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.
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.
An important op-ed by Systemic Justice Project Board of Advisors member Alec Karakatsanis on the way that political fear is preventing illegally sentenced prisoners from being released.
There are many people like Mr. Gilbert in America’s federal prisons — people whose sentences are now obviously illegal. Instead of rushing to ensure that all those thousands of men and women illegally imprisoned at taxpayer expense were set free, the Justice Department said that it did not want a rule that allowed other prisoners like Mr. Gilbert to retroactively challenge their now illegal sentences. If the “floodgates” were opened, too many others — mostly poor, mostly black — would have to be released. The Obama administration’s fear of the political ramifications of thousands of poor minority prisoners being released at once around the country, what Justice William J. Brennan Jr. once called “a fear of too much justice,” is the real justification.
According to Nick Pinto in the New York Times Magazine a similar fear is at work in bail hearings, a focus of Karakatsanis’ heroic efforts.
Over subsequent hearings, Adriana’s lawyers tried to get her bail lifted, but they ran into another common problem facing defendants: Once a judge sets bail, other judges are often reluctant to second-guess their colleague’s decision. If they free a defendant who commits a crime while out on bail, the blowback from politicians, police unions and the tabloid press can be substantial. ‘‘I have no idea what motivated Judge Montalbano to set bail,’’ said Judge Andrew Borrok at one of Adriana’s hearings, four days after her arraignment. Still, he said, ‘‘I’m not inclined to change what’s been done.’’
Read Alec’s full op-ed here and Pinto’s magazine piece on bail here.
Lydia Edwards — the Equal Justice Works Fellow at Greater Boston Services and a member of the Systemic Justice Project Advisory Board — is helping to organize an evening with Ai-Jen Poo and the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers. Mark your calendars for what will be a memorable event.
Learn more about Ai-Jen Poo’s work in the following video:
For more information about Lydia Edwards, see the interview here and or this video: