Tag: criminal justice system

THIS WAY FORWARD: John Legend Teams Up with New Profit to Help Formerly Incarcerated Entrepreneurs Succeed via Unlocked Futures Program

by Dena Crowder

“I care deeply about issues of incarceration and criminal justice reform,” says Tulaine Montgomery, managing partner at New Profit, a philanthropic venture capital fund. It’s a passion she shares with Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend.  Like Legend, whose mother cycled “in and out of jail for charges related to drug addiction” when he was growing up, Montgomery has seen the impact of prison on families firsthand.

“This idea that there is a group of people we can *other*…that we cannot advocate for – that’s not something I’ve been able to entertain,” she explains. Montgomery believes that when someone who’s been incarcerated faces barriers preventing successful re-entry into society, it doesn’t just damage them alone.  On the contrary, it wreaks havoc on their extended family, community and nation, often for multiple generations. 

In addition, she says that treating entire groups of people as “expendable” and “counting them out” of making productive contributions makes zero economic sense. The USA spends $80 billion a year to keep people behind bars. Once paroled, even non-violent, first-time offenders struggle to find housing, jobs, or chances for further education.  Feeling locked out of opportunity and unable to sustain themselves, many end up right back in prison.  It’s a costly revolving door. Providing a path to success rather than creating a class of “throwaway people” is not only morally redemptive, it’s also economically sound. 

Tulaine Montgomery, New Profit’s Managing Partner (Photo Courtesy of New Profit)

Transforming inequities and imbalances in the criminal justice system is part of the larger mission behind Unlocked Futures, a partnership between New Profit, John Legend’s Free America campaign, and Bank of America. A 16-month accelerator program that supports entrepreneurs who have been previously incarcerated, Unlocked Futures provides funding, leadership training, business skills building, executive coaching, content development and peer support to eight members or cohorts. 

The program identifies innovative entrepreneurs whose businesses solve problems that affect those impacted by the criminal justice system.  They are uniquely qualified to address the “most pressing challenges” and break down barriers, precisely because they’ve been there, Montgomery says.   

It’s her belief that “someone who has served time—one of the most dehumanizing conditions we pay federal dollars to create—and emerged mentally intact and ready to lead a business, that’s a leader I want to know.

Topeka Sam is one of the eight inaugural Unlocked Futures cohorts and a case in point. Her organization, Ladies of Hope Ministries, helps women transition from incarceration back into meaningful participation. She knows the terrain and has insight into how to navigate the road to re-entry because she’s lived it.  

Marcus Bullock, CEO of Flikshop, a mobile app company that delivers postcards to inmates from loved ones, says the idea came to him because it was “connection” with family and his mother in particular that gave him a thread of hope during imprisonment.

Every dollar invested in correctional education returns $19.76 back to society,” according to Dirk Van Velzen, founder of the Prison Scholars Fund. Van Velzen’s organization helps inmates gain degrees and skills that are marketable in the job sector because he knows that if they’re employable, they’re far less likely to commit new crimes. The statistics are staggering: national recidivism stands at 68%. For graduates of the Prison Scholars’ Fund, that rate plummets to 4%. 

When Unlocked Futures kicked off at the end of last year, John Legend joined New Profit and the eight cohorts for a round table discussion. After listening to their stories, Legend remarked “with people like you working tirelessly to change the system and the narrative, I’m optimistic.” Continue reading “THIS WAY FORWARD: John Legend Teams Up with New Profit to Help Formerly Incarcerated Entrepreneurs Succeed via Unlocked Futures Program”

U.S. District Judge Rules Orleans Criminal Court Can No Longer Jail Anyone for Failing to Pay Fines or Fees Without Neutral Hearing

Carvings on the Orleans Parish Courthouse read: THE IMPARTIAL ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE IS THE FOUNDATION OF LIBERTY. (Photo by Seth Gaines)

by  via theadvocate.com

Everyone who owes fines and fees from criminal convictions in Orleans Parish must have the chance to plead poverty in a “neutral forum” before landing in jail for failing to pay, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Barring an appeal, the ruling from U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance marks the end of a three-year legal battle over the so-called “debtors’ prison” lawsuit brought by a handful of criminal convicts who were jailed for days or longer in Orleans Parish without a chance to prove they couldn’t afford to pay the fines and fees they owed.

Vance broadened the scope of the case Thursday with a 35-page order granting class-action status to anyone who owes court-issued fines and fees now or in the future.

On Friday, Vance declared that “undisputed evidence” shows the 13 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have “a policy or practice of not inquiring into criminal defendants’ ability to pay before those individuals are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts.”

She also declared that the judges have an “institutional conflict of interest” in making such poverty determinations themselves. That’s because the proceeds from fines and fees go directly to the court’s Judicial Expense Fund, a kitty controlled by the judges that can be used for a broad range of judicial expenses. Fines and fees have contributed about $1 million a year to the court’s coffers.

Vance ruled that the court’s failure to “provide a neutral forum for determination of such persons’ ability to pay is unconstitutional.” The decision appears to leave it up to the court to decide how to set up a mechanism for such decisions.

Vance telegraphed her final ruling with a preliminary decision on key issues in the case in December.

On Friday, she cited a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars states from arresting or detaining a defendant solely for failing to pay court costs, without determining if that failure was willful.

For years, the Orleans Parish court’s collections department — and individual judges — routinely issued arrest warrants for people who failed to pay fines and fees assessed after a conviction. Civil rights groups claimed that practice created an “unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison.”

In response to the legal attack, court officials recalled thousands of arrest warrants issued solely on the basis of unpaid fines or fees, writing off about $1 million in debts in the process.

Other warrants remain in place, such as those involving failure to appear in court or lapsed restitution payments to victims. Vance settled most of the issues from the federal lawsuit in December. But on Thursday, she ruled that her decision applies to a broad class of people: everyone who now owes money from fines and fees, and everyone who will incur those debts in the future.

However, she threw out a separate claim by the plaintiffs, who argued that it is unconstitutional to jail people who fail to pay criminal fines when those who owe fines from civil judgments don’t face the same threat.

Regardless, attorneys for the plaintiffs claimed a big win Friday.

“This is a victory for the people of New Orleans and for those committed to fixing the breaks in the criminal justice system,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“America treats being poor as a crime, disproportionately victimizing people of color. This ruling ensures that people can no longer be thrown in jail in Orleans Parish for their poverty alone.”

Read more: https://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/courts/article_92c18cda-9754-11e8-8ab4-d326e5f47bbc.html

In the Justice System of South Fulton, GA, Black Women Hold Every Top Position

(Photo: Reginald Duncan / The Atlanta Voice)

by Marshall A. Latimore via theatlantavoice.com

As America waits to see if Georgia will make history by electing Stacey Abrams the first African American woman governor in the country this November, African American women in one of Georgia’s newest cities are already making U.S. history.

Only a year after the creation of the City of South Fulton, Georgia’s fifth largest city, is breaking American barriers.

In January 2018, the city’s Municipal Court began operating and in March 2018 the city’s police services officially began. The city is the first city in American history where every criminal justice department head is an African American woman.

Chief of Police Sheila Rogers is a career law enforcement professional with more than twenty-six years experience.  Chief Rogers is the city’s first police chief and one of a few women police chief around the country.

Chief Judge Tiffany Carter Sellers is a University of Georgia law school graduate and the City’s first chief judge.  Judge Sellers was selected through a panel of experienced judges from the surrounding community.

Judge Sellers hired and appointed the Court Administrator, Lakesiya Cofield, and the City’s first Chief Court Clerk, Ramona Howard.

Also appointed to represent the two equally important components of any criminal justice system were two attorneys, City Solicitor LaDawn “LBJ” Jones, who prosecutes the cases and City Public Defender Viveca Famber Powell, who defends those accused of crimes.

Together these African American women make up all the portions of the criminal justice system in the new city. No other time in American history have black women been appointed to the top position in every department in an entire city’s criminal justice system. This amazing first was not planned. However, it is a testament to the reason the city was founded in the first place – self-reliance and local control that properly represents the community in which they serve.

“Our goal is to ensure justice for everyone,” Sellers said. “However, as African American women we are sensitive to the history of criminal justice in our country.   We want to be an example of how to do things right.”

Under Sellers’s leadership, the demographics of the court are not the only progressive attributes. Incorporated in the foundation of the City of South Fulton’s municipal court policies are details not found in other systems that have existed for years, including guaranteed access to an attorney, a robust diversion program that is infused into the court process, and overall respect for victims and the accused alike.

Source: https://www.theatlantavoice.com/articles/in-the-city-of-south-fultons-justice-system-black-women-hold-all-the-reigns/

Obama Commutes Sentences of 330 Drug Prisoners on Final Day of Presidency

President Barack Obama (photo via huffingtonpost.com)

article by Ryan J. Rielly and Elise Foley via huffingtonpost.com

President Barack Obama shortened the sentences of 330 federal prisoners on Thursday, less than 24 hours before Donald Trump takes office. With Thursday’s announcement, Obama has now granted commutations to 1,715 federal prisoners.

A review of Thursday’s list indicates that all of those 330 clemency cases were for drug or drug-related cases. Obama’s announcement followed the Tuesday commutations of the sentences of Chelsea Manning and of more than 200 federal prisoners charged with drug offenses.

“With this last act of mercy, President Obama has closed out a historic effort to restore some balance and fairness to a federal prison system that has caused needless destruction of thousands of lives and families,” Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of the #cut50 initiative, said in a statement. “We continue to waste our precious resources to lock up people who have committed drug-related crimes that do not warrant decades, and certainly not life, in prison.”

Jackson Sloan said there are “still too many people incarcerated in the federal system who are not a threat to public safety” who would be “assets, mentors, and leaders in their communities if they were given the chance to come home.”Clemency lawyer Brittany Byrd, campaign director for #cut50, said Obama had “saved Trenton Copeland’s life” by granting him clemency.

To read full article, go to: Obama Grants 330 Drug Prisoners Early Freedom On Final Day Of Presidency | The Huffington Post

Legal Scholar and “The New Jim Crow” Author Michelle Alexander to Receive $250,000 Heinz Award

article via jbhe.com

Michelle Alexander (photo via newjimcrow.com)
Michelle Alexander (photo via newjimcrow.com)

Michelle Alexander, a visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a senior fellow at the Ford Foundation, has been chosen to receive the Heinz Award in the public policy category. The awards were established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz from Pennsylvania, an heir to the Heinz Ketchup fortune. The Heinz Award comes with a $250,000 prize.

According to the award committee, Professor Alexander is being honored “for her work in drawing national attention to the issues of mass incarceration of African American youth and men in the United States, and for igniting a movement that is inspiring organizations and individuals to take constructive action on criminal justice reform.” She is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010).

To read more, go to: https://www.jbhe.com/2016/09/legal-scholar-michelle-alexander-selected-to-receive-a-250000-heinz-award/

President Barack Obama Shortens Prison Sentences for 61 Drug Offenders

Obama Prison Drug Offenders
President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House on March 30, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

article by Josh Lederman, AP via thegrio.com

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the prison sentences of 61 drug offenders, including more than a third serving life sentences, giving new energy to calls for overhauling the U.S. criminal justice system.

All of the inmates are serving time for drug possession, intent to sell or related crimes. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also charged with firearms violations. Obama’s commutation shortens their sentences, with most of the inmates set to be released on July 28.

Obama has long called for getting rid of strict sentences for drug offenses that critics say lead to excessive punishment and sky-high incarceration rates. With Obama’s support, the Justice Department in recent years has directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimums and expanded the criteria for inmates applying for clemency.

Though there’s wide bipartisan support in Congress for overhauling the criminal justice system, momentum has slowed as the chaotic presidential campaign has made cooperation between Republicans and Democrats increasingly difficult.

Obama, in a letter to the inmates, said the presidential power to grant commutations and pardons “embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”

Obama met for lunch Wednesday with people whose sentences were previously commuted to hear about the challenges of re-entering society.

The latest commutations bring to 248 the total number of inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted, more than the past six presidents combined, the White House said. The pace of commutations and the rarer use of pardons are expected to increase as the end of Obama’s presidency nears.

To read more, go to: http://thegrio.com/2016/03/30/obama-prison-sentences-drug-offenders-clemency/

Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative Receives $1,000,000 Grant from Google

bryan_stevensongoogle
Bryan Stevenson at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Feb. 26, 2016. (photo via theroot.com)

article by Angela Bronner Helm via theroot.com

Tech giant Google announced on Friday that its philanthropic arm would be donating $1 million to Bryan Stevenson’s Alabama-based non-profit, Equal Justice Initiative.

The Harvard-educated Stevenson is a lawyer who has for decades fought the good fight—winning major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults in a deeply flawed American criminal justice system.

EJI has also created the nation’s first lynching memorial and fastidiously marked lynching sites throughout the South.

Justin Steele, a principal with Google.org and the Bay Area and racial justice giving lead told USA Today, “I think what’s exciting about what EJI is doing is that at a national level it is really trying to tell the untold history around race in this country and help people develop a deeper understanding for the narrative around race and how we have gotten to where we are.”

Google.org made the announcement during a Black History Month celebration at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters where Stevenson gave a speech on how the Google grant will help further his work.

USA Today reports that the racial justice grants were born out of a growing consensus inside Google that it must respond to the police slayings of African Americans and the fatal shooting of nine black citizens inside a Charleston, S.C., church last summer.

In November, Google.org made its first racial justice grants, giving $2.35 million to community organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. This week, Google.org made four more grants, totaling $3 million.

Keeping in line with the activist mantra of organizing locally and thinking globally, the Equal Justice Initiative grant was the only grant gifted to a national non-profit—all other money was given to local organizations in the Bay Area working to eliminate racial disparities in education.

To see video of Bryan Stevenson’s Google talk, click here.

Read more at USA Today.

Albert Woodfox, the Last of the ‘Angola 3,’ Released From Prison After Being Kept in Solitary for Over 40 Years

Albert Woodfox
Albert Woodfox has always maintained his innocence in the 1972 murder of a prison guard for which he was convicted. (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)

article by Ed Pilkington via theguardian.com

Albert Woodfox, the last incarcerated member of the “Angola 3,” was released from prison on his 69thbirthday, reports CNN.

Woodfox was going to a third trial for the 1972 slaying of prison guard Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, but pleaded no contest on Friday to lesser charges, according to a statement.

“Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case,” he said.

Woodfox, who many consider a political prisoner, had spent more than 43 years under solitary confinement for Miller’s death, a practice that many criminal justice advocates, human rights groups and the United Nations equate to torture.

Woodbox was the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in America, held in isolation in a six-by-nine-foot cell almost continuously for 43 years.

Woodfox has always professed his innocence and marked his 69th birthday on Friday by being released from West Feliciana parish detention center. It was a bittersweet birthday present: the prisoner finally escaped a form of captivity that has widely been denounced as torture, and that has deprived him of all meaningful human contact for more than four decades. Continue reading “Albert Woodfox, the Last of the ‘Angola 3,’ Released From Prison After Being Kept in Solitary for Over 40 Years”

MUST SEE: Trailer for “True Conviction”, a Documentary on Black-Owned Detective Agency Run by Exonerated Men Who Fight to Free Others

"True Conviction"
John Lindsey, Christopher Scott and Steven Phillips work to exhonerate wrongfully convicted men just like they were in documentary “True Conviction” (photo via trueconvictionfilm.com)

As I combed my RSS Feed for stories to share on GBN today, I was particularly taken by an article posted by the indefatigable Tambay A. Obenson of Shadow And Act, (the most comprehensive site on black cinema, past and present, that I have ever come across).  It was an update on a documentary project now called “True Conviction” that Obenson has been tracking on his blog for about 2 years, starting with its Kickstarter fundraising campaign in early 2013. Today, he posted the link to a seven-minute preview of the film directed by Jamie Meltzer.

I opened it to watch and was immediately riveted by the story – how three men, each convicted, imprisoned and eventually exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit – banded together to form an agency to help countless other innocent people who are still unjustly serving time.  When one of the detectives, Christopher Scott, confronts Alonso Hardy, who confessed to having committed the crime for which Scott was imprisoned, it is a moment to which every person in America should bear witness, and hopefully begin to understand and help change our devastatingly faulty and racist criminal justice system.

Even though robbed of a large chunk of their adulthoods, Scott and his partners Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips dedicate their lives to helping others, because, as Scott states so poignantly at the end of the trailer:

As much as I paid for his weakness, he didn’t do this to me. It was men much more powerful than Alonso. Cops, prosecutors, D.A.s, judges… The justice system wronged me so much, you know, I had to come out and try to make a change. My whole mission is to free as many people as I can before I leave this world.

I’d embed the video if I could, but it won’t allow me.  So I am posting the link to the trailer right here:  https://vimeo.com/145864128. Additionally, if you want to sign up to receive newsletters about the film, events related to it and upcoming screenings, you can do so at trueconvictionfilm.com. 

article by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, GBN Founder and Editor-in-Chief (follow @lakinhutcherson)

 

Obama: Black Lives Matter Activists Have Legitimate Concerns

President Barack Obama at a White House event on criminal justice reform moderated by The Marshall Project. (PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday that the Black Lives Matter movement has “legitimate” concerns, and indicated it was unfair to portray its activists as opposed to law enforcement. At the same time, Obama called on activists to recognize that police officers have a tough job.

Obama said activists are drawing attention to a legitimate concern about whether African-Americans are treated unfairly in specific jurisdictions or are subject to excessive force more frequently. He added that the “overwhelming majority of law enforcement is doing the right thing and wants to do the right thing.”

His comments came at an event at the White House on criminal justice reform that was moderated by The Marshall Project.

“We as a society, particularly given our history, have to take this seriously,” Obama said of the fact that African-Americans are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. “The African-American community is not just making this up, and it’s not just something being politicized. It’s real, and there’s a history there.”

Obama also said it was important to recognize that the criminal justice system is a reflection of society.

“We as a society, if we are not investing in opportunity for poor kids, and then we expect just the police and prosecutors to keep them out of sight and out of mind, that’s a failed strategy. That’s a failure on our part as a whole,” Obama said. “If kids in the inner city are not getting treatment and opportunity, that’s as much of a problem as if it’s happening to our kids, and we’ve got to think of all our children in that same way.”

The president also addressed “All lives matter,” the frequent response to the “Black lives matter” refrain, saying that organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement were not suggesting black lives are more important than others, but rather that some things happen in black communities that wouldn’t be tolerated in other communities.

“I think everybody understands all lives matter,” Obama said. Everybody wants strong and effective law enforcement, he said, and nobody wants to see police officers hurt who are doing their jobs fairly.

article by Ruby Mellen and Ryan J. Reilly via huffingtonpost.com