Voices that are pushing the envelope – best commentary of 2018

Our picks for writing that propels reform by offering a more complete understanding of mass incarceration.

by Bernadette Rabuy, December 27, 2018

This year, attorneys, researchers, and advocates proposed a more complete understanding of mass incarceration as a way to hasten its undoing. Here are our picks:

  • My Resolution for 2018: Less Piety, More Complexity
    Joseph Margulies
    Justia Verdict
    January 8, 2018

    According to attorney and law professor Joseph Margulies, supporters of criminal justice reform resort to a few go-to critiques of the criminal justice system that can be summed up with, “What led to the punitive turn in criminal justice? Conservative whites wanted a new way to control blacks. How did we get mass incarceration? The war on drugs. And what is the war on drugs? Yet another way for whites to destroy the lives of young black men.” In this column, Margulies explains how these narratives oversimplify the issue of mass incarceration and announces that he is discarding easy but incomplete explanations.

  • How a Bad Law and a Big Mistake Drove My Mentally Ill Son Away
    Norman J. Ornstein
    The New York Times
    March 6, 2018

    Sharing his personal story of using Florida’s Baker Act to involuntarily commit his son, Norman J. Ornstein is rightfully skeptical that three-day mental health holds can prevent tragedies like suicide and murder. Instead, Ornstein calls for comprehensive mental health treatment, respect for people with mental illness’ civil liberties, and empowering their family members.

  • The Recidivism Trap
    Jeffrey A. Butts and Vincent Schiraldi
    The Marshall Project
    March 14, 2018

    In this op-ed, researchers Jeffrey A. Butts and Vincent Schiraldi propose a new approach to evaluating criminal justice systems that no longer focuses on recidivism but rather asks whether interventions are helping formerly convicted people become more law-abiding. Under this new approach, for example, a person who was arrested five times for burglary in one year but only once the following year would be viewed as someone who has taken a step away from crime. Butts and Schiraldi are hopeful that changing the measure of success would result in solutions that more effectively fulfill the goals of corrections and rehabilitation.

  • Black crime victims too frequently slighted by justice system
    Tanya Coke
    USA Today
    April 18, 2018

    Tanya Coke, a former criminal defense attorney and crime survivor, describes the barriers that prevent black crime survivors from getting the healing they need. Too often, black males are assumed to be perpetrators of violence rather than victims. As a result, racial bias infects prosecutions, crime reporting, and service delivery. For example, access to crime victims compensation funds requires a police report, which victims of color may feel too distrustful of police to acquire. The op-ed is hopeful, highlighting the work of organizations such as Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which are providing a platform for crime survivors of color to influence criminal justice reform.

  • What Nelson Mandela Lost
    Tayari Jones
    The New York Times
    July 6, 2018

    English professor Tayari Jones uses the publication of Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison to highlight the impact of imprisonment. Incarcerated people are “subjected to great violence, as though their sentence invalidates their own legal protections. While these severe deprivations are harrowing, Mr. Mandela’s prison letters underscore isolation’s other violence: Every incarcerated human is stripped of family.” Jones proposes that to properly honor Nelson Mandela, we should remember him as not only an international leader, but also one of the many incarcerated men and women separated from their families and denied basic rights.

  • 3 Years Later, The Federal Government Still Hasn’t Counted Sandra Bland’s Death
    Ryan J. Reilly
    Huffington Post
    July 13, 2018

    The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has been counting jail deaths since 2000, releasing the data annually. But the office hasn’t done so since December 2016, when it reported data from 2014. Bureau of Justice Statistics officials told the Huffington Post that the 2015 data would be out this month, but researchers and advocates are still waiting. The data is crucial where suicides are consistently the leading cause of death in jail and the rate of jail suicides far surpasses that of state prisons or the American population in general. The incidence of jail deaths can alert authorities and policymakers to systemic issues such as lax oversight. The data is a necessary first step to ensuring that detention is not a matter of life and death.

  • When the Police Become Prosecutors
    Alexandra Natapoff
    The New York Times
    December 26, 2018

    In an op-ed for The New York Times, law professor Alexandra Natapoff both shines light on the need to include misdemeanors in calls for criminal justice reform and reveals that, in some states, police officers act as prosecutors. Natapoff reminds readers that even minor criminal charges can have disastrous consequences. People may be detained pretrial and as a result lose their jobs, disrupt their child care, or risk their immigration status. They may struggle with paying fines, completing probation, or obtaining future employment, education, and housing. Further, in hundreds of misdemeanor courts in at least 14 states, defendants face a peculiar setup. Police officers can file criminal charges and handle court cases, meaning people must defend themselves against and negotiate with the very people who arrested them.

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