In today’s Commercial Appeal: A story examining the makeup of a new Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism.
A media release from the State of Tennessee acknowledges that the state’s sentencing structure has not been changed in more than two decades. Tennessee joins a number of states re-examining outdated sentencing laws, but today’s story in the Commercial Appeal reveals that some are concerned about which groups are not adequately represented in this reform effort.
The story, by reporter Samantha Bryson, looks at both the racial disparity on the task force and the lack of perspective from an important justice reform voice — defense attorneys.
“Only one person on the committee, Cannon County Public Defender Gerald Melton, currently works at the defense side of the table. Police chiefs, judges, sheriffs and district attorneys account for 18 of its members, who serve alongside other lawmakers and a victim’s rights advocate. There appear to be no ex-offenders or advocacy groups for ex-offenders represented. The group is also about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly Republican, in a state where 44 percent of its 30,349 inmates are black.” – ‘Haslam’s Sentencing Reforms Committee is Short on Defense Attorneys,” The Commercial Appeal.
The lawyers of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office do not often share client stories publicly. The attorneys in our office are bound by a code of ethics that discourages lawyers from discussing details of a case publicly.
Today, we have a rare opportunity to share a firsthand account of the difficult journey one of our assistant public defenders, Jacinta Hall, took with her client.
Recently, she discovered that a young man awaiting trial since 2012 — a 21-year old whom she believed to be wrongly accused — met a horrific end during a riot . . . while awaiting trial in a Mississippi detention facility.
“He wasn’t supposed to be there. He should have been home in 2012. I called his mom and she thanked me for working on his case and for him. She sounded strong but said that she has been told her son was beaten so badly that he’s no longer recognizable, all because of the system.” — Jacinta Hall, Assistant Shelby County Public Defender
Hall originally shared her story in a listserv used by members of Gideon’s Promise, a program based in Atlanta that provides training and support for public defenders practicing in the South. The founder of Gideon’s Promise, Jonathan Rapping, wrote this email to comfort Hall and her colleagues. His response was also published on the NAPD site:
“Our clients are drowning in injustice. They sink a little more each day. Their hand is reaching out grasping for anyone who will grab it and try to pull them to safety.
Most lawyers (in fact, most people) position themselves to never see the outstretched hands. They live comfortable lives with nice things, and can pretend the injustice is not right outside.
Others actually see the outstretched hands and choose to ignore them. They watch them sink out of existence every day. They participate in the process that ensures they will drown, and lose sight of their role in the injustice.
Then there are the very special few. Public Defenders. You guys. You seek out those hands. You grasp them, hold them, work to pull them to safety. You often cannot succeed. Your clients are so frequently swallowed in injustice. But you are by their side as it happens.” – Jon Rapping, Gideon’s Promise
“While a range of judges, prosecutors and public defenders have for years raised concerns about disparities in punishment, it is this alliance that may make politically possible the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs.” — Matt Apuzo, The New York Times
That’s how the New York Times characterized the blossoming support for sentencing reform among U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Libertarian-minded Republicans, like Rand Paul. While General Holder is focusing on sentencing reform as a civil rights issue (because of its disproportionate impact on minorities), Sen. Paul argues that long sentences are a fiscal issue — ineffective at fighting crime and expensive to taxpayers.
“This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”
One of the country’s leading criminologists believes more political partnerships like this are imminent, as he argues the end of mass incarceration is upon us. In his newest book, “The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America,” Todd Clear, the Dean of Rutgers University-Newark School of Criminal Justice, maintains that this sea change has been sparked by the fact that local municipalities and states have been burdened with the rising cost of maintaining and building expensive correctional facilities. Additionally, he cites that the “tough punishment” solution that caused our country’s prison population to explode was based on “almost no hard evidence” that it actually lowered crime.
Clear points to the political and social unrest of the 1960’s and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign as moments that defined the way we have come to view crime and punishment in the U.S. In fact, Clear claims that through the decades, tough sentencing and mass incarceration became “the solution” for both political parties and the “tough on crime” response has dominated our culture … until now.
“… something else that convinces me is that the public conversation is no longer about getting tough on this or that. You don’t see politicians proposing new expansions of their prison systems. Mayors aren’t running on get-tough policies. Other claims are now being made on federal dollars. The argument that was previously being made was sort of a political-cultural argument. And you don’t hear that anymore.”