen Jones, alleges that he was beaten to death by deputies. The sheriff’s department called it a suicide, but Jones says that’s a lie. “I know my son,” she told The Appeal. Not long before his death, she said, Horton told her that he was excited to get his jail time over with. He wanted to move on with his life and get back to his work as a musician and producer.   

Jones settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the County Board of Supervisors in 2016. Today, she works with Dignity and Power Now to help counsel other families whose children have died in the sheriff’s custody. “There’s so many mothers I know for a fact that went to their graves knowing that their children did not hang themselves … and never got a chance to prove that, because it’s so hard to fight and win when it comes to law enforcement,” Jones told The Appeal. “It’s a double hurt.”

Dignity and Power Now is a member of two coalition groups, Coalition to End Sheriff Violence  and Justice LA, that have been working behind the scenes for years to increase transparency and accountability, stop prison expansion, and end the mistreatment of prisoners in LA County jails. Though their comprehensive “Care First” budget, which would have reallocated LASD funding toward alternatives to incarceration, such as supportive housing and psychiatric mobile response teams, was not ultimately adopted by the County Board of Supervisors, the coalition also lobbied for and won the planned closure of the Men’s Central Jail in early July. 

To Jones, the news was bittersweet. “It should have been torn down long ago,” she told The Appeal. “Our kids died there. So many lives have been lost there.” Jones noted, too, that the department’s culture of corruption and self-protection is deeply entrenched. Many deputies who served under Baca remain in their positions. “I feel ‘til you shake it from the bottom up, then you haven’t changed it yet,” she said.

Unlike Horton, Drake had witnesses. At least 40 other protesters heard her screaming and saw her tackled and pushed to the ground. 

When Drake was finally released from custody, she demanded the badge number of the woman who’d attacked her. But the sheriff’s deputies refused to give it to her. “There were dozens of officers in that lot that witnessed what happened and willfully turned the other way,” she said. “That felt more dehumanizing and terrifying than anything.” 

To Drake, there’s a clear connection between her assault, which deputies attempted to deny and minimize even though it was witnessed by dozens of observers, and the violence that the sheriff’s department tries to cover up elsewhere. “If I wasn’t surrounded by a bus full of protesters,” she said in a video recorded after her arrest, “I’m scared what would have happened to me. I might not be here.” She paused. “I might not be here if everybody wasn’t watching.”

New York Watchdogs Lack Data to Track Judges’ Compliance With Bail Reform

Although the new law took effect in January, state data showing how courts are applying it won’t be available until July 2021. And without funding, courts in small towns and villages may never collect the data.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty images.

New York Watchdogs Lack Data to Track Judges’ Compliance With Bail Reform

Although the new law took effect in January, state data showing how courts are applying it won’t be available until July 2021. And without funding, courts in small towns and villages may never collect the data.

Before New York State’s bail reform law passed in April 2019, police, sheriffs, and prosecutors warned of dire consequences.  

“I think that it could cause some havoc,” said Kristyna Mills, Jefferson County’s district attorney. Jim VanBrederode, police chief in the town of Gates, warned that without bail, those arrested wouldn’t have a reason to show up in court. And Patrick Phelan, police chief of the town of Greece, said bail reform would mean “dangerous criminals” would be “arrested and then immediately released.” 

Once the law took effect on Jan. 1, law enforcement groups spent weeks serving as sources for sensational media stories about people allegedly committing crimes after being released pretrial. 

So when polls showing support for the new law began dropping, New York legislators and Governor Andrew Cuomo took action: They rolled back the law, amending it to allow new crimes to be bail eligible. That rollback, relative to the original law, will increase New York City’s pretrial jail population by an estimated 16 percent, and similar effects are likely in the rest of the state, according to an analysis by the Center for Court Innovation.

Bail reform advocates say the anti-bail media blitz was successful in part because of a flaw in the original law: It did not require courts and prosecutors to report datalike rearrest rates, failure to appear rates, and case outcomes—which could have helped reform proponents push back and show that the law was effective, said Insha Rahman of the Vera Institute of Justice. 

For example, after New Jersey passed bail reform in 2017, the percentage of defendants charged with a new offense while on pretrial release rose only slightly, according to an April 2019 report by the state’s court system. Defendants showed up for more than 89 percent of their pretrial court appearances post-reform, the report found. 

Although New York’s amended bail law now requires that data be collected, it won’t be publicly available until July 2021. 

“When the rollback went into effect, the bone that was tossed to advocates was that …  we’ll actually do data collection,” said Rahman. But the amended law has no monthly reporting requirements, she added.

That also means there is no real-time data that shows whether judges are applying the law properly and fairly. The Center for Court Innovation report notes that the organization’s projected jump in jail populations could increase, as “judges may engage in more inclusive interpretations regarding who is bail eligible.” 

“Data collection is very important to understanding whether or not the new law is being implemented correctly,” said Taryn Merkl of the Brennan Center for Justice, “particularly now in the time of COVID-19 when we can’t really send court watchers into court as much as we might have been able to do previously.”

Judges in New York City courts were already flouting parts of the law in January, according to Court Watch NYC, a project run by three groups that puts volunteer monitors in the city’s courts. For example, the statute requires judges to consider an accused person’s ability to pay before setting bail. But in three-quarters of the 937 arraignments that city court watchers monitored between Jan. 1 and March 10, court watchers didn’t hear judges ask about ability to pay, the group said in a recent report.  

“Given our findings … we have every reason to believe that judges and prosecutors will exploit the expanded discretion granted to them by the rollbacks to incarcerate thousands more Black and brown people in the process,” it concluded. 

Judges across the state have also imposed bail for charges that are not bail eligible. On Jan. 9, Nassau County District Judge David McAndrews set $10,000 bail for a man arrested for allegedly giving two bank tellers notes that claimed he had a gun. His charge, third-degree robbery, is not bail eligible under the current law. 

In another case, Cohoes City Court Judge Thomas Marcelle set $100 bail for a motorist accused of driving with a suspended license, a low-level misdemeanor also ineligible for bail under the reform law. “By stripping judges of necessary discretion to control the appearance of a defendant, the legislature improperly interfered with the judiciary’s capacity to fulfill its constitutional mandate,” Marcelle said in his order.

The state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct said in a March report that a judge “who purposefully fails to abide by the [bail reform] law, e.g. to make a political point or because s/he personally disagrees with the law, invites discipline.” But data that could reveal if judges should be subject to that discipline will not be available for months under the new bail law.

We have every reason to believe that judges and prosecutors will exploit the expanded discretion granted to them by the rollbacks.Court Watch NYC, July 2020 report

New York’s almost 1,300 town and village courts will be especially difficult to monitor because of how they are set up. Often tiny, sometimes located in town hall basements, they deal mostly with minor offenses but also arraign felonies and handle misdemeanors. More than 60 percent of their judges have no law degrees; two years of college is the minimum requirement. And they’re overseen by each town or village itself, with the state exercising no direct control. 

A report last April by the Fund for Modern Courts, a nonprofit advocate for reform and improvement in New York’s court system, charged that at least some of their judges use jail time to force poor people into paying fines they can’t afford. Ten of the 13 judges disciplined by the Commission on Judicial Conduct last year were town or village justices.

Court watchers won’t have much luck checking on how judges are handling bail reform in some of these courts. In court sessions last summer in the municipalities of Colonie and Oswegatchie, judges conducted negotiations right in front of the bench with no microphones, making proceedings inaudible even from the first row. Asked about the audio issue last summer, Colonie Town Justice Peter Crummey said he makes special seating arrangements when he knows ahead of time that court visitors want to hear the proceedings.

There is also a fear that town and village courts might not collect any data because the amended law includes no money for the task. “Without funding and training, it’s hard to imagine how many of the smaller jurisdictions will develop the systems and expertise necessary to collect the data and report it out accurately, particularly now that towns and cities face budget cuts,” said Merkl. 

The delay in getting data also leaves an opening for another effort to overturn even the amended law. Already the state’s Association of Chiefs of Police, Sheriff’s’ Association, and Assembly Republicans have denounced the weakened version, calling it and other reforms passed in June a “revolving door for career criminals” at a July 11 event.

“It’s always been true that the benefits of freedom don’t generally don’t make it into the press,” says Jocelyn Simonson, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. What doesn’t make headlines, she says, are “homes and neighborhoods that are actually safer because people are free to go to work, take care of their kids, and be less likely to harm other people in the future because they haven’t spent time in a violent place like jail.” 

New Jersey shows what solid data can achieve, Rahman noted. The state courts report from April 2019 showed there were 6,000 fewer people in New Jersey jails. But defendants were no more likely to commit a new offense or fail to show up for court appearance than before. 

That report may have taken the air out of efforts to roll back the reform. Nine bills were introduced to the state legislature in the 2018-19 session that would have increased the use of bail, an informal count shows. By the 2020-21 session, that number fell to two

“New Jersey was in some ways able to weather the backlash,” said Rahman. “They had real-time data that was ready to go. It was centralized. Nobody was doubting its veracity. And that made a huge difference in being able to push back against the same kinds of forces that we saw here in New York.” 

In other states, bail reform is inching forward. Last year, Colorado eliminated cash bail for certain low-level offenses. But a bill this year that would have broadened pretrial release in the state died in the legislature. The Missouri Supreme Court instituted new bail rules starting in July 2019 that require state courts to impose bail only if necessary for safety reasons. 

Conversely in California, a ballot initiative sponsored by the for-profit bail bond industry is on the ballot in November—if passed it would overturn the state’s law ending money bail.

Pennsylvania Inspector General Reviewing State Police Traffic Stop Tactics

The review follows an investigation by The Appeal and Spotlight PA, which found that troopers were using minor traffic stops to illegally detain and search motorists along highways.

The graduation ceremony of Pennsylvania State Police 142nd Cadet Class on Sept. 4, 2015.
Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Pennsylvania Inspector General Reviewing State Police Traffic Stop Tactics

The review follows an investigation by The Appeal and Spotlight PA, which found that troopers were using minor traffic stops to illegally detain and search motorists along highways.

The Pennsylvania inspector general’s office said Wednesday it is reviewing tactics used by state police to search vehicles during traffic stops, following an investigation by The Appeal and Spotlight PA.

The two news organizations found that troopers in the south-central region of the state, whose duties included interdiction—the practice of searching for and stopping the trafficking of drugs and contraband along highways—used minor traffic violations as a way to stop motorists, detain them, and search their vehicles illegally.

“The Office of State Inspector General is reviewing the available information to ensure that protocols were followed and training is appropriate regarding these traffic stops,” Jonathan Hendrickson, a spokesperson for the office, told Spotlight PA, which was the first to report the state watchdog’s announcement. “The work of this review is well within the agency’s mission.”

Governor Tom Wolf directed the inspector general to conduct an independent review “to be sure protocols were followed and training is appropriate regarding these types of stops,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s spokesperson. She said that although training troopers in interdiction tactics remained a top priority for the administration, “actions should never be taken outside of those protocols taught in training, and reports should be completed using the proper protocols.”

The Appeal and Spotlight PA reviewed 32 criminal cases brought by troopers with the interdiction unit since 2016 in Cumberland, Franklin, and Dauphin counties in central Pennsylvania. Of those cases, eight were thrown out in court because judges determined the troopers had violated motorists’ constitutional rights by holding them for longer than allowed and searching the vehicles without sufficient evidence. 

In one instance, two men were pulled over for an unlit license plate for hours while troopers questioned them and searched their vehicle. Officers found two bags of heroin inside a DVD case in the trunk of the vehicle. Troopers charged the men with felony drug delivery, but the case was thrown out after a judge suppressed the evidence because of the illegal search. 

In the cases reviewed, troopers were using nearly identical language in each affidavit of probable cause. These documents must be unique to each individual case and simply copying language from other affidavits is a violation of policy, a spokesperson for the state police told The Appeal and Spotlight PA.

“The four corners of the affidavit is what establishes probable cause,” Lt. Col. Scott Price, deputy commissioner of operations, told the two organizations in a previous interview. “We shouldn’t be seeing boilerplate language.” 

The investigation also found that Black people were disproportionately charged in cases arising from these stops. Despite accounting for only 10 percent of the population in the three counties, Black people were charged more than 50 percent of the time. 

The inspector general did not give a time frame of when the review would be complete or if the review would go beyond the interdiction unit. But the move comes during a time of national unrest over police violence, and large-scale protests in Philadelphia and across the state.

In July, after Democratic lawmakers in the state House demanded action on police reform, Wolf signed two bills that provide more access to police disciplinary records when departments hire officers, and more police training in areas including de-escalation. Wolf also announced a set of executive actions in June aimed at reforming policing and giving communities more oversight of their departments.

New York Lawmakers Fear Court May Render Domestic Violence Survivor Law ‘Meaningless’

Nikki Addimando, convicted of second-degree murder for the death of her boyfriend, whom she said abused her, petitioned to have her sentence reduced under the 2019 law. But a judge ruled against her. If that ruling is affirmed, state legislators say, it will be ‘insurmountably difficult’ for survivors to ever benefit from the law.

New York Senator Brad Hoylman, who cosponsored the DVSJA, on August 17 at Foley Square in New York City.
Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images.

New York Lawmakers Fear Court May Render Domestic Violence Survivor Law ‘Meaningless’

Nikki Addimando, convicted of second-degree murder for the death of her boyfriend, whom she said abused her, petitioned to have her sentence reduced under the 2019 law. But a judge ruled against her. If that ruling is affirmed, state legislators say, it will be ‘insurmountably difficult’ for survivors to ever benefit from the law.

Legislators in New York are urging the courts to apply a 2019 law, meant to provide sentencing relief to some domestic violence survivors, in the case of a woman convicted of killing her boyfriend, who she said repeatedly abused and assaulted her.

Fourteen legislators, all of whom sponsored or supported the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, have submitted an amicus brief in Nikki Addimando’s appeal, stating that her case “presents the first opportunity for the Appellate Division to consider the application of the DVSJA to a victim of domestic violence.” 

Under the act, a person who is convicted in criminal court can petition the judge for a hearing to consider whether abuse played a significant role in their participation in the crime. If the judge determines abuse was a significant factor, the judge can issue a shorter sentence than the one recommended by state sentencing guidelines.

Addimando, who was convicted in April 2019 of second-degree murder for the death of Christopher Grover, filed a motion in September of that year for consideration under the act. At trial, she had testified for three days about Grover’s violence, including sexual assault, beatings, burnings, posting videos of her abuse to a porn site, and repeated death threats. Multiple witnesses testified about seeing her injuries, including black eyes, bruises, and burn marks. 

At her DVSJA hearing, Addimando’s lawyers submitted medical records that had been excluded at trial, as well as hours of testimony from two therapists and a psychiatric expert. Nonetheless,  Dutchess County Court Judge Edward McLoughlin ruled against her in February, saying that Addimando’s history of abuse was “undetermined and inconsistent” and that “the nature of the alleged abusive relationship … is undetermined.” He stated that she had “a tremendous amount of advice, assistance, support and opportunities to escape her abusive situation” and suggested that she could have left Grover earlier in the relationship. At sentencing, he reiterated this belief before sentencing her to 19 years to life.

In their amicus brief, the legislators, who include lead sponsors Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry and Senator Roxanne Persaud, wrote that the judge’s reasoning is a reversion to “outdated ideas of domestic violence and discredited theories in which victims of abuse are faulted for not leaving their abusers or fighting back to protect themselves.” 

They went on to warn that “if the trial court’s decision not to apply the DVSJA is upheld, the DVSJA will be rendered effectively meaningless. Indeed, if the trial court’s rationale is affirmed, it may become almost insurmountably difficult for most survivors of domestic violence to gain the intended benefit of the Act.” Domestic violence advocacy organizations and the New York City Bar Association submitted additional amicus briefs on Addimando’s behalf. 

“The whole point of the legislation was to cover cases such as this,” said Senator Brad Hoylman, who co-sponsored the act and signed the amicus brief.  “As a legislator, you have to ask yourself why isn’t this law being applied in circumstances like this?”

Nearly 12 percent (or 11,200 women) of women in state prisons have been convicted of  murder, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics; the government does not have data on how many of those women had previously been abused by the person they killed. Snapshot studies suggest that stories like Addimando’s are not uncommon. A 2012 report from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the Department of Justice, found that 77 percent of women in jails experienced partner violence and 86 percent had experienced sexual violence prior to incarceration. 

A Yale study of violence in abusive relationships found that the most common reason women used violence was to protect themselves (or their children) from physical harm while previous studies had shown that men were more likely to do so to maintain or regain control of a relationship. Of the 95 women surveyed, 61 percent had been injured by their partner within the previous six months and 75 percent stated that they had used violence in self-defense.

Few other states have legislation allowing judges to consider abuse when meting out prison sentences for abuse survivors. In California, Assembly Bill 593, passed in 2012, allows incarcerated abuse survivors to challenge their incarceration if their original trial had limited or no expert testimony about abuse. The law is limited to those convicted before Aug. 29, 1996, an attempt to correct the lack of understanding present in many courtrooms during earlier time periods. The law does not include a tracking mechanism and it is unclear how many incarcerated survivors have petitioned the courts under this law—and how many have been granted a new trial.

A 2015 Illinois law includes abuse in a list of potential mitigating factors that judges should consider before issuing a sentence. However, the legislation does not include a tracking mechanism, so no one knows how many survivors have applied for resentencing—and how many have been resentenced. 

Rachel White-Domain, an attorney at the Illinois Prison Project, knows of only two survivors who have been resentenced and released.  “Despite good intentions, the law failed to provide an effective avenue for release for incarcerated survivors,” she told The Appeal.

In Oklahoma, which has long held the country’s highest rate of women’s incarceration and one of the highest rates of domestic violence homicides, a similar bill died in the House Judiciary Committee last year.

Courts in New York have been slow to allow resentencing for abuse survivors under the new state law. According to local attorneys and advocates, two people have been resentenced thus far: On Aug. 26, Mulumba Kazigo, who spent 14 years in prison for killing his abusive father, became the second abuse survivor to be resentenced under the act. A state Supreme Court justice vacated his 20-year sentence, resentencing him to five years, enabling his immediate release. 

Hoylman acknowledges that the slowdown and shutdown of courts because of the COVID-19 pandemic may have affected the numbers of those resentenced so far. But he still lamented the dearth of cases in which the law has been applied. “We did pass the bill in 2019,” he said. “I would have expected more progress at this point.”

Highway Stop-And-Frisk: How Pennsylvania State Troopers Conduct Illegal Traffic Searches

A review of five years of cases that arose from traffic stops in the south-central region of the state shows that police used underhand tactics to justify holding and searching drivers illegally.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Highway Stop-And-Frisk: How Pennsylvania State Troopers Conduct Illegal Traffic Searches

A review of five years of cases that arose from traffic stops in the south-central region of the state shows that police used underhand tactics to justify holding and searching drivers illegally.

This article is a collaboration with Spotlight PA.

Around 10 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2013, a Pennsylvania state trooper pulled over a minivan on Interstate 81. He later wrote that he had seen a GPS device mounted on the car’s windshield, possibly obstructing the driver’s view. 

While talking to the two people in the car—a man and his nephew, who said they were traveling from North Carolina—the trooper wrote that he noticed some large moving boxes covered by a blanket, according to the arrest affidavit. The trooper then issued a warning to the driver. 

But the trooper continued to ask questions without notifying the driver or the passenger that they were legally free to go. After several more questions, the trooper asked to search the vehicle. The owner of the car said no. 

The trooper’s main job was highway interdiction, a practice that involves looking out for drugs traveling along the state’s main roads and highways. A common tactic in highway interdiction is the use of pretextual stops, in which officers pull over motorists for alleged traffic violations, like speeding or traveling too close to another vehicle, in an effort to investigate if the people in the vehicle are involved in criminal activity. The stops alone are generally legal, but courts have set limits and rules on how far officers can go to investigate and on how long motorists can be detained.

In order to conduct a search, police officers have to be able to prove that they have more than a hunch that a crime is being committed. The proof can vary, but oftentimes it is the smell of marijuana or something more tangible, like paraphernalia visible from outside the vehicle. When officers lack that physical evidence, they often question people, relying on training that they say helps spot people lying or acting erratically. 

The officer’s affidavit, a prosecutor’s first piece of evidence to move forward with a charge, did not mention any tangible proof nor erratic behavior. Instead, the officer wrote, “I noticed criminal indicators indicative of persons involved in criminal activity.”

The officer detained both people while a K-9 unit arrived to search the vehicle, and eventually, the dog alerted the officers to contraband in the van: hundreds of cartons of untaxed cigarettes. The driver and passenger were both charged with felony and misdemeanor counts. 

More than 18 months after the charges were initially filed against the two, a judge in Cumberland County determined the search was illegal and suppressed all of the evidence found. The charges against the two were dismissed.

While state police say these pretextual stops and searches effectively uncover drugs and weapons, a two-month review by The Appeal and Spotlight PA found many of them are conducted illegally and eventually get thrown out in court. There is also no way to tell how many of them turn up nothing illegal, because state police don’t keep track of them or their outcomes.

Defense and civil rights attorneys and educators compare the searches to a version of highway stop-and-frisk, where troopers pull over as many people as possible for small traffic violations in order to find drugs in some instances, thus justifying all of the stops. By casting a wide net, however, certain people may be disproportionately targeted despite having done nothing wrong.

The Appeal and Spotlight PA reviewed 32 cases from 2016 to 2020 that arose from stops by troopers with the Pennsylvania State Police interdiction unit in Cumberland, Franklin, and Dauphin counties. The news organizations analyzed dozens of affidavits and court documents from the stops, and interviewed researchers who study traffic stops, civil rights attorneys, and police training experts. 

In total, eight cases reviewed by The Appeal and Spotlight PA were thrown out in court because of the police’s failure to establish probable cause, while nine more are still active and several have pending motions to suppress. More than a third of the cases have been sealed from public view because the charges were dismissed or withdrawn. 

To justify their searches, state police often claimed that a driver was nervous, sweating, or eating. One officer went so far as to say a dollar-sign tattoo on a man’s neck was an indicator of criminal activity that justified detaining him for a K-9 search. Officers also used the same language to justify their stops, no matter the context or circumstances of the arrest, a violation of their training.

Police also held people during traffic stops longer than legally allowed. In one case, a man was held for nearly two hours before he was arrested. Drivers also had little choice in whether to allow police to conduct a search of their cars. In the review of cases, even when drivers had the legal right to deny a search, police still called in K-9 units, which courts have said is not an invasion of privacy. 

More than half of the cases reviewed by the news organizations involved charges against a Black person, despite Black people accounting for only about 10 percent of the three counties’ population. For years, Pennsylvania State Police had stopped gathering race data during traffic stops, making it difficult to know how often people of color were pulled over and searched. After a Spotlight PA story published last year reported on the practice, the department has said they would restart tracking racial data during traffic stops. 

Critics also point the finger at prosecutors, who continue to bring these cases despite their shaky legal foundation. “A police officer can go make an arrest and do what they do, but it’s up to the prosecutor if that arrest goes anywhere,” said Jamila Hodge, director of the Reshaping Prosecution Program at the Vera Institute of Justice.

So long as prosecutors continue charging people in these kinds of cases, critics say, police officers are likely to continue conducting illegal searches during traffic stops.

‘Mere suspicion’

State police oversee large swaths of highways, interstates, and roads, as well as close to 1,800 towns across the commonwealth that don’t have their own full-time police departments. There are 16 police barracks across Pennsylvania, each responsible for a handful of the state’s 67 counties. 

In 2019, Pennsylvania State Police conducted close to 1 million traffic stops. In order to pull someone over, a trooper has to have “mere suspicion” of a crime, said Jeff Fagan, director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Crime, Community and Law. 

“It’s simple, officers can pull you over for any suspected violation of a state’s vehicle or traffic code,” he said. “The laws are vague and often expansive. Mere suspicion is sufficient. Suspicion that a passenger is not wearing a seat belt, suspicion that a brake light is not working, suspicion that a driver failed to signal before changing lanes.”

In the dozens of cases The Appeal and Spotlight PA reviewed, troopers tasked with interdiction used the most mundane of traffic laws, such as driving in the left lane for too long or tires hitting the white line on the freeway’s shoulder, to pull drivers over and ask probing questions. 

“You’re not necessarily focusing on the most egregious violations that are causal,” said Lt. Col. Scott Price, deputy commissioner of operations for the state police. He said that seemingly small stops are often how officers get the opportunity to find bigger violations, such as drugs or weapons. For example, troopers looking for DUIs won’t only stop people who are swerving. 

The Appeal’s and Spotlight PA’s review also found that police often held people for longer periods than necessary. According to a U.S. Supreme Court a decision in 2015, drivers can’t be detained by police for any period longer than what would be reasonable. Your broken taillight, in other words, should not result in a three-hour traffic stop.

But in one instance, state troopers pulled over and detained two men for six hours while they searched the owner’s car. A trooper pulled the driver over for an unlit license plate and speeding, and conducted a search based on the passengers’ conflicting statements. They ended up finding a small bag of heroin concealed in a DVD case.  

“The ends do not justify this,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “If you illegally search a bunch of drivers and find some paraphernalia, that doesn’t justify you illegally searching the other drivers.”

It is hard to know how often police conduct these kinds of searches because state police do not track them. When asked if it had aggregate data for when their K-9 units are dispatched versus how often they come up with drugs, Pennsylvania State Police said “there is no specific audit on the frequency of calls for canine assistance in relation to contraband located.”

‘This is shocking’

The Appeal and Spotlight PA found that police use boilerplate language on affidavits to justify keeping people longer than legally allowed. 

Affidavits, according to Pennsylvania State Police, should be unique documents, articulating the facts behind why charges are being brought and tailored to each person. Boilerplate language would be a violation of their training, said a PSP official. But in nearly every affidavit pulled, officers quoted—almost verbatim—that some kind of “criminal activity was observed.”

And that should raise alarm signals for prosecutors who look at these cases, said David A. Harris, a law professor at University of Pittsburgh who studies police training and reviewed a few of the affidavits gathered by Spotlight PA and The Appeal.

“This is shocking,” he said, referring to the near-identical language from the police reports. “Affidavits essentially justify an officer to take away someone’s liberty; the standard needs to be set much higher. If I was a prosecutor, I would be throwing these out.”

But prosecutors overwhelmingly pursue charges anyway. In the past five years of cases reviewed, only three cases were dropped by magistrate judges. In 90 percent of the cases, prosecutors decided to follow through with charges in court. 

Fred Barajas, a Hispanic man from California, took a plea deal before a judge could rule on his claim that a state trooper had illegally searched his vehicle in May 2019. 

A trooper had pulled him over for speeding on the turnpike in Franklin County. In the affidavit of probable cause, the officer wrote that he noticed “indicators of criminal activity” while talking to Barajas. The indicators, according to a motion to suppress filed by his lawyer, were that Barajas appeared nervous with shaking hands, a facial twitch, and a large dollar sign tattooed behind his right ear.

The trooper held Barajas for more than an hour, during which time a K-9 unit was dispatched and alerted troopers to 1,500 THC vape cartridges in the backseat compartment.

Pennsylvania State Police charged him with possession with intent to deliver, while the court held him on $50,000 cash bail for two days before paying a bondsman for his release. He ultimately pleaded to a reduced charge and a sentence of time served plus more than $1,600 in fines, fees, and court costs in a deal worked out with prosecutors. Barajas declined to comment for this story.

If I was a prosecutor, I would be throwing these out.David A. Harris, law professor at University of Pittsburgh

According to Hodge, prosecutors who offer these kinds of plea deals in cases that appear to involve police misconduct are giving permission for troopers to continue acting in a way that harms and oppresses people of color.

Hodge said prosecutors have the power to bring about much of the change in police reform that recent protests have called for by simply refusing to bring charges or dismissing cases where there is apparent police misconduct.

It’s a power play that has shown promise in California’s Bay Area, where San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin recently attempted to limit police misconduct by instituting a policy on how his office will deal with cases that arise from pretextual searches. Boudin described the tactic as disproportionately harming minority communities and allowing racial profiling.

Under the policy, his office will only bring criminal charges for possession of contraband if police can articulate independent probable cause, such as drugs or guns seen in plain view.

“It’s more than just police accountability,” Hodge said. “It is imperative in this moment that prosecutors—who are one of the most powerful actors in this system that is fundamentally flawed—have to also step up and take a hard look in the mirror and change their own policies.”

But while Fordham University Professor of Law John Pfaff agreed that prosecutors have an ethical duty to act as a check on police, he said he questions if that is enough to bring about change to policing.

Police in only five Pennsylvania counties must seek district attorney approval when filing criminal charges. It can take several days or even weeks before the district attorney’s office gets involved with a case, and during that time, the person charged could be held in jail on bail. Even if prosecutors ultimately dismiss the charges, he noted, the criminal legal system will have already inflicted harm.

“To some probably significant extent, much of the arrest practices are not necessarily aimed at anything beyond the arrest,” he said. “That has to be regulated at the level of the police.”

Pennsylvania Governor Calls for Marijuana Legalization to Cover COVID-19 Budget Shortfall

Tom Wolf said Tuesday that legalizing and taxing recreational use of marijuana could help solve fiscal woes that arose from the pandemic, and address long-standing racial injustices.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on March 2.
Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images.

Pennsylvania Governor Calls for Marijuana Legalization to Cover COVID-19 Budget Shortfall

Tom Wolf said Tuesday that legalizing and taxing recreational use of marijuana could help solve fiscal woes that arose from the pandemic, and address long-standing racial injustices.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on Tuesday called on the state legislature to pass marijuana legalization as part of an effort to help pay for the costs to the state caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Up until the pandemic, things were going pretty well in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said during a press conference Tuesday. “The unemployment rate in Pennsylvania was at an all-time low, we had a record number of jobs and revenue that allowed the government to do the things it needed to do and save money.”

But, as businesses shuttered and thousands of people lost their jobs, the state quickly ran through the roughly $250 million revenue surplus it had at the beginning of March. The state is now running a deficit, the unemployment rate has more than doubled since February, and more than 2 million people have applied for unemployment benefits since March.

Though other state lawmakers are weighing marijuana legalization, Wolf appears to be the first state governor to call for legal pot sales to cover budget shortfalls from the pandemic.

Marijuana legalization, Wolf said, in addition to money allocated to the state from the federal CARES Act, would allow the state to “actually do things that have to be done to help families and businesses that have been devastated by this pandemic.”

Wolf’s plan would allow people 21 years old or older to purchase marijuana from state-run stores, similar to the way wine and liquor are currently sold in the state.

In 2018, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a report estimating the state could generate $581 million in revenue by regulating and taxing recreational marijuana. The report was based on revenue generated by Washington and Colorado, which both legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

Wolf’s proposal also earmarks 50 percent of revenues from marijuana legalization to go to “historically disadvantaged businesses” and a portion of the revenue is meant to “further restorative justice programs that give priority to repairing the harm done to crime victims and communities as a result of marijuana criminalization.”

More than 24,000 people were arrested in 2018 in Pennsylvania for possession of marijuana. Black people account for a disproportionate number of the arrests in the state. Those racial disparities have persisted in Philadelphia, even though the city decriminalized personal possession of the drug in 2014.

Wolf has been governor since 2015, and despite championing the state’s medical marijuana program, he has been opposed to legalization until last year, when Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman went on a statewide “listening tour.” According to a report Fetterman’s office released in July 2019, 65 to 70 percent of people who attended the tour supported legalization. Wolf came out in support of legalization shortly thereafter.

A customer makes a purchase at a cannabis dispensary on Jan. 1, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images.

Pennsylvania Republicans, who control the legislature, criticized Wolf for his change of heart, writing in a September 2019 letter that they were “disappointed.”

“Our caucus has no plans or interest in legalizing recreational marijuana,” Republican leadership in the state House wrote.

In response to Wolf’s announcement Tuesday, Jake Smeltz, chief of staff to House Speaker Bryan Cutler, said the speaker was focused on finishing the budget. “One priority he does not have is to make sure that people can get high legally,” Smeltz told PennLive.

But during Tuesday’s press conference, Wolf said that he hoped the financial strain placed on the state by COVID-19 may move Republicans who were in opposition to ultimately support the plan.

“I think this is in part recognizing the reality that people use this stuff,” Wolf said of marijuana. “If we actually regulate it correctly … I think it’s also a way of getting some tax revenue from something people are already doing.”

Advocates in Vermont and Texas have encouraged lawmakers to consider legalization in light of the pandemic. “When our state is facing an unprecedented economic downturn, we have to look at alternatives,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told CBS Austin.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana since 2012. A majority of states also have either decriminalized or made marijuana legal for medical purposes. Marijuana is now completely banned in only eight states.

A 2019 study found arrests for marijuana possession fell significantly in Washington following legalization, though Black people are still more likely than white people to be arrested. In 2018, researchers found legalization led to an increase in clearance rates for violent and property crimes in Washington and Colorado. 

Despite roughly two-thirds of Americans supporting marijuana legalization, it remains illegal at the federal level and is classified as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin and LSD.

President Donald Trump and his administration have spoken out against legalizing marijuana at the federal level, while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said he supports decriminalization but not full legalization.

Economic costs continue to mount across the country because of the pandemic. Advocates are calling on state lawmakers to allocate more resources to communities facing high unemployment, poor access to healthcare, and the threat of evictions as moratoriums expire. While the federal CARES Act delivered some needed aid, lawmakers and advocates across the country have said another round of relief is crucial.

“Pennsylvanians need relief, they need reform, and they need it now,” Wolf said Tuesday.

Social Workers Are Rejecting Calls For Them to Replace Police

Some say their roles are already too close to those of law enforcement and are organizing for a radical rethinking of the profession.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Social Workers Are Rejecting Calls For Them to Replace Police

Some say their roles are already too close to those of law enforcement and are organizing for a radical rethinking of the profession.

Jon, a social worker in New York City, began to fully understand the relationship between social services and law enforcement during the years they spent working with formerly homeless people at a single-room occupancy building in the South Bronx. In one case, officers arrived in response to a mental health call involving an older woman with severe schizophrenia. As officers escorted her off the premises, Jon said, a staff member of the building who had gone out to smoke a cigarette saw police punching the woman in the head repeatedly. 

“That was when I first started to really see, complete blinders off, how the police fit into this,” Jon said. (The Appeal is withholding Jon’s full name because of Jon’s concerns about professional repercussions.) 

Since the police killings this year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people, more people have begun to confront the harms of policing, and many are imagining for the first time how police might be abolished altogether. One palatable alternative has emerged: Social workers should collaborate with—or replace—police officers.

But many social workers across the country, including Jon, a member of Social Service Workers Uprising Now-NYC, disagree. Networks of radical social workers in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, and elsewhere are organizing in opposition to increased cooperation between their field and police. Social work, they say, already involves law enforcement and can embrace punitive practices that disproportionately harm communities of color. Some in the field wonder what society might look like if, like police, social work in its current form is also dismantled.

“You have to understand all of the systems that fail people,” Jon said. “The conversations about how to divest [from the current system] are very complicated because there are those of us who understand what needs to be done and there are those of us who clamp down tighter.”

Calls for social workers to work more with police have come from the public, the president, and from within the profession, including in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by National Association of Social Workers (NASW) chief executive officer Angelo McClain. 

But some in the profession are demanding that NASW embrace abolitionist goals instead. In July, Social Service Workers United-Chicago created a petition that was signed by more than 1,700 social workers, students, and clients, and endorsed by groups across the country and internationally. The petition called on NASW to adopt eight demands, including aligning with the 8 to Abolition movement and changing the social work code of ethics to allow for free dissent and criticism of the field. 

Greg Wright, NASW’s public relations manager, declined to comment but directed The Appeal to a video message from McClain. Wright also noted the NASW’s support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the organization’s critiques of President Trump’s executive order in which he called to expand social workers’ collaboration with law enforcement.

In an open letter accompanying the petition, SSWU-Chicago wrote that it is time for “a reckoning on how [social work] has created, upheld, and strengthened oppressive systems.” The letter mentions past backlash to dissent within the field, highlighting the case of a Binghamton University student who faced disciplinary action after he put up posters that were critical of the social work department. The SSWU-Chicago criticized social workers’ collaboration with police—an institution it described as racist and violent—and with prisons, jails, court-ordered drug treatment programs, and other systems that they say are in conflict with social work itself.  

“If all we do is replace police with social workers without eliminating these carceral aspects of social work, we will simply subject vulnerable people to cops by a different name,” the letter reads.

Elena Gormley, a social work student at the University of Illinois-Chicago and one of the authors of the letter, echoed this concern to The Appeal. She said she understands the impulse to want more social workers in situations where police are present: They are seen as caring and compassionate, and have training in de-escalation or responding to domestic disputes. But “we have to radically rethink social work,” she said.

Some social workers say leaders in the field have failed to adequately reflect on the role they play in institutional racism and police violence. Kim Young, a social worker and organizer in Richmond, Virginia, challenged the NASW on its stances around police collaboration through an earlier petition and is outspoken on social media about how she believes the field must change. Young was briefly blocked by the professional group on Instagram in July, when the NASW said users were trolling its page. She was later unblocked after community outcry.

“It’s disheartening to see that leadership is leaning in the direction of wanting to be pleasing, and accommodating systems that do not have the best interests of those that we fight for on a daily basis,” Young said.

Social workers already work closely with law enforcement. They regularly treat clients who are being held in prisons and jails, at inpatient psychiatric facilities, and in detention centers. They are also often required by law to collect and report clients’ personal health information, which, in some cases, winds up harming their clients. Reporting in Vox has detailed how migrant children may be encouraged to open up to doctors or social workers, only for those medical and psychological records to be used as evidence in immigration court.

Some social workers believe working in these settings and under these constraints contradicts their code of ethics mandate to respect clients’ right to self-determination. “There are tons of rules about not harming clients but the field actively ignores them a lot,” Gormley said.

Though social work can assist and provide resources to people in need of support, it can also be a punitive system that, like policing, negatively affects people of color and poor people. Jessica Kant, a member of the Boston Liberation Health Group, which endorsed SSWU-Chicago’s open letter to the NASW, uses the example of a child wearing the same clothes every day, and how some social workers may read that as neglect rather than a lack of resources—and report the situation as such. 

“It is a far cry between a family not being fit to take care of someone and not having money,” Kant said. “Those have nothing to do with each other. When a family doesn’t have money, that’s a societal failing. The idea that we have a punitive response is preposterous.”

Social workers also point to the child welfare system, a significant employer of social workers, as deeply problematic. For years, Native children were taken from their families and enrolled in boarding schools, where they were forced to give up their languages, clothing, and cultures in an “assimilation” effort. The system also plays an outsize role in Black communities: Black children are overrepresented in foster care and Black parents’ parental rights are terminated at higher rates than their white counterparts. 

Social work as a field is also predominantly white, and researchers have pointed to an “empathy gap” between providers and their clients who are people of color. Research by Terence Fitzgerald, a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California, found that white social workers are often not as empathetic toward people of color as they think they are.

Also missing from the conversation, radical social workers say, is discussion of how the collective organizing power of practitioners is interconnected with serving their clients—that abolition work goes hand-in-hand with labor organizing. Supporting union representation, fair wages, and manageable caseloads is a way to stand with the clients social workers seek to serve, they say. Many social workers are themselves clients of social services and struggle financially or with mental health issues, or are victims of violence. 

“I know what it is to experience all of this violence from the police because I experienced it alongside [my clients],” Jon said. The police are “all up in my communities, too,” they  added.

Kant said the national discussion around race in America has forced social workers to examine their own role in policing, and what place they can have in their community, removed from such systems. This moment—and the conversation around abolition now happening at-large in the profession—has pushed social workers to think about how they can support existing community efforts, Kant said.

“If there is any place for us in systems of safety and addressing harm, it is in partnership with the people who are directly going through it,” Kant said.  

Social workers say they are critiquing the system and challenging leadership out of a desire to build a better version of the field, and to make up for lost time and harm done.

“Right now is the time to do it,” Kant said, “Because we are way too late anyway.”

Nearly 200 Pardons Languish on Pennsylvania Governor’s Desk

The state Board of Pardons recommended last year that hundreds of people’s criminal records be cleared. Months later, more than half are still waiting for Tom Wolf’s signature.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Nearly 200 Pardons Languish on Pennsylvania Governor’s Desk

The state Board of Pardons recommended last year that hundreds of people’s criminal records be cleared. Months later, more than half are still waiting for Tom Wolf’s signature.

Nearly 200 people have been waiting months for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to clear their criminal records by signing off on pardons already approved by the state Board of Pardons.

Last year, the board, which must vote to recommend each pardon before it can go to the governor for final consideration, approved nearly 300 cases. As of Aug. 11, 177 pardons were still sitting on Wolf’s desk.

The Governor is under no time constraint in which he must make a final decision on a recommendation for pardon, and takes that time to ensure his complete and thorough review and consideration of each recommendation,” Wolf’s spokesperson Sara Goulet told The Appeal in an email.

Goulet provided no timeline for when Wolf was expected to act on the recommendations.

According to data provided by board secretary Brandon Flood, more than 70 percent of all clemency cases that the board heard in 2019, which includes both commutations and pardons requests, involved nonviolent offenses.

Flood told The Appeal that the cases that are approved by the board for a pardon typically involve drug offenses, retail theft or property crimes, or misdemeanor assault.

Goulet did not provide The Appeal with a list of the convictions associated with the pardons awaiting Wolf’s signature but said they “run the gamut from misdemeanor to felony and do include some violent crimes.”  

“The impact that a conviction has on an individuals’ ability to move forward in life is stunning,” Ryan Hancock, co-founder and board chairperson of the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, told The Appeal. Most profoundly, he said, it makes it very difficult to get a job—an issue that has a new sense of urgency given the COVID-19 pandemic and Pennsylvania’s double-digit unemployment rate.

According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, there are nearly 500 collateral consequences