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New documentary explores the false freedom of life on parole

New documentary explores the false freedom of life on parole

There’s a story the mainstream media trumpets most loudly when it comes to parole, and it’s a frightening one: A violent criminal is released from prison, and within weeks or months of their release, a heinous, tragic crime is committed again. The lesson this story teaches the public is toxic, and largely inaccurate. When the only stories of parole we tell are those that end in bloodshed, “getting out on parole” becomes synonymous with fear, and imparts the idea that no one should ever receive parole.

A new documentary from Frontline and The New York Times, released Tuesday, seeks to tell a very different and far more common story. Life on Parole follows the stories of four formerly incarcerated people in Connecticut as they navigate the conditions of their release from prison. The film chronicles a lesser-told truth about what it really means to get out on parole, and just how easy it is to violate the terms of release and wind up back behind bars.

Under Gov. Dannel Malloy, the state of Connecticut has seen dramatic change in its criminal justice system. In 2012, the death penalty was abolished, and following the legalization of medical marijuana, lawmakers in the state are now considering legalizing marijuana for personal use. In 2015, Malloy launched a package of reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, which included speeding up the parole process for nonviolent offenders. But as more people are released on parole, the state now grapples with the rate at which they end up violating the terms of their release and winding back where they started.

The documentary offers a vital counter narrative to the most commonly told story, and illustrates that the most frequent violations that land someone on parole back in prison are a far cry from the dramatic violent stories that most often wind up in the headlines. Living under intense scrutiny and supervision, the experiences of the four subjects of the film demonstrate just how easy it is to misstep, for everything from visiting a loved one to buying a coffee at the wrong store.

“Some people think that being on parole is you’re free,” says Jessica, one of the film’s subjects who is on parole for five years. “You’re not.”

Marion County Attorney Ed Bull declines to turn a 14-year-old girl into a sex offender for “sexting”

Marion County Attorney Ed Bull declines to turn a 14-year-old girl into a sex offender for “sexting”

Confronting a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Marion County Attorney Ed Bull will not file criminal charges against a 14-year-old girl for “sexting.” Photos of the girl were acquired and printed by male students at her high school.

Last year, the Iowa prosecutor launched an investigation of the high school student, Nancy Doe, for sending two Snapchat photos to an unnamed boy. As the ACLU pointed out in its lawsuit, the minor wasn’t naked in either photo; she was wearing underwear in one and the top half of her body was shielded by her hair in another. The pictures were discovered by staff at Knoxville High School, who caught two students printing explicit photos of their classmates, including Doe’s. The school contacted local police, and Doe was one of at least 30 students targeted by Bull and threatened with criminal charges.

Bull considered prosecuting Doe and her peers for child pornography and sexual exploitation of a minor, which if successful would result in them becoming registered youth sex offenders. In lieu of a criminal prosecution, the students were given the opportunity to participate in a pre-trial diversion program, forfeit their computer and phone use, and admit to wrongdoing. Instead, Doe’s parents sued the county attorney last September.

“Unless the photographs were produced by abusing or coercing Nancy, which they were not, or they show Nancy engaged in sexual activity or lasciviously displaying her genitals, and again they do not, the photos are expression protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Doe’s attorneys wrote in their lawsuit. In November 2016, the ACLU took on the family’s case and filed an injunction in federal court, asking that a judge block any charges filed by Bull.

“Rather than take every juvenile to court I looked for a solution that would help them learn from their mistakes and hopefully prevent their behavior from being repeated, while allowing them to avoid having a criminal or juvenile conviction or even a charge on their record,” the county attorney said in response to the lawsuit.

Bull has since done an about-face. Last Thursday, the ACLU revealed that Doe is no longer facing criminal charges. The county plans to shell out $40,000 to cover the organization’s legal expenses. And yet Bull remains steadfast that he made the right decision. “As county attorney, it is my job to pursue justice. Nothing can or will change that,” he said. “I will put the ACLU’s dismissal papers in my file and go right back to work serving my community.”

As the Des Moines Register noted, prosecutors are considering various types of criminal charges for “sexting.” According to Futures Without Violence, an organization dedicated to ending violence against women and children, sharing nude or semi-nude photos can constitute sexual harassment and cyberbullying. But criminal prosecutions of teenagers who have shared photos of themselves to other consenting teens have resulted in criminal convictions, turned them into registered sex offenders for life, and resulted in girls’ slut-shaming.

Regardless of why Bull ultimately declined to charge Nancy Doe, the decision shows that prosecutors have the power to treat youth like youth and keep them out of the criminal and juvenile justice systems. One arrest and one court appearance drastically increases the likelihood that a juvenile will drop out of school. The sex offender label also comes with devastating obstacles down the line, restricting housing, employment, and education prospects. Persuaded or not by Doe’s pushback in court, Bull ultimately prevented her from suffering this fate.

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Manhattan D.A. pledges to curtail prosecutions of subway fare jumpers, but it’s complicated

MTA Subway Turnstiles
Wikimeda Commons

Manhattan D.A. pledges to curtail prosecutions of subway fare jumpers, but it’s complicated

For decades people who’ve jumped over the turnstiles in the New York subway system have faced arrest and being charged with criminal “theft of services.”

But New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance recently announced that his office would no longer pursue criminal charges against most people for fare evasion, and would instead seek to send them to a diversion program, which might include community service in exchange for dismissing the charge. Although the fuller details have not yet been announced, completion of diversion program might still prove to be onerous for some people who can’t afford the $2.75 to get on the subway.

Vance’s office charged over 9,600 people with fare jumping in 2016. Only assaults were prosecuted more frequently in Manhattan.

According to the New York Times: “Instead of being brought from the police station to court, those defendants generally will be diverted into community service or social programs, and if they comply, the fare-beating charge will be dropped, Mr. Vance said. An exception will be made only when the police have strong reason to believe that the defendant is someone who poses a risk to public safety, like a sex offender.”

New York Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill appears to have doubts, expressing concerns about what the new policy would mean for public safety. But if Vance’s office decides not to pursue a prosecution, and instead dismiss the charge, there isn’t much O’Neill can do about it.

As the Times explained, “Fare beating was one of the petty offenses enforced aggressively on the theory that doing so would curb more serious crimes.” That “broken windows” belief became popular in the 1980s and 1990s but has largely been discredited in the 21st Century.

Under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York was one of the leaders in pursuing minor crimes like public urination, fare jumping, and panhandling. These efforts led to a surge in people being locked up in jails and prisons, especially young people of color and the poor.

“For too long, prosecution of fare evasion as a crime has disproportionately impacted people of color, bogged down our courts, and even put immigrants at risk of deportation,” said Councilman Rory I. Lancman of Queens in an interview with the New York Times. ”Diverting fare evasion cases away from the criminal justice system is a smart and sensible policy.”

Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said he intended to implement a similar policy and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said he’d “monitor” what Manhattan was doing.

But while Vance has received praise for his action, an article in The Village Voice questioned whether the district attorney had missed the most important issue: the fact that many can’t afford the $2.75 for a fare in a city where the subway is usually the most efficient way to travel.

“D.A. Vance’s move is indicative of a growing awareness that we can’t arrest and prosecute our way out of all our social problems,” said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College professor who studies criminal justice in an interview with the Village Voice. “But by relying on diversion and other forms of supervision, they’re holding on to the idea that there’s something wrong with people who do things like jump the turnstile, when the problem is that public transit can’t be afforded by large swaths of the public anymore.”

Some of the diversion programs that fare jumpers will be required to go into could be more onerous than being criminally charged, and that won’t solve the existing problem, said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School who focuses on criminal justice issues.

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