With Democrats in control in New York, public defenders call for long-overdue reforms: With New York’s executive branch and legislative bodies all securely in Democratic control for the first time in a decade, New York City’s five major public defender organizations are calling for criminal justice reforms that had stalled during Republican control of the state Senate. These include a number of far-reaching changes including a revision of the civil service law that has been used to shield NYPD disciplinary records from release; bail, speedy trial, and discovery reforms; legislation to prohibit solitary confinement beyond 15 days; the opportunity for parole release for anyone who is 55 or older and has been incarcerated for more than 15 years; and protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants convicted of misdemeanors. The organizations also call for a judicial warrant requirement for any courthouse arrests by ICE; the restoration of a free bus service for people visiting loved ones in prison; expanded visiting opportunities in state prisons; and the legalization of marijuana and vacating of past conviction. In a letter to the governor, the State Assembly speaker, and the senator set to be the next leader of the Senate, the groups say, “the time for meaningful reform has finally come,” to address “the profound injustices that Albany has permitted to exist for decades, while other states have taken action to help fix the problems.” [Ken Lovett / New York Daily News]
Democratic sweep in Harris County, Texas, makes bail lawsuit settlement more likely: Democrats ousted 15 incumbent Republican judges and the top county official in Harris County, Texas, last week. The election results have made a settlement in the long-running challenge to the county’s cash bail system significantly more likely. Fourteen of the 15 judges who were voted out had opposed reforms to the bail system and fought the lawsuit even after a federal judge ruled that the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people. Among the Democrats elected were several who had made bail reform central to their platforms. Franklin Bynum, elected last week as a misdemeanor judge, told the Houston Chronicle that “[i]t was this lawsuit that originally inspired me to run for judge” and that the newly elected judges who campaigned on promises of reform would not be “defending the indefensible.” [Gabrielle Banks / Houston Chronicle] See also Our Nov. 8 newsletter looked at how Democrats running for seats on the bench were among the beneficiaries of massive turnout among Texas Democrats.
Missouri prosecutor will stop most marijuana possession prosecutions after vote to legalize medical marijuana: After a statewide vote to legalize medical marijuana by constitutional amendment, the chief prosecutor of Jackson County, Missouri, Jean Peters Baker has announced that her office will stop prosecuting most marijuana possession cases. The policy as announced does allow for several exceptions, including allowing for the continued prosecution of people who sell or distribute marijuana “without proper authority,” possession of items “that are routinely associated with the illegal sale or distribution of marijuana,” such as individually packaged bags of the drug, or a scale; cases where large amounts of cash or firearms are found; and cases in which the possession of marijuana results in “drugged driving or where possession of marijuana results in harm to a child.” Peters Baker noted that 3 out of 4 voters had supported passage of the medical marijuana amendment and told the Kansas City Star that the “mandate from voters is directing this shift in our office.” The Jackson County sheriff supported Peters Baker’s decision calling it “bold and progressive” and said the sheriff’s office will adjust its arrest practices accordingly “to make sure nobody will get falsely arrested.” [Tony Rizzo and Glenn E. Rice / Kansas City Star]
Writings on the nightmare of prison life: The American Prisoner Writing Archive (APWA), which began with an overflow of submissions for an essay collection, now holds 1,600 essays by people incarcerated in U.S. prisons, making it, according to The Nation, “the largest and first fully searchable archive of nonfiction writing” of those currently incarcerated. The essays describe the nightmare of life behind prison walls—brutality, assault, and rape; corruption and cover-ups; pervasive racism; suicide and the persistence of slavery in prison—and seem destined to expose the truths about our system of incarceration in the way that the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and so many others, exposed the lie of white slave owners’ narratives about slavery. The Nation has published five essays from the collection. Robert S. Morales’s “The New Death Penalty” describes the cruelties of life sentences. Morales talks about watching “my old friend, Anthony Alexander Alvarez, now eighty three years of age languish in a dungeon cell” and describes Anthony’s “gnarled and weathered hand (dappled with liver spots)” as it strokes a gopher, another creature who “also lives underground.” In another essay, Billy Gomez addressed “Dear American Justice.” Gomez talks about becoming an “inner city statistic” at the age of 17 and how, despite maturing and learning from past mistakes, “in the eyes of so many, including your eyes, I will always be considered Inmate Number 22090-069.” [Ella Fassler / The Nation]