Why our criminal justice system is working so well

 

Source: Yahoo Image, KQED

The justice system is working perfectly. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. 

The withholding of information by prosecutors violating the Brady Rule, the failure to investigate other potential suspects, and a lawyer who failed to follow a potential alibi are some ways that the justice system convicted Adnan Syed of the murder of Hae Min Lee. Adnan spent 23 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. His sentence was recently vacated, and DNA evidence exonerated him. AFTER MORE THAN TWO DECADES! What went wrong? The jury believed that he was guilty, which means that the jury was convinced that he murdered her. So how come he is now walking free after 23 years? 

First, let’s look at Maryland’s Attorney General Marilyn Mosby and what she had to say. In her press release, she stated that since the prosecutors failed to turn over evidence for two other suspects which could have changed the course of the trial, the Brady Rule was violated. So what is this Brady Rule that keeps coming up? This rule goes back to the case Brady v. Maryland in which the Supreme Court “requires that prosecutors fully disclose to the accused all exculpatory evidence in their possession. There is also the fact that there was a DNA sample that wasn’t tested until very recently. The third and most important thing is that the prosecution’s evidence relied on two things, one being their ‘key witness’ Jay Wilds and the other being the cell phone data that backed up Jay’s confession of helping Adnan bury Hae’s body. While AT&T published a notice – during the trial – that incoming calls are not reliable information to pin a location, the prosecution still used this as evidence, stating that even if the witness lied, the data doesn’t. This is now considered controversial evidence as the data isn’t truly reliable. Other than the cell phone data and Jay’s testimony, the prosecutors had nothing. With all of that presented to Baltimore City Judge Melissa Phinn by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and the Sentencing Review Unit, Judge Phinn granted the motion to vacate the conviction of Adnan Syed. The judge gave the state of Maryland the option of proceeding with a new trial within 30 days of such ruling (the 30 days has since passed and he is now presumed innocent due to the DNA testing that was FINALLY done). 

Source: Yahoo Image, Picryl

All this happened due to the publicity from the hit podcast “Serial” and the help of other criminal justice reforms that happened in Baltimore. After 23 years, Adnan is free. But what about the cases that do not get public attention through a podcast or other publicity for that matter? How many others, just like Adnan, are convicted due to the violation of the Brady rule? Or for simply not investigating other potential suspects? A new study done by the National Registry of Exonerations states that of wrongful convictions in 2020, 54% were due to “misconduct by the government”, 34% due to misconduct by the police, and 30% due to misconduct by prosecutors. According to Georgia’s Innocence Project, 1 out of 20 criminal cases “results in a wrongful conviction”. This goes against the advice of one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin: “it is better a hundred guilty persons should escape than one innocent person should suffer.”

Why are we neglecting this advice? Many lives are being stolen due to wrongful conviction of crimes that are small yet heavily punished or thrown into prison as a result of these shortcuts the Justice system takes. Often these injustice acts are directed towards black and brown individuals where America is the leading prison population due to the country’s way of approaching punishment which “often lacks a public safety rationale, disproportionately affects minorities, and inflicts overly harsh sentences”. America, unlike other countries, uses prison as a “one-size-fits-all solution to crime”, which means America prosecutes people who are not a public safety problem and often punish those people in a harsher and more damaging way than is truly justified. When did this start? Mass incarceration has been a huge problem in America since the civil war, however, we saw a huge rise in the prison population in the 1970s after Nixon’s “war on drugs” campaign which mostly targeted black individuals. This campaign used both fear and “racial rhetoric” in order to further this ‘movement.’ Under Nixon, we saw a rise in the prison population, however, under Reagan, it was an explosion. When Reagan took office “the total prison population was 329,000” and when he left the population was at 627,000 which is double the starting number. To put it more in perspective, according to the Brennan Center in 2003, for every 100,000 residents, 710 would be incarcerated, and according to the Vera report in 2015, 55% of incarcerated people are either black or brown. This all goes back to the loophole in the 13th Amendment “which abolished slavery and indentured servitude except as a punishment for a crime”, which took effect after the civil war and till now. So there is a a root problem, which is why the justice system is not broken in any way. It was created to harshly convict black and brown individuals. Evidence of such is the data collected in 2010 Prison Policy Initiative study which stated that for every 100,000 residents, 2,306 black individuals are incarcerated versus the 450 white individuals incarcerated. 

Now that we established the existence of such issue, what can we so about it? Discussions are taking place and changes too; after the death of George Floyd, many people voiced out their concerns, this pushed “the Center for American Progress, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation” to “virtually [gather] 1,000 advocates, researchers, artists, and practitioners for the Innovations Conference, a multiday exploration of what it means to reimagine public safety and shrink the footprint of the justice system.” There is a problem within the roots of the justice system, hence the need to “work to root out the systemic racism ingrained in the criminal justice system” that has affected people of color. This can be established, by starting with ending unnecessarily harsh punishments; for example, “Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug charges than their white counterparts”. Another approach can be taken, by rooting out any racial inequality within the justice system; for example, California passed multiple bills “that will address discriminatory practices within jury selection, prohibit prosecutors from seeking convictions or sentences on the basis of defendants’ race or ethnicity, and lay the groundwork for reparations for the Black community”, and by removing the barriers that affect individuals with a criminal record as it disqualifies these people from “voting, obtaining business or occupational licenses, accessing employment and housing, receiving public assistance, and participating in other key elements of civic life”. Another way of helping is by investing in programs such as “child care and education, access to affordable housing, and other supportive services” since they are proven to create strong and safe neighborhoods. As individuals, we can help by voting, spreading awareness, and simply by putting these issues on the table for discussion. Barriers are destroyed through discussion. 

Offender Alumni Association: Protecting and Empowering Previously Incarcerated People

by Mariana Orozco, UAB student

During the Fall 2019 Semester at UAB, Dena Dickerson, the program Director at the Offender Alumni Association, and one of her mentees visited Beth Shelburne’s honors seminar. During their visit, they shared testimonials with students, talked about an organization that they are part of, and closed the session with the man singing to the students. This was a a very emotional class, leaving many students with tears. Furthermore, many of these students were also moved to advocate for those who are in prison or who have been released. Dena, being the program director, has contacted students who have volunteered with the Offender Alumni Association (OAA) and spread the word about it on campus. A couple of students sold Pura Vida bracelets to their peers and were able to raise $150. 

Photo of Dena Dickerson and students in class
Dena Dickerson speaks to students at UAB. Source: the author.

Background

OAA is an organization that helps those who have been previously incarcerated. Since its founding date, in 2014, they have impacted over 500 former offenders and their family members. They have been officially named a 501(c)3 nonprofit and launched several support forums in some of Alabama’s and Georgia’s major prisons. The main goals of this organization are to reduce recidivism rates, develop healthy relationships within communities, and provide opportunities for social, economic, and civic empowerment for people coming out of prison.  

The Effect of OAA for People

Similarly to the commonly known Alcoholics Anonymous program, OAA offers peer to peer support to help those who are seeking encouragement and support once they are released from prison. An organization like OAA is significant in providing help to people who have been in the same situation as those seeking it. OAA allows a place of honesty without any judgement. Not only are formerly incarcerated people benefiting from this, but OAA is also a place for their families to get resources and network with others who understand their situation. Many times, the focus of the people affected by the prison system is only on those who are incarcerated. However, there are many cases where the most affected is the family. OAA provides a space for these conversations and relationships to occur. 

The Effect of OAA in the Community 

Mass incarceration is everybody’s issue. Tax payers have to pay and communities have to suffer. As 2020 has brought attention to many people, there are many problems within the prison system. Alabama prisons are overpopulated, understaffed, and underfunded. The 2019 Department of Justice report described Alabama Prisons for Men as unconstitutional because of the guards’ abuse of the people in prison. OAA’s goal is to help reduce the number of people in prison through reducing recidivism rates. Through education and mentorship, they work towards reducing recidivism rates.  Although this does not necessarily mean the environment inside prisons will suddenly be good, it would create more living space and reduce the number of people being negatively affected by the system. OAA bridges the gap between “them” and “us” to help bring everyone together and treat people as human beings. 

An image of two young boys getting haircuts in a barber shop
OAA takes students from “Heroes in the Hood” to get haircuts. Source: the author

Future Programs

In efforts to further decrease the number of people in prison, OAA is opening a Youth Program. “Heroes in the Hood” took off in the middle of this pandemic. Currently, there are eight students, ages 14 to 18, who are mentored about work ethic and community pride. Dr. Stacy Moak, a Social Work professor at  UAB endorsed this program, saying that-“mentoring programs have shown promise in improving the opportunities for these youths to see new possibilities, complete high school, become job ready, and become productive members of society.” This Youth Program hopes to help good students who have been in jail because they do not have resources to help them be successful. 

How You Can Help 

In order for the new Youth Program to be successful, OAA is working on raising money. This money will be used to provide the students with computers and other school supplies. There are also plans on having engaging events with the student’s mentors to build trust with each other. They are selling OAA colors Pura Vida bracelets for $6. Any other donations can be done through their website. You can also help by educating those around you, sharing this article, or volunteering with this organization. 

Photo of Pura Vida bracelets
Green, white, and yellow PuraVida bracelets for the Offender Alumni Association. Source: OAA

Under Pressure: How Court Debts Inform Racial and Wealth Inequality

On Thursday, November 7th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Students for Human Rights at UAB to present representatives from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. During their lecture and discussion with audience members, they addressed how racial inequality and systemic poverty influence court debts as well as what we can do to change the status quo.

Alabama Appleseed, and its 17 other offices across North America, work at the intersection of the legal system and systemic poverty. Helping to confront a system that harms impoverished and minority communities by placing them in an endless cycle of punishment, Alabama Appleseed employs a research and policy reform approach to highlight such inequalities.

They first addressed this issue by covering the racial wealth gap which can be told through the legacy of slavery, convict labor, redlining, school segregation, and hiring discrimination that has economically disadvantaged many communities of color, namely Black Americans. Thus, in present day, the poorest 20% of Whites have an average $15,000 in wealth, while the poorest 20% of Blacks have a mere average $100 in wealth.  As a result, receiving a fine can increase existing household costs, develop exorbitant interest rates, and even land one in jail if unpaid, meaning Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the looming threat of court debts.

In response, Alabama Appleseed sought to give this issue greater context by employing a statewide study, titled Under Pressure, which includes personal experiences with court debts from 980 Alabamians representing 41 counties  (56% of respondents were Black). Some of the main findings were:

  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt
  • 80% borrowed money from a friend or family member to cover their court debt
  • Almost 2/3 received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt
Alabama Appleseed presenting Under Pressure. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

They went on to address some anecdotal accounts such as people paying someone else’s court debt even though having their own and missing court dates that were scheduled while incarcerated. These findings suggest that impoverished and minority communities in Alabama must maneuver around isolated court systems that don’t communicate with one another, which further places them into a cycle of poverty and looming punishment. Furthermore, Alabama has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world and is currently facing a 33% rate of employment in the prison system. This means that our criminal justice system not only disadvantages poor and Black Alabamians, but they are the ones funding these inequalities through a shadow tax system.

Thus, Alabama Appleseed offered a handful of recommendations for state lawmakers to address this system of injustice:

  • Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines to each person’s ability to pay
  • Fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget
  • Send revenue from all court debt to the state General Fund
  • Create a mechanism for appeal and ensure folks have access to counsel throughout the process
  • Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses except in instances of unsafe driving
  • Eliminate Failure to Appear warrants when the individual is incarcerated
  • Change the law that currently denies voting rights to people who are too poor to pay their court debt
  • Reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction with fines connected to the defendant’s ability to pay

As demonstrated, Alabama’s criminal justice system is a harvest ground for racial and wealth inequality. However, addressing such concerns at the community-level is one way that you can participate in real change. You can do so by communicating with your local representative about overturning the “Three Strikes Law”, pressuring Regions Bank to divest from the private prison industry, and joining Alabama Appleseed to be informed about pending legislation.

Facing the threat of missing rent, losing meals, and even being incarcerated is no way to live, particularly for those who already experience a list of other disadvantages. For this reason, it’s about time we put our lawmakers and local businesses under pressure.

“Who Are You?” Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five Shares His Story

On Tuesday, October 8th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Student Multicultural & Diversity Programs, and College of Arts & Sciences to present criminal justice advocate Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated 5 (formerly known as the Central Park 5). During his conversation with UAB’s Dr. Paulette Patterson Dilworth, they discussed his time incarcerated, race in the 21st century, and the recent Netflix special When They See Us, among other related topics.

In April 1989, following the sexual assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, five young Black and Hispanic youth were convicted for this heinous crime despite inconsistencies in DNA evidence. In the process of weathering the media storm and pressure from local authorities, Salaam claims he had a “spiritual awakening” that was being shaped by the hands of God. About six months into his bid, Salaam was debating if he was doing time or if time was doing him, when an officer approached him and asked, “Who are you?”. After giving the officer his full name, the officer replied, “I know that. You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you?”. This moment changed his entire trajectory because Salaam realized he was born with a purpose. As a result, Salaam earned a college degree while in prison and suggested this accomplishment means he could do anything. He argues that many in the public eye were looking at him with hatred because they saw his future self, an educated Black man fighting for racial and criminal justice.

After serving nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit, a confession and DNA match from Matias Reyes in 2002 allowed the release and exoneration of Salaam as well as Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Aside from Salaam and Wise’s acquaintanceship, the Exonerated Five did not know each other. Due to police profiling, they were rounded up by NYPD, interrogated, and pressured to confess to false narratives about one another, thus having to fight individually for themselves as well as their families. The Exonerated Five never discussed these events among each other because they assumed everyone had the same experience. However, upon a pre-release screening of When They See Us, which Salaam claimed was a “traumatic experience”, the Exonerated Five had the opportunity to process the series of events that would bind them together forever.

 

Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights
Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Although, the story does not end here. As fate would have it, then future U.S. President Donald Trump actively participated in promoting the execution of the Exonerated Five through an ad in local newspapers. Furthermore, Salaam’s claim that President Trump is responsible for “cosigning folks in Charlottesville” suggests our current cultural, social, and political environment encourages racial and criminal injustice. In response, echoing Carter G. Woodson’s treatise “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Salaam exclaimed that history is trained and taught into a people. As a result, people of color, namely Black Americans, can become so destroyed by a system that they don’t want to participate. Although, Salaam said such a position suggests, “Non-participation is participation.” Thus, we, ourselves, are the answer.

This brings us to how we, particularly white folks who have orchestrated institutions to disadvantage people of color, can be the change we want to see. As Salaam suggests, “The system is working the way it was designed.” Thus, systemic issues disproportionately affecting people of color, such as police profiling, generational poverty, underfunded schools, and weakened voting rights, must immediately be addressed and reformed. Eradicating these injustices will unlikely be in in our lifetime, although current efforts by Black Lives Matter, Innocence Project, The Sentencing Project, and Woke Vote, among many others, shine a light on what we have, and can, accomplish.

Who are you?