Justice at Last for the Youngest Inmates?

How many times does the Supreme Court have to repeat itself before its message gets through? In the case of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, the answer seems to be: at least one more time. On Tuesday, the justices will meet to consider whether to hear two separate cases asking them to ban those sentences categorically, in line with the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. It should be an easy call. For more than a decade, the court has been moving in … [Read more...]

Colin Kaepernick and the Legacy of the Negro National Anthem

The lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key embraced the pop cultural tastes of his day when he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” to commemorate an American victory over the British at Baltimore during the War of 1812. He gave his composition broad appeal with a melody derived from a popular British music club anthem that celebrated the virtues of love and wine. Satirists pounced, lampooning the song with lyrics that depicted a man who staggers home drunk and sleeps well past “the dawn’s … [Read more...]

Cash Bail’s Lonely Defender

Pretty much everyone who spends any time examining the American system of secured cash bail comes away with the same conclusion: It’s unjust, expensive and ineffective, even counterproductive. People charged with crimes — all of whom are presumed innocent — get locked up for days, weeks or months not because they pose a risk of fleeing or endangering the public but simply because they’re too poor to buy their freedom. The harm that even short-term detention can cause is profound. Jobs are … [Read more...]

Why Keep Old and Sick Behind Bars?

Anyone who visits a prison these days might be shocked to see what looks more like a nursing home with bars and metal detectors. Prisoners put away years ago under the wave of draconian sentencing are now turning gray and frail, suffering from heart disease and hypertension and feeling the effects of Alzheimer’s and other age-related illnesses. Corrections officials once thought they had time to prepare for this, but something unexpected happened. Federal data shows that prison inmates age … [Read more...]

When Police Unions Impede Justice

Across the country, municipal governments have signed contracts with police unions including provisions that shield officers from punishment for brutal behavior as well as from legitimate complaints by the citizens they are supposed to serve. That may soon change, as public outrage over police killings of civilians is ratcheting up pressure on elected officials to radically revise police contracts that make it almost impossible to bring officers to justice. The most striking case in point … [Read more...]

Did Blacks Really Endorse the 1994 Crime Bill?

As political candidates and pundits grapple with the legacy of the 1994 crime bill and the era of mass incarceration that has seen millions of African-Americans locked in the nation’s prisons, one defense keeps popping up: that black citizens asked for it. When confronted about her husband’s pivotal support for the bill, Hillary Clinton argued, even as she admitted the legislation’s shortcomings, that the bill was a response to “great demand, not just from America writ large, but from the black … [Read more...]

A Fair Chance After a Conviction

The Obama administration has worked diligently over the last five years to ease the marginalization of more than 70 million Americans with criminal records that can shut them out of jobs, housing, higher education or the consumer credit system — sometimes for minor offenses in the distant past or arrests that never led to conviction. By addressing this problem, Mr. Obama is pushing the country to re-evaluate longstanding policies that trap people with criminal records at the very edges of … [Read more...]

The Death Penalty Endgame

How does the death penalty in America end? For decades that has been an abstract question. Now there may be an answer in the case of Shonda Walter, a 36-year-old black woman on Pennsylvania’s death row. On Friday, the Supreme Court met to discuss whether to hear a petition from Ms. Walter, who is asking the justices to rule that in all cases, including hers, the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Ever since 1976, when the court allowed … [Read more...]

Cut Sentences for Low-Level Drug Crimes

Now that Congress is within sight of passing the most significant federal sentencing reforms in a generation, it’s worth taking a closer look at where the legislation falls short. The main driver of the federal prison population is, by far, the dramatic increase in the time people spend behind bars — specifically, those convicted of drug offenses, who account for nearly half of the nation’s 199,000 federal inmates. From 1988 to 2012, the average time served for drug crimes more than doubled in … [Read more...]

California’s Prison Experiment

What happens when you release thousands of prison inmates before the end of their sentences? It’s a question at the heart of the effort to address America’s overincarceration crisis. There are the inevitable warnings that crime will go up, but they are rarely borne out by the facts. California’s most recent prison and jail reform offers perhaps the best test case yet. Until recently, California locked up more people per capita than any other state. It has been under federal court order … [Read more...]