Why We’re Not Celebrating Chief Anderson

 Guest post by Andrew Krinks

Nashville’s chief of police has garnered praise from a wide spectrum of people for his response to local protests against racist police violence. But celebrating a police chief for refraining from harming protesters and defending our right to “express” our “thoughts” only decenters the real cause for celebration: the growing coalition building power in the movement against white supremacy and economic injustice in Nashville and beyond—a coalition and a movement whose message Chief Anderson has thus far successfully refrained from acknowledging or engaging in any meaningful way. Thus, we see no reason to spend energy celebrating Chief Anderson until he concretely joins us in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy and economic injustice—which would mean significant changes in what policing looks like in our city.

In response to protests nationwide against the murder of black men, women, and children at the hands of white police officers, and against the subsequent non-indictments of those officers, chiefs of police across the U.S. have dealt with demonstrators swiftly and aggressively, in many cases with billy clubs, rubber bullets, tear gas, and jail cells. In responding in such a way to protests against racist police violence, police departments have only reinforced the point the demonstrations have sought to make: policing in the U.S. is inherently violent and inherently racist.

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TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT TENNESSEE’S DEATH PENALTY

1. There are no rich people on death row

  • 85-90% of people on death row were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them at trial. They are assigned public defenders with much higher caseloads and fewer resources than private law firms.
  • Public Defender’s offices in both Nashville and Memphis have reported chronic underfunding and understaffing, to the point of not being able to take on a new case (Memphis Commercial Appeal and TBA).

2. There are racial biases in the system

  • A study of capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981 to 2000 found that defendants with white victims were 3.15 to 75 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants with black victims (ABA report, p 284).
  • More than 1 in 4 black inmates condemned to death in Tennessee from 1977 to 2001 were sentenced by all-white juries (Amnesty, p 40).

3. There is too little oversight and accountability for judges and lawyers in capital cases

  • A 2007 study by the American Bar Association found that the TN death penalty system falls short on 10 key points, including Inadequate Procedures to Address Innocence Claims, Lack of Meaningful Proportionality Review, and Failure to Preserve DNA Evidence in Capital Trials. These issues remain unresolved today (ABA report).
  • A prosecutor in Shelby County has been publicly reprimanded by the TN Supreme Court for withholding evidence in a capital trial, and yet faces no disciplinary consequences from the DA’s office (Memphis Flyer).

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TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MASS INCARCERATION

1. What the term means

  • The phrase “mass imprisonment” was coined by sociologist David Garland in 2000 to describe the massive expansion of imprisonment in the US between 1975 and the late 1990s. This new regime of punishment differed in two remarkable ways: 1) the sheer scale and magnitude of the increased use of imprisonment in a departure from historic norms and 2) the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population without social scientific evidence that punishment has a strong relationship with crime control.

 2. Scale: There are more than 2.4 million people behind bars in America

  • Approximately one out of every four prisoners on the entire planet are in U.S. prisons, but the United States only accounts for about five percent of the total global population. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has quadrupled. Incredibly, 41 percent of all young people in America have been arrested by the time they turn 23. 12 million people cycle through prison in a single year. 7 to 8 million people are under some form of criminal justice supervision (including probation and parole).
  • Tennessee incarceration rates have gone from just over 100 people incarcerated per 100,000 people in the 1970s to over 400 in 2010.

 3. Systematic Imprisonment of groups: Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color

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Mourning Becomes Justice

Guest post by Michelle Brown

This is the irony or paradox. Political resistance could kill you, well actually the state could in response to your resistance, but the beloved community could save you. Not from physical death. Nothing would do that, not even god. But from meaningless death and despair. One does not negotiate with the state’s use of terror, violent and premature death (actual physical death or disappearance through incarceration). One opposes it and in that opposition finds meaning in black suffering.

– Joy James, “Black Suffering in Search of the ‘Beloved Community’”

Criminal justice in the United States is a project that intersects with race and mortality at every intersection. In laying out this claim, of course, I have the killing of Michael Brown in mind and recent events and actions in Ferguson, Missouri. I also situate this present moment within the growing historical record of patterned, racialized state killing. I mean to point to a kind of disturbance that is foundational, ordinary, routine: Mass incarceration and capital punishment are produced through a host of everyday discretionary decision-making and institutional practices that make up criminal justice, creating the conditions for premature death, like that of Michael Brown. To name only a few of these (and to engage them superficially at best), consider the following:

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Prison Re-Form: The Continuation of the Carceral State

Guest post by Judah Schept

There has been recent and welcome attention to the carceral state in major media outlets like the New York Times and from unlikelier sources, like conservative political commentators. Indeed, the Times’ May 24th editorial focused on the bipartisan support for prison reform as evidence for its call to “end mass incarceration now:”

The insanity of the situation is plain to people across the political spectrum, from Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who agree on the urgent need for change. The research is in, and it is uncontestable. The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”

While the Times’ critique is direct and pointed, some of the most outspoken public critics of mass incarceration in recent years have been politicians on the right, from Grover Norquist to Rand Paul to even Rick Perry and, of course, Newt Gingrich. It would be politically shrewd to remain skeptical of these individuals and their analyses given their various roles in creating the modern day carceral state, dismantling the welfare state, justifying and carrying out executions, and openness to undoing federal civil rights legislation. But there is no mistaking that there has been a marked shift in rhetoric and some accompanying legislative changes.

Some commentators have seen these developments as indicative of a definite shift toward reform and perhaps even as the harbinger of the end of the era of mass incarceration. I hope they are correct. But following historians like David Rothman and social theorists like Michel Foucault, we should remember that, historically, American prison reform efforts “may well have done less to upgrade dismal conditions than they did to create nightmares of their own” (Rothman 2002, p. 9). Indeed, while we often use the word “reform” to suggest progressive, if incremental, change, the word also can mean “restructuring” or, more obviously, “re-formation.” I want to turn toward a brief discussion of two related phenomena that may caution against celebrating any imminent demise of the carceral state; rather, they suggest its persistence.

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51 Years: The New Life Without Parole

Guest blog by Parrhesia

Tennessee is drawing wide attention for its policies on the death penalty. Less well known is how barbaric our sentencing laws are in general. For instance in Tennessee, all penalties for First Degree Murder, even for juveniles sentenced as adults, are equivalent to a death sentence, whether a social death sentence or a physical one. In Tennessee, the only options are the death penalty, life without parole, or a life sentence requiring service of 51 to 60 calendar years. 51 years is impossible to do in practice. No one in Tennessee on record has ever served longer than about 45 years. Therefore, there is no possibility of release with a life sentence in Tennessee.

In 1989 a bill was passed which gave the criminal sentencing structure in Tennessee an overhaul. The 1989 Sentencing Reform Act established a rigid sentencing structure with ranges based on prior criminal history and a maximum sentence of 60 years for those repeatedly convicted of the most serious crimes. Even someone who committed the worst crimes could still be eligible for parole after a reasonably lengthy sentence served day for day, usually around 25 years, if they were first time offenders, the logic being that first time offenders when they are young may still be capable of total reform, and the parole board could decide the matter.

All was well after the 1989 Sentencing Reform Act. Legislators were confident they had modeled a system which would carry them into the future, especially with the war on drugs ramping up and the luring scent of federal money in the air.
In 1993 another bill was passed which required at least 25 years of a life sentence to be served before parole eligibility and for juries to have the option of life without parole for those hard cases where the death sentence is not in play.

And yet, that wasn’t far enough.

In 1995 in Tennessee, the legislature and the business interests walked in lock step to pass a “Truth In Sentencing” law. From that point forward, men and women who commit certain crimes on an arbitrarily composed list, regardless of past criminal history or any other mitigating factors, no longer have any chance of consideration for parole and at least 85% of the sentence must be served regardless of how many sentence credits (good behavior credits) the inmate receives. Some of the legislators who first discussed the bill on the floor spoke of the law as a “three strikes” law. They can be heard on the tape recordings of the sessions, available at the state archives located in downtown Nashville. In Tennessee, we threw out the last two strikes and decided it was best to impose the maximum possible sentence, even for first time offenders and juveniles, a major change in policy regarding the hope of rehabilitating an offender or salvaging his or her life in any way.

Our legislature made the policy decision to throw human beings away like garbage in a land fill called the prison system.

I am a piece of that garbage. When my jury deliberated on my case after a week long trial, they considered the charge of First Degree Murder and lesser included offenses such as Second Degree and Voluntary Manslaughter. Each of the lesser crimes carried a lesser possible sentence. My lawyers argued that my state of mind was so impaired that the legal definition of the crime chosen should be reduced down from First Degree Murder. At one point the jury asked the judge how much time I would have to serve before being eligible for parole if given life in prison versus life without parole (the death penalty was not an option). The response: he could not tell them that information.

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Just Say No to CCA

Guest Post by Andrew Krinks

In an editorial-as-advertisement published on May 17 in the Tennessean, Blair Leibach, warden at the CCA-managed Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility, boasted what he understands to be the benefits of correctional facilities operated by the Corrections Corporations of America (CCA). In what follows, I offer a brief response to Leibach’s primary points. My argument, in short, is “No.”

To start, Leibach is writing, as would be expected, from a “crime deserves punishment” logic, which presupposes two things: first, that every person who enters a jail or prison is, in fact, guilty of an act that disrupts or harms the life of another person or a community; and second, that such acts rightly warrant that the alleged “offender” be separated from their community and subjected to various forms of violence. It is simply not true, however, in a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation on the planet, that every person who currently sits in jail or prison has, in fact, committed an act that harmed another person or a community. Thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing and the hyper-criminalization of drug use and trade, thousands and thousands of people, largely from low-income communities and communities of color, sit behind bars for years or even decades for acts that, in many instances, harmed no one. This is not to say that there aren’t people behind bars who have harmed others; the point is that a significant number of people in our correctional facilities are being made to suffer a violence that far outweighs whatever violence they may—or may not!—have committed.

Beyond this, it has been thoroughly demonstrated that that which counts as “crime” under our legal system is applied differently and disproportionately across different communities. As Kahlil Muhammad, for example, shows, non-white and poor persons have historically been associated with an inherent criminality that must be controlled through the vigilant policing and/or removal of such persons from our communities—an attribution that has not historically been applied in the same way to white persons who disrupt or harm the life of communities.

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Why Does Michelle Brown Support This Initiative?

Dr. Michelle Brown is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  She is the author of The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle (2009), Empathy and Punishment (2012) as well as other books and articles in the field of critical criminology.

Dr. Brown writes:

As a criminologist, I have spent a lot of time examining the inescapable problems of capital punishment, ranging from its failure to deter crime to problems of racial disparity and inadequate due process.  One of the more powerful emotional claims for capital punishment has been that executions are necessary for victims and their loved ones to achieve closure.  In fact, an emergent wave of social science research on the families of victims in capital cases points instead to their long-term social, psychological, and spiritual needs.  As it turns out, experiences of isolation, alienation, invisibility, grief, and powerlessness are shared among families of the victim and the condemned.  In the world of capital punishment, victims, perpetrators, and their loved ones bleed together.

Such work encourages us to move beyond the myth of closure often presented in the media and law, one where criminal justice procedure – prosecution, conviction, and punishment – results in “closure” with victims then expected to “move on.”  Rather, families talk instead of closure as a life-long, ongoing process – a work of memory – with complex needs, a process that capital punishment often exacerbates in its one-off assumptions of finality. Often overlooked in capital punishment debates yet central to the acknowledgment of victims is the role of the community in responding to these needs, an obligation central to restorative and transformative justice. Communities can do a better job of addressing the pain, grief, and life-long needs of others than simply pursuing death.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.