After she heard that police had killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop outside of Minneapolis, Eilanne Farhat said she first reacted with “deep exhaustion, heartbreak, and sadness.”
Then she was disturbed. Farhat, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, told The Appeal she was struck by how frequently stories of police killings of unarmed people, often people of color, have made headlines in recent years.
Since 2015, at least 135 unarmed Black men and women have been killed by police during traffic stops, according to a January investigation by NPR. Now, after Wright’s death and other recent violent encounters between Black people and police, experts and advocates say it’s past time for cities to move traffic enforcement away from law enforcement.
“Once again, a minor infraction presenting no threat to public safety has ended in a senseless murder at the hands of Minnesota police,” Scott Roberts, senior director of the criminal justice and democracy campaigns at Color Of Change, said in a written statement. “The only way to protect Black lives is by reimagining how we provide safety and security in communities.”
Sheila Nezhad, who is running to unseat Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey in November, told The Appeal that Wright’s killing and that of other unarmed Black people during traffic stops show that popular policy reforms, such as requiring body cameras or outlawing certain tactics, have not worked. She supports moving traffic enforcement away from police in her city and into the Traffic and Parking Services department.
“Police reform in Minnesota has looked like calling for more Tasers and calling for hiring more female cops, and we saw the death of Daunte Wright at the hands of a female officer reaching for a Taser,” she said.
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kim Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Wright on Sunday afternoon. Officers had pulled him over for expired license plate tags, police said, though Wright’s mother Katie, whom he called from the car, said it was “because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror,” which is illegal in Minnesota.
Officers tried to detain Wright after realizing a “gross misdemeanor warrant” for his arrest had been issued. (He had missed a first appearance in court for allegedly possessing a pistol without a permit and fleeing police, though he may not have known of the summons, the Star Tribune reported.) Wright got back into his car, when Potter drew and fired her handgun. Police said she had intended to fire her Taser. Potter and police chief Tim Gannon have since resigned.
The fatal encounter follows months of protests and upheaval over police brutality. Wright was killed just miles from where former police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for the death of George Floyd, inflaming a community already in pain.
Wright’s killing also comes less than a week after another violent traffic stop made national news: Body cam footage from December shows Windsor, Virginia police officers pointing guns at Caron Nazario, a Black and Latinx army lieutenant who was unarmed, and pepper-spraying him during a traffic stop. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Nazario was raised in part by the family of Eric Garner, whose death at the hands of police roiled the country in 2014.
Removing traffic enforcement from police, some researchers argue, is the only way forward. Jordan Blair Woods, a law professor at the University of Arkansas who spoke to The Appeal in January, recently published an article in the Stanford Law Review that outlines ways to “rethink” traffic enforcement, including having unarmed traffic monitors handle the enforcement of low-level traffic violations, rather than police.
In July, the Berkeley, California City Council passed a proposal to do just that. The city approved the creation of a new department of transportation that will employ unarmed traffic monitors to enforce low-level traffic offenses like driving with an expired registration or driving with a broken taillight. The city went a step further in February by banning police officers from making stops for low-level traffic offenses and directing police to only conduct traffic stops for things that directly endanger public safety like driving under the influence and excessive speeding. Neighboring Oakland passed a similar reform a few years earlier and saw the number of traffic stops fell by more than half, while overall crime also fell.
Other cities have enacted similar reforms, including Lansing, Michigan, which, in July, barred its officers from making traffic stops for offenses like an inoperable license plate light or loud exhausts. In what is likely the broadest attempt to remove police from traffic enforcement so far, Florida state Rep. Omari Hardy introduced a bill in March that would require all cities and counties to create a Public Safety Department that includes a traffic enforcement division manned by unarmed traffic monitors. The bill, however, is unlikely to pass.
“These singular incidents will continue to happen because they are the natural result of a system that was designed and is publicly funded to violently oppress Black people and brown, native and poor people too,” Farhat said. “We know this system of public safety was never designed to keep Black community members safe.”
When New York City lawmakers talk about homelessness, it is clear that few of them know this city as I do. But how can they?
They’ve never slept on its park benches. They’ve never been handcuffed by the NYPD simply for changing subway lines at 4 in the morning. They’ve never joined a gym, just for a consistent shower. And they have not raised a child as a single father while bouncing from shelter to shelter. I have done all of this and more. I know this city only as a person who has been homeless while Black can.
The elected officials who run my life have never taken the time to listen to me or the tens of thousands of New Yorkers with similar experiences. Meanwhile, recent violent attacks against homeless men and women have shaken the community. And when tourists stopped coming and the white-collar workers stayed home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we became visible in a way that we never have before. I’ve seen this firsthand during my fight against the city just to remain sheltered at the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side.
But the city will soon have the opportunity to elect a new mayor who will listen to us—and who can ensure a right to housing for all.
In my work as an advocate, I have fought hard for New Yorkers’ right to secure shelter, but I’ve learned that a right to housing is essential. United for Housing—a coalition of more than 90 organizations, including some of New York City’s leading housing advocacy groups—agrees. The group has released an ambitious policy blueprint for the next mayor that would be transformative for the city’s homeless community.
In addition to calling for $200 million in direct rental assistance for the lowest-income New Yorkers and funding for thousands of new units of low-income housing per year, the blueprint calls for something radical: treating homelessness and housing as two sides of the same coin. A new deputy mayor could coordinate the city’s housing policy to serve extremely low-income and unhoused New Yorkers, creating operational efficiency that ensures all of the city’s agencies work in concert with one another.
The next mayor must also create a commission on homelessness that includes directly affected New Yorkers, as well as those who are currently housing insecure. These New Yorkers can share their lived experiences with all city agencies, which would create a clearer understanding of the issues and help elected officials without lived experience maximize the positive effect of policy decisions and increase exposure for a population that is too often left out.
To truly end homelessness, it is imperative that New Yorkers like me have a seat at the table, a voice in the discussion and a hand in decision making. Legislators in Albany recently approved a $212 billion budget that includes many important relief measures, including $2.35 billion in rental assistance for vulnerable people—but its impact is still too limited. It is a Band-Aid that stops the bleeding but does not seal the wound and a missed opportunity to utilize an unprecedented $12.6 billion in federal aid to rethink the way we approach homelessness. If those of us with lived experience were at the table, we would have fought to break New York out of the politics as usual mentality.
The city’s homelessness crisis is a failure of imagination. Despite the challenges I have faced in my life, I am a lifelong student. One of my favorite stories is a hallmark of Western philosophy: Plato’s allegory of the cave. In that story, prisoners chained in a dark cave only see shadows on the wall from the light behind them. Yet, because it is all they’ve known, they believe it to be reality.
New York City is trapped inside a cave of its own making. When we discuss homelessness, we stick to the same old solutions that do not work and lose sight of the simple fact that what we need most are safe, affordable places to call home with the services we need to thrive.
New Yorkers like me know that best. And it is only by following our wisdom and guidance that the city will step outside our cave and into the light.
Shams DaBaron is a hip-hop pioneer, writer, and filmmaker directly impacted by homelessness. You can follow him on Twitter at @Homeless_Hero.
About a year ago, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office stopped prosecuting several low-level offenses—minor drug possession, prostitution, and minor traffic offenses—to reduce the flow of people in and out of local jails and slow the spread of COVID-19. In March, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she was making the changes permanent.
The decision to stay the course, Mosby told The Appeal, was clear. Though her office dismissed more than 1,400 cases and 1,400 warrants for low-level offenses in the last year, less than one half of one percent of people who had a case dismissed or warrant thrown out were rearrested for another crime, according to a memo provided by Mosby’s office. Overall, the number of people in the city’s jail fell by roughly 18 percent and nearly 40 percent fewer people entered the criminal justice system.
“There never has been any public safety value in prosecuting these low-level offenses,” Mosby told The Appeal. “And yet, for decades we’ve been incarcerating poor, Black, and brown people for [them].”
Several prosecutors across the country took similar measures last year to reduce the spread of COVID-19, though Mosby appears to be the first to make them permanent.
Now Foxx’s office says its policy may be here to stay. The office initially stopped prosecuting these cases for the “health and safety of law enforcement, first responders, medical professionals, and staff at the Cook County Jail,” Risa Lanier, chief deputy state’s attorney for the county, wrote in an email. Right now, as a result of case backlogs and “strained resources,” the office is prioritizing cases involving violent crime. “Because of this we are evaluating whether this policy should remain in place permanently and what, if any, other changes should also be made,” Lanier wrote.
The Brooklyn DA’s office, on the other hand, has already started rolling some of these policies back, spokesman Oren Yaniz told The Appeal. The office is still screening cases in an attempt to balance public safety and public health, Yaniz said, but is not strictly declining as many cases as it did at the beginning of the pandemic. Yaniz said the office will be diverting and dismissing low-level cases after the person is connected to social services, as it did before the pandemic.
In Seattle, while the short-term policies Satterberg announced last year have now lapsed, his office is offering a one-time diversion program to dismiss between 100 and 150 cases in order to address some of the backlog created by court closures during the pandemic. Satterberg also set up a community diversion program late last year and said his office was dedicated to sending at least 1,000 felony cases and at least 1,200 misdemeanor cases annually through the program to avoid prosecution.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 400,000 people in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 2,500 people incarcerated in state prisons have died from the virus. Public health experts have warned that prisons, which allow for little room for social distancing and generally provide limited access to proper hygiene materials like soap and hand sanitizer, have been among the largest hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks. Experts urged prisons to reduce their populations to try to mitigate the spread of the virus.
In Baltimore, more than 900 incarcerated people and nearly 600 staff members at prisons and jails have tested positive for COVID-19. Three staff members and one incarcerated person have died from the virus, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Mosby said her office worked with public health experts from Johns Hopkins University to come up with her declination policies. The pandemic, she said, “gave us the opportunity to be able to work with public health experts and to experiment and to say, ‘OK, let’s not prosecute these cases, understanding we don’t want to intensify the virus—and what will happen?’”
She also said that part of the reason she is making the policies permanent is to limit the interactions with communities of color and police in the face of the national uprising after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is on trial for murder, killed George Floyd last year. And not long ago, similar anger arose in Baltimore and across the country after the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody in 2015. Police, who forcefully apprehended Gray because he ran away from them, said they found him with an illegal knife. Officers placed him in the back of a transport vehicle—handcuffed, shackled at the feet, and without a seatbelt—and drove him around the city. By the time police finally stopped the vehicle, Gray’s spine was partially severed and he died a few days later. Mosby’s office charged six Baltimore police officers for Gray’s death. Three officers were found not guilty at trial and the charges against the other officers were ultimately dismissed.
In 2020, the Baltimore Police Department reported making nearly 800 arrests for personal possession of drugs. More than 440 of those arrests occurred during the first three months of the year. After implementation of Mosby’s policy, arrests fell substantially, and police recorded fewer than a third as many drug possession arrests through the first three months of 2021 as they did a year earlier.
“Prosecutors have to recognize our power to shape the criminal justice system and realize when we criminalize these minor offenses we expose people to needless interaction with law enforcement,” she said. “For Black people that can lead to a death sentence.”
Researchers and advocates have argued for years that more attention needs to be paid to the misdemeanor system, which ensnares millions of people each year but generally gets less public attention than the felony system. Roughly 80 percent of all criminal cases—more than 13 million annually—are misdemeanors, Harvard Law Professor Alexandra Natapoff told The Appeal.
“We cannot reduce mass incarceration without reducing the misdemeanor net that sweeps the vast majority of people into the system in the first place,” she said. New declination policies, she added, “are extraordinarily important” to that effort.
And there are indications that dropping low-level cases may actually increase public safety. In a study commissioned by Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, researchers from Rutgers University, Texas A&M University, and New York University reviewed more than 67,000 misdemeanor cases filed in the county between 2004 and 2018 and found that having a case dismissed decreased the likelihood that someone would be charged with another crime within two years.
Roughly 80 percent of all criminal cases—more than 13 million annually—are misdemeanors.
“It looks like now the emperor has no clothes,” Jody David Armour, professor of law at the University of Southern California, told The Appeal, referring to the study. The research, he said, “shows that broken-windows policing leads to more crime and not prosecuting low-level crimes leads to less crime.”
The broken-windows theory of policing suggests that minor crimes can snowball into more serious and violent crime when not addressed. It has led to the much criticized practice of “stop-and-frisk,” in which police stop and search people—often Black people—for contraband. In 2013, a federal district court found New York City’s stop-and-frisk program unconstitutional but broken windows-style policing has continued in some form, despite mounting evidence that it is ineffective. Notably, an NYPD officer killed Eric Garner in 2014 after stopping and attempting to arrest him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, a broken-windows type offense. Researchers at Northeastern University found in 2019 that neighborhood disorder does not encourage more serious crime.
For some in law enforcement, the argument can still hold sway. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told the Washington Post that officers had initially been resistant to the change and that he was expecting crime to rise as a result of the shift in prosecutions. But Harrison acknowledged to the Post that crime did not rise in 2020 after officers stopped making arrests and Mosbsy’s office declined prosecutions.
A growing number of DAs have been using their authority to decline prosecuting certain misdemeanors, even before the pandemic. In 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner directed his office to stop prosecuting people for prostitution, possession of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia in marijuana cases. In early 2019, Rollins, the Suffolk County DA, implemented a policy to not prosecute, except under certain circumstances, 15 misdemeanor charges, including trespassing, shoplifting, and disorderly conduct. During his campaign in 2019, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced his administration would not prosecute “quality of life” offenses like sex work, public urination, public camping, and blocking a sidewalk.
Mosby says simply dropping the cases is not enough. There need to be support systems in place to address the underlying causes of substance use and homelessness, for example, she said. Her office is working with multiple mental health agencies and groups that support sex workers to identify people who’ve entered the criminal legal system and connect them with services like a mobile crisis response team, mental health support, and access to medical services like medical detox and HIV and sexually transmitted disease testing.
“The one thing we always have done is default and stigmatize and criminalize, and it hasn’t worked,” Mosby said. “Now is the time, in light of everything we’ve gone through in the past year and has been brought to the center about reimagining the criminal justice system, now is the time to do it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Risa Lanier’s title. She is chief deputy state’s attorney for Cook County, not a spokesperson.
When I drive up to my field office each morning at 8:00 a.m., I often see over a dozen people who have taken refuge in the back parking lot to safely sleep. They notice my truck, begin to wake up, and pack up their blankets. I make sure to greet them each morning, because I’ve learned that something as simple as a “good morning” goes a long way.
No one living on the streets got there overnight. They are there because of trauma, abuse, unaddressed mental health problems, and failed systems. I hear from residents that “some people just don’t want the help.” I strongly disagree with that statement.
Since July, my office has gone forward at full speed to address the housing and homelessness crisis in San Antonio, and to understand what barriers keep people from accepting services. We brought on an intern to help us formulate an approach for addressing individuals experiencing homelessness. We took on a “boots on the ground” approach and had an outreach team meet with folks every day. We encountered situations after hours on a Friday, when weekly resources were unavailable and the only outlet of support left was 911.
And restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated existing and longstanding shelter problems. At the start of the pandemic, Haven for Hope, which can house over 700 people and offers services to about 1,700 people daily, limited access to only those who had previously been on the campus or could prove they were Bexar County residents. The Salvation Army, which can shelter over 200 people, had closed its doors. Restrictions to shelters were put in place to adhere to the health guidelines, which meant less access to safe spaces to take shelter and more individuals displaced on the streets across the city.
Shelters in San Antonio are largely inaccessible to those who need them. They require individuals to be able to care for themselves independently, pass a drug test, and remain sober. This is simply not the case for many who are displaced across the city. In addition to this huge hurdle, there are nowhere near enough available beds to support those who need detox support before entering a shelter. One such facility only has 28 beds—20 for men and eight for women. And the facility does not even specifically help those living unsheltered; it also takes patients in from a local hospital along with residents who are on Medicaid and Medicare.
Without shelters, people turn to encampments. But people living in encampments usually have three days, or 72 hours, to accept services from outreach specialists and outside agencies before their homes are cleared out by the city. People who are distrustful because of their lived experiences are now expected to trust a stranger they’ve just met with an offer to take them “somewhere” else. If they don’t go along, the consequences are to sit across the street and watch as their belongings are swept up and dumped into the belly of large garbage trucks. Any sense of security and property they had has been cruelly and abruptly ripped away from them while they are forced to watch it happen. Where will they go? Now that they have no tent, no place to lay their head, and no belongings, they are now back to square one.
Abatements sweep these folks from one area into another to make it look like the problem was solved, much like children who move the vegetables around their plate to make it look like they ate them.
In February, the city “cleaned out” a mass encampment under Interstate 37 that sprung up during the pandemic. According to outreach workers, the sweep displaced over 100 people, many of whom sat across the street, watching their homes be removed and trashed by solid waste trucks. Some just waited for the cleanup crew to leave and went right back; others moved on. Several individuals from that abatement relocated near my field office, which is approximately six miles from the encampment that was cleared out.
San Antonio needs a housing first approach to support our community experiencing homelessness. Housing first models are successful because they build a bridge of trust and safety between specialists and clients by removing the trauma of being on the streets from the equation. When support services are offered, clients feel safe and then lower their guard, opening themselves up to truly listen.
And the public agrees: A majority of likely voters in Bexar County want the city to provide housing for the homeless and housing insecure. According to a poll by The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, 62 percent of people surveyed said San Antonio should house people in underused hotel rooms, and 70 percent said the city should purchase underused buildings and convert them to housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Living on the streets means you live in a constant vulnerable state. The reality of it is truly overwhelming, especially when one is struggling with substance use and mental illnesses. In speaking with some of the people who have found shelter at my field office, they’ve candidly shared how their substance of choice is an outlet for them to escape their pain and numb them from the realities of their very real circumstances. This difficult state is where outreach specialists find the people who need help desperately.
Roberto C. Treviño is the District 1 representative for the San Antonio City Council. Treviño has served on the city council for six years and has used his time to advocate for better housing and infrastructure support for his community.
When Governor Ned Lamont extended Connecticut’s eviction moratorium in September, he added a new catch: Landlords are allowed to begin eviction proceedings in the case of “serious nonpayment” of rent, or against tenants who owe six months or more.
Each time the governor has extended the moratorium, he has included a new exemption that loosened restrictions for landlords to bring cases against tenants. But the Sept. 30 change is far broader and more troubling to housing advocates. It’s had “the biggest impact in expanding [landlords’] access to eviction court,” said Melissa Marichal, a staff attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.
Numbers gathered by her organization and shared with The Appeal show that eviction filings jumped from 198 in September to 308 in October and climbed to 599 in February. And although nobody was actually evicted last year from mid-March through July, 1,034 people were removed from their homes between October 2020 and mid-March of this year.
“For the first five or six months of the pandemic we were understanding and very supportive of people who were losing their jobs,” said Shelley White, litigation director at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association Inc. But then, in September, it shifted. “We just lost all sympathy for them.”
Lamont signed the eviction moratorium on April 10, permitting evictions only in the case of a tenant creating a “serious nuisance,” such as harming other residents. But when the governor extended it at the end of June, he added a new exemption for rent that was owed before Feb. 29, or before the pandemic began.
“That didn’t make any sense from the public health perspective,” said Marichal. Even if a tenant was struggling to pay rent before the pandemic, making her move in the middle of a public health crisis still risked the spread of COVID-19. Even low eviction rates have been found to spread the virus; moratoriums, on the other hand, reduce it.
Lamont again extended the moratorium toward the end of August and included yet another opening for eviction, this time for landlords who wanted to move into a unit as their primary dwelling. Marichal started seeing eviction filings from “landlords claiming that they wanted to move back into the unit, but it’s obviously very hard to disprove that intent,” she said.
Now, the latest version, Marichal said, “is going to place a burden on the tenants that are in the most financial distress.”
Marichal’s and White’s clients who face eviction under the exemption include those who’ve lost their jobs, who haven’t been able to enroll in unemployment insurance, or who’ve gone back to work but are making much less because of continuing pandemic-related restrictions.
White said she is seeing a “huge” number of cases where tenants aren’t showing up for their court dates, possibly because they believe they’re protected from eviction during the pandemic. Others may not know they can be protected, or may owe so much in back rent that they feel like there’s no chance they could ever pay it back.
Marichal has also seen cases where the tenant didn’t owe as much as six months of rent, but the landlord filed an eviction anyway. Many renters may have difficulty proving how much they’ve paid. “It definitely seems like it creates a perverse incentive a bit to claim that a tenant is more behind than they are,” she said.
That’s what happened to Courtney. She had just started a new business in Connecticut when the pandemic began and she had to shutter it. The lack of income made paying rent on her home difficult, but for many months, she was protected by the state moratorium.
Courtney was only three months behind on rent and had told her property manager she’d applied to a state rental assistance program. But once the serious nonpayment exemption was enacted in September, her property manager handed her an eviction notice anyway. (The Appeal is using a pseudonym for Courtney because she is still in court trying to get the eviction proceedings expunged.) “They still went forward with the eviction,” she said. “I just felt like they don’t care.”
Even after the rental assistance program paid back everything she owed, the property owner kept the case moving forward until Courtney called so many times the owner relented and dropped it. “It was like a mental abuse,” she said of the experience. She is baffled that the property manager thought it could get away with it. “How dare you rush it just because you can? ” she said. “How could you be so heartless, especially in a time like this?”
Those facing eviction in the state are also disproportionately people of color. Using data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, Marichal’s organization found that tenants in over half of the eviction cases filed in Connecticut between April 10 and Dec. 31, 2020, were Black or Latinx, even though these groups make up less than a quarter of the state’s population.
Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In a press release issued when he signed the extension with the exemption for serious nonpayment of rent, he said, “Public health experts at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] have determined that supporting renters and landlords during this public health crisis is critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19,” adding that “tenants who can pay their rent on time should do so, and landlords and tenants should work together to develop reasonable payment plans for these extraordinary circumstances.”
The governor also signed the September exemption before meaningful rental assistance could be distributed to tenants. In July, Connecticut launched a program to do so, but two months later, it had issued aid to only two families, despite receiving 30,000 applications. That was in large part due to burdensome documentation requirements and intake being paused just six weeks into the program’s existence. Lamont’s administration later promised to overhaul it, but the program closed in December with plenty of applications unapproved, Marichal said.
This month, the state launched a rental assistance program funded by $235 million from Congress’s year-end relief package, which will offer up to $10,000 per tenant who earns up to 80 percent of area median income, is at risk of homelessness, and has suffered job or income loss as a result of the pandemic.
But Marichal pointed out there will still be a wait time for applications to be processed. She argues the state should pause all evictions, perhaps except for serious risk of harm, until renters get a chance to get some relief. White added: “Why are we evicting people, why are we putting people out on the streets, when there’s an opportunity to get rental assistance?”
The CDC has issued a national moratorium on evictions that’s still in place and could, in theory, protect Connecticut renters from losing their homes, even under the state’s exemption. But tenants have to know about the protection and raise the issue with their landlords and the courts. Many are unaware and assume that they have to leave and move on their own when they receive the first eviction filing.
Even if tenants do raise the CDC protections with their landlords, judges in the state have allowed landlords or their attorneys to cross-examine tenants about whether they qualify. Some judges have decided that tenants shouldn’t be shielded from eviction, allowing the cases to move forward, Marichal and White said.
As is the case in much of the country, tenants who successfully fight off an eviction still have the initial attempt on their records. This makes it harder for renters to find new housing, as landlords are less likely to rent to someone with an eviction in their history. Under Connecticut’s latest exemption, a tenant’s unpaid and owed rent must be included in court filings, too. “It’s right there for any prospective, new landlord to see,” White said, whether the amount the landlord claims a tenant owes is accurate or not. “It’s almost a kiss of death for tenants being able to move.”
The clients that Marichal and White are assisting are the lucky ones, able to secure legal counsel in their eviction cases. Seven percent of Connecticut tenants have legal representation in these cases, compared to 81 percent of landlords. That could change if the legislature were to pass a bill creating a right to counsel in eviction proceedings, which would make Connecticut the first state in the country to guarantee such a right. Housing advocates are also pushing the legislature to pass a bill that would require all eviction records to be sealed, giving tenants a better chance of securing housing in the future.
The latter would help Courtney because the eviction attempt remains on her record. “That should never have happened,” she said. But, she added, “it’s easy to break something, but it’s hard to fix.”
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is taking steps to end the most severe penalties for some of the most minor traffic offenses.
On Monday, her office launched the Slow Traffic Offense Prosecution, or STOP, initiative, which allows people charged with minor traffic violations, like driving with a suspended license, to first come into compliance with the law and have their case dismissed, rather than face hefty fines and potential jail time. The initiative was developed in conjunction with the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
Under the STOP initiative, Mosby’s office will no longer prosecute cases where the person is charged with driving without a license, driving with a suspended license, driving without insurance, and driving with a falsified registration—so long as the person successfully completes a state-approved driver improvement program. The program generally requires anywhere from two to eight hours of class time and costs around $50.
Along with completing the program, people seeking to go through the STOP initiative must come into compliance with the law. For individuals without a license or who drove on a suspended license, this means legally obtaining a driver’s license, if permitted by law. For people charged with offenses like driving without a registration or insurance, they must either legally register the vehicle or obtain insurance.
People charged with driving on a suspended license because of a prior DUI conviction or because their license was suspended by the state Medical Advisory Board do not qualify for the STOP initiative. Cases involving a crash or victims also do not qualify for the program unless approved by the victim.
“We know that thousands of people every year will wind up with a driver’s license suspended, revoked, or canceled, and what they need is assistance to fix the problem and to address whatever the underlying cause might have been, rather than fines and jail time,” Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, told The Appeal. “Simply criminalizing that kind of conduct too often is going to force people to make a very difficult decision between driving themselves to work or their children to doctors appointments, or facing the threat of criminal prosecution.”
According to a memo announcing the program, Mosby’s office prosecuted more than 8,300 cases of driving without a license and more than 12,400 cases of driving on a suspended license in 2019. Driving without a license and driving with a falsified registration currently carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Driving on a suspended license and driving while uninsured can lead to up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a law that ends the practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid traffic fines and fees. The move was heralded by advocates as a step towards ending the cycle of poverty created by law enforcement and the courts.
Police disproportionately pull over and search Black people for low-level traffic offenses. A 2020 New York University study of millions of traffic stops nationwide found that Black drivers were 20 percent more likely than white drivers to be pulled over, and 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be searched.
Other top prosecutors across the country are ending police enforcement and criminal prosecution of low-level traffic infractions. Boulder County, Colorado District Attorney Michael Dougherty introduced a similar diversion program that allows drivers charged with low-level traffic offenses, like driving without a license or driving without insurance, to have their cases dismissed if they can show they have obtained a valid license or insurance. Hillsborough County, Florida State’s Attorney Andrew Warren implemented a program in 2017 where people charged with driving on a suspended license can have their cases dismissed by paying any back fines and fees. Warren said in November that his office has dismissed more than 7,000 cases under this program.
Mosby’s announcement is part of a larger movement among state and local elected officials to reduce the harms caused by police enforcement of traffic offenses. Earlier this year, Florida state lawmaker Omari Hardy introduced a bill that would take some traffic enforcement from armed police officers by hiring trained traffic monitors. In February, the Berkeley, California City Council voted to approve a sweeping set of reforms that prevent police officers from stopping motorists for minor traffic violations. Similar reforms were instituted in Oakland, California in 2016 and the number of traffic stops were cut more than in half, while overall crime also fell.
The STOP initiative “is a step in the right direction,” Krinsky said.
Sheila Nezhad Says Police Are Not the Path to Public Safety in Minneapolis
Nezhad, a community organizer, is seeking to unseat incumbent Jacob Frey on a platform of transforming public safety without police, providing housing for all, and addressing poverty through direct economic support.
Sheila Nezhad Says Police Are Not the Path to Public Safety in Minneapolis
Nezhad, a community organizer, is seeking to unseat incumbent Jacob Frey on a platform of transforming public safety without police, providing housing for all, and addressing poverty through direct economic support.
In May, millions of people watched a video of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the back of George Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes, killing him. “The first thing I saw before I saw the video was what I saw out on the streets,” said Sheila Nezhad, a policy organizer with Reclaim the Block who is running for mayor. “I went two blocks from my house on Chicago Avenue to join the community in protests.”
What could have been a moment of citywide unity—and an opportunity for the police to regain trust in the community—quickly turned ugly, Nezhad said. “I expected the police to be on their best behavior, but they came out of their squads with wooden billy clubs and big cans of mace in hand,” she said. “They were looking at the community with such contempt, such pure hate in their eyes.”
After several weeks of jury selection, the murder trial against Chauvin began Monday morning. Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter for killing Floyd.
But Nezhad believes institutions, like police and the government, also bear responsibility for Floyd’s death. “If there is an individual conviction, that is not enough,” said Nezhad. She pointed to the case of Mohamed Noor, who was convicted of murder in 2019 for shooting and killing an Austrailian woman while responding to a call for a suspected sexual assault in 2017. “We have sent a Minneapolis police officer to prison,” she said of Noor, “and that didn’t change anything.”
In recent years, Minneapolis has implemented several policies aimed at reforming police, including attempts to diversify the department, stricter body camera regulations, and ending “warrior-style” training. But Floyd’s killing—and the national uproar it caused—suggests there remains a long road ahead to ensuring true safety for the public, especially the Black community.
Nezhad hopes to lead the city in this effort. She is running to unseat Mayor Jacob Frey in November’s race, the first major local election since Floyd’s death, by advancing a platform of progressive populism, focused on reshaping public safety by eliminating the police department, emphasizing prevention, and addressing root causes of violence. Her policies are also aimed at making housing affordable for all people and ending poverty.
“I have a different theory of change about how we get to a safe Minneapolis,” Nezhad said. “It’s about changing the core conditions that lead to crime and harm happening and developing alternative ways of dealing with conflict that don’t rely on guns and cages.”
I have a different theory of change about how we get to a safe Minneapolis.Sheila Nezhad, candidate for Minneapolis mayor
For Nezhad, that means starting off by significantly reducing the role of police in society. Nezhad said most of the calls that police respond to are not violent crimes and could be better served by having trained professionals, like social workers and mental health teams, to respond to them. She said she also wants to see street-response teams and unarmed violence interrupters added to deal with potential acts of violence.
Nezhad and Reclaim the Block are part of a coalition gathering signatures for a proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would eliminate the police department. The proposed amendment would eliminate the current requirement that the city employ a minimum number of police officers—roughly one police officer for every 590 people—and would create a Department of Violence Prevention, which would replace most or all of the police department with a “holistic approach” to public safety. The City Council tried to undertake a similar effort last year but it failed. The council is trying again this year with a new proposed charter amendment that would maintain some police officers, while moving most responsibilities to non-police alternatives, like mental health and social workers.
Frey has been a serious impediment to police reform efforts, Nezhad said. She recently penned an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune opposing Frey’s decision to request that National Guard troops be deployed to the city during Chauvin’s trial. Frey’s request, she said, was an unnecessary escalation that would likely provoke violence rather than quell it.
“We need a mayor who can get on board with change and can work with the City Council,” Nezhad said. In December, City Council President Lisa Bender blasted Frey on Twitter after a combative budget process, saying he had threatened to veto the entire budget if it did not include funding for vacant positions within the police department.
“What I’ve seen is resistance from some of our city leaders, especially our current mayor, to changing the systems we have and the result of that is we keep seeing the same cycles of police violence and failed police reform over and over again,” said Nezhad.
But her plans go beyond policing. She aims to decriminalize sex work, drug use, and homelessness. “I think we need a mayor who can be accountable to working class folks, accountable to renters, to people of color, to Indigenous folks, and queer and trans folks,” Nezhad said.
The police department has been the “primary resource” for dealing with issues like homelessness, she said, which results in police breaking up encampments and displacing the people living there, while not addressing the underlying need for no-income and low-income housing.
“Over and over again, we saw the city deploying MPD to evict these people without giving them an alternate place to go,” she said. “So, it would just move from park to park to park.”
What I’ve seen is resistance from some of our city leaders, especially our current mayor, to changing the systems we have.Sheila Nezhad, candidate for Minneapolis mayor
Nezhad said to truly address public safety, the city needs to invest in solving problems like housing and homelessness, rather than continually sending the police department to deal with problems after the fact.
“That’s how we build safety, too, is through greater communication and showing folks that there is a path forward to building a stronger community, rather than our only path to safety is by having more officers on the street,” she said.
Nezhad said she supports investments in public housing as well as instituting a rent control policy that would create limits on the amount landlords could charge tenants for rent.
“Everyone deserves housing,” Nezhad said. “It’s a human right.”
Nezhad also said she supports addressing poverty through job training and direct support from the city government. She sees implementation of a universal basic income through direct payments to all residents in Minneapolis as a long-term goal but would like to see targeted financial support to people in need in the short term.
“We have the resources,” she said. Minneapolis has spent more than $1 million on fences and metal barricades ahead of Chauvin’s trial. “Imagine if we had put that $1 million into direct economic relief for families that are suffering right now. What would that have done to advance peace in the city?”
Now, the people of Minneapolis are taking it upon themselves to make the idea of fundamental transformation of public safety a reality. The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign, a coalition of advocacy organizations in the city area, are gathering signatures for a petition to place a proposed charter amendment on the November ballot. It would move police under a newly formed Department of Public Safety and eliminate a requirement that the city employ a minimum number of officers—one for every 588 residents.
“The Minneapolis residents have made it clear that they want something different,” Corenia Smith, campaign director for Yes 4 Minneapolis, told The Appeal. “They deserve safety and folks deserve to have a number and response team to call and receive care and dignity in that process.”
Smith said the new department would take a public health approach to public safety. “Being able to implement mental health responders, being able to have social workers – folks who are well versed in domestic violence prevention and able to deescalate – those are a lot of the services our city needs right now,” she said. “Being able to have better responses to addiction and substance abuse, people being unhoused and economically displaced, those are just not things police are equipped to handle.”
Smith said the campaign was on track to exceed its goal of 20,000 signatures by April 30, though only about 12,000 are needed to get on the ballot.
Several cities have taken up plans to reduce police budgets and rethink public safety since Floyd was killed. Earlier this year, Ithaca, New York Mayor Svante Myrick proposed a plan to fully disband its police department and replace it with a Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety that would include armed and unarmed civilian first responders. Lawmakers in Albuquerque are currently considering a proposal that would divert some non-violent calls from the police department to a newly formed Community Safety Department.
The Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign—which includes TakeAction Minnesota, Reclaim the Block, Women for Political Change, and Color of Change—is one part of a two-track effort to get a charter amendment on the ballot this year. The City Council is making its second attempt and passed an amendment similar to the campaign’s earlier this month. The city’s Charter Commission blocked the council’s amendment last year, saying it needed more time to review the proposal.
Elianne Farhat, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, placed the blame for the failed amendment on the commission and Mayor Jacob Frey, who is up for reelection in November. “They chose to slow it down and they chose to continue to play politics with people’s lives,” Farhat said.
By proposing an amendment through a petition, the City Council, mayor, and Charter Commission have less power to block or slow down the proposal. Under Minnesota law, the Charter Commission and City Council generally provide oversight that the petition was legally submitted and help craft the language of the ballot question but cannot change the substance of the initiative as long as the petition met all the legal requirements.
The Charter Commission has broader authority to approve, deny, or change proposals when dealing with recommended charter amendments created by the City Council.
Both Farhat and Smith said the City Council amendment and the petition proposal were not in competition but were aimed instead at making sure residents definitely have a proposed charter amendment to vote on in November. Smith said council members have agreed to drop their proposed amendment if the petition campaign is successful.
“Derek Chauvin and the officers who stood by Derek Chauvin while he killed George Floyd are part of an infrastructure that perpetuates a culture of violence and is operating totally unaccountable to the public,” Farhat said. “It is our moral obligation as citizens, as neighbors to hold that system and infrastructure accountable and transform that system into one that doesn’t do harm and damage but actually keeps us safe.”
Three years ago, when Larry Krasner took office as the Philadelphia district attorney, he was something of a pioneer. He had promised to combat mass incarceration and undo the damage done by his punitive predecessors.
And as his first term draws to a close, Krasner has delivered on several of his campaign promises: The number of people in jail in Philadelphia has fallen by nearly 30 percent. He has not sought the death penalty in a single case. He has prosecuted significantly fewer cases than his predecessors. He has reduced the use of cash bail and limited parole and probation terms. And he has reinvigorated his office’s conviction integrity unit.
“I think the short, concise version of it is promises made, promises kept,” Krasner told The Appeal in a wide-ranging interview. “That doesn’t mean everything got fixed but promises made, promises kept.”
Now Krasner finds himself in a high-stakes race for re-election. He is facing at least one other opponent, former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, in May for the Democratic nomination and will likely have a Republican challenger, criminal defense attorney Chuck Peruto, in the general election in November.
Critics on the right say Krasner’s policies threaten public safety and have caused a surge in violence in the city. Critics on the left argue that he has not gone far enough: His office still seeks cash bail and asks that people convicted of certain crimes be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or death by incarceration. Krasner’s office has at least once used the threat of the death penalty to resolve a case.
“We took a lot of heat,” Krasner said of his first term. “Oh boy, was there heat. But that is to be expected when you are in year 11 of a 30-year arc of being part of a movement for social justice. You take a lot of heat because you’re getting things done.”
Krasner was one of the first progressive prosecutors to capture the national spotlight, and his re-election bid will be a test for a movement that has grown and accelerated rapidly in the years since.
“As movement folks, we’re going to continue to build power together to arrive at solutions to problems that plague us,” Nicolas O’Rourke, Pennsylvania organizing director for Working Families Party, which is endorsing Krasner for re-election, told The Appeal. “When you have someone in the DA’s office, you want to make sure there is always someone who’s willing to share what’s going on, who’s going to provide transparency and accountability, and I think he’s done that.”
Krasner has drastically changed how the Philadelphia district attorney’s office had been pursuing and handling cases.
For nearly 20 years beginning in the early 1990s, Lynne Abraham led the office and became known as one of the “deadliest” district attorneys in the country because of how frequently she sought the death penalty. Her office also oversaw numerous wrongful convictions of Black and Latinx people for murders they didn’t commit. Krasner’s immediate predecessor Seth Williams sued newly elected Governor Tom Wolf in 2015 when the governor instituted a moratorium on executions. Williams said Wolf’s action was “flagrantly unconstitutional,” but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the moratorium later that year. Williams was released from federal prison about a year ago after pleading guilty to bribery charges in 2017.
“For far too long, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has been driven by a win-at-any-cost culture that prioritizes high conviction rates and harsh sentencing over more effective approaches that are proven to reduce crime,” Krasner’s first campaign website says. His platform included reducing over-prosecution by declining to take on “insignificant” cases and cases where the evidence provided by police wasn’t sufficient or legally obtained.
In 2018, Krasner’s first year in office, the number of cases brought by the district attorney’s office fell by about 6,000 cases, or roughly 16 percent compared to the previous year. Charges remained largely flat in 2019, and they fell by more than 8,000 cases in 2020 as police made significantly fewer arrests during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the first actions Krasner took was directing his assistant district attorneys in February 2018 to no longer prosecute possession of marijuana. The office prosecuted only one minor possession case the rest of that year. For comparison, the district attorney’s office prosecuted more than 400 people during the same time period a year earlier, The Appeal found.
You take a lot of heat because you’re getting things done.Larry Krasner, Philadelphia DA
Krasner has not sought the death penalty in a single case—another promise he made while campaigning. He also supported an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn the death penalty in Pennsylvania. In a brief to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Krasner’s office wrote that the death penalty disproportionately harms people of color and indigent people. According to Department of Corrections data, Philadelphians make up nearly a quarter of people on death row in the state. Of that number, 84 percent are Black and more than 90 percent are part of a racial minority group.
More than 70 percent of all death sentences imposed since 1978 were overturned on appeal, according to Krasner’s brief, and a majority of those cases were overturned because of ineffective counsel—often underfunded court-appointed lawyers or public defenders.
“It’s professional malpractice,” Krasner told The Appeal. “It’s professional malpractice planned by a system that was utterly unwilling to pay what it actually cost to do that litigation properly.”
Krasner said he supports giving people serving life sentences a chance at parole, and his office has supported commutations for people serving life. He has, however, prosecuted dozens of cases that have resulted in life without the possibility of parole sentences: In Pennsylvania, a conviction for first- or second-degree murder carries a mandatory minimum of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Since taking office in 2018, Krasner has collectively reduced future incarceration of people convicted of crimes in Philadelphia by more than 20,000 years, compared to what was imposed during the four years preceding his tenure. Future probation and parole sentences have been reduced by more than 81,000 years, according to data published by his office.
Krasner has also attempted to correct past harms by investigating and overturning wrongful convictions secured by his predecessors. In 2018, he hired Patricia Cummings to lead the office’s conviction integrity unit, which was started under Williams in 2014. Under Williams’s tenure, only three people were exonerated by the unit. Since taking over, Cummings, who had run a similar unit in Dallas, has helped exonerate 18 people, who served more than 350 years combined in prison for crimes they did not commit. Of those who have been exonerated, 11 were Black or Latinx people convicted during Abraham’s tenure and served more than 240 years combined in prison. One man, Terrance Lewis, was arrested and convicted of murder in 1999, and exonerated and released in 2019.
The district attorney, however, has faced criticism from the left and right for his office’s bail practices.
Krasner promised to stop asking for cash bail for people charged with nonviolent offenses and once in office, he stopped seeking cash bail in cases where the person was charged with any of a list of 25 offenses including forgery, drug possession, prostitution, and retail theft. “I actually had people tell me [the bail policy] was the end of civilization,” he said. “We had to listen to that nonsense for a year.” A 2019 study of the bail policy found it increased the likelihood a person would be released without having to pay bail or undergo pretrial supervision by 22 percent, without resulting in an increase in people failing to appear for trial or committing new crimes while out on bail.
But in March, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, his office instituted a binary policy to either request judges hold people pretrial if they are charged with certain violent crimes, or release people without cash bail. The office asked to hold any person it felt was a public safety threat, including people charged in a shooting, people charged with rape, and people with felony convictions charged with illegal possession of firearm. And it asked for extremely high bail amounts in those instances—$999,999. (One dollar more would have triggered certain holding conditions, Krasner’s spokesperson Jane Roh said, including requiring the person be held in isolation.)
Krasner explained to The Appeal that the policy, a response in part to the pandemic, is meant to ultimately keep fewer people in jail and to echo the model in Washington, D.C., where the use of cash bail has been essentially eliminated.
A 2019 study of the bail policy found it increased the likelihood a person would be released without having to pay bail or undergo pretrial supervision by 22 percent, without resulting in an increase in people failing to appear for trial or committing new crimes while out on bail.
But the result has inflamed tensions on all sides. Bail magistrates, judges who ultimately set bail and have been sued in recent years for setting it at unreasonable levels, only complied with Krasner’s nearly $1 million requests in 2 percent of cases, setting lower bail amounts in 90 percent of them, according to Roh. Krasner criticized magistrates for setting bail in an amount that the person charged is able to pay, amid criticism from his opponents on the right that some people who were released went on to commit new crimes.
In September, William McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at the time, held a press conference in which he attacked Krasner and blamed his policies for causing a “culture of lawlessness” resulting in violence.
Krasner has also become so much of a target of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, that the union has begun a campaign to get Republicans to change party registration so they can vote against Krasner in the May primary.
Advocates on the left are upset over the office’s continued use of bail and accuse Krasner of abandoning his commitments. Krasner has even found himself at odds with thecity’s bail funds following a report that alleged he was continuing to seek excessive bail even in some cases where the person was charged with minor offenses like drug possession.
Roh did not respond directly to the allegation but said the report lacked context. For example, the report says a higher percentage of cases were referred to the district attorney’s office for violent offenses but that is because the total number of arrests fell as a result of the pandemic, she said.
“We knew that this would be controversial, we didn’t know from whom,” Krasner said. “Sometimes the activist voice is a prophetic voice. It’s an absolutist voice. It’s a very, very ideological voice. It’s also an easy voice that doesn’t deal with the real flaws in the system or the reality that a decision has to be made right now about a human being and that person’s life right now.”
Hannah Sassaman, policy director for the Movement Alliance Project, told The Appeal: “The vision of this system that not just we but millions across this country are looking for is one where there is the right to be innocent until proven guilty and, unless there are no other circumstances that will keep that person or identifiable people in the community safe, for that innocent until proven guilty person to [be able to] fight their trial from home. That is the vision we were fighting for.”
Since Krasner has taken office, several other prosecutors who support decarceration have been elected. Chesa Boudin took office in 2020 in San Francisco and quickly took steps to eliminate cash bail in the city, reduce pretextual stops, and end the use of California’s three-strikes law. Late last year, George Gascón, Boudin’s predecessor, was elected and became district attorney of Los Angeles County—America’s largest county. Gascón ran on a platform to deliver many of the same reforms that both Krasner and Boudin promised.
“It’s really exciting to look around three years into the administration and realize 10 percent of all people in the United States reside in a jurisdiction with a progressive prosecutor and they elected that progressive prosecutor,” Krasner said. “A decade ago, that number would have been 0 percent.”
But now, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a summer of protests, and the rise of the defund the police and abolitionist movements, the man once dubbed the “most radical district attorney in the country” finds himself to the right of some of the most vocal activists as he begins his run for a second term in office.
“This is really where the tire meets the road. I am not an abolitionist,” Krasner said. “I do not think there should be no jails whatsoever. I do not believe there should be no cops whatsoever.”
For Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, abolition is the long-term goal. However, in the short-term, Holbrook said progressive prosecutors like Krasner are a form of harm reduction.
“I have to look at the big picture here,” Holbrook said. “It’s a culture change. Is it a culture that I want? No, I’m an abolitionist. Krasner is still going to prosecute, and I don’t agree with a lot of his prosecution. But, when I look at this office from a harm reduction [perspective], I see how it has changed.”
Holbrook was charged with murder in 1990 when he was 16 years old because he participated in a robbery where a woman was killed. The Philadelphia district attorney’s office at the time sought the death penalty against Holbrook, but he ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. He was released after nearly 30 years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional for people who were children at the time of their crime.
“As someone who that office tried to kill when he was 16 years old, it’s a 180,” Holbrook said of Krasner’s tenure, “and I can’t act like I don’t see that.”
Although Krasner said his office has made major strides in just three years, he acknowledged that the work was far from over.
“In every area, we have achieved,” Krasner said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re done.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified George Gascón’s title. He is the Los Angeles County district attorney, not the Los Angeles district attorney.
Now that President Biden has signed the American Rescue Plan into law, millions of struggling families will get some of the relief they have so desperately needed for the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents will have more money in their pockets to make ends meet for their families. Millions of children will begin to be lifted out of poverty. And state and local governments will be able to resist buckling under the pressure of stretched budgets and resources.
The American Rescue Plan means that relief is around the corner, and is a major down payment on a commitment to creating a more resilient, inclusive economy. Recovery, however, is not yet guaranteed: The U.S. will not reach full recovery until we reach full Black employment. For that, more will be required—including further rounds of major public investment to meet long-neglected priorities to address racial inequality in the labor market.
The Federal Reserve has a “dual mandate” from Congress: to aim for the lowest possible unemployment while keeping prices stable. To uphold the first part of its mandate, the Fed often looks to the official unemployment rate. The problem is that the official unemployment rate does not illustrate the full economic picture—it is mostly indicative of how white workers are doing, not of how allworkers are doing. Prominent economists, including Janelle Jones, who is now chief economist at the Department of Labor, and Jared Bernstein, a current member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, echoed this sentiment over the summer, calling on the Fed to focus on reducing the Black unemployment rate and address the employment gaps that persist between Black and white workers.
Black and Latinx workers are routinely hit the hardest by economic downturns, and the recession caused by the pandemic has been no exception. A deeper look at both current unemployment data and pre-pandemic numbers tells us that the economy has not worked for all of us for decades. Building back better means that we cannot return to this economy.
The pandemic exacerbated the already shocking levels of racial inequality in our economy. Last month, the unemployment rate for Black workers was a devastating9.9 percent while the unemployment rate for white workers was 5.6 percent. But a year ago, before the pandemic, the Black unemployment rate was 6 percent while the white unemployment rate was 3 percent—a major and troubling gap.
The disparities are even greater when broken down by gender and age. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Black women (age 20 and up) was nearly 9 percent in February, compared to just under 5 percent in February 2020. The numbers for white women were 5.2 and 2.8 percent. For Black men of the same age range, the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent, compared to 6 percent in the same time period last year. For white men the numbers were 5.3 and 2.8 percent. And for Black youth between the ages of 16 and 19, the unemployment rate was at a stunning19.8 percent this February while the rate for white youth was 13.1.
The significant gap between Black and white unemployment—about double throughout history—is a long-standing, systemic problem. For nearly 50 years, we have tolerated recession-level unemployment levels for Black workers while lauding low unemployment rates overall, as well as labor conditions and policies that have primarily benefited white workers. The Black unemployment rate is persistently double the white unemployment rate. It is long overdue that we set the standard for a new, more inclusive normal.
The U.S. cannot risk making the same major mistake it did during the Great Recession—declaring victory on economic recovery while Black workers remained excluded from the labor market. But the hand wringing has already begun from familiar conservative and neoliberal corners of the economy policy world, including Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, an austerian organization the holds more mainstream political influence than it deserves. These voices fearmonger about the federal deficit, inflation, and the national debt, and wrongly say that we risk overheating the economy.
The real risk remains going too small on public investment, failing to focus on the communities most devastated by our unequal economy, and cutting off the help we need to fully recover too soon. Ending or slowing the pace of public investment before Black workers can reap the benefits—like wage growth and a low unemployment rate—means that white workers will recover while Black workers won’t. This threat far outweighs the risk of inflation. We know from the aftermath of the Great Recession—and economic downturns before it—that it takes Black households longer than white households to recover financially. Add to this that the pandemic eliminated about a decade of job gains.
If we truly want to recover, we must reach full Black employment, and that will take the type of big, bold public action that we’ve long neglected. We must work to eliminate systemic barriers in the labor market, to start to overcome the racist policy choices that have made this economy fragile and unfair to the tens of millions of Black workers whose labor goes undercompensated and undervalued. For example, the reduction of jobs in the public job sector, a significant source of middle-class employment for Black workers, has hit the Black community hardest. Because the public sector is so critical to providing job opportunity and economic security, we must invest in funding state and local budgets.
We must finally deliver on an economy that meets the needs of not only this moment, but of those past and those to come. We have the money to spend, and what we cannot afford is an economy that allows such inequality to persist.
Ashley Mitchell is director of communications at Groundwork Collaborative.
A growing number of Americans now understand that misdemeanors, despite often being called “minor offenses,” can be devastating, especially for the poor and people of color.
One misdemeanor can result in hefty fees and fines or jail time, and even cost you your job, professional license, or housing application. Misdemeanor convictions reduce people’s earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars, roughly 16 percent annually, according to recent research by the Brennan Center for Justice.
And misdemeanor convictions disproportionately affect Black people. In 2019, Black individuals accounted for 35 percent of New York State’s misdemeanor convictions, despite representing less than 20 percent of the state population. By the end of a career, a white person in the U.S. with a criminal conviction earns an average of $49,000 a year, while a similarly situated Black person who has no criminal conviction earns $39,000 a year.
Reducing the number of people who carry these charges—more than 45 million nationwide—is vital, and New York has developed tools to do just that. But one such tool —pretrial diversion, which allows someone cited for a misdemeanor to avoid being chargedwith the offense—is underutilized, underfunded, and at risk of collapse because of budget cuts. That’s unacceptable, especially during a pandemic, where thousands of cases havespread through New York’s jails and prisons, endangering the lives of incarcerated people and corrections staff. City and state leaders should be taking every step possible to reduce the risk of incarceration for misdemeanor convictions, and that includes funding and expanding these vital initiatives.
Pretrial diversion works like this: After a person is cited for an offense and before they have been officially charged, they are offered an opportunity to participate in some form of intervention, such as counseling or group meetings designed to confront—and change—the behaviors that led them to be arrested. Upon completion of the program, the prosecutor declines to pursue the case, and the person’s record stays clean, without the corresponding consequences that misdemeanor convictions carry. By providing services instead of punishment, pretrial diversion can help people get back on track and protect their economic futures.
Until recently, one pretrial diversion program called Project Reset served all five boroughs in New York City. Like other initiatives, it aims to give people cited forspecific misdemeanors—including shoplifting, trespassing, and other low-level, nonviolent offenses—the option of participating in interventions like counseling sessions or community service to resolve their cases without conviction.
And it worked: By one count, Project Reset has helpedat least 3,976 people avoid becoming further ensnared in the criminal legal system since 2015.Studies show that young people who completed the program were significantly less likely to be convicted of a new crime within a year, compared to a similar group of defendants. Additionally, program participants reported that Project Reset helped them develop skills to manage challenging situations and chart a better path forward for their lives.
Yet despite its success and efficacy, several branches of Project Reset lost funding in October. As a result, its branches in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens eventually shut down, despitecalls for support from all five of the city’s district attorneys. And more cuts could be coming. Funding for the Manhattan branch is only secured until August 2022, and the City Councilhas yet to fund another year for the Bronx.
Letting Project Reset dissolve would be a mistake.Now is the time for the City Council and other leaders across the state to evaluate diversion programs and consider how to adapt them to their own jurisdictions. Although most pretrial diversion programs focus on misdemeanors, it’s worth exploring whether they could be expanded to cover even some felony charges.
This kind of intervention is inexpensive and cost-effective. New York City paid around $710,000 to run Project Reset in one boroughin fiscal year 2020. That’s a small up-front cost that pales in comparison to the potential long-term savings, and the city should reinvest in June when the budget comes up for debate. Indeed, city and state leaders should develop more programs like Project Reset, and they must keep them fully funded. A misdemeanor conviction can permanently harm a person’s future. That should be our last resort.
Diversion programs can help reorient the criminal legal system away from a framework that prioritizes punishment and toward one focused on rehabilitation, redemption, human dignity, and economic stability—an important step toward truly ending mass incarceration and its consequences.
Jackie Fielding is the Robina Public Interest Scholar Fellow and Counsel with the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.
Chloe Sarnoff is a public policy analyst at Robin Hood, specializing in criminal justice reform and housing policy.
Brandy Granados’s road to activism began in November 2018 when the heater in her Kansas City, Missouri, apartment exploded. She went without heat for two months during a winter that included multiple blizzards. She continued to pay rent, she said, but in response her landlord didn’t fix the heater; instead he tried to evict her and her children.
Desperate for help, she was connected with Tara Raghuveer, an area native who had returned after graduating from college with the goal of solving residents’ housing insecurity. “I figured I could either just sit there and be mad about my situation, or I could do something about it,” Granados said.
She was able to fight off the first eviction attempt in court, but the landlord removed her to retake possession of the house. She ended up in a homeless shelter for three months. The loss of her home has left her son suffering from anxiety and trauma.
By early 2019, she, Raghuveer, Diane Charity, and Tiana Caldwell would form the housing justice group KC Tenants. Since its formation, KC Tenants has changed the city’s political landscape, putting housing instability at the center of the conversation.
Raghuveer grew up in a wealthy white suburb outside of Kansas City. So when she returned in 2013 to study evictions for her senior thesis in college, “it burst this little bubble I had grown up within,” she said. The experience transformed the issue from an intellectual pursuit to “something I felt really compelled to take action around.”
I figured I could either just sit there and be mad about my situation, or I could do something about it.Brandy Granados, co-founder of KC Tenants
Charity has deep roots in the city and has been fighting slumlords and corporate landlords for decades. In 1991, her son was shot in the stomach and almost died, and it nearly prompted her to move, until she realized she wanted to stay and fight to make her neighborhood safer for everyone. She’s brought the same attitude to KC Tenants. “For every person we talk to, for every person that joins, we know we’re that much stronger,” she said. “There’s such strength in numbers and we can get this stuff done.”
KC Tenants held its first meeting of about a dozen people in February 2019. The next had 35 people, according to Raghuveer, the third attracted around 55, and the one after that had about 100 supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall to launch its housing policy platform. “We were off to the races,” Raghuveer said.
Since then, KC Tenants has become a force to be reckoned with, going toe to toe with landlords and lawmakers alike, most recently during the 2019 City Council and mayoral races. “There’s a really low bar for engaging in local elections because people just don’t turn out,” Raghuveer noted. KC Tenants aimed not just to increase voter turnout, but to get them activated on the issue of housing.
Members started showing up at candidate forums as a bloc, dressed in matching KC Tenants shirts with its recognizable bull logo. To get housing on the agenda, members disrupted the meetings and demanded that their questions about housing be answered. They sent their own housing questionnaire to every candidate, produced a voter guide based on the answers, and even held their own candidate forum.
They left a mark. Mayor Quinton Lucas, who made housing his key issue, beat nine other candidates in the primary and his opponent in the general. “They certainly played a role in not just my election, but in the City Council’s election,” Lucas said of KC Tenants. “I really appreciated their voice.” His interest in housing is personal: Lucas, who is Black, grew up with a single mother in Kansas City who is a lifelong renter and was sometimes homeless. He and his sister are also lifelong renters, and his sister has struggled to hold on to her home. He compared that history to a white ex-girlfriend who bought a house with the help of her parents. Housing policy perpetuates inequality in the U.S., he noted. “I’ve known that since my childhood.”
“I don’t agree with all of their tactics, I don’t agree with all they have to say,” Lucas said of KC Tenants. “But I sure as hell support somebody making a point about it.”
The group’s first major win was the passage of a Tenant Bill of Rights in December 2019. At first, lawmakers assured KC Tenants that they would write a bill and get it passed. “We told them, ‘No, you won’t. You won’t write us anything, we’ll write it ourselves,’” Charity said. The City Council eventually passed a legislative package based on KC Tenants’ work that, among other things, institutes a right to working amenities like water and heat and the right to form tenant unions, and that bans discrimination based on disability, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other factors.
The final bill did not include some provisions KC Tenants pushed for, like a ban on source of income discrimination that protects people who use housing vouchers and a requirement that evictions only be allowed for a just cause. Lucas contends that the choice was between dropping those provisions or not getting anything passed at all. “I take value in the 90 percent of their ordinance that we were able to get passed,” he said.
And the Office of the Tenant Advocate, created under the Tenant Bill of Rights, has yet to receive what KC Tenants says is adequate funding or staffing. The office didn’t get a mention in Lucas’s first budget proposal and has so far only received about $328,000, a fraction of the more than a million dollars that KC Tenants has requested.
Fresh off their policy victories, KC Tenants had to face something it never saw coming: a pandemic that cost thousands of city residents their jobs and incomes and put their homes at risk. Need for rental assistance jumped abruptly. KC Tenants quickly created a hotline that has since received thousands of calls from tenants seeking help. It launched a mutual aid fund in March 2020 that has raised over $51,000. It’s also distributed literature to at least 15,000 tenants’ doors informing them of their rights.
And the group has staged protest after protest. Activists physically blockaded the courthouse multiple times to shut down the eviction proceedings inside and dialed into remote hearings to disrupt them. It even staged a car caravan along the shoulder of Interstate 70.
There’s such strength in numbers and we can get this stuff done.Diane Charity, co-founder of KC Tenants
It’s been a rocky road. Although members of KC Tenants think their actions played an instrumental role in securing an eviction moratorium at the start of the pandemic, the moratorium expired at the end of May. Eviction cases were allowed to proceed even under the moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The group’s demand to cancel rent at the local and federal levels hasn’t been met.
“We got a dose of reality during the pandemic around how entrenched these systems are,” Raghuveer said, and that as the group takes on bigger and deeper problems, “it’s going to get consistently harder and harder for us to win.”
The frustration led to what KC Tenants called Zero Eviction January. Through a series of blockades and online protests throughout that month, the group delayed over 850 eviction hearings. It also rallied at judges’ homes to demand they stop hearing eviction cases. It was in the midst of that protest activity that Presiding Judge Dale Youngs signed an order halting the entire eviction process through Jan. 24.
The organization isn’t hitting pause after that significant effort. Members have decided to continue disrupting online eviction hearings with the goal of delaying them and buying time for tenants. “That was the biggest bang for the buck,” Raghuveer noted, as having a few people dial in can potentially disrupt hundreds of cases on a given day.
The group aims next to build its base by knocking on 500 doors each week, expanding its literature drops, and calling people who have faced recent eviction for a wellness check and invitation to join. The policy team is also working on a proposal to finance a housing trust fund—money that can be used to create and repair affordable housing—by redirecting funds from the police budget. The funding is one of Lucas’s campaign pledges that hasn’t yet been realized. Eventually the organization will get involved in the municipal elections in 2023—not just by interrogating candidates, but by running some of their own members for office.
Granados will be at the front of the fight. “I never thought I’d be a leader of anything,” she said. But she ended up helping to create an organization that has pushed the politics of her city in a new direction.
Between 2013 and 2020, the Philadelphia Police Department budget rose by nearly a quarter. At the same time, murders doubled, but police only solved half of all murders in the city.
Community members and lawmakers want to know why those who control the city’s budget—the City Council and the mayor in particular—keep funneling money into a department that they say is failing to keep the community safe.
During last summer’s protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the nation’s mayorsdrewscrutiny for their role as the elected official who oversees and sets the tone for the police department. But mayors are less often held accountable for ensuring police are fulfilling one of their core functions: solving the most serious crimes.
“Mayors are part of a political apparatus that is in many respects much more in control of these harms than the police are,” Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of nonprofit group Civil Rights Corps, told The Appeal. “The police are a bureaucracy wielded by local governments to achieve specific goals.”
In Philadelphia, despite ballooning budgets, the rate at which police solve the most serious crimes has plummeted over the last four decades.
In the 1980s, Philadelphia police cleared nearly 80 percent of all murders. Between 2010 and 2015, that number had declined to 65 percent before falling to below 50 percent in the years since 2016, where it has stayed ever since.
Clearance rates forassaults with a firearm have also fallen substantially from a high of 86 percent in 1969 to less than 20 percent last year.
As the city’s chief executive, Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, oversees the police department. He has the authority to hire and fire the police commissioner, to veto legislation passed by the City Council, and use his position to bring stakeholders together, said Diane Goldstein, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and a retired police lieutenant.
One area in which Kenney wields significant authority is in the city’s budget process. Each year in March, Kenney proposes a budget, but he also can influence the final budget passed by the council. Like all cities, Philadelphia has scarce resources. Therefore, when it comes to preventing and mitigating violence, the budget question is: Does the city allocate more dollars to the police department or, instead, provide resources to other critical community services and programs?
“Government budgeting is a reflection of the values of the city,” Goldstein said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to throw this money at the police and let them solve it, but that’s shortsighted.”
Kenney’s 2021 budget initially called for a more than $3 million increase for the police in March and then a more than $11 million increase in May while cutting funds to homeless services, public art programs, and mental health services. He scrapped both plans in favor of budget cuts after protests in the city, sparked by the police killing of Floyd in May.
Dave Kinchen, spokesperson for the mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention, said Kenney was not ready to discuss his latest budget yet, but the mayor was “committed to investing as much as we can in education and social services that prevent violence, while upholding our commitment to public safety and enacting necessary police reforms.”
Kinchen also pointed to Kenney’s successful 2017 effort to re-establish the city’s police advisory commission, which is supposed to investigate residents’ complaints about police and provide guidance for Kenney. But some City Council members have said the commission lacks authority to make any real changes. And Kenney himself proposed cutting the board’s funding by about 20 percent in his 2021 budget. (The final budget included a roughly 40 percent increase for the commission.)
Although the City Council voted to cut the police department’s budget by $22 million for the current fiscal year, it now stands at $727 million—the second-highest police budget in 20 years. For comparison, the city spends less than $160 million from its general fund on the Department of Public Health and less than $55 million on parks and recreation.
City Council member Kendra Brooks, who voted against the budget, questioned continually spending so much money on law enforcement, who she said has overpoliced nonwhite communities through excessive arrests for minor offenses like drug possession, yet underprotected them from serious violence. Since 2018, Philadelphia police have made more than 12,000 arrests for drug possession alone, according to data published by District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office.
“We’re writing blank checks and not getting a return on our investment,” Brooks told The Appeal.
A similar dynamic has played out in other major U.S. cities. In Houston, the police department’s budget has risen by nearly $300 million since 2013 despite murder clearance rates plummeting. In 2011, the department cleared nearly 90 percent of all murders and had never had a year below 55 percent. But, since then, the clearance rate has been cut in half and fewer than half of all murders result in an arrest.
Cleveland increased its budget by $10 million between 2016 and 2018 while solving less than 20 percent of murders during that time.
“When policing appears to be working, the argument is we just need more of that,” Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of “The End of Policing,” told The Appeal. “When policing doesn’t appear to be working, because crime rates are going up, then the argument is we just need more of it. No matter what happens, they will argue that’s a justification for more money for policing.”
Vitale described that dichotomy as a political problem that requires political leaders to push for solutions outside of policing to address violence and harms in the community. This includes providing funding for housing, public health services, and employment programs.
“[Police] are not held accountable for performance or lack thereof,” council member Brooks said.
Police have blamed a lack of cooperation from witnesses as the reason for the city’s low solve rate.
But community members should not be at fault for the police’s failure to solve crimes, said Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center. He called it a “cop-out” to blame the low solve rate on “a community that has been traumatized by the violence, has been traumatized by the harm, has been traumatized by mass incarceration and police.”
A recent survey found that a majority of Philadelphia residents did not believe the police department was good at preventing violence. The feeling was even more extreme in communities affected by gun violence. More than 80 percent of residents in those neighborhoods believed the police were bad or very bad at preventing violence.
“If you go to North Philly, Southwest Philly, where right now there’s wars going that constitute a majority of the homicides in Philly, you go down there with those statistics and they’re like ‘it’s always been like this,’” Holbrook said.
Frank Vanore, chief inspector of Philadelphia police, told The Appeal that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, “there were a lot of people who didn’t want to be a witness and had issues coming forward.” He acknowledged that lack of cooperation from witnesses was at least in part because of lack of trust between community members and police, and that the police department needs to undertake efforts to rebuild trust.
According to Vanore, the department’s homicide clearance for 2021 as of Feb. 17 was up slightly to 50 percent. However, the clearance rate was around 60 percent at the same time last year and the year ended below 50 percent.
The inability of police to solve violent crimes contributes to the community’s lack of trust and in turn an increase in violence, according to Richard Rosenfeld, criminologist at the University of St. Louis.
“People expect the police to protect them from crime and quite obviously from violent crime,” he said. “When the perception spreads that they are not able to solve those cases, that diminishes confidence in the effectiveness of police.”
Brooks, the Philadelphia City Council member, said that instead of continually increasing the police budget without seeing added benefits for public safety, the city could be putting some of that money toward addressing the root causes of violence by investing in quality education, reducing unemployment, increasing food security, and providing more stable housing.
The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a package of policy changes aimed at reforming policing in the city by reducing racial disparities in traffic enforcement.
“While Berkeley has a long history of progressive leadership, we are not immune from issues of systemic racism in policing and our criminal justice system,” Jesse Arreguín, mayor of the California city, told The Appeal.
Berkeley police will no longer be able to stop drivers for only minor traffic violations like equipment violations, expired vehicle registration, or not wearing a seatbelt. Instead, police will be directed to conduct traffic stops only for violations that endanger public safety, such as excessive speeding, running a red light or stop sign, and driving under the influence.
A person can still be cited for low-level offenses if they are pulled over for a public safety reason. For example, if a person is pulled over for speeding and they are driving with an expired registration, they will get ticketed for both, Arreguín said.
The Berkeley Police Association opposed the reforms, saying in a statement that they “will turn officers into filing clerks, gutting their much-needed time on the streets within our community.”
The policy package grew out of a working group Arreguín convened last year on fair and impartial policing, which formed after the release of a 2018 study by the Center for Policing Equity. The study found that Black and Hispanic people were more than six times more likely than white people to be stopped by the Berkeley Police Department while driving and more than four times more likely to be stopped while walking.
Between 2012 and 2016, Berkeley police also searched Black people at a rate nearly 20 times that of white people. Latinx people were searched more than four times as often as white people. Despite disproportionate stops and searches of people of color, police were significantly less likely to uncover contraband during those searches than during searches of white people, according to the study.
The new policies mean Berkeley police must also obtain written consent from motorists before doing a search without a warrant. The working group report cited research that showed requiring written consent reduced the number of warrantless vehicle searches by roughly 75 percent.
Officers are also no longer allowed to search a person who is on probation or parole unless the officer believes there is evidence of imminent danger, or that the person has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime.
California law gives police wide discretion to search all people on probation or parole, and people of color are heavily overrepresented among those under community supervision. As of the end of June 2019, nonwhite Californians are nearly twice as likely to be on parole as their white counterparts, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the U.S. Census.
Arreguín said the reforms would allow officers to focus on more serious and dangerous crimes—and the people who commit them.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the group Berkeley Copwatch presented a video that showed a recording of a Black man being shot by Berkeley police, as well as recordings of Black men on whom the group said Berkeley Police had used excessive force. All of the recordings were created during the last year.
NAACP Berkeley president Mansour Id-Deen told the City Council Tuesday that Black people “are people of lived experience” and “the lived experiences that have been dropped on our souls are not of our choosing.”
Neighboring Oakland instituted similar reforms and saw the number of traffic stops drop from more than 19,000 in 2017 to about 7,300 in 2019. The drop in traffic stops does not appear to have negatively affected public safety: Overall crime fell during that same time.
Arreguín said the city is looking at other ways to enforce low-level offenses, including investing in technology like cameras and automated license plate readers, and creating a department for minor traffic enforcement that would be staffed with unarmed officers.
“We are actually really serious about addressing racial disparities in stops, we have to look at why those stops occur,” Arreguín said. “We have to find a new approach and that’s what we are proposing here in Berkeley.”
For more than eight minutes in May, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the back of George Perry Floyd’s neck. Several officers stood by and made no effort to help as Floyd gasped for air and begged Chauvin to get off him until he died.
“We don’t feel like he deserved to die the way he did because he was a human being,” Floyd’s aunt Angela Harrelson, told The Appeal. “He will always be Perry to me, six-foot-eight comedian. I miss him dearly.”
In Minneapolis, lawmakers and advocates say Floyd’s death is a rallying point in a years-long effort to transform policing in the city. The killing—a painful scar that will be revisited shortly when Chauvin, who was charged with murder and manslaughter, will be tried next month—has pressed the case for reforms, like diverting law enforcement funds to social programs and non-police alternatives. Still, efforts to implement such changes have faced challenges.
“We might have been on a five-year track, or a 10-year track or a 25-year track, but we don’t have that kind of time,” City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents several northern Minneapolis wards, told The Appeal. “We’ve got to grow these programs now.”
Recent movement within city government to reform the police department began in November 2015, when Minneapolis grappled with another high-profile police killing of an unarmed Black man, according to Elianne Farhat, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing progressive policies in the state.
That month, officers shot and killed24-year-old Jamar Clark while responding to a domestic violence call. His death, the 2016 death of Philando Castile, and the 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond led to mass protests in Minneapolis, and police violence became a central topic during the2017 mayoral race.
Jacob Frey, then a candidate and now the city’s mayor, responded by calling for some reform, including more diversity in police hiring, and for police to live within the communities they patrol as a way to build the relationship between police and residents. “I want to make community policing more than just a catchphrase,” he said in 2017. “I want to give police officers the time to engage in the community and the impetus to do so.”
Once elected, Frey banned officers from taking “warrior-style” training classes, which critics say lead to officers using excessive and sometimes deadly force. In 2018, he and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo implemented new consequences for officers who failed to properlyuse body cameras.
But not enough has been done, said Farhat. “Minneapolis is in many ways the poster child for police reforms,” she said. “All the reforms that folks say are supposed to end police violence and improve public safety and trust, Minneapolis has tried and, as we saw in Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, failed.”
Frey did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment.
Floyd’s killing has created a new urgency in making significant changes to how police and public safety operate in the city, said Ellison.
Because the police department and a minimum number of officers—at least one officer for roughly every 590 residents—are enshrined in the city’s charter, the City Council alone cannot disband the police department; it must put the question before local voters.
Council President Lisa Bender took to Twitter after the passage of the budget and blamed Frey for blocking larger reforms. Bender said that Frey—who is up for re-election this year—threatened to veto the entire city’s budget if it did not include funding for 140 vacant police positions.
Sheila Nezhad, who is running to unseat Frey, told The Appeal that police violence “is one of the top issues I hear from constituents about.”
Nezhad, a community organizer, said she wants to fundamentally change how public safety is achieved by moving away from policing and investing in addressing root causes of crime and violence like creating stable housing, providing youth programming, and making mental health care accessible to all.
“Right now, we’re locked into a bad contract where policing is our primary model that we have to use,” she said.
Ellison said he intends to “drastically reduce the role police have and reinvent public safety altogether.” However, he said the City Council cannot agree on a clear path at this point.
In January, council members Phillipe Cunningham, Steve Fletcher, and Jeremy Schroeder introduced a plan aimed as a workaround to the concerns about state law with the original proposal to disband the police department. It would create a Department of Public Safety that includes the police department and would allow the council and mayor to change the size of the department as they see fit. It would also provide a path for eventually disbanding the use of police except for in a limited number of circumstances as required by state law.
But last week, the City Council voted unanimously to spend $6.4 million to hire dozens more police officers. The number of officers employed by the department has fallen by roughly 200 since Floyd’s killing as officers quit, retired, or took extended medical leave since late May. Ellison told The Appeal the money was allocated in the 2020 budget and does not affect the $8 million cut for the current fiscal year.
Farhat said “a person of good conscience and who cares about human life” can’t let “a system that allows for people to be treated and for Black men to be killed in the way George Floyd was to continue and not do anything.”
“You are either on the side of the status quo that hurts and harms Black and brown people or you’re on the side of changing it.”
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that repeals a decades-old statute that advocates say disproportionately targeted trans people who are simply walking or standing on the street. The legislation also automatically seals any previous arrest records under the statute.
“It’s a beginning of a new era,” said TS Candii, executive director of Black Trans Nation and a Black trans woman who has likened the statute—often called the “walking while trans” ban—to stop and frisk, the NYPD tactic of randomly stopping pedestrians to look for guns that disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx people.
The repeal of the 1976 law, which was ostensibly meant to target those “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” comes at a time when similar laws are being rolled back across the country. The Seattle City Council unanimously repealed a similar “prostitution loitering” law in June, and California lawmakers are considering pushing for a similar repeal this year. Activists have also started organizing against similar statutes in Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans.
Next, advocates in New York plan to move forward on efforts to make it the first state to decriminalize sex work. (A bill introduced in 2019 never advanced.) They’ll also advocate for a bill that would vacate sex trafficking-related convictions from people’s records, and push to defund the NYPD’s vice unit. And they’ll have to compete with a bill in the state legislature that decriminalizes sex work while still cracking down on sex workers’ clients, a model that advocates argue won’t protect them.
“We know we’re going to win because we have a majority” of the public’s support, Candii said. A 2019 national poll of registered voters shows a majority of voters support decriminalizing sex work.
The “walking while trans” statute repeal and sex work decriminalization legislation both stem from a growing movement for sex workers’ rights across the U.S. The same year the decriminalization bill was introduced in New York, another was introduced in Washington, D.C. In the recent election, a number of Democratic presidentialcandidates embraced the idea of decriminalizing sex work.
Although the “walking while trans” statute was intended to target sex workers, its vagueness allowed police to harass trans people of color, advocates say. A 2016 civil rights class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society alleged that 85 percent of people arrested under the statute were Black or Latinx, and that women had been arrested for “wearing a ‘short dress,’ ‘a skirt and high heels,’ ‘tight black pants,’ or ‘a black dress.’”
Those arrests and charges can make it more difficult to get government benefits or even employment, Candii said. “It leaves them more vulnerable.”
A surge of protests in New York after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, including a 15,000-person rally for Black trans lives last summer, helped bolster the movement to repeal the law. But reform has been a long time coming, the result of years of organizing and activism by Candii and others.
The law was passed when New York was trying to clean up its image and clear out Times Square, a popular area for sex work. Candii said the law was used again in the 1990s against LGBTQ youth of color to push them out of gentrifying neighborhoods like the West Village. “It has been affecting my community for 44 years now,” said Bianey Garcia, an organizer with Make the Road NY and a trans woman.
The Legal Aid Society sued over the law in the late 1970s. Organizations like Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment, or FIERCE, later started working against it. The law, Candii said, was “like old milk in a refrigerator.”
The movement picked up in 2018, the year that Congress passed two bills—Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Actor FOSTA, and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or SESTA—that sex workers say put them in danger because they led to the shutdown of personals sections.
“That really reenergized the sex worker community,” said Jared Trujillo, policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union and a former sex worker.
Advocates thought they had enough support to repeal the ban last spring, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, disrupting the legislative session. The repeal bill was never brought to the floor.
Still, Trujillo said, the Black and Latinx trans women leading the movement “made sure that they were not erased and that their issues mattered.”
“We kept doing things to make sure that the momentum didn’t die and this is something you couldn’t ignore,” Trujillo said.
Activists started “bird dogging” lawmakers, driving up to scheduled events and jumping out in front of the cameras to confront them about where they stood on the legislation, Candii said. “We had to meet them in the streets,” she said, showing them there would be “consequences” if they didn’t support it. They held lobbying meetings with lawmakers and weekly phone and text banks.
A key ingredient to their success was people sharing stories of their experiences with police harassment under the law. “Hearing about the true human cost to having the statute on the books really made a difference,” Trujillo said.
Still, “it was very hard for them to speak about this,” Candii said of trans people who were harassed or arrested. “To have to relive it, and relive those experiences, was traumatizing.” She also struggled when she spoke in public. “I was always nervous, my stomach was always flipping and flopping,” she said.
But the personal accounts made the issue urgent. “Sharing those experiences of how the NYPD stopped us, arrested us just for expressing ourselves, was very crucial,” said Garcia. “We just want to walk free through our neighborhoods, we want to go out and have dinner with our boyfriends or partners without there being arrests.”
Both Garcia and Candii say they have been harassed or even assaulted by police for being trans.
When Garcia was 18, she said, plainclothes police officers appeared suddenly from an unmarked van as she and her boyfriend made their way home from a bar. Garcia said they pushed her into a wall, emptied the contents of her purse onto the ground, and accused her of engaging in sex work. (Garcia had taken some free condoms from the bar before leaving.) The officers arrested her and she spent the rest of the day in jail, she said.
It was the first time she was arrested. “Because of my gender expression, the NYPD can arrest me just for being me, for being trans,” Garcia said. “I was so scared, so frustrated. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.” As an immigrant, she was afraid she would be deported.
Candii recalled leaving a shelter one day, when a police car rolled up beside her. The officer gave her two options, she said: become an informant or perform oral sex on the officer. She did the latter and avoided arrest, she said, but “the trauma, it’s still there.”
Now the repeal of the loitering law makes advocates optimistic that they have built the skills and connections they’ll need to finally decriminalize sex work. “You don’t really see a lot of laws passed that really prioritize trans folks,” Trujillo pointed out. “People who have traditionally not always seen themselves in politics, it lets them know how much political power they have. … It makes you feel like the wind is at your back.”
New York City Mayoral Candidates Blast de Blasio’s Housing Record
In a forum with people experiencing homelessness, Democratic candidates criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plans, embraced a ‘right to housing,’ and rejected police intervention on homelessness calls.
New York City Mayoral Candidates Blast de Blasio’s Housing Record
In a forum with people experiencing homelessness, Democratic candidates criticized the mayor’s affordable housing plans, embraced a ‘right to housing,’ and rejected police intervention on homelessness calls.
Several candidates running for mayor of New York signaled a sharp break from the city’s current approach to housing and homelessness during a candidate forum held Thursday evening.
In what organizers labeled a “first-of-its-kind” event, 10 of the 22 formally announced mayoral candidates, broken up into three groups, fielded questions from homeless New Yorkers.
Most of the participating candidates took the opportunity to rebuke current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s large-scale affordable housing development programs, which have mostly failed to reduce homelessness and rent for low-income residents during his two terms. The number of rent-burdened low-income New Yorkers and the number of people sleeping in shelters remained effectively unchanged from 2014, when de Blasio took office, to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Many instead advocated for more direct city intervention to get people experiencing homelessness into secure housing as quickly as possible.
“Housing first,” said candidate Maya Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio and former chairperson of the city’s police oversight agency. “Everybody is housing ready.”
Organizers saw Thursday’s forum as a small way to get homeless people a seat at the policymaking table. Shams DaBaron, also known as “Da Homeless Hero,” is an activist housed by the city at the Lucerne Hotel in Manhattan. He co-moderated the event with Corinne Low of the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, a neighborhood group founded to offer support to hotel occupants amid anti-homeless backlash. Several other New York-based advocacy groups were co-sponsors.
“Homelessness in particular is the kind of issue where a lot of the solutions are thought about in rooms that don’t include any people who are actually impacted by the problem,” Joseph Loonam, housing campaign coordinator for VOCAL-NY, told The Appeal. “[The forum has] really been led by, not just homeless New Yorkers, but specifically homeless New Yorkers that have … come under a lot of NIMBY-ist attacks.”
In August, residents of Manhattan’s wealthy and predominantly white Upper West Side launched a hostile campaign against the temporary placement of around 300 homeless men in the Lucerne—part of the city’s efforts to provide safe shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the residents threatened a lawsuit, de Blasio relinquished, agreeing to move the men to a new location and prompting outrage from housing and racial justice advocates. A series of legal battles have so far kept the men at the hotel.
The candidates, all Democrats, railed hard against de Blasio’s affordable housing initiatives. The mayor’s programs largely hinge on compelling real estate developers to produce “affordable” units along with their luxury and market-rate projects, but they have failed to increase housing stock that is accessible to low-income and homeless people. Despite building and preserving tens of thousands of units of varying affordability, the administration didn’t create enough new extremely low- and very low-income housing.
“The de Blasio administration … built affordable housing that was unaffordable to the people who needed it most,” said candidate Scott Stringer, who is currently the city comptroller. “He worked with luxury developers, gave them all the land, then, in return, hoped for affordable housing.”
Alternatively, several candidates voiced their desire to scrap de Blasio’s affordability metrics, eventually eliminate the shelter system, and implement a housing-first approach to homelessness—or, as Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, put it, “reimagine our ‘right to shelter’ as a ‘right to housing.’”
“Everyone that is currently in the shelter system or on the streets should be immediately housed,” said Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive who has spent much of her career developing programs for homeless youth. “If we had the political and moral will to make it happen, every single person could have access to a permanent home.”
In achieving universal housing, several candidates expressed a willingness to abandon the real estate industry as an equal partner. Morales, Stringer, and Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member representing Sunset Park in southwest Brooklyn, proposed increasing housing stock for homeless and low-income people by handing city-owned vacant lots over to nonprofit developers or land trusts. Wiley, the former police oversight agency chairperson, suggested taking over recently shuttered hotels and turning them into permanently affordable housing.
“I am skeptical of working with the private community,” said Menchaca. “There are a lot of strings that get attached, and a lot of bottom lines that are different.”
Joycelyn Taylor, owner of a contracting firm and founder of a nonprofit for minority- and women-owned businesses, agreed with that skepticism. “We have partnerships with corporate developers, and we see how that 75-25-percent deal is working out,” she said, referring to housing policies, like those under de Blasio, that have mandated that new private development projects include a certain percentage of affordable units. Such policies have yielded tens of thousands more middle-, moderate-, and low-income units than needed, and hundreds of thousands fewer very low- and extremely low-income units.
Not every candidate supported such aggressive government interventions, however. Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, denounced “divisive language” about corporations, and encouraged partnerships with business “to grow our way out of this.” McGuire’s solutions focused on increasing rental subsidies and vouchers, while Brooklyn borough president and former police officer Eric Adams focused on increasing subsidies and partnering with local faith-based institutions to develop new affordable properties—ideas seen as necessary but insufficient by most of the other candidates.
Similarly, many of the candidates expressed a need to end NYPD homeless outreach tactics, like those used during de Blasio’s now-defunct “diversion” program, through which police would refer homeless people sleeping on subways to shelters under threat of arrest. In addition to ending the criminal enforcement of homelessness, Wiley advocated for a “CAHOOTS model,” referring to the Eugene, Oregon, program that sends medical and social worker teams, rather than police, to assist people in mental health crises.
Kathryn Garcia, a former city sanitation commissioner, and Loree Sutton, former head of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services, disagreed, and argued that police should have a role in homelessness and crisis outreach—at which point DaBaron, the homeless rights activist moderator, decided to jump in.
“I’m a victim of the diversion unit,” he said. “They were telling me they were going to help me, and I submitted to the help, and I ended up in handcuffs. … The trauma from that experience, I mean, I don’t want to speak to it.”
“I completely am hearing your experience,” Garcia said.
New York will hold its primary elections on June 22.
Trump Turned the Justice System Into a Black Box. Biden Could Fix It
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has suffered from years of poor funding and political interference by the Trump administration. Fixing it could be one of the most important tasks on Biden’s criminal justice reform agenda.
Trump Turned the Justice System Into a Black Box. Biden Could Fix It
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has suffered from years of poor funding and political interference by the Trump administration. Fixing it could be one of the most important tasks on Biden’s criminal justice reform agenda.
As the Biden administration begins to implement its criminal justice reform goals, experts say that access to timely and accurate data will be essential for the success or failure of the administration’s agenda. Key to that effort is reforming the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nation’s main source of data on the criminal legal system.
“Your policies have to rest on something, and the outcome of your policies, the goals that you want to achieve have to be measurable,” said Peter Wood, chairperson of the Crime & Justice Research Alliance. “And if you have no data, how are you going to know whether what you’re doing is having an impact?”
But decades of poor funding have left the agency struggling to fulfill its mission as the nation’s official provider of data and statistics on police, prisons, jails, courts, and other components of the criminal legal system. And politically biased leadership during Donald Trump’s presidency contributed to delays in report releases and an atmosphere of censorship, former BJS officials told The Appeal.
The agency’s largest and most expensive data collection, the National Crime Victimization Survey, gathers information from households each year about the number and types of crimes they experience. Because the majority of crimes are never reported to police, the survey provides an important counterpoint to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which collects crime data from law enforcement agencies.
Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Prison Policy Initiative, says the BJS is one of the few sources of transparency for some of the criminal legal system’s most opaque institutions, such as local jails.
“Nobody else is putting that all together. That’s just a huge undertaking. So the BJS is really the only agency I can think of that’s positioned to give us big picture data about what’s going on in local jails, which is where we see some of the worst features of the criminal justice system,” Sawyer said.
According to Sawyer, BJS surveys also provide one of the few platforms that allow researchers and the public to learn from incarcerated people about their experiences with the criminal legal system.
“We get to learn about their family history. Do they have children? What are their medical issues?” Sawyer said. “Nobody can really collect that kind of data that’s nationally representative except for the government. They have so much access.”
Politicization under Trump
Under BJS director Jeffrey H. Anderson, appointed by the Trump administration in 2017 despite concerns that he lacked relevant experience, the agency’s publication pipeline ground to a halt.
New reports and data output plummeted, with much of it released years behind schedule. According to a former BJS statistician who worked under both Barack Obama and Trump, statisticians continued to write reports and collect data at roughly the same rate as before, but Anderson refused to release reports until he had personally reviewed them.
“[Anderson] would work on one paper at a time, and I mean one paper, and he would not pick up another one until that one paper was published,” said the statistician, who requested anonymity because they are considering working with the Department of Justice in the future. “[The publications unit has] probably got at least 50 or 60 reports, many and most of which are probably publication ready. Somebody could easily look at them and publish them. They’ve been edited multiple times.”
When he reviewed reports, Anderson edited them in ways that seemed to reflect political bias, the statistician said.
“There was, you know, an official list of banned words … certain things we couldn’t say, certain things that we couldn’t emphasize, certain headlines that they wanted to bury,” said the statistician.
Banned words and “politically roadblocked” topics included words and phrases like “re-entry” and research on access to legal representation, according to the statistician. In 2017, the Washington Post reported on a similar list of “language to avoid” at the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, including “substance use disorder,” “underserved youth,” and “overrepresentation of minorities (in the juvenile justice system).”
Before his appointment, Anderson was a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. He also briefly ran the 2017 Project, a political organization that sought to influence Trump’s agenda during his first year in office, before joining the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017. And he was a regular contributor to the National Review, where he penned “Why Trump Should Oppose ‘Criminal-Justice Reform,’” a May 2016 article that argued that criminal justice reform, along with immigration reform, was only supported by “D.C.-N.Y. elites.” The article also falsely claimed that crime rose during the Obama administration and incorrectly predicted that federal legislation that reduced sentences for some drug offenses would lead to a spike in drug crime.
Under Anderson, the BJS released reports and press releases that independent analysts and advocates said presented a misleading picture of crimes committed by non-U.S. citizens. “They painted this very rosy picture, unless it had to do with undocumented [immigrants] committing crimes,” the statistician said.
The agency also released reports that “fuel[ed] myths” and “overstate[d]” recidivism rates, according to Sawyer and other researchers.
Wood, the Crime & Justice Research Alliance chairperson, heard from multiple academics who complained about politicization from the BJS and its sister agency, the National Institute of Justice.
“They were being asked to change language in their reports, to remove language that they thought was appropriately descriptive, and then replace it with what arguably was language that might have a political bent to it,” Wood said.
Anderson did not respond to requests for comment sent to his personal email address and social media profile before publication.
This wouldn’t be the first time political concerns have influenced BJS research. In 2005, George W. Bush’s administration faced criticism after it fired then-BJS director Lawrence Greenfeld. According to the New York Times, “political supervisors” at the department asked Greenfeld to delete references to racial disparities in a press release announcing the results of a study on police and traffic stops. Greenfeld refused. In May 2017, he and three other former BJS directors wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging that he appoint a director who would support “evidence-based, data-driven policy making.”
Despite its importance, the BJS has been effectively flat-funded for years, meaning that its budget has not kept pace with the rate of inflation.
As a result, “the agency has for some years walked a tight line of small cuts of sample or measurement, short delays of publications, and temporary hiring freezes—each of these tolerable in itself, but cumulating over the years such that core functions have broken down,” according to a 2009 review of the agency by the National Research Council.
In the 11 years since that report’s release, the BJS’s budget fell from $60 million in fiscal year 2010 to $45 million in fiscal year 2021, a more than 30 percent reduction after adjusting for inflation.
“Other government research agencies do get properly funded and do have regular data releases,” Sawyer said. “I think that really reflects what a low priority criminal justice reform or criminal justice policy in general has been.”
Missing data has hurt researchers and policymakers
Politicization, mismanagement, and funding issues have left researchers and policymakers waiting, sometimes years, for basic information about the criminal legal system.
Policymakers would often call the agency asking questions that the agency wasn’t able to answer, the former BJS statistician said.
“Do you know how many times I was asked, how much did it cost to incarcerate somebody in this state for this? How much does this facility spend for mental health care? What’s the average cost for such and such?” the statistician said. “And I would just be like, ‘I don’t know. Nobody in the nation collected it.’”
Citations of BJS products in congressional records and testimony fell by more than 60 percent between fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2019 because of “a decrease in the number of reports released during that time period,” according to a DOJ report last year.
According to John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and author of “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform,” a lack of data has hindered reform efforts, particularly around what he calls the “middle” of the criminal legal system: prosecution and sentencing.
“In this time of a major push for ‘progressive prosecution,’ we’ve lost what little ability we had to see what prosecutors are doing, or to see how (or whether!) their behavior is changing, or what the impact of any such changes are,” he wrote in an email to The Appeal. “All these omissions make it really hard to figure out what is working and what is not, no matter where on the reform continuum one falls.”
Addressing these problems, of course, requires more money. In 2009, the National Research Council noted that “to fill any of these gaps in BJS’s portfolio would require increased and sustained support from Congress and the administration in terms of staff and fiscal resources.”
Although Congress voted to increase the agency’s budget by $2 million for 2021, it specified that the agency must use $3 million to fund a new study on suicide in law enforcement, effectively cutting funds for the agency’s other programs by $1 million.
The BJS budget accounts for less than 1 percent of the Department of Justice’s total spending and pales in comparison to what is spent on incarcerating people in the U.S. For perspective, doubling the agency’s now $45 million budget costs roughly the same as incarcerating 1,200 people in federal prison for one year. There are roughly 152,000 people in federal prison today.
Despite budget cuts, the next director still has ample opportunities to expand the BJS’s role as a resource for researchers and policymakers, said former BJS director William Sabol, who served under Obama.
During Sabol’s tenure, the BJS collaborated with other federal agencies and used open-source resources, such as reports of police shootings collected by media outlets like the Washington Post, to gather more data on arrest-related deaths. It found more than 100 deaths that were never reported in the press during a three-month period in 2015.
The BJS can take a similar approach in the future, according to Sabol. For instance, he suggested that the agency could use records of arrest and prosecution (“rap sheets”) collected by state governments to answer questions about prosecution and sentencing, an approach some researchers have used to estimate the effect of guilty pleas on sentence length.
“My guess is that’s not a one-year project, it’s a multi-year project,” Sabol said. “It’s like planting trees, and the metrics are the fruit.”
Sabol also suggested that the BJS could shed light on police funding by combining data on police expenditures from the Census Bureau with its own information and that of the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the FBI. The data could help researchers and the public better understand why police budgets have remained high even as crime has approached historic lows in many jurisdictions: Are agencies hiring more officers? Buying more equipment? Expanding their civilian workforces?
“There’s a whole slew of efforts that could rely on expanding this data-collecting community,” Sabol said. “The same thing could happen in corrections, jail, all that.”
Regardless of how the BJS expands its data portfolio, Wood says that simply getting more data would be a huge boon for policymakers.
“You need the best data that you can get in order to have effective policy and find out whether it’s working or not, or whether it’s counterproductive,” Wood said. “To the degree to which the information you’re getting is seven or eight years old, or has some political taint associated with it, that’s a problem.”
Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a recent audit of the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) revealed the organization misused nearly $3 million in funding intended for public services programs.
Since 2007, the association had used the money—meant to help prosecutors in handling complex cases, including environmental and worker safety violations—to pad its general revenue fund, which pays for, among other things, lobbying, media, and political campaigning.
The funding for these public service programs is usually obtained through court settlements and judgments, and these restricted funds are what sustain the programs. This practice of “borrowing” funds drained the CDAA accounts that cover these special programs and left prosecutors in Madera County without support in a fight against a company mishandling hazardous waste. It also left at least 10 other counties with pending cases without the necessary resources to tackle them.
Though the CDAA published the audit’s findings on its website in December, the full audit, made public by the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests that the CDAA board was in no rush to correct the misappropriation. In June 2020, the group’s CEO presented the results of an internal investigation to the board, under the leadership of then-President Nancy O’Malley, the Alameda County District Attorney, showing that $2.88 million had been misappropriated. It wasn’t until August, under new leadership, that CDAA retained a financial consulting firm to perform an independent audit.
Californians can’t let this behavior stand. The attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the audit, but the office must also conduct a full investigation. Governor Gavin Newsom should request that the misappropriated funds be returned to the state so that it can serve its intended purpose of holding big corporations accountable for harming workers and the environment. The governor should also remove the CDAA as a leader of the newly announced task force fighting unemployment insurance fraud. And I am calling on my colleagues in the California legislature to ensure the integrity of our criminal legal system and hold a hearing to investigate the misconduct of these elected officials and the misappropriation of public funds.
The CDAA’s misconduct is simply more evidence that the association has no interest in promoting justice, as its mission states. Instead, it lobbies to subvert the will of the voters, attacks progressive prosecutors, keeps in place the tough-on-crime laws of the past, and, evidently, misappropriates public funds to do so. It’s past time that the state steps up and holds the group accountable for these actions.
It appears that the CDAA’s real purpose is to fight every criminal legal reform that comes to California. While it lobbies behind the scenes to water down reform legislation, the association’s public face is also one of vehement opposition to any policy with the potential to reduce California’s prison population. It opposed laws that would prevent children under 16 from being tried in adult court, protect sex workers who come forward to report crimes, overturn a draconian felony murder rule that allowed DAs to charge accomplices with murder despite no involvement in the killing, and fight racial discrimination in jury selection.
CDAA also fights progress at the ballot box, consistently campaigning against ballot initiatives, including ones to remove harsher punishments for non-violent crimes, reform the state’s “three strikes” laws, allow earlier parole, and grant rehabilitation credits for reduced sentences.
CDAA’s campaign to stymie any significant criminal justice reform even extends to attacking other California district attorneys. When progressive George Gascón was elected Los Angeles County District Attorney, he was immediately challenged by judges and other prosecutors, who filed alawsuit in response to his new directives. Last week, the CDAA filed an amicus brief in the case against him and, in an open letter, cited overblown “concerns” that Gascón’s directives around bail, sentencing, and parole “subvert our system of justice.”
The California District Attorneys Association has proven that it is not interested in justice, does not respect California voters, and is not even up to the task of managing a public service program without corrupting the process for their own gain. It’s now up to the state to hold the CDAA and its board responsible.
Update: This commentary was updated to reflect that the audit said the CDAA funds were misused, not misappropriated. It was also updated to reflect that the CDAA published the audit’s findings in December, before the San Francisco Chronicle published the full audit. And in an email, following the publication of this commentary, the CDAA said that the two months “it took to initiate the audit was due entirely to soliciting bids to perform the audit.”
Sydney Kamlager is a state assemblymember, representing California’s 54th district.
Mercy delayed was mercy denied for Bruce Norris. The 69-year-old man died Saturday while waiting for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to approve his application for commutation from a life sentence in prison.
Norris was unanimously recommended to Wolf by the Board of Pardons in December but was still waiting for Wolf to act when he tested positive for COVID-19 last month, according to thePhiladelphia Inquirer.
He is at least the 94th incarcerated person to die from the disease in Pennsylvania prisons and at least the 12th at State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.
“The tragic and avoidable death of Mr. Norris while awaiting his commutation should trouble the soul of every Pennsylvanian,” Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania policy director for FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), told The Appeal.
Norris was arrested in June 1975 for participating in a robbery in which a man was killed. He was tried and convicted four months later and ultimately sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The board heard his case in September 2019 but delayed a final vote for more than a year before recommending him to Wolf.
Norris, a father or three, earned a degree fromVillanova University during his incarceration. He was one of 13 people the Board of Pardons recommended for commutation from life sentences in 2020. Of that group, Wolf has only signed off on one recommendation.
“Inaction has real-life consequences,” Trusty said. “Mr. Norris’s family should be planning years of birthdays, holidays, and celebrations together. Not a funeral.”
Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s press secretary, said applications for commutations do not go straight to the governor after being approved by the Board of Pardons. Instead, they go through a legal review first and then are considered by Wolf individually.
She noted that the number of applications for commutations have increased since Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who is chairperson of the Board of Pardons, took office in 2019. No additional resources were allocated for staff to process those applications, she said, so “there is no ability to process the recommendations any faster.”
However, Wolf approvedsix applications in 2019 in less than 50 days, including three applications that he signed off on in just 32 days.
Seven of the people recommended by the board last year have been waiting more than 150 days for Wolf to take action. Charles Goldblum, whose application went through legal review nearly a year ago, has been waiting for more than 500 days.
Although Wolf has to wait for the Board of Pardons to recommend applications for commutations, he can unilaterally issue reprieves, which allow for the temporary release of people in prison. Advocates have called on him to issue more reprieves to protect vulnerable people in prison from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to Norris’s death, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which provides independent oversight of conditions in jails and prisons in the state, has urged Wolf to approve or deny all of the remaining applications for commutation within 14 days.
“We call on Governor Wolf to act immediately on the many clemency recommendations sitting on his desk,” Claire Shubik-Richards, the prison society’s executive director, told The Appeal. “Especially during a pandemic, this lack of action and seeming indifference is inexcusable.”
A new working paper from researchers at Duke University has found that policies that secured access to housing and utilities like water and electricity played a major role in preventing COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Counties with a moratorium on evictions reduced county-level infections by nearly 4 percent and led to 11 percent fewer deaths, the paper found. And policies that prevented the disconnection of utilities like water and electricity brought infections down by a little more than 4 percent and reduced deaths by more than 7 percent.
“We know from research that not being able to pay your water and electricity is the first signal that a household is headed towards being at risk of eviction,” Kay Jowers, co-author of the paper and senior policy associate at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, told The Appeal.
She noted that in some municipalities, utility cutoffs can act as a de facto eviction because some states and municipalities require running water or other utilities to be active for a home to be deemed inhabitable.
“This shows how important it is to public health that we have access to housing and water and electricity overall,” Jowers said.
Housing insecurity and evictions make it difficult for people to social distance and isolate themselves because they force people to become reliant on living with someone else or rely on using another person’s home or public areas for running water, she said. Lack of running water also makes it more difficult for people to do basic mitigation efforts like proper and frequent handwashing.
This leads to greater infections from increased exposure, which is then compounded as people in the household go out in public to their jobs or shop for necessities.
It is that compounding effect, Jowers said, that constantly and exponentially increases the number of people exposed to COVID-19 who would not have been if people were able to remain in their homes and if they had access to things they need inside the home.
And the effect grows over time. “More infections yesterday means that we’re going to have more infections today,” said Jowers. “More infections in the last two to four weeks, means you’re going to have more deaths today.”
Although the CARES Act, passed by Congress in late March, provided a reprieve on evictions for some people living in federally backed properties, the first national eviction moratorium did not go into effect until September when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its guidance. Even then, the CDC moratorium only provides protection for people who can’t pay rent because of a financial hardship that happened during the pandemic. State and local governments also implemented their own moratoriums.
Jowers and her colleagues found that if a national moratorium on evictions and utility cutoffs had been implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, the rate of death would have dropped nearly 56 percent compared to if no policies were ever implemented.
A study published in December byPrinceton University’s Eviction Lab estimates that national and local eviction moratoriums prevented 1.6 million evictions since March. Despite this, landlords filed evictions against more than227,000 people from their homes in five states and 27 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab. Last week, more than 4,500 evictions were filed in those areas, and even these numbers are a potential undercount.
Advocates across the country have been pushing local, state, and federal officials to protect people from evictions during the pandemic. In Philadelphia, advocates set up two encampments in public parks and moved people into unused public housing units. Other groups have formed renters’ unions and even physically blocked access to courthouses and disrupted proceedings to help prevent people from losing their homes.
More than 25.6 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of today, and more than 429,000 people have died from the disease in the United States. For perspective, even a 5 percent reduction in deaths would have meant more than 20,000 fewer deaths.
“The benefits of these policies, it’s not just to the housing insecure or the housing precarious,” Jowers said. “It’s to us all.”
New Jersey Could Force Cuomo’s Hand on Pot Legalization
The New York governor has released a plan to legalize marijuana, months after voters in the Garden State approved legalization in November. Advocates say the pressure could have ripple effects regionally.
New Jersey Could Force Cuomo’s Hand on Pot Legalization
The New York governor has released a plan to legalize marijuana, months after voters in the Garden State approved legalization in November. Advocates say the pressure could have ripple effects regionally.
New Jersey was one of four states to legalize recreational marijuana in November, and advocates say the move is likely putting pressure on surrounding states to act.
Two days after New Jersey’s ballot initiative passed, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo renewed calls for legalization. His plan, details of which he released on Jan. 19, would allow for retail sales of marijuana. Cuomo had been calling for marijuana since 2018, after opposing it for years.
“The idea that the New York legislature would be sitting there and watch the towns of Hackensack and Union [New Jersey] reap all the tax benefits from all of Manhattan’s marijuana sales, I don’t think is going to sit very well with them,” Chris Goldstein, regional organizer for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told The Appeal.
Pressure of revenue lost to neighboring states could also push Pennsylvania to legalize marijuana, advocates suggest.
Officials in the state are already embracing reform. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has embraced legalization as a central issue. He went on a 67-county listening tour about legalization shortly after taking office. According to a report published by Fetterman’s office shortly after the tour, 65 to 70 percent of attendees supported recreational marijuana legalization.
Fetterman also successfully lobbied Governor Tom Wolf to support legalization publicly. Wolf had opposed legalization in his first term but changed course after Fetterman was elected.
“New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are very much one big political region,” Goldstein said. “This is the most densely populated area of consumers. Arguably this region is the biggest market for marijuana in the country.”
Some advocates of legalization welcomed Cuomo’s proposal but said it did not go far enough.
Melissa Moore, state director for New York at the Drug Policy Alliance, said she applauds Cuomo for continuing his push to legalize marijuana but said she had concerns with his current proposal.
The plan projects that legalization would draw $300 million in tax revenue to the state annually, a figure competitive with that of New Jersey. Part of that money is slated to be used for “social equity purposes” and reinvested in “areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs.” But aside from calling for expunging old marijuana convictions, Cuomo’s plan provides little detail about how he will address those harms.
According to Moore, the allocation of funds for social equity purposes in this iteration of Cuomo’s proposal was “in response to the organizing that has come from the advocacy community and the clear damage that has been wrought by the war on drugs in New York.” But she said the money was only a fraction of what was needed and falls short of other plans in the state legislature.
Under Cuomo’s plan, while people 21 or older would be able to purchase marijuana, sales to people under the age of 21 would be classified as a felony. It is currently a misdemeanor to sell a small amount of marijuana to a person between 18 and 21 years old.
Eli Northrup, a public defender and policy counsel to the criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, told The Appeal that Cuomo’s plan raises the maximum penalty for selling or even sharing marijuana with someone over 18 but under 21 to more than two years in prison from three months in jail.
“I assume what they’ll say is they want to crack down on youth usage, but marijuana is illegal right now for everybody,” Northrop said. “It shouldn’t be more illegal after it’s legalized.”
A 2019 study found no link between legalization in other states and increased use by children. In fact, the study’s authors found some indication that legalization of recreational marijuana actually led to a decrease in children using the drug.
A law passed in 2019 in New York decriminalized the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and allowed for the expungement of some prior convictions. About 160,000 old convictions for possession of small amounts of marijuana are expected to be expunged under the law.
While arrests for marijuana possession in New York have fallen precipitously in recent years, they still fall disproportionately on Black people. In New York City, 60 people were arrested in the third quarter of 2020, but 41 were Black and 17 were Latinx. Court summonses were also disproportionate: Over 800 Black people were given summonses during the third quarter of 2020 compared to 58 white people. The disparity persists upstate. According to data from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, about 12 Black people were arrested in 2017 for every one white person in upstate cities.
Support for legalization hasrisen sharply. In the early 2000s, only a third of Americans believed marijuana should be legal, while 60 percent opposed legalization. By 2019, the reverse was true: According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans now support legalization.
Advocates, like Northrup, have called for the passage of Senator Elizabeth Krueger’s marijuana regulation and taxation act that has been introduced in the New York Legislature every session since 2013.
Like Cuomo’s plan, the bill allows legal sale of marijuana to people 21 and over. However, the bill differs in a few key areas including allowing home cultivation and home delivery and it does not increase the penalties for prohibited sales. Krueger’s bill also provides that half of the net revenue be reinvested in communities most affected by marijuana prohibition.
Retail sales of marijuana have not begun in New Jersey because Governor Phil Murphy declined to sign bills that roll back criminal punishments for marijuana possession and set up the legal framework for retail sales passed by the legislature in December.
Earlier this month, Murphy and lawmakers signaled a potential end to the stalemate with new legislation that would clear the way for sales.
“Marijuana laws are still affecting people in housing, in family court, in immigration,” Northrup said. “People are being stopped because police say they smell the odor of marijuana on the streets of New York. The New Jersey [legalization] brings a sense of urgency, but there should be a sense of urgency because these laws are really unjust the way they’ve been used to target certain communities.”
COVID-19 is ripping through jails and prisons in the U.S. Over 355,000 people held in jails and prisons have been infected with the disease, according to the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, of which I am a part. At least 2,000 incarcerated people have died.
Now Los Angeles County has become the epicenter of the coronavirus, and its jail population is suffering. As of Thursday, the sheriff’s department has reported 4,136 cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people and 12 deaths of incarcerated people from the disease.
Despite the high numbers of COVID-19 cases, people are spending more time in LA County jails than before the pandemic. According to a UCLA School of Law report I co-authored, 41 percent of people held pretrial were in jail for six months or longer as of Sept. 10. Before the pandemic, in January 2020, that figure was 35 percent. These delays for incarcerated people threaten their constitutional rights to a speedy trial and access to counsel, and expose them to a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
Two issues in particular have contributed to more people sitting in jail awaiting trial during the pandemic. First, the former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Kevin C. Brazile, issued nearly a dozen orders in 2020, which delayed trials from March through September and created a backlog of at least 7,000 criminal cases. Second, the failure of the sheriff’s department to minimize exposure in the jails has caused people to be quarantined, leading to people missing court dates and having difficulty getting access to counsel, which often lead to delays in release.
Responsible officials should be doing everything possible to decrease the number of people in jails and the time they spend there, rather than letting people languish in dangerous and deadly conditions. That entails releasing and prioritizing jury trials for those in custody. If court and jail policies and practices are not immediately and significantly altered, the rates of COVID-19 in our jails will steadily increase, potentially leading to more deaths and further community spread.
In writing the report, we reviewed state and local policies on pretrial release and quarantining practices, local jail data, and over 400 accounts submitted between June and September from people incarcerated in Los Angeles County. A harsh picture of reality emerged: Over half of people we heard from who were being held in jails were incarcerated pretrial and a staggering 66 percent had underlying health conditions, placing them at high risk if they contract COVID-19. Eighty-eight percent of the incarcerated people had been placed in quarantine or isolation at some point, and nearly two-thirds stated they had missed court dates.
One individual incarcerated in an LA County jail reported missing seven court dates because of being exposed to COVID-19 numerous times. Another person was held pretrial for over a month after a judge ordered him released because he was placed on quarantine.
The sheriff’s department has repeatedly allowed people inside to be exposed to deputies moving between dorms and to people whose test results have not yet been returned. After this exposure, if a later test comes back positive, or someone begins to display symptoms, that housing unit is immediately quarantined. The exposure and the subsequent quarantine are preventable, and yet both are happening at alarming rates.
Our analysis shows that this prolonged detention heavily affects Black and Latinx communities, who make up the largest percentage of the jail population and who often face unaffordable and higher bail amounts than their white counterparts. While 34 percent of the white jail population was incarcerated pretrial for six months or longer, that figure was 40 percent for Latinx people and 44 percent for Black people, according to our data analysis.
Jailing people for longer periods of time during a deadly pandemic is unconstitutional and unacceptable. In law school, we are taught that speedy trial rights and access to counsel are paramount. It is disturbing to see how utterly false this notion is in practice in our state and county when it comes to people who are incarcerated pretrial.
LA County has a duty to protect all of its residents and abide by the Constitution. Local officials need to immediately reduce the jail population by releasing people pretrial (with special attention to those who are medically vulnerable), stop the overreliance on quarantine practices that prevent people from attending multiple court dates, and prioritize jury trials for those held in custody. Although LA County resumed jury trials in September for a brief period, the Superior Court continues to issue extensions that delay trial dates for weeks. This means that people will continue to be held pretrial for unacceptable periods and exposed to COVID-19, well into the new year.
Too many people are suffering, and too many people have died. And the more the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons is ignored, the more we also endanger those on the outside. LA County must depopulate its jails and uphold the rights of those who are imprisoned to prevent the dangers of further illness and death.
Amy Munro is a third-year student at the UCLA School of Law.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland published a report today detailing continued officer misconduct in the Baltimore Police Department, despite promises of reform following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
According to the report, complaints were submitted about more than 1,800 officers between 2015 and 2019, a period that coincided with a Department of Justice investigation and the implementation of a federal consent decree. More than 400 officers have been “the subject of at least one complaint of physical violence against a member of the public.”
A complaint is any allegation of misconduct submitted by a resident or internally by the department. The report notes that a complaint “does not imply that the officer has committed a crime, or that the officer committed the offense for which the complaint was submitted if it is not listed as sustained.” The report only lists officers with 15 or more complaints.
According to the police department’s data, available through the law enforcement transparency tool Project Comport, officers who had complaints had an average of 6.5 complaints each between 2015 and 2019. In the past 12 months, about 20 percent of officers have received complaints, according to the data. The department has about 2,600 officers.
The report also documents use-of-force incidents among officers, or each time an officer used force, which could mean anything from restraining someone to discharging one’s weapon. Over 90 percent of officers’ use of force between 2015 and 2019 was targeted toward Baltimore’s Black residents, who account for more than 60 percent of the city’s population.
“Although a few officers will undoubtedly continue to be arrested and charged with criminal behavior,” the report reads, “countless others will escape responsibility, and be known as a danger only to those in the neighborhoods they patrol.”
The report, written by ACLU of Maryland public policy counsel Joe Spielberger, makes officers already notorious in Baltimore’s overpoliced yet underserved communities known to the world. In Maryland, where even basic information about an officer’s internal affairs file is shielded by the state’s Public Information Act, the report is a rare accounting of misconduct.
Using anonymous complaints and use-of-force incidents that Baltimore police uploaded to Project Comport, Spielberger was able to identify and name specific officers with misconduct complaints by cross-referencing the data with news articles, court databases, and other publicly available information.
“Although Project Comport was only able to release a fraction of BPD’s internal affairs data, I was still able to comb through and analyze more than 13,000 misconduct complaints, and more than 22,000 use-of-force incidents,” Spielberger said. “And I found that by sorting by an officer’s identifying number, their unit, personal characteristics, and circumstances around a specific incident, I could identify them by cross-referencing with other sources.”
The Appeal has reviewed the report and detailed some of the allegations against a number of officers named in the report.
Steven Mahan is among the officers with the most complaints—86 over the five-year period Spielberger looked into.
Mahan was implicated in a 2016 arrest that made headlines the following year, after body-worn camera footage of the arrest was released to the media. Defense attorney Joshua Insley identified Mahan in the video, which shows officers including Mahan searching a car for drugs, finding none, and turning their cameras off. Thirty minutes later, their cameras are turned back on after and an officer is then seen finding drugs in the car. Mahan still works for the Baltimore Police Department.
“It’s cyclical: BPD has aggressive cops who get caught and they pretend to go into reform mode and soon people forget about it and they do it again,” Insley said.
Another officer involved in that arrest was Charles Baugher, who according to the ACLU report, has had 48 complaints, including seven excessive force allegations. A 2017 federal lawsuit filed by Baltimore resident Charles Feagin alleged that in 2015, officers including Mahan and Baugher punched, tackled, and slammed Feagin to the ground during an arrest. Baltimore settled the lawsuit, paying out $15,000 in January 2019.
This month, on Jan. 8, Baugher was indicted on two counts—for second-degree assault and misconduct in office—as a result of a 2019 incident in which he allegedly grabbed a 17-year-old by the neck and pushed him against the wall and slammed him to the ground. The teenager was recording an arrest. Baugher is currently suspended with pay.
According to Open Justice Baltimore, a nonprofit group focused on using data analysis to increase police accountability, Mahan and Baugher have worked on 402 cases together.
Like Mahan and Baugher, former Baltimore police officer Joseph Donato is well-known to residents who have encountered him and to the defense attorneys who represent them. Between 2015 and 2019, Donato has had 66 complaints—11 of them involving excessive force—according to the report.
In 2017, public defender Deborah Katz Levi obtained Donato’s Internal Affairs file and cross-examined him during a pretrial hearing in which many complaints against him were made public for the first time. Among them was a case in 2009 where Donato allegedly entered a man’s home without a warrant and, according to the man, beat him with a walkie-talkie. Photos taken after the incident and presented to Donato in court show the man with his chest and jeans drenched in blood.
“The records that were admitted in court at least demonstrated a pattern of abusive conduct, a pattern of bias, a pattern of violence, and instances of failing to report misconduct,” Levi told The Appeal. “That’s what the records showed and what was not regularly disclosed.”
Donato was subpoenaed more than a dozen times after failing to appear in court for subsequent hearings and left the police department soon after the hearing. Misconduct complaints against Donato continued to be submitted after his departure.
Another former officer Levi frequently confronted in court is Fabien Laronde, who between 2015 and 2019, had 52 complaints, according to the ACLU report. Thirty-five of those complaints were sustained, three of them for assault and three for theft.
According to Open Justice, Nagovich and Donato had 272 cases together.
It's cyclical: BPD has aggressive cops who get caught and they pretend to go into reform mode and soon people forget about it and they do it again.Joshua Insley, defense attorney
The report cites a 2019 study conducted in Chicago that found “officers who are partnered or in units with officers who have high numbers of excessive force complaints are more likely to receive such complaints themselves in the future.”
Indeed, seven of the eight members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force now serving federal prison sentences are named in the report for their high number of complaints. Members of the task force were federally indicted in 2017 for robbing citizens, stealing drugs, and dealing drugs. Wayne Jenkins, the task force’s sargeant who is currently serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison, is listed as having 227 complaints with 36 of them sustained, including six for false imprisonment and four for theft.
“You look at this report and there are these officers that everybody’s known about for years,” defense attorney Ivan Bates, who ran for state’s attorney in 2018, told The Appeal. “And the thing that’s always gotten me with BPD and the state’s attorney’s office: You know about these officers, do something.”
The report also names police officers whom activists have been trying to expose. In 2018, in the aftermath of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, the police abolitionist group Baltimore Bloc released a list of officers that it believes should also be investigated. That list included Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz and Edward Creed, both of whom are also in the ACLU of Maryland’s report.
Bernardez-Ruiz, who had 18 complaints between 2015 and 2019, was involved in the high-profile death in police custody of Tyrone West in 2013 and just weeks before West’s death, the beating of Abdul Salaam. Last year, a 2016 video of Bernardez-Ruiz surfaced showing him kneeling on a man’s neck and removing his gun from his holster as a crowd of people gathered. In July, the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office said it would review the video and the police department said it would investigate Bernardez-Ruiz, who was promoted to sergeant in 2020.
According to the report, Creed had 56 complaints. In October 2017, Baltimore City’s Civilian Review Board investigated a complaint based on a video that “revealed sever[e] misconduct,” according to the board’s meeting minutes. Additional Project Comport data, provided to The Appeal and de-anonymized by Spielberger, appears to show the complaint was against Creed for false arrest and planting evidence. A person familiar with Creed’s cases also verified the complaint was about him. Internal Affairs investigated and found these accusations “unfounded” but the review board noted “that the officer had a negative reputation in the community,” and recommended Creed be terminated. In 2018, Internal Affairs investigated Creed for abusive/discriminatory language and excessive force, but found the complaint unsustained. The board, however, recommended termination again. He was not fired and remains with the police department.
Creed has frequently worked with Sharod Watson, who according to the report has had 40 complaints between 2015 and 2019. Watson is also one of the few cops named whose record is explored further in the report. The report notes that in 2017 Watson “lied on the witness stand by falsely claiming to have seen a defendant ‘on a daily basis’ and witnessing him selling drugs, even though the defendant was already in jail at the time.” Watson admitted under oath that what he said was “factually impossible.” Internal Affairs investigated the perjury complaint and ruled it was not sustained. Watson is still with the department.
According to Open Justice, Creed and Watson have worked 401 cases together.
The report also challenges claims that the “bad apples” are on their way out and rookie training is different and more effective.
Another officer listed, Luke Shelley, joined Baltimore police in February 2016, less than a year after he was deployed to the city as a member of the National Guard during protests over Freddie Gray’s death. Shelley was profiled by Baltimore’s ABC affiliate and held up as an ideal new recruit for a department marred by poor morale, corruption, and low enrollment.
“I want to be where the challenge is and where the need is for good police,” Shelley told the station.
According to the report, Shelley has had 28 complaints as well as 67 use-of-force incidents over three years and eight months.
“It is only the names that change,” the report says. “The cycle continues, uninterrupted.”
Following the release of the report, the Baltimore Police Department provided a statement to The Appeal challenging the report. BPD spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge told The Appeal that the report “misidentified” allegations by referring to them as complaints. She also noted that the report included complaints, regardless of whether the department found them unfounded, not sustained, or exonerated.
Eldridge also said that the department “cannot confirm” the report’s methodology but would be “reviewing all of its contents.” The department will not be releasing information about any of the officers named, she said, citing the Maryland Public Information Act.
“While it is certainly important to identify officers who should not be on the force,” Spielberger said of his report, “the larger goal must be to transform the whole system of policing to prevent further harm.”
Toward that goal, the report says, “contact-tracing research would help identify newer officers who are more at risk of causing harm because of working alongside seasoned officers with high complaint totals.” It also recommends improvements to the police department’s early intervention system, or EIS.
EIS is supposed to flag cops who accrue misconduct complaints in order to curb bad behavior, but the report says the system remains “inadequate at intervening with problematic officers.” One example the report gives is Akeem Nelson who “had a sustained DWI complaint in 2015, and remained on the force after subsequent complaints for excessive force, sexual misconduct, and theft before he was arrested for a hit-and-run in March, 2020.” Nelson remains a Baltimore police officer.
Officers who should have been flagged by the EIS generated more than a fifth of allegations submitted between mid-2018 and the end of 2019, the report says. BPD did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment about EIS and why officers named in the report remain on the force.
The release of the report is timed to coincide with Maryland’s legislative session, which began Wednesday. Spielberger encourages legislators to “reform the Public Information Act” and “repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights,” or LEOBR, controversial legislation that allows police officers unprecedented workplace protections.
“LEOBR deals with protecting officers. [The Public Information Act] reform deals with how police agencies do their jobs, what kind of info is accessible to the public,” Acevero said. “Access to police misconduct records would not only provide the public and communities with relevant and important info about those policing their streets but would allow for the rooting out of the problem officers.”
Levi has long argued that much of what is considered “personnel records” should be public.
“People refer to these as ‘confidential personnel records’ and they don’t really know what’s in them and what’s in them is patterns of abuse, patterns of deceitful conduct,” Levi said. “These are not records that in anyone’s imagination we would want to protect from the general public.”
The information contained in the ACLU of Maryland’s report could be easily available if police were compelled to release it. For now, it only exists because of Spielberger’s months of data-crunching and database cross-referencing.
“I hope that this report helps reinforce and validate the experiences of Black residents and communities in Baltimore City who have known the names of BPD officers and what they’ve done,” Spielberger said. “Even though internal departmental policies and practices have not held them accountable.”
Update: This article was updated to include the number of police officers employed by Baltimore Police Department and to include BPD’s response to The Appeal’s requests for comment.
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 theCenters 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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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 receivingnecessary treatment. Instead of addressing these issues, government officials have blamedBlackpeople 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.
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.
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.
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 thePhiladelphia 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.
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 aphone 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 onestudy, 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.
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.
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 Parédisputed 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 Appealthat 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.
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.
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 decreasethe number of people in jails and prisons. Other states, for example, suspendedcash 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.
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 onlythree commutations since the pandemic began and onlyfive 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.”
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 releasedearly 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.”
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 theHarrisburg 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 theelimination 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 appointedBrandon 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 hiredGeorge 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 beena 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 butchanged 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TheDA’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.
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.
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.
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, aformer 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.”