New Panel Aims to Recruit Diverse U.S. Federal Judges to Reflect Population

To have a justice system that is fair, the judges in our courts cannot be made solely of old, white men that have the same implicit biases and do not reflect our country’s population.

In order to combat against this, the United States Judicial Conference Committee is holding a diversity symposium in 19 cities across the country today, in hopes to recruit potential U.S. federal judges of various backgrounds. As you can see in the map below, the 19 chosen cities are spread out in an attempt to reach a multitude of diverse candidates that could help represent their population from the bench.

Women and racial minorities are underrepresented and hold disproportionate shares of the court system compared to their prevalence in the community. This often creates an unfair advantage for white men within the court system, as human beings, even judges who are supposed to be impartial, are wired to be more likely to favor those that they can identify with.

The NAACP website shared, “If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.”

This is an alarming statistic that shows the racial imbalance within the justice system, leading to unfair incarceration rates.

By expanding diversity within the court system, the criminal justice system will likely improve and become more fair and equal for people of all backgrounds, as judges will be able to make better informed decisions which will better reflect the whole population rather than only having one collective viewpoint on the issues before them.

Considering the fact that racial disparities are a large factor of America’s mass incarceration issue, diversity in the court system may also very well help to fix this problem that needs addressed.

Furthermore, diversity on the bench includes more than demographics; it also includes professional background. Public Interest attorneys, public defenders and those in private practice must have a voice also, as they are typically the ones that have the most experience in advocating for everyday people.

Overall, if today’s diversity panel serves its purpose and does successfully recruit diverse future judges, the criminal justice system, and therefore the prison system, will become more equal to Americans of all backgrounds.

Democratic Debate Candidate Pete Buttigieg for Black Americans

As of Wednesday’s Democratic Debate, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has emerged as a strong candidate. If Buttigieg keeps rising to the top, black Americans could look forward to some important changes.

He has released a criminal justice reform plan under his Douglass Plan proposal for restorative justice. In this plan, Buttigieg outlines steps to end mass incarceration that are much like those of the other candidates including putting people over profits by abolishing private prisons, ending the cash bail system, getting rid of mandatory minimums and legalizing marijuana.

Unlike other candidates, Buttigieg focused his plan around restoring equality in the justice system, most specifically for the black community.

Research shows that black Americans are treated unfairly compared to white Americans within the criminal justice system. In fact, black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.

By ending criminalization of things like poverty and some drugs, Buttigieg aims to reduce the number of prisoners by 50 percent. In order to help even out the playing field in terms of economic disadvantages, he plans to provide necessary capital and other tools necessary to eliminate the opportunity gaps which also lead to the racial inequality in the prison system and beyond.

With Buttigieg’s plan, black Americans could benefit from a safer, more equal life in society and with the law and the racial inequality in prisons would likely be diminished. Though Buttigieg is young and newer to national politics, he has proven thus far that he is an advocate for racial minorities and will do whatever it takes to create an atmosphere of equality if given the opportunity.

76-year-old Prisoner Exemplifies Benefits of New Compassionate Release Rules

Due to his chronic illness, low threat and old age, a prisoner previously sentenced to life in prison was released yesterday after 21 years behind bars, and he has the First Step Act to thank.

This year’s First Step Act that I touched on in a previous post has shown benefits to prisoners in many different ways, including the way that it changed the rules for compassionate release.

Until recently, compassionate release was nearly impossible to obtain by chronically ill and elderly prisoners that it was meant to benefit, because it was not widely known about, applications were hard to complete and timely responses were not required.

(This video is from before the First Step Act was implemented)

Now, thanks to the First Step Act, compassionate release processes have been altered in an attempt to better provide benefits for the prisoners that it applies to. It changed and expanded criteria to be considered, gave prisoners the right to appeal a denial of their request directly to court and called for notification and assistance with the application process as well as timely responses to requests.

This is why the 76-year-old prisoner that was charged with running a large cocaine distribution ring 21 years ago was granted release yesterday due to his multiple, severe medical conditions. The Bureau of Prisons had denied his request for release when it was made in September; however, the First Step Act allowed him to appeal the decision to the courts, where he won the appeal.

Image by succo from Pixabay

This man, deemed to no longer be a threat to society, can now be cared for by his family in the comfort of his daughter’s home for the remainder of his life. Without the appeal power given through the First Step Act, he would be uncomfortably suffering with his conditions until he died in prison.

Essentially, the First Step Act took some power back from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which through their lack of accountability and transparency have allowed so many situations within prisons, such as the issues within the compassionate release process, to be mishandled and kept from the general public.

Because compassionate release is now more accessible, our criminal justice system not only provides a better situation for the elderly or chronically ill and their families near the end of their lives, but it allows the prisoners to obtain better, more convenient treatment and also takes some pressures off our taxpayers by reducing treatment costs within the prisons, allowing multiple different stakeholders to benefit.

Democratic Debate Candidates’ Views on Criminal Justice Reform: Beto O’Rourke

Former Representative of Texas, Beto O’Rourke has shaped his criminal justice reform plan around legalization of marijuana and prohibition-driven injustices due to his strong, personal beliefs about the issue.

It is obvious that O’Rourke’s stance on Marijuana is not driven solely by the recent uproars of legalization, which is exemplified by not only his outspoken comments on the issue in the past, but also by his book that was published in 2011 when he was a member of the El Paso, Texas City Council, about the failed drug war in the United States calling for the decriminalization of cannabis.

In addition to his step by step plan of legalizing marijuana, O’Rourke plans to to release those currently imprisoned due to marijuana charges.

Furthermore, he would impose taxes on marijuana sales which would fund his “Drug War Justice Grant” plan to help those previously convicted of marijuana charges to repair damages caused by the war on drugs.

Unlike some of the other candidates, O’Rourke shares each step that he will take in order to achieve his criminal justice reform plan rather than only stating outcomes that he will somehow make happen.

Overall, O’Rourke has a strong plan which has been thought out and developed for years, that will help to end mass incarceration by reducing drug charges and he even takes the extra step by creating a plan of rehabilitation for those impacted. By focusing on one main issue of marijuana in the criminal justice system, O’Rourke shows promise for actual reform to take place.

Image by Brent Barnett from Pixabay

At least with this candidate, voters know exactly what will be done in terms of criminal justice reform.

Democratic Debate Candidates’ Views on Criminal Justice Reform: Elizabeth Warren

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren prides herself in her fight for middle class families. Her campaign includes a criminal justice reform plan that focuses on banning private prisons, bringing service fees for essential services to a halt and holding contractors accountable. Warren stands behind the idea that our country has criminalized too many things.

At first, it seemed that Warren had no concept of how she would fix the criminal justice system as seen in her meeting with criminal justice reform activists in the video below.

However, these activists may have brought awareness to Warren about the needs for change, as she posted a criminal justice reform plan as part of her campaign three days after the meeting.

The main points of her plan include strengthening public defenders, ending cash bail, reducing gun violence, reducing mandatory minimums, ending the drug war and getting rid of the death penalty. Warren stands behind the idea that our country has criminalized too many things.

Warren’s plan is detailed and addresses many of the most talked about issues within the system today; however, it seems to be too far-reaching, making it feel unrealistic, instead of focusing majorly on a few important issues.

When it comes to ending cash bail and strengthening public defenders, these parts of Warren’s plan reinforce the ideals that Warren stands for, fighting for the middle class.

However, the other aspects of the plan seem to have come out of the blue shortly after being asked pressing questions by the criminal justice reform activists, which causes question of her motives to arise. Are these people-pleasing answers to the system, or does Warren actually believe in this plan and is she willing to fight for it?

Whether she fully believes in her words or not, she is rather convincing in her claims that appeal to multiple suppressed groups including pregnant women, African Americans and the LGBTQ community.

It’s no surprise that polls are currently showing her at the top of democratic charts as she wins these groups over with her words of support.

These voters should be wary to quickly jump on the bandwagon and support Warren only because she tells them what they want to hear. They should demand evidence and details about how she will address their issues rather than falling for her simple claims that every situation will be remedied.

Ultimately, the campaign plan attempts to encompass way too much at once.

Democratic Debate Candidates’ Views on Criminal Justice Reform: Joe Biden

As this week’s democratic debate approaches, let’s look into the candidate’s views on the criminal justice system and how they would change the prison system as we know it, if elected.

This democratic debate on October 15 will feature 12 candidates, which is the most that there has ever been.

To start off, former Vice President Joe Biden‘s campaign shows strong will to reform America’s criminal justice system, and it seems that he highlights the possible economic advantages of the reform more than anything else.

Biden’s main claim is that the issue of mass incarceration should be addressed by directing drug-offenders to treatment facilities rather than prisons. This is interesting, as Biden helped pass many crime laws worsening the country’s mass incarceration issue in the 80s and 90s. What has caused his change of heart?

Senator Cory Booker has raised a point from this, that Biden is now simply working towards fixing a broken system that he helped create.

Regardless, the war on drugs has been a huge issue throughout America’s history that remains largely problematic today, and does in fact need addressed.

Next, Biden aims to reach equality and fairness within the justice system by addressing needs of children, women, all races and all economic backgrounds. Another interesting belief, as his actions as Delaware Senator in the 90s yet again conflict with this stance considering that he previously claimed to not care about the reasons that crimes were committed or if the victimization of race or economic status caused crime.

Additionally, by helping to rehabilitate the previously incarcerated, Biden’s campaign claims that not only will those people be rightly aided in their return to society, but the economy will be boosted. While this is a wonderful plan, there is the talk about the economy again. What is the real focus, the individuals or the economy?

Finally, Biden wants to push back against profiteers in our criminal justice system leading to their elimination. This aspect does show that Biden may not be all about the money, but it could also be because profiteering allows the money to go only to large, private corporations.

Ultimately, Biden does have strong beliefs about the need for reformation of the criminal justice system, but his motives seem misled as they focus more on the economy than the actual human beings that suffer from the injustices within the system.

While he has expressed regret about past actions, we still must ask ourselves if he wants to bring these changes for the right reasons.

Will Prison Conditions Improve If Rikers Island Closes?

It’s no secret that prison conditions aren’t always state of the art, but does the public know how bad life really gets behind the walls of these institutions?

Rikers Island, one of the most famous correctional facilities with a reputation for violence, has the possibility of being closed down pending an October 17 vote by the NYC Council, due to the unfair and inhumane conditions that prisoners face.

Image by Pavlofox from Pixabay

Shutting down Rikers and replacing it with smaller, safer prisons would be a step toward better conditions for prisoners; however, Rikers is not the only place where such conditions occur. Plenty of similar facilities in America have the same internal environments but are simply less known. If these prisons can hide the violent, unsafe happenings from the public, then the issues will not be addressed and prisoners will continue to live in horrible conditions across the rest of the country, no matter what happens with the vote on Rikers.

For example, Scott Whitney, a prisoner at Martin Correctional Institution in Florida, leaked a secret video to the Miami Herald this week that he took exposing the horrible conditions that he and his fellow prisoners face daily.

The excessive mold, violence, drug overdoses, lack of security and horrible living conditions that are shown in the video are the reality of prisons in America.

Currently, there is a trend of challenging lawmakers to actually go visit a prison and see the conditions inside before passing any laws involving the criminal justice system.

This is a good attempt at educating the public and politicians about terrible conditions of prisons; however, it is ineffective as prison staff are most definitely going to put on a show if a politician walks through their doors and portray the prison in a false light (just like that school teacher you once had that never taught a thing, yet became the best teacher in the world on audit day).

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Additionally, the overcrowding and violence in these prisons has negative impacts on mental health for prisoners. This creates an even larger problem because treatment for mental health behind bars is not all that it is cracked up to be. In fact, prisons attempt to dodge the “burden” of treating their inmates with mental health issues by refraining from acknowledging the seriousness of the issues.

By rating prisoners’ illnesses with a lower category of seriousness than deserved, these institutions avoid providing the necessary mental health care to the people that need it. This then creates a never ending cycle of more prison violence as those with very extreme, untreated mental illnesses often lash out at other prisoners.

Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay

Ultimately, in order to reform the criminal justice system in effective ways, internal prison conditions must be improved in terms of mental health evaluation and treatment, security and violence control, and the health codes of the physical space that prisoners must live in.

Advocate groups such as Cut50 and The Marshall Project are actively working towards finding ways to address these issues of inhumane prison conditions.