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We Can Hold Youths Accountable Without Life Without Parole

We Can Hold Youths Accountable Without Life Without Parole

(This article is cross-posted from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange blog)

When I was 17, I accepted a plea agreement and 25-year prison sentence to avoid the likelihood of spending the rest of my life in prison.

I had been involved in the death of another person. Prosecutors initially charged me with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and planned to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When they offered instead to allow me to plead guilty to the robbery charge plus facilitating first-degree murder, I quickly agreed. My co-defendant wasn’t so fortunate. He was sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 51 years, plus 25 years.

My home state of Tennessee has yet to ban life without parole for children or penalties that are their functional equivalent. Instead, children who are not yet able to vote, buy cigarettes or join the military are told they are worth nothing more than to die in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has scaled back the use of the most extreme penalties and mandated review opportunities for everyone who, as a child, received a mandatory life without parole order. Yet, as the Associated Press highlighted in a series, where a child committed a crime plays a disproportionately large role in whether their review will truly be meaningful or if they will even have one in a timely manner.

A few days before my arrest, I had been making plans for college, where I hoped to study child development and become a social worker. But I first needed to earn another credit to get out of high school and had asked the younger brother of a fellow gang member to consider enrolling with me.

Once he agreed, we sat around smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. He suggested we act out a scene from a movie. Our plan was go to a convenience store, taking along two guns — one of which was nonfunctioning and the other supposedly had no bullets — to frighten the store employee and anyone who walked up. We’d grab more beer and run.

I agreed to stand watch as he went inside for what seemed like forever. Then I heard gunfire and he ran out. I went into the store and found Mr. Cantrell lying on the floor unresponsive. I ran, and we were arrested a few hours later.

I am deeply remorseful that I had a role in taking the life of another person. I can never repay what I took, and have been inspired to spend my life working to help children avoid the mistakes that I made. I also want to help create a justice system that holds children accountable in age-appropriate ways, accounts for their exposure to trauma and prepares them for reintegration into society.

My story is similar to that of many other youth who have gotten into serious trouble. Throughout my early childhood, I saw my alcoholic father physically abuse my mother. She, my siblings and I were sometimes so afraid that we hid in my bedroom, barricaded the door with furniture and prayed he would never return. I remember one particularly harrowing evening when my mother attempted to escape with the children. He appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, knocked my mother to the ground then grabbed her hair and dragged her through the mud. When she finally broke free, we drove to the police station, where she filed a restraining order against him. I was shaken to my core.

Even after my mother moved us to a new neighborhood, with a new house and a new school, my father showed up drunk late at night, creating lots of noise. The neighbors sometimes came out of their homes just to watch, and neighborhood kids mocked me at school.

By the time I was in sixth grade, though, I began to use academics as an escape from my world. That all changed when we moved again. At the new school, other kids said I spoke up too often in class and studied too much. In an effort to be more like the people around me, I stopped studying and even failed ninth grade. I also became an active gang member. I saw it as a way to end the loneliness.

I developed a practice of ending each school day at lunchtime. Before long, I began transporting and selling marijuana. My mother learned I wasn’t going to class when my high school sent a letter during my senior year, informing her that I had missed so many days of school that I would need to attend summer school in order to graduate.

That led us to that day in 1994, when marijuana, alcohol and the impulsivity of a child with a still-developing brain led me to take part in an unthinkable crime.

While in prison, I grew up. I denounced my gang membership, earned my GED, became a licensed barber and studied psychology and child development. These classes helped me understand the impact of the trauma that I and others had experienced and enabled me to counsel others in denouncing their gang memberships.

In addition, I completed anger management counseling and joined the Parents in Prison group, which helped men focus on the needs of their children. I was not a parent, so I spent the next year thinking about my needs as a child and how those needs could be addressed for children in situations similar to what I had experienced.

On my third visit to the parole board — and after I had served 10 years — the board granted my release. I stayed in Nashville and worked for a barbershop for a while. Then I began volunteering in a local school, working with children who were disruptive in the classroom, teaching them conflict resolution skills and helping them access other services they needed. I was then asked to do this work as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Community Health Corps in Nashville, then as a full-time employee of the agency.

I was later was hired to direct a YMCA of Middle Tennessee outreach program that provided services to 25 to 30 students each year who faced issues similar to what I had experienced as a middle school student. Along the way, I also helped found the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a national network comprised of and led by individuals who went to prison as children for serious crimes and are now out living productive lives. All our members were charged with homicide-related crimes and/or faced life without parole as a child.

My original 25-year sentence expired March 3, 2016. I had no infractions during my 12 years of parole. A year later, I joined the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, where we work to replace life without parole and other extreme penalties for children with age-appropriate accountability that accounts for children’s experiences and unique capacity for change.

I’ve dedicated every day of my free life to demonstrating that I am worthy of this second chance. I’ve tried to make sure fewer families suffer the same losses as the Cantrell family. I’ve poured myself into the lives of many.

And I am not unique. The members of ICAN, which I now help to coordinate, do the same, as do many other formerly incarcerated youth I have never met. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. We just need an opportunity to prove it.

Eric Alexander is youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He is a founder, member and coordinator of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.

Money bail system challenged in Jacksonville, Florida

Money bail system challenged in Jacksonville, Florida

Two prominent Jacksonville civil rights attorneys are challenging bail practices for misdemeanor charges in Northeast Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit.

Attorneys William Sheppard and Elizabeth White argue that current practices unfairly punish those unable to afford bail.

The lawsuit maintains that judges in the 4th Judicial Circuit, which consists of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, don’t inquire as to whether defendants can post bail. Instead, as the complaint alleges, “[t]he amount of money required is determined by a generic offense-based bail schedule or a policy and practice of Jacksonville officials imposing money bail amounts without considering the person’s ability to pay.”

“The Duval County Jail is seriously overcrowded,” Sheppard observed in a written statement to Folio Weekly, “in part because the Sheriff is holding misdemeanants solely because of their inability to pay their way out of jail. Long ago, Charles Dickens wrote about debtors’ prisons-and that’s all this is.”

A January report from the Florida Department of Corrections found that Duval County locks up an average of 444 misdemeanor defendants a day, more than any other county in the state.

Sheppard and White, who are married, represent three individuals, arrested on misdemeanor charges, who were incarcerated because they could not afford to post bail. Joseph Menter, who is homeless, was charged with simple battery and held on $2,508 bail that he could not afford to pay. James Davis was also charged on simple battery and, like Menter, had bail set at $2,508. Davis, too, could not afford to pay that amount. The third named plaintiff, Jonathan Daniels, is also homeless. His initial bond for petty theft was set at $1,508.

Each defendant later had his bail amount increased although court records don’t explain why the amounts were up. But former 4th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Bill White told In Justice Today that the bail setting process in Jacksonville has, for decades, been “punitive, even if no one wants to admit it. Judges want defendants to take plea deals to clear their caseloads.”

And part of that is that judges routinely raise bail in the hopes of pressuring defendants to cut deals, White said.

One judge, who White did not identify, admitted that he sets high bail amounts in order to coerce defendants to take guilty pleas. “It’s much easier to push a defendant into taking a plea deal when they’re locked up in jail,” White explained. “Alternatively, defendants have more leverage when they’re coming into court through the front door, and not the jailhouse door.”

Melissa Nelson, who became the State Attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit in January, has declared her support for bail reform, stating that she doesn’t want a system where indigent defendants are stuck in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.

“We are training lawyers right now they cannot punish anybody for indigency,” Nelson said. “We are not interested in prosecutors using the jail as pre-trial detention.”

But White expressed skepticism about Nelson’s claims. “For years we’d meet with the elected state attorney and they would say they didn’t want people locked up because they couldn’t pay bail,” he said. “Then we’d go into the courtrooms and the prosecutors working for those elected state attorneys were pushing to increase our clients’ bail.”

Bail reform has become a priority of criminal justice advocates nationwide. Similar lawsuits challenging bail procedures have been filed in Harris County, Texas, San Francisco, California, and Calhoun, Georgia. Newly elected District Attorneys in major cities, including Houston and Chicago, have moved quickly to change bail practices there. The Democratic nominee for district attorney in Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, has made it a key campaign issue.

Political leaders of both parties are also starting to embrace bail reform. This past year, with the support of the Governor and the Attorney General, New Jersey enacted broad reforms to the way in which bail is set, with the goal of eliminating the large economic disparities between those who are detained pre-trial and those who are released. In July, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, and California Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat, introduced legislation designed to encourage states to eliminate cash bail systems.

Sheppard and White are accustomed to taking on high profile legal cases. In the 1970s, they challenged the constitutionality of overcrowding in the Duval County jail. Later, they successfully argued before the U.S Supreme Court in Doggett v. United States that a delay between indictment and arrest violated a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Outside the realm of criminal justice, the duo spearheaded the lawsuit that resulted in marriage equality in Florida.

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

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ICE Is Making Its Massive Data Collection Effort Secret As It Labels More and More Immigrants ‘Gang Members’

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ICE Is Making Its Massive Data Collection Effort Secret As It Labels More and More Immigrants ‘Gang Members’

In a new rule proposal, the Department of Homeland Security has moved to exempt large swaths of the Immigration and Customs Enformcement’s massive data collection system from the Privacy Act, making the type, sources, and accuracy of information ICE is collecting almost completely secret. By doing so, it would further obscure a law enforcement agency that has used its data system to label at least hundreds of immigrants as “gang members” as part of its efforts to ramp up deportations under the Trump.

The new rule focuses on ICE’s FALCON database, which, as the Intercept has reported, gathers information as far-ranging as local police reports, social media, criminal and civil asset forfeiture records, cell phone information and even data collected by the CIA and NSA. The Privacy Act had previously ensured that citizens and legal permanent residents had some access to information the government had been collecting about them, to ensure its accuracy, and to determine how the government had collected that information. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, that right was extended to undocumented immigrants as well. However, following an Executive Order by President Trump, that right was rescinded.

The new DHS rule would go even further however than the Executive Order, keeping both citizens and noncitizens alike from seeing the information that is being collected on them, or, in the case of deportations, used against them, through FALCON.

“This type of rule proposal is not unprecedented now, unfortunately,” said Jeramie Scott, the Director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “It has become a growing issue because of the amount of information that these agencies collect in their databases and the ways they disseminate this information. We’ve seen repeatedly that government databases, especially ones that have exempted themselves from Privacy Act safeguards, can contain a lot of inaccuracies.”

EPIC was one of the few organizations that commented on the proposed rule. It has filed a FOIA request with ICE to shed more light on ICE’s use of FALCON, which was designed by Palantir, a company co-founded by Trump-supporter Peter Thiel. Scott said previous rule proposals by DHS have regularly become policy, mostly unchanged from their proposals.

FALCON, which has been used by DHS since 2013 to “assist in the conduct of ICE criminal, civil, and administrative investigation,” helps flag individuals who would otherwise never be on ICE’s radar, like, for example, those who have been been put into local law enforcement gang databases (many of whom have never committed a crime).

It’s this type of information sharing that undermines many “sanctuary city” policies that are meant to help protect immigrants, immigrant advocates claim. The very same cities with “sanctuary city” policies like New York and Los Angeles, also run gang databases that ICE then uses to track people down. Police departments in these cities also engage in “broken windows” policing, where crackdowns on low-level offenses, such as turnstile jumping or drinking in public result in arrests where the arrestee’s fingerprints are shared with ICE, even if they’re not prosecuted.

“ICE has been throwing around the ‘gang affiliation’ tag left and right without any substance to them,” said Lee Wang, an attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project in New York. “What we’ve been seeing is a regular flow of information from local police departments in terms of people’s information and criminal histories to the federal government. Without a lawyer present, immigrants get ambushed by all this information the government has collected on you, and it’s very difficult to defend yourself. This is what we call the ‘‘information imbalance’ and it really matters.”

California’s gang database, for example, was found by a state auditor to be filled by errors and the police in Portland, Oregon recently annouced that it will end its gang list after a reporter with the Oregoinian found that 81 percent of those on the list were part of a racial or ethnic minority.

“We’re in a place where the government is constantly collecting data, while at the same time, we have less and less rights to see or correct that data,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel at the ACLU. “This should be viewed as part of the overall attempt by the Trump administration to view immigration enforcement in a way that is not respectful of the due process rights of immigrants.”

Once in ICE custody, there’s often no effective way for immigrants to challenge deportations based on the information that comes out of these databases, especially since the vast majority of immigrants are representing themselves in court.

“ICE brings these kids into custody, and says to the judge that they’re gang members, and what they can get away with, and what evidence they can put behind that claim is astonishing,” said Heidi Altman, the Director of Policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “I’ve seen evidence that’s a picture of a teenage boy that was posted on social media, and some immigration agent has literally drawn an arrow to another young person in the photo and scribbled in ‘gang member’.”

This “information imbalance” that immigrants experience when facing deportation is immense — often they’re not told exactly what has qualified them as a “gang member,” nor given the opportunity to correct records that local or federal law enforcement might be keeping on them. What this does, in effect, as Altman explained, is “use information to target communities simply for being where they’re from.” This has been especially prevalent in deportations of Central American immigrants, she said.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment about the rule proposal.

A similar, secretive surveillance initiative by the Department of Homeland Security, which also cast a wide net among a targeted community, was the FBI’s “No Fly List,” created in the aftermath of 9/11, and meant to restrict travel for those the government suspected of having ties to terrorism. Following a series of lawsuits alleging serious civil rights violations, the “No Fly List” was revealed to be inundated with inaccuracies.

“It’s not a transparent process, it’s ripe for abuse, the criteria are so vague, and even according to the watchlisting guide, the presumption is in favor of accepting a nomination for placement on the list,” said Naz Ahmad, a staff attorney at the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project at CUNY Law School. “There’s very little incentive to conduct proper reviews and see if someone should should be removed from the list, or how much of the list is based on outdated or inaccurate information.”

The buildup of the surveillance state at virtually every level of government, now operating unchecked by the very law meant to limit the amount of information the government can collect on citizens and noncitizens alike, goes far beyond the rights that were provided by the Privacy Act, EPIC’s Jeramie Scott argues.

“The growing collection of databases and the connections between them, as well as the effort to use software to data-mine and make connections between those databases will have a growing chilling effect on First Amendment rights, particularly those of association,” says Scott, pointing out that those rights for undocumented immigrants are protected under the constitution.

As ICE continues to kick its deportation machine into overdrive, and with gang policing growing increasingly prominent at the federal, state, and local level, immigrant advocates are finding that it is using these databases as pretense to criminalize entire communities. And with its data now protected from the eyes of the public it deigns to serve, there are even fewer ways to challenge it.

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