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The single most important person to reform the criminal justice system is not…

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch. A grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown after McCulloch’s presentation of the case.
Michael B. Thomas / Stringer via Getty

The single most important person to reform the criminal justice system is not…

The President of the United States

The Pope

The Attorney General of the United States

The Head of the FBI or CIA

The Speaker of the House

The Senate Majority Leader

Any of the 50 State Governors

Any of the 50 State Attorney Generals

The Head of the NAACP or the ACLU

The Dean of any Law School

The State or Federal Head of Prisons

The Head of the Democratic or Republican Party

Your Local Mayor

Your Local City Council President

The Editor in Chief of Your Local Paper

Your Favorite Rapper

Your Favorite Athlete

Your Favorite Artist

Your Favorite Writer or Journalist

Your Favorite Filmmaker

Your Favorite Actor or Actress

Your Favorite Social Media Personality

A Major Tech CEO

Nah, it’s none of them. It’s not even your local sheriff or police chief.

Now, don’t get me wrong — if we got all of those people truly caring about reforming our justice system from the inside out, then we’d have so much momentum that we’d be an unstoppable force for radical reform.

All of those people are influential. All of them can tinker with the justice system in one way or another. Some can influence it from the outside and others from the inside.

But there’s somebody who has more influence over the criminal justice system than anyone else. I don’t even feel comfortable with just how much power and influence this person has. You’ve probably heard me say it before, but over the next few years you are going to hear me say it almost every single day.

It’s your local prosecutor.

In most of the nation, they’re called District Attorneys or DAs for short. Some states call them the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Other states and districts call them the State’s Attorney — it’s all basically the same role. It’s the elected prosecutor for your city, county, or region, depending on where you live.

On Thursday, I am going to be announcing a pivot to shift all of my organizing energy into the efforts to upend this system. No single position has more power or influence to radically change the game on criminal justice than your locally elected prosecutor. As a leader in this space, I’ll be doing a few things:

Helping to build a national DAs database to not only help you identify your local DA, but to assess their positions on a broad range of issues, as well as provide you with information on the important dates you’ll need if you want to join the race, vote in the local political primary, or vote for your local DA in the general election.

Sadly, in most cities, including my own right here in New York, DAs often run completely unopposed and do so with little to no turnout or fanfare. In Brooklyn, which would be one of the largest cities in the United States if it stood alone, the winner of our DA’s race, Eric Gonzalez, needed just 77,000 votes to win. We have nearly 3 million residents. Last fall, Manhattan DA Cy Vance ran completely unopposed. After the deadline for new challengers passed, we learned that he had made shady deals to decline prosecuting Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka, and even Harvey Weinstein. Vance coasted to his third term as DA.

All of this is by design. No position in the entire country has more power, more juice, more influence, with less scrutiny and attention, than the District Attorney.

But those days have to come to an end.

In addition to building a comprehensive database, we will begin helping to recruit exciting new candidates for local DA races. We will be mounting a nationwide awareness campaign to help encourage reform-minded attorneys to enter the fray to change the justice system from the inside out.

And lastly, we will work directly on the campaigns of those candidates to ensure they get elected. And that’s where so much of the real work is. DAs’ races are an afterthought in America. On the lists of election-night results, you have to scroll and scroll to even find the prosecutorial races. We must take each and every one of these races out of the shadows and bring them into the light.

Right now, the United States has more than 2,400 elected prosecutors. They are the gatekeepers of the justice system. More than 9 out of every 10 people who enter the justice system do so through this group.

Even though the United States is more diverse than it’s ever been, on our way to becoming a majority nation of color, over 95 percent of all elected prosecutors are white. This alone is ridiculous.

Listen, white isn’t evil and black isn’t righteous. I’m not saying that, at all, because I know a few sorry black prosecutors and a few amazing white ones, but it’s outrageous that any field, particularly a field that primarily targets and convicts people of color would be 95 percent white. This is a scandal all by itself.

Secondly, an astounding 83 percent of all prosecutors are men. When it’s all said and done, of the 2,400 elected prosecutors in the United States are tallied, only 1 percent are women of color. And that’s all women of color, not just black women. Again, this is travesty. It’s utterly preposterous.

And it’s at the root of so much that is wrong with America’s justice system. We’re not just talking about race, or the color of someone’s skin, we’re talking about culture, we’re talking about perspective, we’re talking about relationships and history, we’re talking about upbringing and language and relatability. It’s no wonder that our criminal justice system looks the way it looks when we consider who is at the helm.

The race, culture, and gender gap between America and its prosecutors must be closed.

But we’re nowhere near making that a reality right now. Most of us cannot even name our local prosecutors. We damn sure don’t know the dates of the primaries and who’s running.

Our criminal justice system is amazingly complex. We have over 18,000 police departments nationwide with over 1.1 million full-time employees. We have more than 6,125 jails and prisons in this country and that doesn’t even include ICE detention centers. Our nation has so many laws, well into the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, that no true count even exists of how many laws we have.

Over the past few years, out of necessity, most of us who are pained by injustice in America have moved from crisis to crisis. It’s often felt like our house is on fire. As we reel from one awful incident of police brutality or corruption, we are then hit with another. And when your house is on fire, it’s hard as hell to worry about policy and elections — you’re just trying to survive and save your loved ones.

Listen to me — I don’t regret a single march or protest. I don’t regret a single tweet or Facebook post about injustice. I don’t regret a hashtag or an article I’ve written exposing injustice in this nation. All of those things were absolutely necessary. We raised awareness of a crisis that we all knew was real and experienced on a local level, but we had no idea it was as bad as it is nationally. Most of us had never even heard of Ferguson before this movement. Police brutality, police corruption, and the prosecutors that go out of their way to defend such things were well known both inside and outside St. Louis, but our movement takes local pain, local injustice, and makes it national and international. This is a huge part of what we’ve accomplished. Books and documentaries have been made. The world is now aware — and this is good, but that awareness, sadly, did not bring any justice to the families of Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Tamir Rice. That awareness did not bring any justice to the families of Freddie Gray or Philando Castile or Alton Sterling.

And here’s what I know: If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.

We can either pivot and change some of our actions altogether or add some new actions on top of the old ones. Either way, it’s time for something new.

For me, this means I will be diverting all of my organizing efforts into radically changing the face of the nations 2,400 elected prosecutors. It’s a mammoth task, but an absolutely essential one. Listen to me — together we have juice. We have influence. We have potential. And I need you to understand that leveraged potential is power. We have to leverage our potential and influence in new ways or we will look back on this time as a period of great demonstration and great frustration, with very little to show for our efforts. I’m not OK with that and I know you aren’t either.

We’ll need you to join us.

You’ll hear more from me on Thursday

#MeToo in NYC’s Jail System: Why New Department of Correction Policies on Sexual Abuse Fall Short

Activists with the Jails Action Coalition, including women who were incarcerated at Rikers, at the November 2016 Board of Correction hearing where the anti-rape regulations were passed

#MeToo in NYC’s Jail System: Why New Department of Correction Policies on Sexual Abuse Fall Short

In January 2017, the New York City Department of Correction began implementing regulations to address pervasive sexual abuse and harassment in its jails. Rikers Island has an alarmingly high rate of sexual violence: In 2011, the Department of Justice found that 8.6 percent of women incarcerated in the women’s housing unit at Rikers had reported being sexually harassed or abused. The island’s men’s units were only slightly better with rates ranging from 3.4 to 6.2 percent. Both, however, were higher than the national average of 3.2 percent for men and women in prisons and jails.

The new regulations, passed in November 2016, were designed to address and reduce such widespread sexual violence behind bars. They’re also designed to bring the city’s jails into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, which requires jails and prisons that receive federal funding to adopt rules to prevent and address sexual violence.

The new rules require the Department of Correction (DOC) to screen all people for risk of sexual victimization or abusiveness, provide emergency medical and mental health services for those who report sexual abuse, and create new avenues for people in jails to report sexual abuse. But advocates say these rules have not led to an increase in completed investigations or a safer environment for incarcerated people.

Investigations languish for months or even years and so are unlikely to result in objective and fair results. Memories fade, evidence is lost,” Dori Lewis, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said in an email to The Appeal. “Victims don’t get closure and abusive staff aren’t moved or disciplined. Justice delayed can mean justice denied.”

To date, the Department has closed only 228 of the 823 sexual abuse complaints made in 2016 by people detained at Rikers and other city jails. Of the remaining 595 complaints, more than half (391) were for staff sexual abuse or harassment; 204 were for prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse or harassment.

Meanwhile, the number of complaints overall has been rising, an uptick the department has attributed to better signage and reporting mechanisms. A total of 523 allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment were filed between January 1 and July 1, 2017, a sharp increase from the 350 complaints from January to July 2016, according to Faye Yelardy, the Department of Correction’s assistant commissioner for sexual abuse and sexual harassment prevention. Of those, only 21 have been investigated and 502 remain under investigation.

For one 21-year-old man, the DOC’s failure to immediately investigate a sexual assault led to additional assaults. In 2017, he called 311 to report having been raped by another man on his housing unit, according to Brooklyn Defender Services, which provided him with legal and social services. Neither he nor the other man were moved. In the days that followed, the 21-year-old said, he also told a correctional officer and a jail captain about these assaults. It was not until after he was raped again, one week later, that he was interviewed by an investigator. Still, both men were kept on the same housing unit. The rapes continued, explained Jared Chausow, senior policy specialist at Brooklyn Defender Services.

More than two weeks later, the 21-year-old spit on an officer; only then was he moved to another, more restrictive housing unit. “He did it out of desperation because he couldn’t otherwise get the move,” Chausow told The Appeal.

Even after being moved, the trauma of repeated assaults continued to affect him. He began threatening to kill his attorney, who was ultimately removed from his case, meaning that the months spent mounting a defense in his criminal case have now been lost.

“His case was derailed by detention and by DOC’s failure to take his complaints about sexual assault seriously,” stated Chausow.

Still, the new regulations have brought some improvements. People in jail can now call 311, the city’s helpline; a nonprofit called Safe Horizons; or the PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) hotline. In addition, they can report to advocacy groups, medical staff and other jail staff. And, according to the DOC, the number of investigators has increased.

In an email to The Appeal, Peter Thorne, the department’s deputy commissioner of public information, wrote, “DOC is committed to preventing sexual abuse and harassment, and we are steadfast in investigating every claim based on our broad standards … DOC has more than tripled its number of investigators in this area from six in 2016 to 19 today, as part of a comprehensive investigatory process that may also include investigations by the [New York City Department of Investigation] and the DA’s office.”

But the agency’s longstanding failure to investigate sexual assaults has made others fearful of speaking out.

Lewis told The Appeal about a client, a gender non-conforming person in a men’s housing unit at Rikers, who was repeatedly sexually abused by one corrections officer in 2015. “He was terrified,” Lewis explained of the client, who uses the pronouns he and him. She declined to name her client in order to protect him from retaliation by other corrections officers. “He did not come forward right away.” When the client finally reported the abuse in December 2015, the officer was removed from working on his unit pending an investigation.

Lewis says that to retaliate against her client for reporting the assault, officers falsely accused him of violating rules, writing disciplinary tickets that landed him in solitary confinement. In February 2016, Lewis says her client was physically assaulted by staff who told him, “Next time, get some DNA.” More than two years later, Lewis explained, neither she nor the client has learned whether his allegations were substantiated or if the investigation into his complaint was ever completed.

Mik Kinkead of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which provides free legal services to trans people behind bars, worked with more than 20 trans people in the city’s jails in 2017. All had experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse, including inappropriate pat frisks, strip searches, name calling, mis-gendering and sexually suggestive comments. Only four of those clients were comfortable allowing Kinkead to contact the Department’s PREA coordinator and investigations unit. In all four cases, Kinkead received no acknowledgment that a complaint had been made.

“None of my clients report now because they see that nothing has happened,” he said. “They see that officers retaliate against those who do report. They say, ‘This is always how it’s been — and I don’t expect this to ever change.’”

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Tennessee Sheriff: Solitary Confinement for 16 year-old Girl is No Different Than a ‘Private Room’

ACLU/HRW report “Growing Up Locked Down”

Tennessee Sheriff: Solitary Confinement for 16 year-old Girl is No Different Than a ‘Private Room’

A 16-year-old Memphis girl charged with first-degree murder in the killing of a teen boy is being held in pretrial isolation at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.

The Shelby County District Attorney’s office charged her as an adult in the April 3, 2017 shooting death of 17-year-old Deago Brown. She was just 15 when she was arrested and then transferred to the adult women’s prison.

Tennessee Prison for Women

A spokesperson for Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham’s office said the county sent her to the prison, which is 200 miles away from her home and family, because local facilities don’t have a secure place for her.

As the only inmate there under 18 years of age, however, she has spent the last four months alone inside of a cell the size of a walk-in closet, according to attorney Josh Spickler, the director of Just City, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. She has no contact with other prisoners. She is allowed 30 minutes three times a week to shower, with her hands and feet shackled each time she leaves her cell.

“A developing brain cannot tolerate this treatment,” Spickler said in a written statement.

“If the Sheriff lacks the facilities and staff to detain girls, he must follow the law and find the nearest sufficient jail,” he wrote. Spickler also noted that a youth facility near Nashville in Davidson County has offered to hold the young woman and provide her supportive services and safety.

The young woman has already spent roughly 131 days in solitary confinement, 101 days longer than the 30-day limit contained in the Army Field Manual for the “separation” of terrorism detainees, which is considered a “restricted” interrogation technique.

Yet in an interview with the Commercial Appeal, Shelby County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Earle Farrell compared her conditions of confinement to a “private room.” Farrell’s claim about solitary confinement is not supported by data.

The devastating and lasting psychiatric effects of solitary confinement have been extensively documented. Solitary confinement is harmful to the mental health of inmates because it restricts social contact, which is a psychological stimulus that humans require to remain healthy and functioning. Prolonged isolation causes anxiety, panic, hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, aggression, depression, and an increased risk of suicide, especially for people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

For juveniles, whose brains are still developing, solitary confinement is even more brutal, its effects even more enduring.

Compounding the psychiatric effects of isolation, adolescents in solitary confinement “are frequently denied access to treatment, services, and programming adequate to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, and rehabilitative needs,” according to a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Department of Justice research found that more than half the children in juvenile facilities who committed suicide while detained were in isolated cells.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment both prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles. And several local governments have also eliminated solitary confinement for youth detained in adult correctional facilities.

Speaking earlier this month in support of an American Bar Association measure urging state legislatures to curtail the use of solitary confinement, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bernice Donald pointed to the case of Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island at age 16 under suspicion of stealing a backpack and then spent three years waiting for a trial that never occurred, with two of those years spent in isolation. He attempted suicide several times while in solitary confinement, and tried again in 2013, six months after he left Rikers Island. In 2015, at the age of 22, Browder hung himself.

“Shelby County’s failure to provide a safe, age-appropriate detention setting for a 15-year-old girl is a serious matter,” Spickler told The Appeal. “To dismiss it and compare isolation like this to a ‘private room’ is appalling. The conditions of this girl’s detention are unacceptable, and everything we know about teenage brain development tells us we are doing irreparable harm.”

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