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Police and Prosecutors Should Do More to Protect Immigrants

Police and Prosecutors Should Do More to Protect Immigrants

Overwhelmingly, “undocumented” residents are referred to by the current administration In Washington as “illegal aliens” and identified almost exclusively as Latinos. There is little, if any, subtlety in this regard. The administration’s policy is undeniably race based.

Fortunately, New York has been a leader for years in taking steps to protect undocumented immigrants living within the city. It has been a self-identified “Sanctuary City” since 1989, and local laws have been on the books for several years limiting local cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Mayor Bill De Blasio has been outspoken in his opposition to the President’s deportation policies, saying that the city has no intention of cooperating with federal immigration authorities to enforce immigration law or help them detain undocumented residents. But as a former police officer with the New York City Police Department, I know there is much more that city and law enforcement leaders can and should legally, practically and morally do.

While New York’s political leadership in this area has been critical, it is also important to remember that they are not the only change-makers on this issue. Police and prosecutors also have a crucial role in ensuring that undocumented residents are protected. A recent report by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project shows that one of the most important factors in protecting undocumented residents in any city is re-evaluating criminal justice policies and how police and prosecutors direct residents into the system. Jurisdictions everywhere must commit to keeping people out of the system for minor offenses that don’t materially endanger public safety, such as low-level drug possession, traffic violations, and violations of “vagrancy” laws, such as loitering or sleeping in public.

It is more important than ever that local law enforcement agencies use their wide discretion in determining what offenses to prioritize. First and foremost, the city should act to eliminate any and all local ordinances that criminalize the effects of homelessness and poverty. This is not to say that homelessness and its attendant quality of life concerns for all should be ignored. In 2016, the city passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which created a civil option for low-level offenses including “being in a park after hours,” littering, and public urination. New York City officers now have the option to bypass the criminal justice system in dealing with these minor infractions; they should utilize it at every opportunity. For the undocumented, any kind of law enforcement contact could significantly increase risk of deportation.

Prosecutors should also actively factor immigration consequences into decisions they make regarding the charging of certain non-violent, low-level offenses. It is not uncommon for prosecutors to take circumstances unrelated to a crime into account when they decide how to proceed with a case; for example, a prosecutor might show leniency to a defendant who has valuable information. New York’s prosecutors should decline to prosecute minor offenses when it may open a defendant up to an unnecessary risk of deportation.

Prosecutors also have the discretion to stop asking for cash bail. Cash-bail policies are the norm almost everywhere in America, but they often result in people without financial resources being held in custody for long periods of time. Undocumented immigrants are more likely to be cash-poor, and the consequences of them being held in jail unnecessarily could be disastrous, as detention makes them much more vulnerable to being deported by ICE. Studies show that bail does not measurably improve public safety, and several jurisdictions, like Washington D.C., have already eliminated cash bail pending trial. In 2016, Mayor de Blasio announced that the city would move towards reliance on “supervised release” programs for low-risk offenders, saying that “no one should be in jail simply because they cannot pay bail.” This is an encouraging step towards meaningful bail reform, and local prosecutors should stop asking for bail in the majority of cases.

New York has long been at the forefront of “sanctuary city” discussions, but it should strengthen its commitment in the face of the increased threat posed by the new administration. Law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices have a vital role to play in this fight, and conscious reform of the criminal justice system is one of the most important things that the city of New York can do to protect all its residents. New Yorkers should collectively say “no” to the new administration’s policies, because at their core, those policies are immoral!

Edgar De Leon has worked as a Detective-Sergeant and an attorney for the New York City Police Department (NYPD). The views and opinions expressed in this article are Mr. De Leon’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Prosecutor pushes for Virginia man’s execution despite signs of serious mental illness

Prosecutor pushes for Virginia man’s execution despite signs of serious mental illness

By all accounts William Morva has serious mental health issues, but he is still likely to be executed next month, with the prosecutor who convicted him pushing for his execution.

Morva is now scheduled to be executed on July 6. He has exhausted his appeals and his only chance now appears to be if Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commutes his sentence.

McAuliffe has said he’s reviewing the case.

Mary Pettitt, the Montgomery County Commonwealth’s Attorney, has urged McAuliffe to let the execution go forward. Pettitt prosecuted Morva when she was an assistant prosecutor and argues that he’s not mentally ill.

Morva has declined to see his lawyers or his mother for years, insisting they are part of a conspiracy to kill him.

Morva was convicted of the 2006 murders of Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl. Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland in Blacksburg, Virginia. He was sentenced to death even though his lawyers claimed he suffered from serious mental illness that made it difficult for him to ascertain what is real and what are his delusions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of people who committed crimes while they were juveniles and also barred the execution of people who are intellectually disabled. Individuals with severe mental illness may not be executed if their understanding of the reason they are being punished is so degraded as to undermine the retributive goal of imposing that punishment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has so far declined to intervene in Morva’s case.

At his trial doctors said Morva was not delusional, something his mother and his lawyers strongly dispute.

According to the Washington Post, years before Morva committed murder, “In Blacksburg, he walked barefoot in winter and sometimes slept in the Jefferson National Forest, buried in piles of leaves. He was known at the local coffee shop for diatribes about politics and religion, and confided in family and close friends about what he said were special powers he possessed to fix the world’s problems.”

After the jury that convicted him recommended death, Morva had a chance to speak and went on a diatribe.

“I’m almost done. You may kill me, that’s guaranteed. I can’t fight,” Morva said. “There’s nothing more I can do. But there are others like me, and I hope you know that. And soon they’re going to get together. They’re going to sweep over your whole civilization and they’re going to wipe these smiles off of your faces forever.”

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The sad, stupid and tragic fall of Seth Williams

The sad, stupid and tragic fall of Seth Williams

The future was limitless for Seth Williams when he was sworn in as district attorney of Philadelphia almost eight years ago.

Williams was the first African-American to ever be elected district attorney in the state of Pennsylvania. At the time of his election in 2009 it was easy to imagine him going on to greater things since the district attorney position has served as a launching pad for many of the previous occupants of the office.

Former district attorney Arlen Specter became a senator, Ed Rendell became mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania, and Ronald Castille became Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

But Williams will never hold any of those positions, and he may soon lose his freedom. With his term as district attorney expiring at the end of 2017 Williams has been spending his days in a federal courthouse defending himself against bribery and extortion charges.

Williams is accused of using campaign funds for his personal use and showing favoritism to supporters who gave him money. He received $160,000 worth of gifts, some of which came from businessman Mohammad Ali, including a Caribbean vacation and a $3,200 couch, while Williams helped Ali with issues he had with security screeners at Philadelphia International Airport and looked into a criminal case that involved an associate of Ali’s.

Ali testified against Williams last week.

“It’s good to know someone in power,” Ali said. “If you ever need anything, it’s good to have someone make a phone call.”

Williams is also accused of accepting a Jaguar convertible and accepting free vacations from businessman Michael Weiss, who is the owner of a prominent Philadelphia gay bar called Woody’s. In return Williams helped Weiss deal with regulatory problems involving the liquor license for another bar Weiss owned in California, prosecutors said.

Weiss took the stand earlier this week. When prosecutors asked him if he’s bribed Williams, he answered with a shrug.

Lawyers for Williams argue that while he made mistakes, he never broke the law and that the gifts he accepted were not for future favors.

Williams’s fall from grace is also tragic. He took office promising to help reform the criminal justice system, but today Philadelphia’s jail incarceration rate is higher than anywhere in the country and about 25 percent of the people arrested for misdemeanors remain in jail because they can’t afford to pay for bail.

As my colleague Josie Duffy Rice wrote earlier this year about Williams, “Over the past seven years, he has tried to look the part of the bombastic, idealistic outsider fighting for justice. He has behaved instead like a timorous yet power-hungry insider fighting for no one. He has either valued the wrong principles or none at all, and poor people and communities of color have had to pay.”

Williams is still the DA in Philadelphia but has temporarily surrendered his law license. He is not running for reelection and is likely to be succeeded by civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, who won the Democratic primary earlier this year on a promise of ending cash bail, holding police accountable and trying to keep more people out of jails and prisons.

Krasner will face off against Republican nominee Beth Grossman in November. But Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one in the City of Brotherly Love, making Krasner the favorite.

Williams’s trial is expected to continue for several weeks.

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