Last year was a big year for calling attention to the justice system and prison reform. Of course, attention doesn’t always result in change and even when it does happen, change never seems to come quickly enough. Like any other year, 2013 was full of gross miscarriages of justice and egregious missteps by the system. Thus, I bring — in no particular order — a list of some of the biggest news stories relating to corrections and crime from 2013.
1.) The smashing success of Orange Is the New Black. The way in which this show successfully humanizes prisoners and their problems could go a long way toward generating more sympathy toward prison reform causes. For a television show, it’s surprisingly accurate. There are plenty of aspects of it that ex-cons will find fault with, but the fact that it’s a fairly realistic and humanizing look at modern prisons is a step in the right direction for the depictions of criminal justice in popular media.
2.) Attorney General Eric Holder called for reduced drug sentences. In August, the Attorney General announced that low-level, non-violent drug offenders without gang ties or involvement in major drug organizations will no longer be charged in such a way that invokes mandatory minimums. He said, “We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken. And, with an out-sized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget.” He added, “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.” Some of the planned changes require legislative action, while others simply required Holder to inform his regional federal prosecutors about how the new policy will affect the decision to charge an individual federally. Bravo!
3.) Lauryn Hill served three months in a federal prison for tax evasion charges. While the fact that a celeb arrested on charges of tax evasion is not particularly noteworthy — or at least not year-end list-worthy — this item made the list because it aptly demonstrates the racial disparity in sentencing. If you make a list of the major celebrities who have been charged with tax evasion — Martha Stewart, Wesley Snipes, Nick Cage, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Richard Pryor, Ja Rule, Pamela Anderson, Darryl Strawberry, etc. — you’ll find that the black celebs were far more likely to serve time behind bars than their white counterparts. (There’s a more complete list of celebs charged with tax evasion shown here.)
4.) Success of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Although the Ohio State University professor’s book was actually released in 2012, it seemed to garner a great deal of attention in 2013 as well. The groundbreaking book is a call to action that examines the role of race in mass incarceration.
5.) Affluenza defense for DUI. In December of last year, a 16-year-old Texan was sentenced to 10 years of probation after a drunk driving accident that caused four deaths. Whatever you think of the verdict — whether it was too lenient or just right — this case exemplifies one of the worst problems of the criminal justice system: money buys freedom. The family of the accused was extremely wealthy and a psychologist in the trial testified that the teen suffered from “affluenza,” which led to the reckless behavior and Valium-amplified .24 BAC driving accident. The obvious implication that poor people are responsible for their actions while rich people are not is appalling.
6.) Pussy Riot freed. Although the timing of Putin’s decision seems somewhat suspect, the fact that Russia has decided to offer amnesty for up to 25,000 non-violent first-time offenders is wonderful. More about this saga here.
7.) Feds begin making parole decisions Minority Report-style. Some parole board began using Compasi, a computer program that weighs 50 to 100 different factors, in determining an inmate’s likelihood to reoffend or violate the terms of his or her release. Although a human parole board will still review the computer’s decision, critics point out that some of the factors — including level of education — will skew the decisions against minority inmates.
8.) Marissa Alexander finally released on bail. Of course, no list of 2013 crime and corrections new is complete without mention of George Zimmerman — but in this list the story that dominated the first half of 2013 only appears tangentially. In the same county, under the same State Attorney that freed George Zimmerman, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot that hit no one. Alexander fired the shot to scare off her consistently abusive husband, but was denied the “stand your ground” protection that ultimately kept Zimmerman out of prison. Why the disparity? Alexander is black. Fortunately, after the Zimmerman verdict, Alexander’s sentence was overturned and she is currently out on bail awaiting retrial.
9.) Coerced inmate sterilizations in California came to light. Although the story didn’t break until this year, between 2006 and 2010 it was discovered that at up to 150 female inmates had been sterilized without going through the proper state approval process designed to insure that such procedures are necessary and not coerced. Specifically, prison doctors had been targeting new mothers for tubal ligations, often coercing them while they were giving birth. One doctor justified the illegally coerced procedures by saying that the sterilizations cost less than the potential welfare payments he assumed future children would entail.
10.) Pelican Bay hunger strike. Inmates in one of California’s most notorious facilities, Pelican Bay, went on hunger strike to protest the use of long-term solitary confinement and the unfit conditions in California SHUs. Given California’s aggressive use of solitary confinement, many inmates have been left in solitary for one or two decades — or more — simply for suspected gang affiliation. The hunger strike began with 30,000 prisoners on July 8th. Although the number of strikers dwindled over time, the brave prisoners who continued to participate began facing consequences including SHU time themselves. After 60 days, prisoners officially ended their non-violent hunger strike, even though their demands had not been met. Hopefully, though, the media attention that the strike garnered may yet galvanize policy changes; this February, at a joint meeting of the California Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees experts will testify about the need for change in CDCR’s solitary confinement policies.