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The Criminal Justice Year in Review - 2011

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December 22, 2011

As 2011 comes to end, we’re taking a look back at the year in criminal justice. Over the next few days, we’ll run a series of blog posts on the developments, good and bad, that have shaped our justice system – from overincarceration and sentencing policy to the treatment of prisoners and capital punishment. Read the series here.

In reflecting on the last year in the criminal justice world, it’s easy to recall the bad – even sometimes devastating – milestones. Across the nation, we continued to see reliance on overincarceration and the private prison industry. The U.S. Senate failed to adopt (by 3 votes) an important amendment that would have created a bipartisan commission to study our criminal justice system and suggest reforms. In Georgia, Troy Davis was executed despite overwhelming doubt about his guilt, and in North Carolina the legislature voted to repeal the historic Racial Justice Act (which, thankfully, has been saved for now by Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of that shameful vote). It’s true – the year was not without its grave injustices. But we can’t ignore the many good things that happened, either. As we head into 2012, let’s take a moment to celebrate the successes.

This year, we continued to see a steep decline in death sentences and executions in the United States, a trend we’ve observed over the last few years. Public support for the death penalty is at an all-time low, as more people recognize safe sentencing alternatives to the death penalty like life without parole and realize that the exorbitant costs of seeking the death penalty are simply not worth it.

In November, we got the welcome news that the state of Alabama will not appeal a ruling ordering a new trial for ACLU client Montez Spradley, who was sentenced to death despite inadequate and very weak evidence, after his trial judge rejected the jury’s 10-2 vote for a life sentence .

The confederate flag, deliberately adopted as a symbol of white race domination and control, no longer flies on the steps of the Shreveport, Louisiana courthouse. In November, Caddo Parish commissioners voted 11-1 to take it down, after litigation charging racial bias in several death penalty cases argued under the flag got the attention of the Louisiana Supreme Court and the national media. This is not the end of the story, but, as Rachel Maddow said, it is definitely good news.

In March, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Senate Bill 3539, ending Illinois’ dysfunctional and broken death penalty system. The measure ends an embarrassing history in Illinois, during which 20 men sentenced to death have been exonerated and released from the state’s death row.

Expressing regret that he allowed two executions to go forward 10 years ago, in November Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber put a moratorium on the state’s death penalty and granted a reprieve to a man scheduled to be killed in two weeks by lethal injection.

Adrian Estrada, an ACLU client whose death sentence was thrown out last year after the highest criminal court in Texas ruled it was based on the false testimony of a state expert, was resentenced this year to life in prison. He is one of many death row inmates whose lives have been spared by evidence of an unfair conviction.

Thanks in large part to the advocacy of the ACLU and the ACLU of Southern California, the nation finally took notice of the high levels of prisoner abuse in the LA County Jails, leading Sherriff Lee Baca to agree to an independent investigation.

Four states — Hawaii, Rhode Island, Idaho and Nevada — passed laws to eliminate the inhumane and unconstitutional practice of shackling pregnant women during labor and childbirth. In more good news, a federal jury in Tennessee awarded Juana Villegas $200,000 as compensation for the suffering she endured when the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office unconstitutionally shackled her to her delivery bed in 2008. Meanwhile, just across the state line, the Virginia Department of Corrections agreed to implement regulations prohibiting the shackling of pregnant inmates during labor and post-partum recovery.

In 2010, the Federal Sentencing Act (FSA) decreased the unfair disparity between the mandatory minimum sentences for crack versus powder cocaine offenses to from 100-to-one to 18-to-one. While an unacceptable disparity remains, the change was an important first step toward fairness. This year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission took another step when it decided to apply new sentencing guidelines under the FSA retroactively. Beginning this year, those who were given an unfairly harsh sentence for crack possession under the old law can now apply for sentence reductions under the new guidelines. More than 12,000 people — 85 percent of whom are African-American — will now have the opportunity to have their sentences for crack cocaine offenses reviewed by a federal judge and possibly reduced. Especially close to our hearts, our client Hamedah Hasan will see her unconscionably long sentence reduced.

After a decade of New York City police officers unlawfully arresting large numbers of New Yorkers for carrying small amounts of marijuana in their pockets or bags, marijuana arrests in the city have finally declined 13 percent. This news is bittersweet: while it’s good to see the arrest numbers decline, 13 percent isn’t nearly enough of a drop. Clearly, the NYPD needs to commit more resources to training and monitoring officers to finally end the marijuana-arrest crusade.

In June, Ohio passed criminal sentencing reform. The ACLU of Ohio has been on the front lines advocating for sensible sentencing reform that would alleviate the state’s overcrowded prison system. The bill will expand the availability of sentencing alternatives for low-level, nonviolent offenders; make uniform statewide standards for probation and parole; and correct sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine.

Our work to expose the sexual abuse of immigration detainees helped bring significant pressure on the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the White House to protect detainees by making sure they are covered by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) was introduced in the U.S. House. The ACLU submitted a statement to the Judiciary Subcommittee, highlighting why Congress should end racial profiling by passing the law.

2011 was not without its share of sadness and disappointment in the criminal justice world, and there is much to do in 2012. But with so many advocates working tirelessly for reform, and with so much progress in so many areas, it’s impossible to be without hope.

UPDATE: This post has been amended to include mention of our work to end sexual abuse in prisons.

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