By Roxanna Jarvis
The criminal justice system’s many inequities and strategies to turn it instead into a system that involves accountability, decarceration, and the humanization of those in/released from the system was the focus of Loyola Law School’s “Project For The Innocent” first webinar in a three-part series this past week.
Panelists Keith Wattley, Executive Director of UnCommon Law, Robin Steinberg, CEO of The Bail Project, and Adnan Khan, Executive Director of Re:Store Justice discussed the issues with “public safety” in terms of bail and parole.
For instance, Robin Steinberg debunked the assumption that cash bail keeps the public “safer.” Instead, it does the opposite, Steinberg asserted.
“Holding someone in jail pre-trial is gonna make it 30 percent more likely that they’re gonna commit a crime when they get out than if they had been free,” said Steinberg, adding that the few states that have eliminated cash bail have seen their violent crime rates continue to decrease.
“We need to keep in mind that those folks being held in jail because of their poverty and race are part of our public too,” said Steinburg, referring to those in jail being part of the public safety discussion.
A much more legitimate safety concern, according to Steinberg, is what occurs within the walls of jails and prisons. “When you hold people in jail, their safety is at risk every hour of every day.”
The same issue about public safety is brought up when incarcerated individuals are up for parole.
“When parole commissioners deny someone parole, it’s on the basis of some fairly vague and arbitrary sense that the person’s release would somehow jeopardize and create an unreasonable risk to public safety,” Wattley said. “There’s a need to revisit this whole concept of safety.”
The level of abuse (including physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse) that occurs inside prisons against predominantly black and brown people is at an extremely high rate, according to Wattley who said the rates are as high as 70-80 percent against men and even higher among women. Trans women, Wattley added, are among the highest to report abuses.
“Prisons certainly aren’t designed for whatever people think of as rehabilitation,” Wattley noted.
Those who also have their safety at risk are those in communities predominantly targeted by the criminal system, such as gang members, sex workers, drug dealers, and others that are involved in risky activities or substance addictions, said Wattley, adding, “They’re suffering in some way and don’t even know it or don’t know what to do about it. Their lives are unsafe already, and they’re unsafe because they’re unhealthy.
“When they do ask for help, what do we do? We kick them out of school, we kick them out of the house, we put them in jail, we put them in prison, we put them on probation,” concluded Wattley. Those at risk are almost guaranteed to end up in severe situations because the current system sets them up for failure, he said.
Khan, who was sentenced to life and did 16 years, serves as an example to Wattley’s statement.
“By the time I was 17, I was a parentless, homeless high school dropout. The police showed up when I committed my crime, and so there are systemic reasons why people obviously commit crimes—even homicide.”
It’s well known that district attorneys, prosecutors, play a huge role in the current state of the criminal justice system. While officers make arrests, prosecutors are the ones that determine bail, charges, and much more.
To Khan, even the title district attorney is problematic.
“As a person [who committed harm], what makes a system believe that I am no longer a part of society?” said Khan, adding that words, roles, and titles given in the criminal legal system accompany the fact that the system fails to provide public and individual safety.
When reimagining a better alternative to the way prosecutorial roles are performed, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s actions come to mind. As keynote speakers, Krasner, and Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Founding Executive Director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, discussed the power of DAs and their role in ending mass incarceration.
“The problem we have had in our system is that the government was fine with having a ton of discretion when the people exercising the discretion were locking up more and more people, giving them longer and longer sentences,” claimed Krasner, who argued that prosecutors did this to enhance their political careers.
“There may be no more consequential powerful spot in terms of the ability to make unilateral decisions in life and death matters than to be a chief prosecutor,” he said.
But according to Jones-Wright, the culture within the offices of district attorneys has been changing as more progressive DAs run for office and get elected, like Krasner.
As a progressive DA, Krasner argues that it’s not just fighting the culture of the DA’s office that can make change, explaining, “You’re fighting the culture within the judiciary, within the other institutions of criminal justice police departments, but you are also fighting a much broader culture that underlies the culture of the whole country.”
As DA, Krasner increased the diversity of his office from 20 percent to about 50 percent in terms of race, religion, and ethnicity. Also, Krasner implemented policies to push for the end of mass incarceration within the office.
This change of culture created backlash at times in the courtroom. “When prosecutors noted how much it cost a person to stay in jail for the period requested, some (judges) got very upset about that,” noted Krasner. “It caused a big commotion.”
Over the years though, Krasner states, the resistance has died down.
Pre-pandemic, Philadelphia saw a 50 percent reduction in the future years of incarceration that the courts generated, as well as a two-thirds to three-quarters reduction for future years of supervision.
In addition, Krasner’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU) has led to the exoneration of numerous people. Many of the wrongful convictions involved prosecutor misconduct and detectives persuading suspects to confess to crimes they did not commit.
What led Kranser to create the CRU was the culture of the DA’s office before he was elected.
“The culture of the DA’s office was a win-at-all-costs culture,” said Krasner, adding that it involved chief prosecutors pressuring prosecutors (or prosecutors pressuring themselves) to win cases involving homicide and life sentence cases “at all costs.”
The end of mass incarceration, according to Krasner, begins with progressive prosecutors, de-funding the police, and putting that money toward schools and community-based conversations.
“Criminal justice reform, in my opinion, is the civil rights movement of our time,” said Krasner. “Do not let people in power tell you they are there because they are so smart and they’re so powerful and they got so much money—they’re mostly there because they convinced you not to try.”
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