Nov/Dec Updates in Criminal Justice

by Cary Holley



[image from the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project]

Criminal justice reform advocate Raj Jayadev is currently working with the Defender Association of Philadelphia to allow family and community members to play a more central role in the justice process. Jayadev defines his model of ‘participatory defense’ as empowering loved ones to participate in the defense of an individual confronting the justice system though “providing the court with comprehensive biographical details, or ‘social biographies’, which offer a fuller picture of the defendant’s background, future prospects, and impact on the community” (Stoneleigh Foundation). According to the Foundation’s website, Philadelphia will be the first major city to adopt the practice and will hopefully enable the participatory defense system to be implemented throughout the country. If successfully implemented here in Philadelphia, this promising initiative may be able to significantly change the way in which our judges make decisions about sentencing and pre-trial arrangements.

The insufficient access to healthcare in prisons will undoubtedly require a comprehensive reform effort down the road, but a recent lawsuit by a group of incarcerated Pennsylvanians indicates other potential avenues for more immediate change. Samantha Melamed for The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that 5,000 imprisoned people suffering from hepatitis C will receive access to potentially life-saving drugs due to a settlement reached in the Eastern District after a four-year long legal battle. Such an advancement is promising for the future of access to necessary medical products within prisons, but this successful lawsuit should not distract from the fact that Pennsylvania pales in comparison to its peers in medical care and staffing spending in prisons. The fact that incarcerated individuals in our state have to sue for necessary medical products is yet another example of the dehumanizing nature of the current carceral state. Prison conditions should not and do not need to be this way.




[image from the Independent]

One of the most notable highlights from this month’s midterm elections was the approval of Amendment 4 in Florida. This vote resulted in the restoration of voting rights to over 1 million previously disenfranchised, formerly-incarcerated Floridians, though notably excluding individuals convicted of certain crimes. In celebrating this massive restoration of rights, due credit must be given to the Floridians Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), the grassroots organization directed by formerly-incarcerated people that did the groundwork for getting the amendment on the ballot. While this major victory for formerly-incarcerated peoples’ rights in Florida is cause for celebration, it is important to remember that only a minority of states wholly restore voting rights post-release. As this interactive felony disenfranchisement map demonstrates, most incarcerated Americans will still face some obstruction to exercising their fundamental right to vote after serving their time behind bars. Another Southern criminal justice victory from the midterm elections occurred in Louisiana. William Snowden for the Vera Institute reports that beginning next year, Louisiana courts will require all juries to reach a full consensus on verdicts. He points out that Louisiana’s decision to eradicate this Jim Crow-era practice now leaves Oregon as the only state in the nation that permits non-unanimous juries.


The First STEP Act, which passed the House but has been sitting in the Senate since May, has continued to receive special attention from the president. On November 23rd, Trump called on Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer to take action on the legislation once again. The First STEP Act has garnered support from both sides of the aisle, but simultaneously has received criticism regarding the compromises in the bill. Justin George for The Marshall Project explicitly delineates the most contentious compromises in the bill, including the notably non-retroactive mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Regardless of whether the proposed legislation will enact sufficient reform for combatting our nation’s mass incarceration crisis, the mere fact that a bipartisan criminal justice reform act exists demonstrates that reforming our justice system is clearly a nonpartisan, unifying mission that all can get behind.


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