Jan 14, 2019

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: What to expect in Season 2 of ‘Justice in America’

  • If Cyntoia Brown can be released from prison, why not trafficking survivor Alexis Martin?

  • ‘A Convenient Scapegoat

  • Philadelphia narcotics officers coerced people into acting as confidential informants

  • Texas prepares to execute Blaine Milam, convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of junk science

  • South Carolina prisons’ problems include a lack of transparency

In the Spotlight

What to expect in Season 2 of ‘Justice in America’

“Justice in America,” hosted by Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith III, is a podcast for everyone interested in criminal justice reform—from those new to the system to experts who want to know more. The first season launched in July and featured interviews with guests including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rashad Robinson, John Legend, and Gina Clayton. The second season begins Wednesday and will feature conversations with activists, journalists, and lawyers including Wesley Lowery, Sara Totonchi, Marlon Anderson, Abd’Allah Wali Lateef, and Alicia Bannon.

In this Q&A, we hear from Josie and Clint about the new season and what to expect.

When we spoke at the beginning of Season 1 you explained that many of the topics you highlighted in your conversations, like bail, plea bargaining, prosecutors, and crimmigration were great starter topics, a way to understand many of the big problems that influence this system. What were some of your guiding principles as you decided on the guests and topics for Season 2?

Our goal is to build off of what we did in Season 1, by providing clear and contextualized information about how mass incarceration functions and how our criminal justice system got to where it is today. That means working across all axes, and explaining procedure and substance, people and process, history and impact. We want all listeners, from beginners to experts, to be able to come in and learn something,

This season, we are doing something new, as well: We start each episode with a common criminal justice-related word or phrase and dissect the ways in which it is misused or misunderstood.  We talk about phrases like “violent criminal,” “diversion program,” and “recidivism”—all of which are thrown around without real interrogation of what they signify. Our goal is to give our listeners tools they can use to be more discerning consumers of criminal justice or crime-related news.

In the first episode of Season 2, which will be available for download Wednesday, you talk with Jon Rapping of Gideon’s Promise, an organization founded to change the public defense landscape across the country by training and supporting new public defenders. What was that like? What will listeners get from hearing that conversation?

We wanted to begin with public defense because of the critical role public defenders play. For about 80 percent of defendants, public defenders are the only thing standing between them and the power of the state. It’s hard to convey just how critical public defenders are to our system, and how unjustly under-resourced they are across much of the country. Jon Rapping has had such a major impact in the public defense field, and we really enjoyed talking to him about how he views the role of the public defender. It was a fascinating conversation, particularly when he talks about how his perspective regarding the role of the public defender has evolved over the years.

A lot has happened, both good and bad,  since “Justice In America” launched in July—the November elections and results at the local, state, and federal level; the passage of the First Step Act, which was hailed as a bipartisan victory but ended up being an extremely limited, and in many ways problematic, piece of federal legislation; the deepening crisis in how immigrants are treated, at the border and elsewhere. How have recent events shaped the conversations for Season 2?

Josie: Unsurprisingly, the narrative that surrounded the passage of the First Step Act was unfortunately similar to what we’ve seen time and time again. People who have experienced the criminal justice system were split into unreasonably simple categories, the good and the bad, the innocent and the guilty, those that “deserve” to be part of this system and those who don’t. But things are not that easy and, even if they were, our system is not that logical. On the contrary—our system is cruel.  It is racist, it is classist, it is harmful and destructive. The question is not just what people in the system deserve, but whether or not we as a nation are comfortable inflicting unimaginable, unpredictable, and unbearable pain on other human beings. We cannot change people for the better through harming them.

Many were encouraged to see movement on this issue by this White House. And good changes can happen in small increments. I certainly don’t want to disregard the very real impact some of this legislation will have on real people’s lives. But the legislation does not exist without context. The policies put forth by the president have been nothing short of barbaric. And so we cannot truly call this change significant as we continue to see violence in our prisons and violence at the border. We must ensure we don’t validate an authoritarian and racist criminal justice system. True reform will not be conceived by Congress or at the White House, none of whom have had to fact the humiliation and injustice that so many others have faced. It must begin with people on the ground, particularly those in the system.

It’s more clear than ever that we have light years to go before we can ensure a fair or reasonable justice system. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that to really ensure justice, we would have to dismantle this system entirely and start from scratch. This season we talk to Mariame Kaba, a visionary organizer who has been fighting for years against the criminal system, about restorative justice and prison abolition. I believe she’ll broaden the spectrum of possibility for our listeners who are new to criminal justice reform. Change is possible and can go far, far beyond the First Step Act.

Stories From The Appeal


Alexis Martin [Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections]

If Cyntoia Brown Can Be Released from Prison, Why Not Trafficking Survivor Alexis Martin? Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has granted clemency to Brown, who was forced to trade sex for money, but Ohio’s governor declined last week to do the same for Martin. [Melissa Gira Grant]

‘A Convenient Scapegoat.’ Cherie Townsend is suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after she says they falsely imprisoned her for murder and destroyed her reputation. [Raven Rakia]

Stories From Around the Country

Philadelphia narcotics officers illegally coerced people into acting as confidential informants:  In 2017, two Philadelphia police department Narcotics Bureau supervisors called a meeting to instruct officers on how to coerce people suspected of low-level drug offenses into acting as confidential informants. A 177-page Internal Affairs document obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, describes the scheme, which eventually involved falsifying paperwork. The Internal Affairs investigation began in response to an anonymous letter “from stressed black personnel of the Narcotics Unit.” Black narcotics officers and an organization representing Black police officers have also sued the supervisors and the city, alleging retaliation against officers who resisted improper orders. Michael Mellon at the Defender Association of Philadelphia said hundreds of arrests could be tainted. He told the Inquirer that, “for close to two years the Philadelphia police narcotics units adopted an explicit policy and culture of altering and destroying evidence, hiding witnesses and suspects, and fabricating police paperwork, in an effort to coerce people into acting as confidential informants.” [Samantha Melamed and Mark Fazlollah / Philadelphia Inquirer]

Texas prepares to execute Blaine Milam, convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of junk science: The state of Texas is preparing to execute Blaine Milam tomorrow. Milam’s lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last week challenging his conviction and sentence, along with a motion to stay his execution. A statement from the lawyers says: “[Texas] obtained Blaine Milam’s conviction and death sentence for capital murder based on now discredited bite mark junk science” and that “Mr. Milam’s conviction is unreliable, and his death sentence is arbitrary.” In 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission called for a moratorium on the use of bite-mark evidence in court. Milam was convicted of the killing of his girlfriend’s daughter, under the law of parties, which allowed him to be convicted and sentenced to death without the state needing to show that he was directly responsible for the child’s death. [Death Penalty Information Center]

South Carolina prisons’ problems include a lack of transparency: In commentary for the Post and Courier, Steve Bailey looks at the conditions in South Carolina prisons that led to a riot last year that left seven incarcerated people dead and 22 injured. While the corrections department has been quick to crack down on contraband cell phones (which allowed people inside to share their accounts of what was happening as the violence unfolded and guards failed to intervene), it failed to act on a major report commissioned before the riot. A copy obtained via a Freedom of Information request was heavily redacted. The unredacted pages discussed problems of severe understaffing. Bailey writes: “There is no question the prisons need more resources…But the prisons need something else, too: far greater transparency. The [corrections department] commissioned the Roth report as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit over mental health care for inmates. It shared the report with the governor’s office and a handful of legislators and then promptly buried it. This is all too familiar: Last year I had to make another Freedom of Information request just to show 2017 was the deadliest year in the history of the prisons.” [Steve Bailey / Post and Courier]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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