Category Archives: racial disparity

More than 3.5 million reasons why the death penalty should be abolished

The death penalty is crazy. It’s barbaric. It’s sanctioned murder.

urkel-gifWe should end it.

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Here are more than 3.5 million reasons why:

1-3.5 million: $3.5 million is how much the defense expert billed the public defender services for his work in the racial disparity hearings. Of course, the Courant when writing about it, misses the mark entirely (again) in its description of the need for this sort of work:

For many taxpayers, it’s an unwelcome fact of life that they bear the cost of preserving the legal rights of convicted killers. The counter to that is that it’s the price of being civilized. And if an exclamation point is needed to punctuate either statement, it could be the story of the recent payment to Donohue.

The most obvious explanation, completely glossed over, is that it’s the price we have to pay for having a death penalty. It’s not the rights of convicted killers, it’s the cost of a death sentence. If the state wants to prosecute people and kill them for those crimes, it shares the responsibility and burden of making sure those convictions are legal. Why is there no blame on the prosecution for this cost?

And it’s a cost incurred to ensure that the death penalty isn’t racist. Which, you know:

thats-racist

3,500,001-????: We actually don’t know how much the prosecution spends on the defense of murde the death penalty, but it stands to reason that they too spend a lot.

There are still plenty of death penalty appeals pending, perhaps with some retrials to come. There is decades worth of work to be done fighting against the death penalty. That means lots more money.

It’s not the defense’s fault. The state is trying to kill someone. We’re trying to prevent further murder.

Channel your outrage accordingly.

 

Ferguson: the no-Constitution zone

[The following is my latest column for the CT Law Tribune, to be published this week.]

To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.

Until the Fourth Amendment, which is closely allied with the Fifth, is rewritten, the person and the effects of the individual are beyond the reach of all government agencies until there are reasonable grounds to believe (probable cause) that a criminal venture has been launched or is about to be launched.

Yet if the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can “seize” and “search” him in their discretion, we enter a new regime.

So concluded Mr. Justice Douglas in his dissent – the lone dissent – to Terry v. Ohio, perhaps with greater prescience than even he would have envisioned. Today, some 46 years later, the fruits of that unwise policy have ripened and come to bear in America, presenting us with a country that seems unrecognizable.

The consequences of guilt by association: racial profiling and preventing videotaping

[This is my latest column for the CT Law Tribune, republished here because they’re stuck behind a paywall.]

In 1979, the United States Supreme Court in Ybarra v. Illinois held that “a person’s mere propinquity to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not, without more, give rise to probable cause to search that person”.

Indeed, it is one of the core requirements of the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and also the right to expectation of privacy, that officers of the government need independent, particularized suspicion and cause as to the person they seek to search or detain.

In other words, if police want to stop you, they have to have some reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime or are in possession of a weapon. Even the watered-down “stop-and-frisk” standard of Terry v. Ohio required this ‘particularized’ suspicion:

The “narrow scope” of the Terry exception does not permit a frisk for weapons on less than reasonable belief or suspicion directed at the person to be frisked.

There are several important reasons for this, stemming from the Founding Fathers’ strong dislike for a practice of the British crown at the time called ‘General Warrants’ or ‘Writs of Assistance’. As I’ve written here before,

these writs of assistance were permanent search warrants which decreed that any place could be searched at any time at the whim of the holder. The colonists’ hatred for these general writs gave birth to the Fourth Amendment and its mandate of specific, particularized warrants and its protection of papers and effects from search without probable cause.

Despite these specific, unambiguous protections afforded all citizens of the United States – and by extension the State of Connecticut – our state supreme court last week somehow managed to ensure that the conviction of one Jeremy Kelly remained intact.

Clarifying the problems with mandatory-minimums: why it’s okay to let them go

Over the weekend, Susan Bigelow at CT News Junkie had a fantastic op-ed piece arguing that Connecticut should follow AG Holder’s lead1 and revisit its use of mandatory minimum sentences.

Susan writes:

Just as important as efforts on the federal level, however, are criminal justice reforms we can and should implement here at home. The number of prisoners held in Connecticut’s facilities has, for a number of reasons, dropped from all-time highs in 2007 and 2008, but those levels are still high considering the drop in violent crime that’s occurred over the past decade. Also, the parole reforms enacted after the Cheshire murders in 2007 have contributed to the reversal of recent declines in prison population, meaning fewer prisoners are being released.

That’s accurate, with some recent reporting by The CT Mirror showing that numbers have gone up and overcrowding is a problem again, driven in large part by “reforms” to parole laws. Susan argues that in the next legislative session, we should “reform” mandatory-minimums or,  better yet, do away with them altogether.

There’s nothing to reform. Mandatory-minimums are a dangerous power to give to prosecutors. The results of that power being wielded in a heavy-handed way are evident in the war on drugs. It’s taken decades for the Attorney General of the United States to recognize that mandatory-mininum sentences have a terribly disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

In Connecticut, mandatory-minimums apply if you’re selling drugs within 1500 feet of a school or public housing project. Repeated efforts over the last few years to reduce that “drug-free zone” to 200 or 300 feet have failed.

Take a guess as to who is most impacted by this mandatory-minimum sentence2? You know where you can’t stand without being within 1500 feet of a school or public housing project? That’s right. Connecticut’s urban cities (that’s a post from 2007, by the way. We’ve been dithering over this common sense reform for six fucking years).

Mandatory-minimums are also dangerous because they are a chain that binds the hands of judges who seek to do justice and are a weapon in the hands of prosecutors who want to be unreasonable and unjust.

In Connecticut, prosecutors determine the charges to be filed and pursued. A judge, short of dismissal of a charge for legal reasons, cannot alter the charges filed by a prosecutor. Judges, on the other hand, can indicate a sentence they would impose, which can differ from a prosecutor’s recommended sentence.

So let’s say that a judge thinks an assault charge is worth a prison sentence of two years; the victim doesn’t want to the defendant to go to jail and there is no real long-term injury to any party. The defendant is a young man, with little or no criminal record and the state’s case is iffy at best.

But a gun was used in the assault, so the prosecutor charges Assault in the First Degree, which carries a mandatory sentence of 5 years. Now, no one thinks that a 5-year sentence is appropriate, except the prosecutor, but no one can do anything about it, including the judge and/or victim. Maybe the prosecutor doesn’t like the defendant, maybe she doesn’t like the defense lawyer, maybe she doesn’t like the judge or doesn’t like the system. Who knows.

But the point is that the prosecutor can hijack “fairness” in the process by “sticking” on a mandatory-minimum.

Mandatory-minimums are set by the legislature, based on precise calculations made using actuarial tables and deep meditation pulling numbers out of their ass. Most don’t have any experience in the day-to-day operation of the criminal justice system and base their ideas of “justice” and “fairness” on fairytales Law and Order. To be fair, when we’re resolving cases, we also pull numbers out of our ass, but at least our asses are attuned to the range of widely accepted resolutions.

But legislators, in someone’s infinite wisdom, have selected arbitrary numbers and have decreed not only maximum punishments, but also minimum punishments, sometimes in abject disregard for the realities of the criminal justice system.

Eliminating mandatory-minimums would do only one thing: eliminate the minimum. It would do nothing to the maximum. But it would allow judges the flexibility of making fair determinations of the appropriate sentence to be imposed, not hindered by an over-charging prosecutor. If a case is “worth” 2 years, a defendant should get a sentence of 2 years. But if a case is worth 8 years, he will get 8 years. Eliminating mandatory-minimums does nothing to alter that possibility.

Instead of a range of 5-20 years, the range simply becomes 0-20 years and a judge is free to sentence anywhere between those two numbers.

Finally, as I’ve said before, CT’s mandatory-minimum scheme has a weird interaction with its juvenile sentencing scheme, resulting in 14 year old children being tried in adult court as adult criminals and sentenced to mandatory ten years in jail. Juveniles – children – are different than the rest of us. The science is incontrovertible and established and even the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged this distinction. They deserve a second chance. While states across the country are considering altering their laws to comply with the Supreme Court, a bipartisan bill that would have done just that was defeated in the State legislature.

Because people are afraid:

“There seems to be some notion that mandatory minimum sentences make us safer and that moving away from them makes us less safe,” [State Rep. Gary] Holder-Winfield said, highlighting a stale leftover from the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s. More people in prison doesn’t equal a safer or more just state, especially not when so many lives are being destroyed in the process.

People who commit crimes should be punished. But they should be punished fairly and proportionate to their crime. They should also be punished in a manner that is proportional to others who have committed similar crimes. They should also be punished in a manner taking into account their individual facts and circumstances.

Smart on crime means all of that. It means treating people as human beings. “Tough on crime” means being afraid of everything that isn’t you and condemning vast numbers of people because you’re scared. Tough on crime is simply continuing the narrow-minded racist policies that got us where we are today: staggering numbers of children and low-level non-violent drug offenders serving significant prison sentences, while our jails burst at the seam, corrections swallows the largest portion of our state’s budget and a trail of destroyed lives and families in its wake.

It’s time to stop being stupid on crime and start being smart on it. Eliminating mandatory-minimums is a step in the right direction.

Martin, Zimmerman and the colors of injustice

This is not a Trayvon Martin post; this is not a George Zimmerman post. For that, go read these fine pieces with which I wholeheartedly agree.

This isn’t even a post about race, although race certainly fuels much of it.

This is a post about injustice. Injustice doesn’t come in one shape: the acquittal of a seemingly obviously guilty white-ish man for murdering a black teenager. Injustice comes in many stripes, shades and hues. Injustice is smaller than the Zimmerman acquittal and greater than it too. Injustice happens every day before your eyes, but you don’t see it.

Injustice is Warren Hill. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to kill mentally retarded people. Georgia is a part of the United States. Warren Hill is a prisoner in the State of Georgia. Warren Hill is mentally retarded. His experts agree. The State’s experts agree. Yet Warren Hill is scheduled to die tomorrow. A mentally retarded man, in direct contravention to the Constitution of the United States. Because it’s Georgia and Georgia does what it wants.

Injustice is the hundreds of thousand of black men who went to jail for years longer than their white counterparts because of an imaginary crack-cocaine disparity.

Injustice is when children like Trayvon Martin or younger are arrested and treated as adults by a harsh, unrepentant adult criminal system, sending them to jail automatically for a decade or more.

Injustice isn’t at the fringes of the criminal justice system; it isn’t in the extreme corners and reaches, rearing its head every 6 months or so for you to vent your moral outrage at.

Injustice happens to the wrongfully convicted, like Ronald Cotton or James Tillman or Miguel Roman or the hundreds of others who were convicted by duly sworn juries just doing their jobs.

Injustice is every day. Injustice happens like a death by thousand cuts. Injustice happens to the guilty and the innocent. And every injustice to the guilty is injustice to the innocent.

Injustice is when we spend millions of dollars to fund police and prisons and prosecutors and our legislators increase the number of crimes and multiply the punishment without nary a thought to covering the costs of defense. Injustice is when your rights are in the hands of underpaid, overworked lawyers who are doing their best but are overwhelmed by an overwhelming system. Injustice is when “tough on crime” trumps the promise of equality in access to justice.

Injustice is when prosecutors get to decide what to turn over and what not to. Injustice is when they don’t turn over evidence proving innocence. Injustice is when the courts protect their illegal and unethical ways.

Injustice is when the police department in New York has a policy of stopping every minority and “frisking them”, because they were “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime“. Injustice is when the police department wants the power to stop anyone on the street, for any reason, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Injustice is when “technicalities” are used to deny people their appeals, to forcibly impose convictions no matter the Constitutional violations or error. Injustice is when we elevate form over substance, format and rules over rights and freedoms. Injustice is when you punish people for exercising their rights.

Injustice is when they use fear to scare you into giving up your rights, telling you tales of the terrorist or the criminal whom you must punish.

Injustice is when you believe that you have nothing in common with the individual subjected to the full force of the government’s ire. Injustice is when you believe that you will never be a persecuted minority. Injustice is when you believe that you have nothing to hide, so you don’t say a word when they illegally look inside my house.

Injustice is when you pay attention when the media tells you to and you stop thinking for yourself. Injustice is when you go into court, predisposed to convict.

Injustice is when you think justice only applies to the innocent or the likeable. Injustice is when you decide that one set of rules apply to you and another set of rules to those that you don’t like. Injustice comes in a dazzling array of colors. Do you have the courage to not be afraid anymore?

Can you stop being colorblind to injustice?

Breaking news: things cost money

In a sure to be groundbreaking series of articles, the Hartford Courant’s Jon Lender has discovered that the business of government – the every day practice of running a State – costs money.

This heretofore undiscovered concept works in this way: people work for the State. They get paid. Shocking and novel, I know. I wonder what the repercussions for society will be? I shudder to think of the fallout from this breathtaking expose that you know, people like to get paid for the work that they do.

Take his latest revelation, for example: that lawyers hired to defend death row inmates were paid money. Ingrates, right? Bastards should work free for the honor or something.

Racism in the death penalty? We’re North Carolina after all!

Tar_Heel_postcard

What do you call people from North Carolina? Whatever that word is, they were faced with a choice: do they appear to be racist murderers or just plain Northeastern Liberal Sissies?

I know what I’d choose and I know what stereotype says that the North Carolinians would choose. And proving that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, they chose the former. The Senate just repealed (here‘s the bill) the Racial Justice Act, which allows inmates to use statistics to prove that their death sentences are obtained based on racial injustice.

Just last year I was congratulating the Second in Flight State for a decision reversing the death sentence for a man who proved that racial bias played a significant role in the jury selection process. The opinion by Judge Weeks [PDF] said that:

Race played a “persistent, pervasive and distorting role” in jury selection and couldn’t be explained other than that “prosecutors have intentionally discriminated” against Robinson and other capital defendants statewide, Weeks said. Prosecutors eliminated black jurors more than twice as often as white jurors, according to a study by two Michigan State University law professors Weeks said he found highly reliable.

The opinion relied in part on a study [PDF] by Michigan State University. This was all made possible due to the Racial Justice Act, an avant-garde piece of legislation enacted in North Carolina that did exactly what the United States Supreme Court prohibited a quarter century ago in McCleskey v. Kemp.