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March 11, 2014
Rare to get a second chance in Alabama

Perrion Roberts, 49, earned a pardon from Alabama this year. That means she can cast a ballot at the next election.

But it's difficult and it's rare to get a second chance in Alabama.

In Alabama and 11 other states , persons with felony convictions lose the right to vote. But the U.S. Department of Justice has sharply criticized the practice.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month called for repeal of such state bans, saying that "the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable."

Alabama blocks anyone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude from voting. There are exceptions. Persons with felony convictions can regain the right to vote through full and partial pardons.

Yet Roberts, who served time in prison on drug-related charges roughly a decade ago, is the first success story Bob Harrison can remember.

"We've been doing this 10 years now, and this is our first pardon," said Bob Harrison, a member of the Madison County Commission.

March 11, 2014 (Digital Journal)
Women in Prison: No longer hopeless

Cells in jails and prisons around the United States are being filled by women at an alarming rate.

Drugs. Crime. Children. Shame.

A prison sentence is different for a woman than it is for a man.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Approximately 2.2 million people are behind bars in the nation’s jails and prisons, The rate of women being imprisoned is “increasing at nearly double the rate for men.” A third of them are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to a report by The Sentencing Project.

Two-thirds of the women in state prisons are mothers of a minor child.

Trish Parker was one of these women. She has served time both in a federal prison and local jails and come out, never to return. Her story is remarkable. A light in a dark world, she shows other women the way out of the past.

March 10, 2014 (The Guardian)
America’s punishment addiction: how to put our broken jails back together

In the United States, people can land in prison for life over minor offenses. They can be locked up forever for siphoning gasoline from a truck, shoplifting small items from a department store or attempting to cash a stolen check. Sentences across the United States in the last 30 years have Roy Lee Clay for example, received in 2013 a sentence of mandatory punishment of life without parole for refusing to accept a plea bargain of 10 years for trafficking 1kg of heroin. Even the sentencing judge found this “extremely severe and harsh”. The bigger picture: a recent Human Rights Watch report found that the threat of harsh sentences leads 97% of drug defendants to plead guilty rather than exercise their right to a public trial.

Most citizens are shocked when they hear such reports. Federal judge John Gleeson of New York said that the way prosecutors use plea bargaining “coerces guilty pleas and produces sentences so excessively severe they take your breath away”. Federal judge Mark Bennett of Iowa has described the “shocking, jaw-dropping disparity” of prior-conviction enhancements to force a plea bargain in a case.

But these and other shocks mean nothing without a larger shock of recognition: Americans like to punish.

March 10, 2014 (The Ledger)
Fate of 201 Youthful Offenders in Legal Limbo

The fate of 201 prisoners rests with the Florida Supreme Court and the state Legislature this spring.

Over the next few months, decisions by the state's highest court and lawmakers will determine whether these prisoners spend the rest of their lives in a prison cell or may one day be released.

The prisoners were involved in the most serious of crimes: murder. But they are different from others because they committed their crimes as teenagers — one as young as 13 and nearly three dozen only 14 or 15.

Research shows another troubling trend among the juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole for murder convictions — they are disproportionately African-American. Six of every 10 of these prisoners, or 59 percent, is black, compared to a 17 percent African-American population in Florida, or 22 percent of the under 18 population.

Nearly all are males, with only 11 women accounting for 5 percent of the juvenile prisoners.

What Florida's justices and state lawmakers must resolve is how to deal with juveniles who have received sentences declared unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. 

March 7, 2014 (The Nation)
Rand Paul and Eric Holder Might Actually Get Something Important Done in Washington by Working Together

Attorney General Eric Holder and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) don’t share a lot in common, but they agree on at least one thing: reducing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders.

The unlikely allies recently broke bread over the issue in Holder’s office. From The New York Times’s Matt Apuzzo:

Their partnership unites the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

Paul is one of several Republicans to support the Obama-backed Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013. The bill, currently moving through the Senate, would reduce mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes and give federal judges more leeway when sentencing offenders.

March 7, 2014 (St. Louis American)
My Sister’s Keeper

In all the hoopla surrounding President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, overlooked is that fact that our young girls also need to be targeted for special attention. Sure, they outpace Black males in college attendance and, in many instances, in the workplace. Still, that does not mean they do not also need special attention and encouragement.

Nothing illustrates this better than events of the past week. Sandwiched between President Obama’s White House announcement of his special effort to help Black males and jubilation over Lupita Nyong’o winning an Oscar for best supporting actress in “12 years a Slave” was news out of Florida that Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a “warning shot” in the direction of her estranged and abusive husband, will be retried and could face 60 years in prison instead of the original 20.

Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, the same prosecutor whose office failed to win murder convictions against George Zimmerman in connection with the death of Trayvon Martin and, more recently, against Michael Dunn for the death of Jordan Davis, announced that instead of the 20 years originally given to Alexander, she will seek to triple that by requesting that her three 20-year terms be served consecutively rather than concurrently.

March 7, 2014 (Finger Lakes Times)
Geneva NAACP initiative focuses on voting rights of ex-offenders

A new initiative of the Geneva chapter of the NAACP will focus on the voting rights of ex-offenders.

At the March 11 League of Women Voters of Geneva lunch, local NAACP President Lucile Mallard will speak about the chapter’s new voter registration and civic engagement education program.

League officials said most people who have been involved with the criminal justice system receive little or no information about their voting rights.

According to a study conducted by The Sentencing Project, more than 40 percent of prisoners believe that incarceration causes them to permanently lose his or her right to vote and almost 60 percent believe that being on probation makes them ineligible to vote.

March 4, 2014 (The Trentonian)
An ex-offenders voting bloc?

Under a plan brewing in the state legislature, a new voting bloc would join New Jersey’s 5.27 million registered voters — ex-offenders.

Prospective new voters would be signed up at the exit doors of prisons and jails — or parole and probation offices — under bills awaiting action in the state Assembly and Senate.

The pool of new voters would be potentially huge. There are 23,000 in state prisons, 70,000 on probation and 16,000 on parole.

Thousands of them annually become legally eligible to vote upon “maxing out” their sentences or fulfilling their probationary or parole terms.

The legislation to sign them up as voters is part of an “enfranchisement movement” that’s percolating throughout the nation. The movement recently received an influential boost from the country’s top law enforcement official, U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder. 

March 4, 2014 (Philadelphia City Paper)
Artist reflects on nearly 40 years of painting women serving life sentences

Walk around Northern Liberties long enough and you’ll encounter a weathered tile mural embedded in the side of Kaplan’s Bakery, at 3rd and Poplar. The woman that stares back with aching eyes is not a local hero or someone who died tragically. She’s an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs serving life without parole.

The carefully painted text accompanying the portrait tells her story:

“Cyd Charisse Berger has been in prison in Pennsylvania since 1980. She is sentenced to life without parole although she did not commit a murder. Previously, she tried to escape from him, but he stalked and beat her until she returned. Just before he killed the victim, he practiced on Cyd Berger. She helped her abuser flee and reported him to the police. Cyd Berger is asking the governor to pardon her sentence and needs support. Her abuser was the murderer.”

In West Philadelphia, at 44th and Locust, a mural of Rose Dinkins, another woman serving life without parole, offers a more concise statement: “I believe that my life is worth saving because of the person I am today."

These two tile murals are the work of Mary DeWitt, a local artist who has been visiting seven women serving life without parole in Pennsylvania since the late ‘80s, all while painting their portraits and recording their thoughts.

“I see what people don’t have access to, and I have to bring visibility to it or I’m a real asshole,” says DeWitt.

February 28, 2014 (CNN Amanpour)
America ‘burdened with a legacy of slavery’

Two years ago, a black teenager named Trayvon Martin became the latest face of what many called racial injustice in America. Martin was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida.  The assailant, George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, claimed self-defense.  A jury agreed, pronouncing him not guilty.

Again in Florida, a white man escaped the most serious charge of first degree murder after he shot and killed a black teenager in a dispute over loud music, of all things. Michael Dunn was convicted on three charges of attempted second-degree murder for shooting into the SUV holding the victim and other black teenagers.

The cases “reflect a continuing disregard for valuing people of color in the way that we have to if we’re going to recover from our history of inequality and racial injustice,” Bryan Stevenson, a human rights lawyer and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.

“This country is burdened with a legacy of slavery. We enslaved Africans for over two centuries. From the end of reconstruction until World War II we terrorized and traumatized black people in America with lynchings and violence and racial hatred.”

“And because we never told the truth about all of those problems and all the difficulties that created, we never had the moment of truth and reconciliation that every country requires if it’s going to deal with decades of human rights abuse. We didn’t have what South Africa went through.”