The "Colorblindess" of the County Board on the Jail Issue

It took the County Board until almost midnight on Tuesday to pass the RFP for a needs assessment concerning the county jail. This is a first step in their grand plans to spend $20 million (likely more) on building new cells at the satellite jail. The five and a half hour meeting kicked off with an hour of public participation during which a parade of individuals stood at the podium urging the Board to re-think its approach to addressing "public safety" by building more jail beds. Three themes recurred during these inputs: 1) the overwhelmingly disproportionate presence of African Americans in the jails (more than 60% in a county that is 12% Black) 2) the lack of public voice in the decision-making process, particularly on the Board's all-white Jail Space Improvement Planning team which wields the bulk of authority on the jail issue 3) that there are many, many better ways to spend $20 million dollars in Champaign County than to build new jail facilities.

The Illicit Ordinance 683

As the meeting wended its way through its five and a half hour journey it became apparent that most of the public comments would be ignored. No one among the Board members raised the fact that the money for the jail would be coming from an illegitimate maneuver by the Board to appropriate the $4.5 million in annual revenues from the public safety tax.  Passed by the voters in 1998, the tax was designed as a temporary measure to fund a specific set of projects. Any renewal of the tax was supposed to go to the voters. Never mind that, s aid the Board.  in 2003, the Board illicitly (if not illegally) changed the wording of the ordinance the voters had approved by passing Ordinance 683 at one of their meetings.. 683  allowed future public safety tax money to go to any construction for "law enforcement" purposes without approval by the voters. In effect, this created a bottomless pit of money for the police, the county sheriff and everyone else involved in "law enforcement".  How many social services have such a guarantee? Members of the public have repeatedly reminded the Board of their shameful actions in passing 683 but apparently the cries of citizens are voices in the wilderness to those determined to waste taxpayers' money on shiny, state -of -the -art lockups.

The State’s Attorney Speaks of Tokenism

The high point of the night, however, (or perhaps I should say, the low point) came with the embarrassingly ignorant remarks of Board member Stan James and state's attorney Julia Reitz regarding the "race" issue. James repeatedly noted that he found it "offensive" that "race" kept being raised, that he served everyone in the county.  Reitz echoed James' opinions, also finding herself "offended" by the intimation that she, as a white person, couldn't be trusted to serve all the county regardless of race. When Board member Carol Ammons proposed a minority presence on the decision-making body, Reitz denounced this as ineffective "tokenism."  This brought screams of derision and disbelief from the audience, prompting chairperson Tom Betz to threaten to have the sheriffs clear the room. Finally the Board agreed to add one person of color on their team, but their true "colors" had already been shown.

Colorblindness in the County Board

For local people concerned with social and racial justice, this meeting was but another reminder of the backward attitudes we must confront in the efforts to prevent more African-Americans from joining the ranks of the 2.3 million people already incarcerated in this country. In her book  The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes of the "colorblindness" of this period, how many whites pretend that race doesn't matter to them, that they don't see color.  When people of color (or other whites for that matter) bring obvious racial disparities to their attention (such as racial profiling in police stops in our cities) they act "offended" as if they are the victims in this process. Let me provide Julia Reitz and Stan James  with some examples of who the real victims are here, who actually has the right to be offended:  African-American youth being pepper sprayed and choked for jaywalking (Brandon Ward), African-American youth being beaten mercilessly for reckless driving (Calvin Miller), African-American youth being shot to death for no reason (Kiwane Carrington). So let me apologize in advance to James and Reitz because we are going to keep bringing these racial injustices into the public eye and that’s going to hurt their feelings.  What a shame.

Sheriff and Friends Have Grand Plans for New Jail

Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System

by Michelle Alexander

After years as a civil rights lawyer, I rarely find myself speechless. But some questions a woman I know posed during a phone conversation one recent evening gave me pause: “What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?”

The woman was Susan Burton, who knows a lot about being processed through the criminal justice system.

Her odyssey began when a Los Angeles police cruiser ran over and killed her 5-year-old son. Consumed with grief and without access to therapy or antidepressant medications, Susan became addicted to crack cocaine. She lived in an impoverished black community under siege in the “war on drugs,” and it was but a matter of time before she was arrested and offered the first of many plea deals that left her behind bars for a series of drug-related offenses. Every time she was released, she found herself trapped in an underclass, subject to legal discrimination in employment and housing.

Fifteen years after her first arrest, Susan was finally admitted to a private drug treatment facility and given a job. After she was clean she dedicated her life to making sure no other woman would suffer what she had been through. Susan now runs five safe homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles. Her organization, A New Way of Life, supplies a lifeline for women released from prison. But it does much more: it is also helping to start a movement. With groups like All of Us or None, it is organizing formerly incarcerated people and encouraging them to demand restoration of their basic civil and human rights.

I was stunned by Susan’s question about plea bargains because she — of all people — knows the risks involved in forcing prosecutors to make cases against people who have been charged with crimes. Could she be serious about organizing people, on a large scale, to refuse to plea-bargain when charged with a crime?

“Yes, I’m serious,” she flatly replied.

I launched, predictably, into a lecture about what prosecutors would do to people if they actually tried to stand up for their rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees the accused basic safeguards, including the right to be informed of charges against them, to an impartial, fair and speedy jury trial, to cross-examine witnesses and to the assistance of counsel.

But in this era of mass incarceration — when our nation’s prison population has quintupled in a few decades partly as a result of the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement — these rights are, for the overwhelming majority of people hauled into courtrooms across America, theoretical. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.

“The truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used,” said Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the libertarian Cato Institute. In other words: the system is rigged.

In the race to incarcerate, politicians champion stiff sentences for nearly all crimes, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws; the result is a dramatic power shift, from judges to prosecutors.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that threatening someone with life imprisonment for a minor crime in an effort to induce him to forfeit a jury trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial. Thirteen years later, in Harmelin v. Michigan, the court ruled that life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

No wonder, then, that most people waive their rights. Take the case of Erma Faye Stewart, a single African-American mother of two who was arrested at age 30 in a drug sweep in Hearne, Tex., in 2000. In jail, with no one to care for her two young children, she began to panic. Though she maintained her innocence, her court-appointed lawyer told her to plead guilty, since the prosecutor offered probation. Ms. Stewart spent a month in jail, and then relented to a plea. She was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Then her real punishment began: upon her release, Ms. Stewart was saddled with a felony record; she was destitute, barred from food stamps and evicted from public housing. Once they were homeless, Ms. Stewart’s children were taken away and placed in foster care. In the end, she lost everything even though she took the deal.

On the phone, Susan said she knew exactly what was involved in asking people who have been charged with crimes to reject plea bargains, and press for trial. “Believe me, I know. I’m asking what we can do. Can we crash the system just by exercising our rights?”

The answer is yes. The system of mass incarceration depends almost entirely on the cooperation of those it seeks to control. If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised his constitutional rights, there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the ensuing tsunami of litigation. Not everyone would have to join for the revolt to have an impact; as the legal scholar Angela J. Davis noted, “if the number of people exercising their trial rights suddenly doubled or tripled in some jurisdictions, it would create chaos.”

Such chaos would force mass incarceration to the top of the agenda for politicians and policy makers, leaving them only two viable options: sharply scale back the number of criminal cases filed (for drug possession, for example) or amend the Constitution (or eviscerate it by judicial “emergency” fiat). Either action would create a crisis and the system would crash — it could no longer function as it had before. Mass protest would force a public conversation that, to date, we have been content to avoid.

In telling Susan that she was right, I found myself uneasy. “As a mother myself, I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t plead guilty to if a prosecutor told me that accepting a plea was the only way to get home to my children,” I said. “I truly can’t imagine risking life imprisonment, so how can I urge others to take that risk — even if it would send shock waves through a fundamentally immoral and unjust system?”

Susan, silent for a while, replied: “I’m not saying we should do it. I’m saying we ought to know that it’s an option. People should understand that simply exercising their rights would shake the foundations of our justice system which works only so long as we accept its terms. As you know, another brutal system of racial and social control once prevailed in this country, and it never would have ended if some people weren’t willing to risk their lives. It would be nice if reasoned argument would do, but as we’ve seen that’s just not the case. So maybe, just maybe, if we truly want to end this system, some of us will have to risk our lives.”

Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Copyright 2012 The New York Times

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