A wrongful conviction is no longer a shock – it’s a well-known fact of our criminal justice system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 2,499 exonerations in the U.S. since 1989. While it is certainly depressing that so many people have been wrongfully convicted in our country – a former 9th Circuit judge estimated the actual wrongful conviction rate is at least two times higher than the current statistics – the increasing rate of exoneration is historic and encouraging. Media has played a critical role in exposing these injustices.
The question in the title may seem straightforward, but the criminal justice system treats it as complicated. The Constitution affords a panoply of procedural rights to criminal defendants, ranging from the right to trial by jury to the right to confront one’s accusers and the right against self-incrimination. A unifying principle behind these entitlements is an aversion to convicting and punishing innocent people. But suppose all of those procedural rights are followed, and an innocent defendant is still convicted. Shouldn’t that innocent person be released?
Jeffrey Epstein’s death by suicide just this past Saturday was greeted with shock by the general public and members of congress. The Attorney General of the United States was “appalled” to learn of the death. Epstein’s death by suicide is appalling. It is no more appalling than every single one of the hundreds of other in custody deaths by suicide every year in the sprawling and growing network of local jails across the United States.
In a horrific two and a half years, the past few weeks have seen the President hit a particularly low note. I would not have imagined that the holder of the most powerful office on earth would choose to unleash racist taunts at Members of the Congress of the United States. “Go back where you came from.” “No human being” would wish to live in your Congressional district, the place you call home.
Sexual assault in prisons and jails is a serious and ongoing problem. Well over a decade ago, Justice Stevens noted that at least “one million people have been sexually assaulted in the Nation’s prisons over the last 20 years.” In 2015 alone, correctional administrators reported 24,661 allegations of sexual victimization in prisons, jails and other adult correctional facilities–and this only represents allegations that were actually reported. The actual number of incidents is certainly significantly higher.
We are in the midst of a public health crisis. And, perhaps surprisingly to some, our prisons are key to solving the problem.Over 2.3 million individuals in the United States are living with chronic hepatitis C – an infection of the liver which, left untreated, can lead to (among other things) liver cancer, kidney disease, and death. According to the CDC, hepatitis C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease.
From the age of eight, Tyquine Lee was deemed so mentally disabled that he received state assistance to help his mom, Takeisha Brown, afford his care. Before he was 10 years old, he was hospitalized on four separate occasions for reasons related to his mental illness.’At 18 years old, Tyquine was imprisoned. Takeisha resolved to stay in contact with her son throughout his incarceration and to fight for him as best she could.
Earlier this week, Strawberry Hampton finally won her release from prison, after years of targeted harassment, abuse, and discrimination because of her gender identity. Strawberry is a transgender woman who for the majority of her incarceration was housed in men’s prisons. While in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), she was subjected to extreme, unrelenting sexual violence and abuse by other prisoners, by guards, and by the administration charged with keeping her safe.
In a recent opinion piece, I challenged people of faith in Mississippi, evangelical Christians in particular, to reflect upon the disconnect between Biblical teachings regarding how prisoners should be treated and the failure of the vast majority of local faith communities to utter a single word to those in power regarding the inhumane conditions in Mississippi prisons. Why, one might ask, would a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi engage a group of people many see as conservative defenders of the status quo rather than as potential allies in the fight for criminal justice reform? Why bother?
Bobby Joe Pinkney, an African-American man, went on trial for his life in the rural town of Raymond, Mississippi in July 1985. He was charged with the murder of a white woman. The all-white jury convicted Mr. Pinkney and sentenced him to death.
If you care about the protection of civil rights and holding law enforcement accountable, you need to know about “Qualified Immunity”—a legal doctrine invented by the U.S. Supreme Court that prevents victims of police misconduct from holding officers accountable.
When a vulnerable person has been crushed by the machinery of the criminal justice system, where power has been exercised with callous indifference, where there is a wrong that needs to be made right and when, as sometimes happens, there is no other lawyer or firm willing and able to take the case—we hear a call to action.