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The Trials of Leon Cannizzaro

The Trials of Leon Cannizzaro

Leon Cannizzaro faced off against the New Orleans City Council this past Wednesday. What began as a request for the council to restore $600,000 in funding to the District Attorney’s office turned into a referendum on Cannizzaro’s punitive tactics and general lack of concern for people’s constitutional rights. He’s been written about before for harassing defense attorneysthreatening eyewitnesses who change their testimony with perjury charges, and ignoring compelling cases of actual innocence.

Cannizzaro’s overall budget is about $15 million, one of the highest prosecutor budgets in the state of Louisiana. Cannizzaro has long bemoaned his office’s budgetary restraints, arguing that they detract from his office’s ability to do its job. This year, the City Council reduced Cannizzaro’s budget by $600,000 (about 5% of his budget), an amount that last year had mostly gone to a Conviction Integrity Unit that Cannizzaro voluntarily disbanded after failing to exonerate a single person. The meeting on Wednesday turned into what seemed like a referendum on Cannizzaro’s effectiveness.

New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams was one of the people most critical of Cannizzaro.

“We don’t want to be embarrassed by The New York Times, Washington Post, other national media, who think that we’re running some kind of southern-fried, backwoods operation that is putting rape victims in jail and sending out fake subpoenas,” he said, referring to recent news reports and a report by Court Watch revealing that Cannizzaro had been jailing raping victims and issuing fake subpoenas.

The City Council also brought up, with disapproval, the fact that Cannizzaro send more youth to the adult system than other prosecutors in Louisiana. “We need the DA’s practices to come into the 21st century,” one Council member said.

The latest scandal, reported by Charles Maldonando at The Lens, is a fake subpoena allegedly used to pressure a teenage molestation victim to testify. The documents in question, which purported to be valid legal documents but were not, threatened criminal sanctions if the recipients failed to meet with prosecutors for an interview. (While prosecutors can compel witnesses to appear and testify, they must get a judge to sign off. These papers did not.) The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint about this issue against Cannizzaro’s office.

Cannizzaro, for his part, whined about the budget cut, saying that it would impact victims and their families. Every year since 2011, he has complained about his budget, saying it has caused him to move misdemeanor cases out of municipal court and that it is a reason behind the city’s crime rate. This is part of a larger war Cannizzaro has been waging against city officials — including Mayor Mitch Landrieu — who are increasingly weary of Cannizzaro’s mad-dog tactics.

In June, Cannizzaro penned an op-ed where he blasted Landrieu for failing to understand his office’s “aggressive enforcement strategy,” which Cannizzaro argues is appropriate. He also attacked Williams, his main critic during Wednesday’s meeting. Cannizzaro argues, and continues to argue, that his office needs money to be as aggressive as possible.

It is telling that the New Orleans City Council is now able to see through Cannizzaro’s fear-mongering tactics and appreciate that charging more people and sending more people to prison is not tackling the real challenges the city faces.

Note: A request for comment to Cannizzaro’s office went unanswered.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution

Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution

The organization I founded, JustLeadershipUSA’s, slogan is “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” It’s a slogan based on history. No movement for social justice has ever succeeded without the full participation and leadership of those most affected. The incredible movement to vanquish HIV/AIDs would never have happened without Act Up. The same can be said about the historic achievements of the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement.

By the same token, without reform efforts led by formerly incarcerated people, many of them graduates of Leading with Conviction, the leadership training program run by our organization, the movement to end mass incarceration in the U.S. will not get to the finish line. Without our willingness to push the envelope and bring the sense of urgency needed to overcome decades’ worth of misguided, reactionary criminal justice policymaking, the country may squander its chance to bring about transformative change. Such change is possible, but only if we have a seat at the table and a role in deciding what’s on the menu.

In spite of the stigma and marginalization experienced by people with criminal convictions, we have built a vibrant human rights movement that challenges the most basic premises upon which this country’s criminal justice system is based. If I had to pick an event that marked the beginning of our movement it would be the 2003 founding of All of Us or None in California by Dorsey Nunn. All of Us or None went on to launch the Ban the Box campaign which has done such an amazing job of raising awareness about the collateral consequences of a criminal record. This work led to the passage of hundreds of local “ban the box” laws and, most importantly, has opened the door to fair employment practices for tens of thousands of people who would otherwise have been shut out.

This was followed by the publication of Eddie Ellis’s “language letter,” another powerful landmark in our movement’s history. Eddie Ellis (1941–2014) founded the Center for NU Leadership in New York City, and in 2007 he wrote “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language.” The letter urged allies to reject terms like “inmate,” “convict,” “prisoners” and “felons” which were “devoid of humanness” and to refer to us as “PEOPLE in prison,” PEOPLE with criminal convictions,” etc. “ He wrote, “We believe we have the right to be called by a name we choose, rather than one someone else decides to use.” This was an empowering moment for us.

Susan Burton is another pioneer of the formerly incarcerated people’s movement. She founded A New Way of Life back in 1998 and called attention to the terrible conditions of confinement for incarcerated women and the barriers they faced when released.

These early grassroots efforts gathered momentum, and exactly a year ago the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement held its first national conference in Oakland, CA. More than 500 people from more than 30 states came together to unite behind a 14-point platform whose first point reads:

“The first goal of changing the criminal justice system is to create and implement alternatives to incarceration, working toward a society where prisons do not exist. We demand the end of mass incarceration and commit ourselves to fighting the notion and the practice of building new prisons, juvenile detention facilities and immigration detention centers.”

Yes, we fight for incremental reforms in order to alleviate suffering. But we never forget that our long term objective is to build a society where restoration, not incarceration, is the answer. We understand that if we shoot for an audacious goal then everything else becomes low(er) hanging fruit. This is the strategy we have successfully employed in the #CLOSErikers Campaign which was launched by JustLeadershipUSA a little over a year ago. By sticking to our uncompromising demand that Rikers Island could not be reformed but had to be shuttered, we hastened the removal of young people from the island, won limits on solitary confinement, put a spotlight on the inequities of New York City’s bail system, AND pressured a reluctant mayor to announce that closing Rikers is now the city’s policy.

Bold and audacious efforts to end mass incarceration led by formerly incarcerated leaders are going on all over the country: campaigns to raise the age of criminal responsibility, to restore voting rights to people with records, to close prisons and jails, to end mandatory sentencing, and to shut down private prisons, to name a few.

Glenn E. Martin is the President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. He is part of the vanguard of advocates working to make that future a reality. His goal is to amplify the voice of the people most impacted, and to position them as reform leaders. At its core, JLUSA challenges the assumption that formerly incarcerated people lack the skills to thoughtfully weigh in on policy reform. Rather, JLUSA is based on the principle that people closest to the problem are also the people closest to its solution.
Mr. Martin speaks from personal experience, having spent six years incarcerated in a New York State prison in the early 1990s. That experience has informed his career, which has been recognized with honors such as the 2016 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, 2017 Brooke Russell Astor Award, and the 2014 Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellowship. Mr. Martin is also the founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign. Prior to founding JLUSA, he was the Vice President of The Fortune Society, the Co-Director of the National HIRE Network at the Legal Action Center, and the co-founder of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Martin’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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Contra Costa County will stop forcing families to pay for incarcerated kids

The decision was unanimous.

Contra Costa County will stop forcing families to pay for incarcerated kids

The decision was unanimous.

Contra Costa County will no longer impose the Juvenile Cost of Care Fee, which has forced countless families to hand over hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars for kids in detention or serving probation. On Tuesday, nearly a year after a moratorium on imposing the fees was announced, the county’s Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to do away with them entirely.

Throughout California, Black juveniles are arrested at four times the rate of white juveniles and spend more time in detention or monitored on probation. In a report published last March, the University of California-Berkeley painted a bleak picture of Contra Costa County’s juvenile fees, specifically. By the time the moratorium went into effect last November, approximately 6,900 families were in debt. Parents and guardians were chalking up $30 a day for a kid to be housed in a juvenile detention facility, regardless of whether or not they were adjudicated for a crime. Probation also came with steep costs — to the tune of $17 a day for electronic monitoring. Collectively, the families of youth found not-guilty over a four-year period shelled out $58,172 for administrative fees. In 2015, the average length of stay was 36.65 days.

Less than one-third of the revenue was funneled into youth support.

Researchers and juvenile justice advocates have long argued that administrative fees do more harm than good. In addition to forcing poor families into debt, there are collateral consequences for the kids involved. According to the Juvenile Law Center, young people incurring these fees are more likely to recidivate. In California, specifically, fees have also resulted in individual cases lasting longer than they should, and juveniles are detained longer than what their cases warrant. Additional fines are also imposed on them — and their families — when the initial fees are not paid.

With their vote on Tuesday, Contra Costa County supervisors showed that they understand the human costs of this financial burden.

“The fee really didn’t serve a purpose,” Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who was reportedly on the fence, said. “I do think parents have a responsibility for their child’s welfare, even if they are in our custody. But my concern was that some parents would have to pay it, and others won’t. So we just made it so nobody is going to have to pay it.”

The decision comes on the heels of a major vote in the California State legislature to repeal all administrative fees for juvenile defendants under the age of 21. The bill passed in the Senate and Assembly early this month, and now rests with Gov. Jerry Brown.

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