Criminal Justice

Historic Settlement in Jennings

Great news from two friends of the Systemic Justice Project:

A small city bordering Ferguson, Mo., has agreed to pay $4.7 million to compensate nearly 2,000 people who spent time in the city’s jail for not paying fines and fees related to traffic and other relatively petty violations.

Alec explains the systemic place of this litigation:

“This historic settlement is part of a national movement to change how indifferent we’ve become to putting human beings in cages, and to end the notion that courts can be used as tools of revenue generation rather than places of justice,” said Alec Karakatsanis, whose Washington-based nonprofit organization, Equal Justice Under Law, brought the suit with the Arch City Defenders, a Missouri nonprofit group, and the St. Louis University School of Law.

See the full New York Times story here.


New Ledes Conference at HLS


The Criminal Justice Program of Study is hosting what looks like an incredible conference called New Ledes: The Media & Criminal Justice Reform this Thursday and Friday at HLS. Event website here and program here:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Panel 1 – Defining the “Moment”: Covering Criminal Justice in the Current Media Environment (3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.)

The media environment for criminal justice issues has transformed  – systemic problems have received sustained attention, and the tone of coverage is hospitable to reform.  Why has that shift taken place?  Does this reflect changing attitudes or tastes among the media’s consumers?  Institutional transformations in media organizations?  A shift away from media “organizations” to citizen journalism?  Better advocacy by reformers and activists?  An emerging “consensus” in favor of reform among elites in the media and policy world?


  1. James E. Johnson (Debevoise & Plimpton/Board of Directors, Brennan Center for Justice)
  2. Bill Keller (The Marshall Project)
  3. Heather Mac Donald (The Manhattan Institute)
  4. Brent Staples (The New York Times)
  5. Nick Turner (The Vera Institute)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Breakfast – 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.

Panel 2 – Blind Spots: Institutional Barriers to Effective Coverage of Criminal Justice (9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.)

Reform of the criminal justice system has gained considerable momentum – supported, in part, by increased attention in the media to systemic problems.  But important gaps remain between the realities of the criminal justice system and the picture presented in the most influential media outlets.  What are the most significant blind spots or biases in the media’s treatment of the criminal justice system?  What institutional factors account for those shortcomings?  Are there intangible cultural factors within media outlets that contribute to those blind spots?  Where can new media fill the gaps?


  1. Julie K. Brown (The Miami Herald)
  2. Lincoln Caplan (Yale Law School)
  3. Rev. Vivian Nixon (College and Community Fellowship)
  4. Simone Weichselbaum (The Marshall Project)

Panel 3 – Innovation, New Media, and Criminal Justice Reform (11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. )

New media and social media have catapulted criminal justice issues into the center of the national conversation.  How has social media allowed activists to reframe media priorities or story lines?  To what extent has “citizen journalism” – as exemplified by video of police-civilian encounters – reoriented institutional journalism around criminal justice?  How have media organizations leveraged the reach and structure of new media tools to amplify the effect of traditional “old media” tools in approaching criminal justice?


  1. Morgan Hargrave (Witness)
  2. DeRay McKesson (We the Protestors)
  3. Carl Williams (ACLU of Massachusetts)
  4. Ethan Zuckerman (MIT/The Berkman Center)

Lunch – 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Panel 4 –  Making News:  When Journalists Drive Change in Criminal Justice Policy (2:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.)

How does journalism drive sweeping change in criminal justice policy?  In this panel, we explore how journalism can catalyze fundamental shifts in criminal justice policy and the limits to even the most high-impact journalism in bringing about change.


  1. Ken Armstrong (The Marshall Project)
  2. Charles Hoffman (Office of the Appellate Defender for the State of Illinois)
  3. Jennifer Gonnerman (The New Yorker)
  4. Scott Levy (Bronx Defenders)

Whitney Benns on the ongoing reinvention of American slavery

Whitney Benns, a friend of the Systemic Justice Project and Justice Fellow has a fantastic piece in The Atlantic on forced labor in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. After describing scenes that are virtually unchanged from antebellum slavery, including especially the race of various participants, Whitney looks at the history of slave plantations transitioning seamlessly into sites of prison labor. Her piece forces us to ask how we rationalize the continuation of practices that we all agree are immoral, and she runs through some of the justifications we might give ourselves for ongoing slavery, from ‘rehabilitation’ to ‘fairness’. It is a powerful piece that deals with a particularly horrific example of our ability to use categories and flimsy arguments to choose when to care, and reminds us that the first step to changing this practice may be to look beyond individual actors to systems. As Whitney explains,

individual narratives are not enough. When we focus on the individual, it’s easy to miss the context. The context here is undeniable, and it is made clear by the very first frames of Angola for Life.

As the camera zooms out and pans over fields of black bodies bent in work and surveyed by a guard, the picture that emerges is one of slavery. It is one of a “justice” system riddled with racial oppression. It is one of private business taking advantage of these disenfranchised, vulnerable workers. It is one of an entire caste of men relegated, as they have long been relegated, to labor for free, condemned to sow in perpetuity so that others might reap.

Read the whole piece here.

Solitary Confined: The Case for a Frontier Tort

Solitary Confined Website Image

From the Frontier Torts Project:

Solitary Confined: The Case for a Frontier Tort

Executive Summary

A prisoner living in long-term solitary confinement in the United States typically spends twenty-three hours alone each day in a six-foot by nine-foot cell. Everything in the cell is gray concrete and there are no windows. A solid metal door encloses the prisoner, and meals are delivered through a small slot. The cell is under constant video surveillance and most communication with staff is conducted via an intercom system. The prisoner usually has no social contact with other prisoners and very few restricted visits from friends and family, conducted through a thick glass pane or by video. For years at a time, the only physical contact a prisoner living in solitary confinement is likely to have is that of “being touched through a security door by a correctional officer while being placed in restraints or having restraints removed.”

Solitary confinement has a long history in the United States, dating back to its use by the Quakers in the 19th century. The Quakers believed that solitary confinement would create an opportunity for repentance and rehabilitation through solitary reflection. As this paper will illustrate, however, solitary confinement not only results in detrimental psychological effects for prisoners as well as guards, it also has little bearing on rehabilitation, as recidivism rates are actually higher for prisoners in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is used in prisons as a disciplinary measure and sometimes justified as a means of keeping certain vulnerable prisoners safe from violence. Even though solitary confinement for short periods of time has debilitating psychological effects, the probability and severity of damage is much greater for individuals in long-term isolation. This paper addresses the long-term housing of inmates in solitary confinement, with particular focus on super maximum security prisons, facilities comprised entirely of solitary cells, designed for near absolute, long-term isolation.

The growing trend of mass incarceration and prison overcrowding was instigated in part by a “tough-on-crime” political rhetoric, popularized during the Nixon presidency. As the prison system became strained to accommodate the burgeoning population of inmates, the number of super-maximum (“supermax”) security prisons in the United States rose from zero in 1983 to fifty-seven in 1997. In 2000, Human Rights Watch estimated that 20,000 prisoners in the United States were housed in supermax facilities.

The tough-on-crime rhetoric casts prisoners as exceptionally violent, arguing that placement in supermax prisons and long-term isolation units is necessary to keep prison staff, other prisoners, and the general population safe. This stereotyping of prisoners is often racialized, and the media’s depictions usually further dehumanize prisoners, contributing to the alienation of this population from the public.

Importantly, the criteria for placement in supermax prisons and long-term isolation remain unclear, often resulting in overrepresentation of the prison system’s most vulnerable populations, like minors and those with mental illnesses.

Additionally, various societal actors, such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, prison unions, and private companies, exert pressure to maintain the use of long-term solitary confinement. The lack of clear goals, evaluation, and data concerning the effectiveness of long-term solitary confinement further exacerbates this issue by allowing the practice to proliferate unchecked by institutional oversight.

This paper explores the societal and economic context of the use of indefinite solitary confinement, details the psychological cruelty of long-term isolation, and examines possible policy and doctrinal reforms.

You can download the white paper here.  We will post videos of the related student presentation and the remarks by Margaret Winter soon.