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Wolves in Progressive Clothing

Many Democratic big city mayors claim to be anti-Trump, but their policies mirror the racism and violence of the president.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Scott Olson / Getty

Wolves in Progressive Clothing

Many Democratic big city mayors claim to be anti-Trump, but their policies mirror the racism and violence of the president.


Most of us are all too aware that we live in dangerous times. With new political crises emerging daily, many find it hard to keep up with the onslaught of President Trump’s attacks on civil liberties, the social safety net and the rights of marginalized people. As we struggle to address these ever-emerging threats, it’s easy to feel off balance, as though we’re always missing something, or potentially focused on the wrong thing.

But as we pivot between nightmarish Trump stories, there’s a phenomenon that has escaped the attention of many progressives: the neoliberal machinations of Democratic mayors. While Trump plays the villain on a national stage, Democratic mayors in cities like Chicago and Baltimore push dystopian, carceral agendas and allow police to harass, kill, and maim marginalized people with near-impunity.

Mayors control enormous swaths of the criminal injustice system—a system that is largely defined by state and local law, rather than any federal apparatus. Police departments work for mayors, so when we talk about policing in the era of Trump, we must understand that the decisions of big city mayors have a larger, immediate impact on the policed than either Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In truth, the pro-privatization, pro-police dictates of neoliberalism may be packaged differently than the populist conservatism we associate with Trumpism, but an examination of policy and outcomes, rather than rhetoric, reveals striking overlaps in the goals and priorities of some Democratic mayors and our current president.

In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel provides one of the most profound and troubling examples of a Trumpian Democratic mayor at work. Emanuel, who famously shuttered 50 public schools in Chicago and plans for even more closures, has recently been criticized for his efforts to invest $95 million in a new police academy, rather than investing those funds in much-needed community resources. Emanuel has received less heat, however, for his efforts to ramp up youth incarceration and in high-tech surveillance of protesters. With a recent “carjacking bill,” Emanuel played on the public’s racialized fears of carjacking, but the legislation had little to do with armed vehicular theft. It originally called for the default detention of any youth found in a stolen car, or a car that included a stolen part, regardless of whether the youth was aware the car was stolen. In its original form, the bill would have allowed the Chicago Police Department to detain minors for up to 40 hours before being brought before a judge. While opponents of the “carjacking” bill managed to soften up the de facto youth detention clause, the bill did pass, as did a recent surveillance bill that will allow police to fly drones over crowds of protesters.

As originally written, the drone surveillance bill would have allowed Chicago police to deploy drones, which could be equipped with facial recognition software, over crowds of 100 or more protesters. After significant outcry and counter-organizing by groups like the National Lawyers Guild, the bill was altered so police may only use drones when 1,500 or more people have assembled, and cannot deploy drones equipped with facial recognition software. In a different political moment, both bills might have been completely derailed, in spite of Emanuel’s efforts, but we are living in a time of political chaos, and as Rahm Emanuel has noted in the past, he never lets a crisis go to waste.

Playing on the public’s racialized fears about Chicago’s street violence is a trademark Trumpian maneuver, but such tactics are also freely deployed by Democratic mayors like Emanuel. In practice, Emanuel is likewise in lockstep with Trump’s insistence that police should not be punished for excessive violence against community members, with little in the way of consequences for police violence for racially motivated police violence and harassment. In fact, a recent report from Chicago’s Lucy Parsons Lab has revealed that from 2011-2015, Chicago had the most intense stop-and-frisk program in the nation, performing stops at a rate four times greater than New York’s at the height of its infamous program. In addition to daily abuses, Chicago police have both a local and national reputation for killing and brutalizing unarmed Black people, with some high-profile cases, such as the shooting of Laquan McDonald, garnering national attention and launching countless protests.

While Emanuel claims to be enacting police reforms as dictated by a 2017 Department of Justice (DOJ) report on policing in Chicago, his administration seems to be laser-focused on aspects of the report that involve allocating more money to the city’s already over-funded police department. With a department that already devours $4 million per day, Chicago spends more on policing than its public health services, family services, transportation, and affordable housing services combined. In a city that has lost 50 schools and half of its publicly funded mental health clinics to Emanuel’s austerity measures, residents are now being told that the city can suddenly afford to spend $95 million on a new police academy with a swimming pool and shooting range.

While Trump has garnered significant attention for his total aversion to the truth and disregard for the effectiveness of his policies, Emanuel has continued his overinvestment in a police force that has become less effective under his leadership. Trumpism has also become a source of terror in immigrant communities, where his cruel policies and large-scale deportation efforts have created a climate of constant fear and trepidation. Democrats like Emanuel present their “sanctuary city” policies as the antithesis of such measures, but local activists have pointed out that such policies often provide little in the way of protection for undocumented people.

Eliminating schools and clinics while further entrenching mechanisms of state violence is the kind of policy maneuver that many would expect from Trumpian politicians. But Democratic mayors like Emanuel are similarly slashing community resources while empowering police departments that are plagued by allegations of excessive violence, murder and police cover-ups. Such moves are clearly motivated by neoliberal ideologies that call for mass privatization, even as neoliberal initiatives, such as the mass Chicago school closings, cause significant harm in local communities.

In Emanuel’s Chicago, the Fraternal Order of Police recently organized a march for impunity, that protested any disciplinary measure—including any loss of income—for officers who officials have deemed responsible for deaths and guilty of perjury. While the police who marched on May 23 claim that Emanuel has failed them, their brazenness in marching against any accountability is an accurate social snapshot of the city’s police force, and their attitude toward many of the people they are sworn to protect. In an inarguable display of Trumpian values, Emanuel has consistently rewarded the brutal practices of the police with continued overinvestment and a very low rate of discipline—even as police brutality costs the city millions.

In 2016, for example, the city of Chicago paid $32 million in damages for 187 complaints against its police. Those cases also cost the city an additional $20 million in legal fees.

Sadly, Chicago is not the only city where Democratic mayors have been granted the kind of impunity that they have long afforded their police. Mayors in cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and New Orleans have continued to employ Trump-like policies in matters of policing, incarceration, surveillance, and immigration. In Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh recently appointed Gary Tuggle, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent as interim police chief. On his first day as acting police commissioner, Tuggle was found to have provided false information about his place of residence on a city ethics statement—twice. Tuggle also failed to submit six schedules (financial disclosures documents), that were part of the mandatory ethics report. Tuggle’s predecessor, Darryl De Sousa, recently stepped down amid federal charges of tax evasion. De Sousa was Baltimore’s sixth police chief since 1994. He was appointed to the position even after it was revealed that he was involved in the killing of two men as well as a bystander (He was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shootings)

Like Chicago, the Baltimore Police Department was investigated by the DOJ after numerous scandals and community complaints about excessive force. The investigation led to a 2016 report in which the DOJ stated that the department  “engaged in a pattern or practice of serious violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal law that has disproportionately harmed Baltimore’s African-American community and eroded the public’s trust in the police.” Despite the DOJ’s report, and a resulting consent decree, police scandals have continued, with footage of officers planting evidence bringing hundreds of cases into question in 2017. This year, two officers from the department’s Gun Trace Task Force were convicted in federal court on racketeering and robbery charges for robbing residents of money and drugs. Twelve officers from the task force either pleaded out or were convicted of similar charges.

Rather than addressing the culture of corruption within the department, Pugh has opted to continue a cycle of changing leadership—a tactic that has consistently failed to address Baltimore’s policing issues. Following Emanuel’s script, Pugh has called for increased incarceration, blaming the early release of prisoners for the city’s high crime rate instead of addressing her racist, corrupt, and incompetent police. Like Emanuel, she sees no problem in starving social services while feeding the big budgets of police; on June 6, she approved $20 million in overtime. As one Baltimorean noted on Twitter, “We have to fight for years to get close to getting $20mil for affordable housing but the police get it in 6 minutes.” On June 7, Pugh’s budget was approved by the city council; it included a staggering $510 million for the police which one councilman sharply criticized as “reckless”; another councilman said that the budget’s funding for 100 new police officers could have been used instead on “increasing recreation programming, health programming, and increasing staff levels of 911 call takers.”

Baltimore is governed by a mayor who refuses to acknowledge the relationship between poverty, austerity, and crimes of despair and desperation, as she escalates investment in failed mechanisms of violence.

Trump received a great deal of criticism for saying police should freely “rough up” suspects. Although mayors like Rahm Emanuel have made no such proclamations, they embody values that mirror Trump’s positions. And while Trump recently tweeted his support for the May 23 police-led protest march in Chicago for impunity, it should be noted that Emanuel was, in the same political moment, playing hardball to win a near-billion dollar investment in the very police force Trump sought to defend. In light of these political overlaps between Trumpism and Democratic leadership, it is incumbent upon all of us to pay close attention to local legislation and the maneuvers of Democratic mayors who are taking full advantage of the national crisis of Trumpism.

Louisiana's Love Affair With Locking Up Kids For Life

Years after two landmark Supreme Court rulings, prosecutors in Louisiana are still overwhelmingly seeking life sentences for children.

Louisiana's Love Affair With Locking Up Kids For Life

Years after two landmark Supreme Court rulings, prosecutors in Louisiana are still overwhelmingly seeking life sentences for children.


The Supreme Court may have declared life without parole, or LWOP, unconstitutional for juveniles, but Louisiana continues the practice of sentencing children to die in prison.

In its 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles (or teenagers who were younger than 18) constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Its decision did not specify whether states should retroactively apply the ruling, leaving each state to decide on its own. In four states, courts ruled that the decision only applied to present and future cases. Louisiana was one of those states.

This meant that Henry Montgomery, who had been sentenced to LWOP for the 1963 shooting of a sheriff’s deputy when he was 17, would spend the rest of his life in prison. After his first trial, he was sentenced to death, which was overturned by the state Supreme Court. At his retrial, he was convicted of first-degree murder, which in Louisiana carries an automatic sentence of life without parole.   

After the Miller decision, Montgomery challenged the state’s refusal to retroactively resentence juveniles given LWOP. His case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court which, in January 2016, ruled that Miller was retroactive and that defendants who had automatically been sentenced to LWOP as juveniles must be resentenced or considered for parole. At that time, Montgomery was among 2,585 people nationwide serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were children. In Louisiana, 282 people were serving juvenile LWOP sentences.

The Louisiana legislature amended its laws to comply with Montgomery. The initial bill would have prohibited LWOP for all juveniles, including those convicted of first-degree murder. But under pressure from the state’s district attorney association, the version that passed prohibits future LWOP sentences for juveniles who are convicted of second-degree murder. It also guarantees a sentencing hearing for youth who have been convicted of first- or second-degree murder. However, the amendment still allows children to be sentenced to LWOP if they were indicted before Aug. 1, 2017, and later convicted of first- or second-degree murder. The amended article gave district attorneys until Oct. 1, 2017, to give notice of their intent to seek LWOP.

“What this shows is the incredible role of prosecutors in shaping the legislation,” John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School and author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, told The Appeal. Under the amended law, he notes, “prosecutors still have tremendous authority.” And they are using it: Prosecutors filed notices about their intentions to seek new LWOP sentences in 92 of the 258 eligible cases (or 32 percent).

If a prosecutor is seeking juvenile LWOP, a separate hearing is required under Miller in which a judge must determine if the person is, in fact, the “worst of the worst” and incapable of rehabilitation. But public defenders have said that they lack the money for resources to mount an adequate defense for Miller hearings, including intensive investigations into the histories of their clients, which includes interviewing family members and former teachers and obtaining education, medical, and incarceration records as well as hiring experts.  Juvenile defendants eligible for re-sentencing under Montgomery, meanwhile, are required to have a similarly resources-intensive hearing. Montgomery hearings are also very expensive—New Orleans’s chief public defender estimates that they cost $56,000 per case—so defendants often receive subpar representation for them or even no hearing at all, especially in states in poor fiscal health like Louisiana.

Louisiana’s amended law did not include a reporting requirement, but the New Orleans-based Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights has been tracking outcomes by checking court dockets and calling the offices of judicial district clerks. The center found that at least 85 defendants still have open resentencing cases under Montgomery. In Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, the prosecutor has filed notices intending to seek LWOP in at least 26 of his Montgomery 67 cases (or 39 percent). The prosecutor in neighboring Jefferson Parish has filed notices in 10 of his such 23 cases (or 43 percent). A Louisiana defense attorney recently told The Appeal that the district attorney in Calcasieu Parish files a notice of intent to seek LWOP for all of the juvenile offenders in his parish who are eligible for resentencing under Montgomery.

“It seems like we’re on a carousel repeating the mistakes of the past,”  Jill Pasquarella, supervising attorney of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights Campaign to End Extreme Sentencing for Youth, told The Appeal. “The post-Miller data tells us this pattern is likely to persist. Even with instructions from the Supreme Court, kids [convicted of murder] were still sentenced to LWOP at a rate of 62 percent. That’s a far cry from ‘rare’ and ‘uncommon.’”

As with everything related to prosecution and prisons, race remains a key factor in prosecutorial decisions. “This is, without question, disproportionately punishing African-American kids,” Pasquarella noted. In the 23rd Judicial District which encompasses Ascension (22 percent Black), Assumption (30 percent Black) and St. James (50 percent Black), there are five people who are eligible for  Montgomery resentencings. Four of these five people are African-American. The district attorney is seeking LWOP against all four African-American defendants, but not the single white defendant in the jurisdiction.

The 23rd Judicial District is not an anomaly. “Race plays a role in the same way that it plays out throughout the criminal justice system,” reflected Pasquarella. African-Americans comprise slightly less than one-third (or 32 percent) of Louisiana’s overall population but they comprise 74 percent of the people sentenced to life without parole. The children’s rights center found that African-Americans comprise 75 percent of Montgomery-eligible cases in which the state is seeking a new life without parole sentence. In addition, only two of the 39 Miller defendants are white.

These numbers are a far cry from “rare and uncommon,” noted Pasquarella, referencing “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” that the Supreme Court acknowledged might still be sentenced to life without parole. At the same time, prosecutors retain the discretion to seek sentences long enough to guarantee that a person will die in prison.

But even those who do become eligible for parole may not necessarily walk out the prison gates. Though he was responsible for the change in law, 71-year-old Henry Montgomery remains in prison. Following the Supreme Court decision, Montgomery was resentenced and became eligible for parole. In February 2018, Montgomery appeared before the Louisiana parole board. In a 2-to-1 decision, the board denied him parole, in part because he had not been able to participate in prison programs that are off limits to people serving life sentences. Montgomery is in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.   

“Even with the Miller and Montgomery opinions, we put very few restrictions on what district attorneys can do,” said Pfaff, the Fordham law professor. “They retain tremendous discretion to be punitive and we see that in their embrace of juvenile life without parole.”

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No Mercy

As worthy cases for clemency from Cyntoia Brown to Calvin Bryant mount in Tennessee, advocates decry the fact that a Tennessee governor hasn't commuted a prison sentence since 2011.


Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has not commuted a single sentence during his eight years in office.
Chip Somodevilla / Staff

No Mercy

As worthy cases for clemency from Cyntoia Brown to Calvin Bryant mount in Tennessee, advocates decry the fact that a Tennessee governor hasn't commuted a prison sentence since 2011.



Calvin Bryant committed a crime in the wrong place—and at perhaps the wrongest of times.

It was 2008 and Bryant, then 22, sold 320 pills, mostly Ecstasy, to a longtime family friend who had insisted that he needed the drugs so he could sell them to support his family.

But it turned out that family friend was working as an informant for the Metro Nashville Police Department in exchange for $1,870 and the dismissal of a pending felony charge. Because the drug sale took place at Bryant’s home in Nashville’s Edgehill housing projects, which was within 1,000 feet of a school, he had run afoul of Tennessee’s Drug-Free School Zone law. So the offense meant a mandatory minimum sentence 15 years and, even though Bryant did not have a criminal record, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Under state law, Bryant must serve 15 years before he is parole eligible. A supporter of Bryant’s on Nashville’s Metro Council later wrote that his sentence “was more severe than the sentence he would have received for committing a violent crime such as rape or second-degree murder.”

When Bryant was arrested in 2008, Nashville prosecutors were still strictly adhering to  Tennessee’s 1995 Drug-Free School Zone law that provided for “enhanced criminal penalties for violation within zone.” But in 2014, Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk took office and instituted a policy of not prosecuting cases under the Drug-Free School Zone law unless a child was actually endangered.

Today, Bryant is serving the 10th year of his sentence, with at least five more ahead of him. His lawyer, Daniel Horwitz, notes in a recent court filing that if Bryant’s home had simply been a little farther away from the school or if the sale had taken place a mere six years later, he almost certainly would have been released from prison seven years ago if not sooner.

Yet Bryant has yet to find relief in the courts. In January, a Davidson County judge described his sentence as “harsh” but declined to reduce it. Now he and Horwitz are seeking clemency from Governor Bill Haslam. But in the buckle of the Bible Belt, mercy is in short supply.

A Tennessee governor has not commuted a sentence since 2011, when Phil Bredesen granted 22 pardons and four commutations in the final days of his tenure (compare Haslam and Breseden’s record on commutations to former governor Ray Blanton, who issued 617 commutations and 41 pardons during his one term in the mid-late 1970s). In 2017, Haslam, a Republican, granted an executive exoneration to Lawrence McKinney, who had been cleared by DNA testing after serving 31 years for a rape he did not commit. The exoneration made McKinney eligible to receive compensation for his wrongful conviction. But while Haslam’s administration has received 512 applications for commutation since 2011, he has not commuted a single sentence during his eight years in office.

Haslam is empowered to grant pardons and commutations at his discretion. It’s a power that was once used regularly by his predecessors. In a 2016 article for the Tennessee Bar Association Journal, Nashville criminal defense attorney Benjamin Raybin noted that “until the early 1920s, clemency served as the primary temper on often harsh sentences and injustices within the judicial system, where many crimes were capital offenses.” Although its use has declined, clemency remains a powerful tool that governors can use to mitigate unduly harsh sentences and reduce high levels of incarceration. Tennessee is one of the most incarcerated states in America and, worse, among states in the top 25 for incarceration rates, Tennessee is one of just nine where the prison population increased from 2016 to 2017, according to a newly released study from the Vera Institute of Justice.

Asked why Haslam has not used his clemency power, and whether he plans to use it in the coming months, a representative would only say that the governor will consider it.

“The governor is considering pending clemency applications and may make additional grants of clemency in appropriate cases,” press secretary Jennifer Donnals told The Appeal.

Political timidity about using clemency powers is not unique to Haslam, nor is it solely a Southern-state phenomenon. Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, has commuted only 12 prison sentences in his nearly seven years in office.

Haslam’s unwillingness to grant clemency is compounded by recent criminal justice reform failures in Tennessee. A bill that would have reduced the reach of the state’s drug-free school zones—which cover large swaths of the city, particularly low-income and minority neighborhoods—from 1,000 feet to 500 feet had bipartisan support but was killed by 11th-hour opposition from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference. The state’s new Juvenile Justice Reform Act included provisions limiting the number of children held in state custody, particularly for minor offenses like school absences, while limiting the number of youth transferred into adult court. But the final version of the bill, signed into law by Haslam on May 21, was strongly criticized by juvenile justice experts as “gutted” of such meaningful reforms. Haslam also signed a bill last year overturning city ordinances in Nashville and Memphis that created reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Applications for executive clemency must first go through the state’s Board of Parole which has referred only a small fraction to the governor despite receiving hundreds of applications.

In 2010, the board voted unanimously against recommending exoneration in Lawrence McKinney’s case, despite assertions from the judge and district attorney that McKinney was innocent. Last month, the board split on whether to recommend clemency for Cyntoia Brown, the Nashville woman serving a life sentence for killing a man—she said in self-defense—who had hired her for sex when she was 16.  “I don’t know why the governor, at this point, relies on their judgment at all,” Horwitz, Bryant’s attorney, told The Appeal. “They’ve pretty well proven themselves to be out of touch with the way I think most people feel about clemency issues.”

But the power of clemency need not be reserved for extraordinary, prominent cases. Through commutations, Haslam, a supposed moderate relative to Tennessee’s deep-red state legislature, could strike a blow against the state’s rising prison population by reducing the sentences of entire classes of prisoners. Bryant’s case is perhaps uniquely sympathetic, but 436 people have been convicted under Tennessee’s drug-free school zone law since it was enacted, according to a court filing in Bryant’s case. A recent Reason investigation found that cases prosecuted under the law that involve the actual endangerment of children are rare and that around 100 offenders ensnared in the law did not have a prior felony conviction. If he wanted to, Haslam could show them all mercy tomorrow.

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