There’s no other way to put it: 2017 was bleak. Bleak because the country’s top public health organization is now prohibited from using the term “science-based.” Bleak because we’re surprised that a man accused of sexually harassing and assaulting young girls — and extols slavery — lost an election. Bleak because the President of These United States stood in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson and made a joke about Pocahontas while “honoring” Navajo Code Talkers. Bleak because all of these developments happened within the past month alone.
The criminal justice system took a hard beating this year — especially at the federal level. The Department of Justice’s head honcho, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directed all federal prosecutors to seek the harshest charges possible in every criminal case, scaled back police department investigations, bolstered civil asset forfeiture, put military-grade weapons back in the hands of local police, and expanded the federal government’s role in immigration enforcement. Important crime statistics — including arrest data — were stripped from the FBI’s annual crime report, which is typically used to assess national trends and develop potential solutions. Police officers are still getting away with killing unarmed civilians.
Yes, this year was one of the worst in recent memory. But what if we told you there’s reason to hope — that there is still some good to latch on to?
Well, there is. Here are 11 criminal justice victories to prove it.
Scientists, juvenile justice experts, and courts agree that kids and teenagers are different from adults. The part of the brain associated with decision-making is still underdeveloped, which renders them immature, reckless, and impulsive. They are also heavily influenced by environmental factors, including family dynamics, trauma, and income instability. But children across the country are still being prosecuted as adults in federal and local courts — sometimes automatically, sometimes at the discretion of a prosecutor or judge. This year, New York and North Carolina passed legislation to “raise the age,” and will no longer automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Instead, these teenagers can legally be processed in the juvenile justice system, which is better equipped to assess and tackle young people’s unique needs and aims to be rehabilitative, not punitive.
Way back in 1974, the federal government passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, agreeing that there should be a basic set of guidelines for approaching incarcerated youth. As outlined by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, there were four major tenants of the legislation: youth shouldn’t be locked up with adults, they shouldn’t be prosecuted as adults, they shouldn’t be prosecuted for offenses that wouldn’t be considered crimes if committed by adults, and there are racial disparities among detained youth that need to be reduced. With these ideas in mind, JJDPA gave the federal government an opportunity to create a path for states and municipalities to follow — and fund them accordingly. But Congress has failed to reauthorize and update it since 2002.
In August, the Senate finally voted in favor of a bill to reauthorize the legislation, following passage of a sister bill in the House last year. Now that both houses have advanced legislation, they will hold a conference committee to consolidate the bills and send a final version to the President. But the fact that Congress is addressing JJDPA at all, after 15 years, counts as a victory.
In case you missed it, the Supreme Court has ruled, twice, that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional. In accordance with these rulings, many states have agreed to eliminate the harsh sentence, resentence those locked up before the landmark decisions, and put parole back on the table. But, as Jessica Pishko wrote in The Nation, it is remarkably difficult for convicted lifers to get out of prison. Some prosecutors just push for another life sentence or another lengthy sentence with parole as an option down the line. Waiting for a parole board to review a case can take years, and release comes with a major condition that people who claim innocence have to grapple with: an acknowledgment that they are responsible for the crime for which they’ve spent a lifetime behind bars.
Despite these challenges, some have made it out. There’s Bobby Hines, who, at age 15, was sentenced to life without parole in Michigan for his connection to a murder. He didn’t pull the trigger, but has spent the last 28 years behind bars because prosecutors said he was responsible for the killing. There’s Earl Rice Jr., who was 17 at the time he was locked up in Pennsylvania prison for a robbery gone wrong. Rice has spent the past 43 years in prison because a woman he stole a purse from fell to the ground and fatally hit her head. There’s also Giovanni Reid in Pennsylvania, who was found guilty of conspiracy in relation to a murder when he was 16. While the numbers are still small, these three count among dozens given another chance by the Supreme Court and states acknowledging that kids are kids.
For years, Annie Dookhan served as a drug lab chemist, helping prosecutors build thousands of cases in Massachusetts. But, by her own admission, she tampered with evidence, wrote false reports, failed to complete vital drug tests, and lied about her credentials. In April, prosecutors decided to drop over 21,000 cases tied to Dookhan — many of which were prosecuted in Boston — rather than spending countless dollars and resources to retry all of them.
In November, prosecutors dismissed another 6,000 cases due to chemist Sonja Farak’s illegal activity in another crime lab. In addition to tampering with evidence, Farak stole and used drugs from a lab at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and conducted most of her eight years of work while high.
Louisiana has long been known as the Incarceration Capital of the World. In 2014, it had the highest incarceration rate, with nearly 40,000 people behind bars. Now, there are about 36,000. As the state mulled over ways to fix this bleak reality, I (John) was lucky to be one of many people to testify before the state’s House Judiciary Committee about mass incarceration’s disastrous impact on the population — and the whopping price tag that comes with it. In June, the legislature finally did something about the problem, passing a massive reform package to reduce the prison population by 10 percent in 10 years at the urging of Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The package includes a number of sentencing and parole reforms. Mandatory minimums were gutted for various offenses: theft, arson, drug possession, and others. Judges now have more discretion to sentence violent offenders and repeat offenders. Prosecutors have more discretion to send people to diversion programs as an alternative to prison. There are no more automatic parole terms for low-level offenses, and judges can now shorten probation terms for some violent offenders and repeat offenders.
Last month, Democratic candidate Larry Krasner not only won the race to become Philadelphia’s next district attorney, but he won close to 75 percent of the vote. Krasner, who once called himself “completely unelectable,” has long been a thorn in the side of law enforcement. He notoriously sued Philadelphia officers for civil rights violations 75 times. He has also spent much of his decades-long career fighting for activists who have been criminalized by the government. His platform was also one of the most progressive ones to date. He promised to end death penalty sentences, the prosecution of cases that involve stop-and-frisk, civil asset forfeiture, and cash bail for nonviolent offenses. He vowed to treat addiction as a public health problem, to prosecute police engaged in misconduct, and to protect immigrants.
With their overwhelming support, local voters declared that reform is necessary in the U.S. city with the highest incarceration rate and rampant police abuse. The victory also continued a slow but growing national trend of prosecutorial candidates running on platforms to rethink and scale back tough-on-crime policies that have contributed to the bloated carceral population.
New York City is famous for jailing thousands of criminal defendants pretrial — the vast majority of whom can’t afford bail — at Rikers Island. There, they face extreme violence and the rampant use of solitary confinement. Medical neglect is the norm. Many prisoners have been driven to suicide. The air is toxic.
In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the facility will be shuttered over the next 10 years and replaced with a smaller jail in each of the city’s five boroughs. The decision was a response to recommendations made by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which was assembled in 2016 at the urging of City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. At the time of the announcement, roughly 9,360 people were detained at the facility.
Police officers are easy to scrutinize for many reasons. They are the most public-facing law enforcement officials, and there is no shortage of stories about how they racially profile people, prey on marginalized groups, violate basic constitutional rights, and kill. Considering all of this, it makes sense that activists, reporters, and lawmakers have been critical of policing and pushed for reform. But there’s another group of law enforcement officials that deserves the same amount of scrutiny: local prosecutors.
Unlike federal prosecutors operating under Sessions, state, county, and municipal prosecutors have the discretion to file charges, request bail and fines and fees, establish plea deals, and push for harsh sentences. While this is nothing new, more and more people are starting to understand the profound role prosecutors play in driving mass incarceration. The ACLU of California launched a campaign to educate voters about their local district attorneys and the policies they promote — including those that contradict what voters actually want. Journalists have also produced deep dives on prosecutors’ abuses of power and misconduct, including Brady violations, the presentation of false evidence,questionable remarks made to jurors, and total lack of accountability. More eyes on these officials ultimately means that there can be a bigger push for accountability.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks national execution and death penalty sentencing, there were 23 executions this year. This marks the second lowest number of executions in the past 25 years, and the continuation of a downward trend that’s lasted nearly two decades. The total number of new death sentences, 39, was historically low as well, marking the second lowest number of new death sentences in any year since 1972. Public support for the death penalty is also the lowest it has been since that year.
These trends can be attributed to a better understanding of how flawed cases can be, due to science, juror bias, and shady prosecutor behavior. Executions themselves are rife with problems, including but not limited to the fact that the drugs used to execute people are manufactured in unregulated pharmacies and don’t always work as planned. The costs associated with the appeals process, detention, and the execution process are also astronomical.
There was a time that motorists in the Golden State could have their driver’s licenses suspended because they were too poor to pay traffic fines. This put them in a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Many people in this position still needed to drive to jobs where they earned what little money they had, at the risk of getting pulled over and accruing more tickets and fines that couldn’t be paid. They still had to take kids to school. Some caught driving with a suspended license were jailed.
In June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that put a stop to these license suspensions. The legislation will also be applied retroactively. This month, Alameda County became one of the first to reverse the suspensions in accordance with the new law — a move expected to impact 54,000 drivers.
Release from prison can be incredibly complicated. On one hand, people get their freedom back. On the other hand, former prisoners often have no money, home, or support system in place to truly get back on their feet. A criminal record can also prevent them from accessing social services that they would otherwise qualify for, and hurt their chances of securing a job or getting a college degree. Buying a bus ticket can be impossible. All of these obstacles perpetuate the cycle of poverty and incarceration.
But more and more programs are starting to offer vital assistance upon reentry, and this year was full of success stories. For instance, my (John’s) campaign to end mass incarceration, FREEAMERICA, helped to launch Unlocked Futures. The project that will fund, offer guidance to, and promote new entrepreneurial ventures by people who were once locked up. In Los Angeles, formerly incarcerated individuals have been hired for construction jobs and given an opportunity to build up their own communities. In fact, reentry grants for health care, treatment programs, and educational programming have been awarded throughout California. In Louisiana, criminal justice advocates established a comprehensive reentry plan to address the needs of people impacted by the criminal justice overhaul.
John Legend is a 10-time Grammy Awards winner, an Academy and Tony awards winner, philanthropist, and founder of the #FREEAMERICA campaign.
Carimah Townes is a criminal-justice reporter for the Fair Punishment Project. She has also covered race politics, education and pop culture.
This article was published in partnership with The Root.
In the spring of 2013, Philadelphia joined a growing cohort of cities in implementing a gang suppression strategy known as “Focused Deterrence,” in which cities offer social services to alleged gang members in tandem with civil and criminal sanctions. Following any South Philadelphia shooting, the DA’s office offered social services to — and implemented sanctions against — the suspects and other gang members.
Focused Deterrence has been hailed as success by city officials in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where it was implemented, which has long been besieged with gun violence. A Temple University evaluation found that shootings in the neighborhood dropped 35% in the program’s first two years. “It’s a commitment to not only stopping shootings, but also having individuals who are likely to perpetuate them get help,” says Caroline McGlynn, head of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Gun Violence Task Force, which oversees the program.
Focused Deterrence works like this: law enforcement compiles a list of alleged gang members, which changes frequently; McGlynn describes the list as a “moving piece of intelligence.” Individuals on the list are summoned to a “call-in” where district attorneys and police officers inform them that if they or any of their fellow gang members engage in a shooting, for 30 days they will hit them with an array of punitive measures such as increasing bail, boosting their families’ names to the top of the list to have their utilities shut off if they are in arrears, prosecuting any outstanding warrants, and requiring more frequent parole or probation check-ins if they are under supervision. Alternatively, a social worker offers an “out” via education and employment if the young men agree to disassociate from the violence.
Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence operates on a shoestring annual budget of $130,000 — a small percentage of the annual $60 million the city spends on anti-violence programs. Cities like New York City, Oakland, and New Orleanshave launched similar programs in recent years involving complex multi-agency relationships.
“Yes, we can say shootings went down,” said Caterina Roman, the Temple criminal justice professor who led the recent evaluation. “But I’m not going to stand up there and say this is the greatest model.”
Partly because crime statistics in the short time frame captured by the Temple study are statistically noisy, it’s difficult to determine a cause of South Philadelphia’s decline. Indeed, in the period after the data used for Roman’s study, shootings have fluctuated in South Philadelphia, according to information provided to In Justice Today by the Philadelphia Police Department. The number of shootings jumped to 96 last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013, the first year of Focused Deterrence. This year shootings dropped 21 percent versus this time last year.
Former Philadelphia Police Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who was heavily involved with the Focused Deterrence rollout in 2013, questions the marriage of increased law enforcement pressure and social services. Speaking about the strategy generally, not the current program in Philadelphia, he says: “When that young person says to social services, ‘I want out,’ do you really have the resources to help that person? If you don’t, you’re minimizing the trust you have with the community.”
Reuben Jones, the former director of social services of Focused Deterrence, recently declined to reapply for the position because of his concerns that the city did not deliver the employment and education assistance it promised. Jones led social services from 2013 to earlier this year, serving as its sole fulltime caseworker. Since his departure on September 29, the position moved to the city’s new Office of Violence Prevention; there are now two caseworkers.
Managing social services for potentially hundreds of young people is an enormous task for just a pair of employees to handle. During a July 2016 court hearing a member of Philadelphia Police Department’s gang taskforce, Officer Matthew York, testified that there were upwards of 1,500 individuals on the list.
The job “compromised” his principles, Jones told me. “My role was to connect the guys to the resources that were available,” he explains, “Unfortunately, though on paper it sounds great — the city has all these resources — for all practical purposes they weren’t there.”
Jones, who himself is previously incarcerated, says that despite his limited resources he made significant headway with his clients. Corroborating this, mentee Lamere Nathaniel says that he knows at least 30 people who Jones helped get a job. “Sometimes he would use his own car and waste his own gas to bring where we needed to go,” he says. Another mentee, Keith Davis, also praised Jones: “He’s is a convicted felon himself so he came from the same life that I came from. And he is where I’m trying to go. Any time that my head is out of it I can call him to get back on track.”
But the only formal employment pipeline Jones had to offer his clients was a city-funded 90-day gig at Goodwill. “The goal was that there was supposed to be something sustainable after that, but there never was,” Jones says. He hustled to find businesses who would employ his clients and he asked the mayor’s office to use its clout and resources to encourage such hiring. “My constant battle was, ‘Hey, let’s get the unions involved,’” he says, “or, ‘Can we get the business community involved?’ That fell on deaf ears.”
Julie Wertheimer, the city’s chief of staff for criminal justice, responds that she recognizes the need to increase social service and employment opportunities, and that there are citywide workforce development initiatives in the works, some tailored to people with criminal records, to be unveiled soon. She also notes that she doesn’t think this strategy will work in every neighborhood.
Jones’s critiques are echoed by others around the country. The head of social services for the Baltimore’s Focused Deterrence program similarly left in protest in 2015. David Kennedy, criminologist and architect of the strategy Focused Deterrence is based on, Operation Ceasefire, acknowledged in phone interview with me that by and large “the social services element had been a miserable failure.”
And the type of gang database used by Philadelphia in its Focused Deterrence program is increasingly coming under fire in cities across the country, such as Chicago, for being both racist and inaccurate. Advocates say that these databases label people gang members just because they committed crimes in areas labeled “gang territory.”
Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, calls the promise of services “window dressing” to sell a strategy of Focused Deterrence to the community that ultimately isn’t sustainable. “Yes, if we do an intensive intervention we can disrupt things and will get some drop off in shootings,” he says. “But the time horizon tends to be fairly short.” According to Vitale, Programs such as Cure Violence — where former gang members are tasked with mediating disputes, without law enforcement — is a better model to follow. (A version, called CeaseFire, operates in a few neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.) “I agree the violence is concentrated,” he says. “The universe of people who are engaged in the violence is not huge, it’s somewhat identifiable. [But] targeting them is not being precise. It’s basically throwing a net over all young people of color, and that just seems like a recipe for more mass incarceration.”