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Tennessee Black Voter Project Files Lawsuit Against Shelby County Election Commission

THE TENNESSEE TRIBUNE — One day before the start of early voting in Tennessee, the Tennessee Black Voter Project (TNBVP) announced they have filed a lawsuit against the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) to help protect the right to vote for thousands of predominantly Black voters.

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By The Tennessee Tribune

Lawsuit Demands Timely Release of Public Records Necessary to Protect the Fundamental Right to Vote for Thousands of Tennesseans

 Shelby County Tactics Follows Voter Suppression Efforts to Delay and Block Registration of Voters of Color in Missouri, Georgia, Ohio

MEMPHIS – One day before the start of early voting in Tennessee, the Tennessee Black Voter Project (TNBVP) announced they have filed a lawsuit against the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) to help protect the right to vote for thousands of predominantly Black voters. The SCEC’s statement that over half of voter registration forms received are invalid and its refusal to timely release public records raises concerns about whether it is wrongly invalidating thousands of voter registration forms TNBVP submitted during a historic statewide drive. There are also concerns about whether affected Tennesseans are being notified of their right to “cure”—or correct—deficient forms by or on Election Day so they can still vote a regular ballot in the upcoming election.

“With Tennessee already last in the nation in voter turnout, the last thing Shelby County needs is for its election officials to actively hinder—rather than help—Tennesseans to exercise their right to vote,” said Tequila Johnson, Statewide Manager of the Tennessee Black Voter Project. “We have already seen this kind of obstruction and voter suppression in other states as Election Day approaches, and we won’t allow it to happen here, too.”

TNBVP submitted over 36,000 voter registration applications to the SCEC. This was a huge uptick compared to voter registration applications received for previous midterm elections. However, the SCEC claims that an improbably high percentage of these voter registration forms are invalid. Despite multiple requests to substantiate their claims or offer remedies, the SCEC has rejected cooperation with TNBVP and refused timely access to public records that would enable TNBVP to begin a process to help affected registrants cure incomplete forms through Election Day.

This lawsuit comes one week after Georgia Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp made headlines for stalling 53,000 voter applications from predominantly Black voters. Like actions in Georgia, Missouri and Ohio, Shelby County’s conduct threatens to prevent thousands of otherwise eligible voters of color from participating in elections.

The TNBVP, through counsel, is seeking a court order to permit inspection of information related to rejected and deficient voter registration applications. The TNBVP is entitled to these public records under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

With early voting beginning tomorrow, October 17, and Election Day just weeks away, TNBVP is concerned that Shelby County officials have wrongly invalidated forms or failed to educate voters on the process for exercising their legal right to correct an incomplete registration form on or by Election Day, as guaranteed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-2-109.

“I haven’t heard any updates on my voter registration form, whether I’ve been accepted or rejected,” said Stephen Penn, 50, a lifelong resident of Shelby County who says he registered almost two months ago. “I don’t know what the procedure is, but I provided my address and my phone number, so I feel like I should have been contacted by now. I’m trying to vote because my health care is on the line and I’m trying to have a voice to fix the issues that aren’t getting solved.”

The SCEC has been sued repeatedly in the past for early voting restrictions in communities of color, misleading ballot language, and voting tally inaccuracies.

“Tennessee voter participation is worse than nearly every state in the nation. We should applaud and encourage every effort to increase participation in our elections—especially a campaign that submitted registration forms for more than 36,000 new voters,” said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner. “We owe every person in Shelby County, from those who registered for the first time in 1968 to those who registered for the first time in 2018, access to the ballot box. We are calling on election officials today to work with the Tennessee Black Voter Project and allied organizations to ensure that each and every affected registrant has the opportunity to validate their application and the right to vote.”

This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Tribune.

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VIDEO: Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter Dragged Off to Jail — Literally

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Hunter was initially charged with committing nine felonies. After charges were dropped on all but one, she was convicted and entered into a lengthy appeals process. The state supreme court of Ohio refused to hear her appeal, sending the case back to the lower court and resulting in her ultimate sentencing.

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Former Hamilton County, Ohio Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter is dragged from the courtroom following her sentencing for unlawful interest in a public contact, after she illegally helped her brother keep his county job by mishandling a confidential document. (Photo: YouTube)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

Former Hamilton County, Ohio Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter appeared overcome with emotion as she was literally dragged from a Cincinnati courtroom by a sheriff’s deputy on Monday, July 22, after she was sentenced to six months in jail for charges stemming from a controversial conviction in 2014.

A jury convicted Hunter of unlawful interest in a public contract after she was accused of helping her brother keep his county job by mishandling a confidential document.

Hunter was initially charged with committing nine felonies. After charges were dropped on all but one, she was convicted and entered into a lengthy appeals process. The state supreme court of Ohio refused to hear her appeal, sending the case back to the lower court and resulting in her ultimate sentencing.

With a courtroom packed with supporters — and many more who stood outside of the proceedings — Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker dispensed Hunter’s punishment.

Prior to sentencing, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters wrote a letter asking the court to consider having Hunter undergo psychiatric evaluation based on questions he has about what he calls Hunter’s “mental condition,” according to reporting from WLWT5.

Hunter’s attorney David Singleton disagreed with the request, adding that he “couldn’t believe” Deters would ask the court to have Hunter undergo evaluation and that they plan to file a motion to dismiss the case.

With all of the support Hunter has received based on both real and perceived biases during the initial trial and appeals process, Mayor John Cranley wrote a letter to Dinkelacker asking him not to place Hunter in prison, saying that she has suffered as a result of her conviction and doesn’t appear to pose any risks to others.

Postcards were sent to Dinkelacker’s house asking for leniency in his sentencing. He read some of the postcards during the hearing.

“I violated no laws, I did not secure a public contract, I did not secure employment for my brother who worked for the court for about seven years before I was elected judge,” Hunter said.

At least one of Hunter’s supporters was arrested at the courthouse after trying to intervene when deputies attempted to take Hunter into custody.

Others shouted, “No Justice, No Peace,” and accused the court of racism.

In June, former Cincinnati State Sen. Eric Kearney had expressed to NNPA Newswire that Hunter’s incarceration was “going to be a problem” and the city would “explode. I’m telling you, black people [in Cincinnati] are not going to take [Hunter going to jail] lightly,” Kearney said. “The city is on edge.”

Kearney, Hunter and her vast number of supporters have said the process used to convict her wreaked of politics, corruption, nepotism and racism.

The jury that rendered the guilty verdict in her trial was comprised of political foes and others associated with the prosecutors and a Republican establishment that didn’t take kindly to Hunter breaking the GOP and white-male dominated stronghold to win a seat on the bench in 2010, her supporters have pointed out.

For example, one of the jurors worked for WCPO Television, a local station that has filed numerous lawsuits against Hunter.

Court documents revealed that the jury foreman contributed $500 to state Sen. Bill Seitz, the father of county jury coordinator Brad Seitz, who was responsible for compiling the panel of jurors that arrived at the guilty verdict, which required a unanimous decision from the jury.

Hunter said that the only three black jurors, none of whom had known ties to prosecutors and all of whom held out for acquittal, ultimately yielded to pressure from other jurors. The judge refused to allow defense lawyers to poll the jury after announcing the verdict.

In every American criminal trial, particularly those that end in guilty verdicts, it’s the right of attorneys to request the judge to poll all 12 jurors to ensure each is in agreement with the verdict.

“The judge refused a motion for a retrial after he refused to poll the jury, in clear violation of the law and at the request of my attorney,” Hunter told NNPA Newswire in June.

“If the judge polled the jury, it happened in a blink, but I don’t remember that happening,” Kearney said.

At the close of the trial, three jurors came forward and said that their true verdict was not guilty and “if Judge Norbert Nadel had polled the jury, they would have said so,” Hunter said.

Hunter also wanted her supporters to know that she is not suicidal.

“I want everyone to know that I don’t drink … I don’t do drugs … I have no intention of harming myself,” she said.

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Driving While Black: Police Continue to Profile, Stop and Search African American Drivers

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “What’s particularly damning about this data is that police were more likely to search Black people than white people yet found contraband in only 41 percent of searches of Black people compared to 72 percent of the searches of white people,” said American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Carl Takei. “In other words, the police have a pattern of stopping and searching Black people in circumstances where they would simply let white people go.

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The Louisville Courier Journal also found that black motorists in Kentucky were searched 12 percent of the time they were stopped, while white motorists were searched just 3.9 percent of the time. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
The Louisville Courier Journal also found that black motorists in Kentucky were searched 12 percent of the time they were stopped, while white motorists were searched just 3.9 percent of the time. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

Two new recently published reports show that racial profiling – particularly “Driving While Black” – remains a crisis in America.

A recent report issued by Missouri’s attorney general Eric Schmitt revealed that black drivers across that state are 91 percent more likely than white motorists to get pulled over by police. What’s more, the profiling usually takes place in the motorists’ own community, according to the attorney general’s report.

The Missouri report arrives on the heels of one out of Kentucky where a study found that black motorists are searched at a rate of three-times more than whites in Louisville.

African Americans account for approximately 20 percent of Louisville’s driving age population, but they still accounted for 33 percent of police stops and 57 percent of the nearly 9,000 searches conducted on motorists, according to the Louisville Courier Journal, which conducted the study.

Their findings were highlighted in a tweet by The Thurgood Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.

The Louisville Courier Journal said it reviewed “130,999 traffic stops in Louisville from 2016 to 2018 and found that an overwhelming number of African American drivers were profiled and pulled over by police.”

The newspaper also found that black motorists were searched 12 percent of the time they were stopped, while white motorists were searched just 3.9 percent of the time.

“Aside from the alarming and devastating findings, we have always known that racial profiling is all too prevalent throughout law enforcement and our society as a whole,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told NNPA Newswire.

“What we need is to implement proper training for law enforcement officers on how to more efficiently carry out essential policing without threatening the lives of people of color,” Johnson said.

Racial profiling is an insidious practice and serious problem in America that can lead to deadly consequences, Johnson added.

“Our faith in our criminal justice system will continuously be challenged if we are constantly targeted by discriminatory practices just by doing simple tasks – walking down the street, driving down an interstate, or going through an airport without being stopped merely because of the color of our skin. Living as a person of color should never be crime,” he said.

American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Carl Takei told NNPA Newswire that racial disparities in the new data are similar to what courts have relied on around the country to find unconstitutional racial profiling in traffic stops.

“Disparities of this kind suggest that officers are using race not only in deciding who to pull over, but who to single out for searches,” Takei said.

“What’s particularly damning about this data is that police were more likely to search Black people than white people yet found contraband in only 41 percent of searches of Black people compared to 72 percent of the searches of white people,” he said.

Takei continued:

“In other words, the police have a pattern of stopping and searching Black people in circumstances where they would simply let white people go.

“This unjustly interferes with Black people trying to live their everyday lives – subjecting them to humiliating, intrusive stops and searches in circumstances where white people would not be stopped or searched.

“Additionally, such racialized policing practices harm law enforcement by undermining the legitimacy of the police and damaging police relationships with the communities they are supposed to be serving.”

The Louisville Courier Journal reported that Police Chief Steve Conrad spoke before the Metro Council Public Safety Committee and acknowledged that the department has disproportionately stopped black drivers.

The newspaper reported that Conrad reasoned that African Americans are disproportionately represented in all aspects of the criminal justice system, including in arrests and incarceration.

“This is not all surprising based on my over 35 years of practice defending drug cases after traffic stops,” Randall Levine, a Kalamazoo, Michigan attorney told NNPA Newswire.

“I would say that DWB – Driving While Black – is still as prevalent today as it was in 1980,” Levine said, before opining what could occur to affect change. “Diversity, sensitivity training and some type of real enforcement for violations might help,” he said.

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Boudin Runs for District Attorney

OAKLAND POST — Running for San Francisco District Attorney to challenge the system of mass incar­ceration, SF Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin has gained the backing of civil rights attorney Pamela Price and other East Bay progres­sives.

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East Bay Civil Rights attorney Pamela Price introduces Chesa Boudin, who is running for district attorney of San Francisco, at a fundraiser in Oakland June 23. Photo by Ken Epstein.
By Ken Epstien

Running for San Francisco District Attorney to challenge the system of mass incar­ceration, SF Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin has gained the backing of civil rights attorney Pamela Price and other East Bay progres­sives.

“The system is broken,” Boudin said, speaking at a fun­draiser in Oakland on Sunday, June 23. ” If we can’t do bet­ter in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, where can we do better?”

Hosting the fundraiser were Price; civil rights icon Howard Moore Jr; Fania Davis, a lead­ing national voice on restor­ative justice; Allyssa Victory, Shirley Golub, Royl Roberts and Sheryl Walton. Boudin’s San Francisco endorsements include former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, Democratic Party Chair David Cam­pos and Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Aaron Peskin and San­dra Fewer.

Boudin has served as Depu­ty Public Defender since 2015, handling over 300 felony cas­es. He is running against Suzy Loftus, Nancy Tung, and Leif Dautch – who hope to suc­ceed eight-year incumbent DA George Gascón, who is not running for reelection. The election takes place on Nov. 5.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Boudin earned a mas­ters’ degree in public policy and is a Rhodes Scholar. His campaign emphasizes that he knows “firsthand the de­structive impacts of mass in­carceration.” He was only 14 months old when his parents were incarcerated for driving the getaway car “in a robbery that tragically took the lives of three men.” His mother served 22 years, and his father may never get out.

Introducing Boudin at the fundraiser, Price said, “When I heard about this young man, I did my research. I was blown away immediately. We have a real warrior among us. We have someone who has over­come obstacles, whose life, profession and whose spirit epitomizes what we need in our district attorney.”

“We know that our criminal justice system has been com­pletely corrupted by injustice and racism,” she continued. “(The system) is upheld and sustained by people who prac­tice it and are committed to its perpetuation… Chesa is in so many ways our greatest hope.”

In his remarks, Boudin called for an end to criminal justice practices that are insti­tutionalized but have clearly failed.

“We know that we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population in the U.S., and 2.2 million people are behind bars on any single day,” he said.

“We’re promised equal jus­tice under the law, but instead we have discriminatory money bail,” he said. “We believe in treating the mentally ill and the drug addicted, but instead this system puts them in solitary confinement.”

Boudin’s program includes creation of a “Wrongful Con­viction Unit,” would decide whether to reopen the investi­gation of certain cases, elimi­nating cash bail, effectively prosecuting police misconduct and refocusing resources to work on serious and violent felonies.

“(Change) has to start with people who understand how profoundly broken the system is, not just because they read it in a book but because they ex­perienced it,” he said.

For more information about Chesa Boudin’s campaign, go to www.chesaboudin.com/

This article originally appeared in the Oakland Post
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Philadelphia Fires 13 Officers for Racist Facebook Posts

NNPA NEWSWIRE — In Philadelphia, several officers have been terminated while in St. Louis, prosecutors have barred a number of police personnel from bringing cases against suspects. “I continue to be very angered and disappointed by these posts,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., said on Thursday, July 18.

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Philadelphia Commissioner Richard Ross Jr. said the department terminated 13 officers who made “posts that advocated violence.” He said 17 other officers still face “severe disciplinary action,” while another four will receive 30-day suspensions. (Photo: YouTube)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire National Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

Police officers in Philadelphia and St. Louis are paying a heavy price for their acts of racism.

Weeks after a scathing analysis by the nonprofit Plain View Project, the two departments have responded.

In Philadelphia, several officers have been terminated while in St. Louis, prosecutors have barred a number of police personnel from bringing cases against suspects.

“I continue to be very angered and disappointed by these posts,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., said on Thursday, July 18.

Ross said the department terminated 13 officers who made “posts that advocated violence.” He said 17 other officers still face “severe disciplinary action,” while another four will receive 30-day suspensions.

In St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner said she added 22 officers to her “exclusion list” of authorities banned from bringing cases to her office after the Facebook posts were made public.

In a letter sent to Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards and St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden, Gardner said seven of those 22 were “permanently banned.”

Hayden and Gardner have said they are still investigating the Facebook posts.

In June, the Plain View Project determined that at least 328 active-duty police officers in various cities, including Philadelphia and St. Louis, posted content that championed violence against Muslims, immigrants and African Americans.

In the posts, officers from rookies to the highest of rank, said the viewed African Americans as “dogs,” and some wrote that they would arrive at work believing that, “it’s a good day for a chokehold.”

Still, others posted their beliefs that women in hijabs were tantamount to “trash bags.”

Plain View project officials counted more than 3,000 offensive posts from departments across the country, including Dallas, Tex.; Denison, Tex.; Lake County, Fla.; Philadelphia, Penn.; Phoenix, Ariz.; St. Louis, Mo.; Twin Falls, Idaho; and York, Penn.

“We found a very high and concerning number of posts that appear to endorse, celebrate or glorify violence and vigilantism,” said Philadelphia-based attorney Emily Baker-White, who heads the Plain View Project.

“We included posts that we thought could affect public trust and policing,” she said.

“We also included posts that seemed to emit some sort of bias against a group of people – whether if that’s a minority faith, a minority race, ethnicity, immigration status, whatever it is. We saw a number of posts that appeared to denigrate those groups of people,” Baker-White said.

Pennsylvania State. Rep. Chris Rabb said the move by the Philadelphia Police Department to fire the officers is the right thing to do.

“We rely on police officers to protect us, all of us, and to serve as an example of appropriate behavior in our community,” said Rabb, a Democrat who represents the Philadelphia area.

“Unethical, racist, inappropriate behavior or comments by police officers, like that exhibited by these officers from the Philadelphia Police Department, undermines the public’s trust in an institution that is supposed to serve us all,” Rabb said.

Further, Rabb said he agreed with sending the message that such behavior will not be tolerated in any police department.

“But it’s not enough if those police officers are able to find employment in another community that’s unsuspecting of their past behavior,” said Rabb, who has introduced legislation that would ensure that officers like those being terminated cannot simply be moved to another department without leadership and the community being aware of their past behavior.

He said his bill would prevent a department from hiring a police officer who separated from their last job after a pattern of allegations, complaints or charges for inappropriate behavior.

It would also ensure that the hiring departments are fully informed about whom they are hiring.

“This legislation would empower police chiefs and municipalities to make fully informed decisions about the officers who serve their communities,” Rabb said.

“Accountability and transparency, which this legislation would promote, are assets in agencies and departments that strive for integrity.”

Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5 President John McNesby said the organization was “disappointed” in the decision to fire the officers in part because they were deprived of due process.

“The overwhelming majority of our members serve this city with integrity and professionalism,” McNesby said.

None of the terminated officers were named, but Philadelphia authorities confirmed that the highest-ranking officer fired is a sergeant.

“We have a duty to represent ourselves and our city,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said.

“We will not allow this incident to break down the progress we have made and we pledge to do better,” Kenney said.

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If You’re Poor in America, Debtor’s Prison is Real

NNPA NEWSWIRE — The people who are jailed or threatened with jail often are the most vulnerable Americans living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from financial catastrophe, according to a 2018 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

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Few tools are as coercive or as effective as the threat of incarceration, ACLU report authors said. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
Few tools are as coercive or as effective as the threat of incarceration, ACLU report authors said. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

Despite a centuries-old Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the practice, debtor’s prison remains very much alive in America, experts told NNPA Newswire. Being poor is challenging enough, but some states, like Missouri, have continued to punish those of lesser means.

A federal class-action suit claims thousands of those living in Missouri were jailed because they couldn’t pay off fines – essentially, a debtor’s prison and conundrum for the poor.

Pro Publica reported that four years after the suit was filed, the plaintiffs are still waiting, and wondering if the deck is stacked against them.

The report details the plight of Tonya DeBerry, who, in January 2014, was driving through an unincorporated area of St. Louis County, Missouri, when a police officer pulled her over for having expired license plates.

“After discovering that DeBerry, 51, had several outstanding traffic tickets from three jurisdictions, the officer handcuffed her and took her to jail,” according to Pro Publica.

“To be released, she was told, she would have to pay hundreds of dollars in fines she owed the county, according to her account in a federal lawsuit. However, even after her family came up with the money, DeBerry wasn’t released from custody.

Because DeBerry still owed fines and fees to the cities in Ferguson and Jennings, she remained jailed and her attorney likened it to “being held for ransom.”

“The crisis that is going on in Missouri is taking place all around the country. It is a rising issue amongst people who cannot afford to pay court fees and, or fines,” said Attorney Dameka L. Davis of the Davis Legal Center in Hollywood, Fla.

“I believe the more appropriate action is to implement programs and services that are free or offer a person to do community service in lieu of paying fines or fees,” Davis said.

“Our system is perpetuating a money-based system, which in turn systematically affects minorities and people of color,” she said.

Matt C. Pinsker, an adjunct professor of Homeland Security and Criminal Justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the problem runs deeper than in Missouri.

“The American people would be horrified if they knew of just how many laws still exist which send poor people to prison over their inability to pay fines, court costs, and related expenses,” Pinsker said.

“It is a tragedy and absurdity that we will essentially have debtors’ prisons here in the United States of America,” he said.

In DeBerry’s case, Pro Publica reported that after the Michael Brown killing, “the city slowly stopped jailing people for not being able to pay fines as the news media showed the victims were primarily black and the Justice Department made clear that what Ferguson had been doing was wrong.”

Still, the lawsuit remains unresolved with the city seeking dismissal.

In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed more than 1,000 cases in 26 states in which judges, acting on the request of a collection company, issued warrants for people they claimed owed money for “ordinary debts, such as student loans, medical expenses, unpaid rent and utility bills.”

The ACLU said it’s a system that breeds coercion and abuse.

The report concluded that, “with little government oversight, debt collectors, backed by arrest warrants and wielding bounced check demand letters, can frighten people into paying money that may not even be owed.”

Few tools are as coercive or as effective as the threat of incarceration, ACLU report authors said.

As an example, one 75-year-old woman subsisting on $800 monthly Social Security checks, went without her medications in order to pay the fees she believed were required to avoid jail time for bouncing a check.

And as one lawyer in Texas, who has sought arrests of student loan borrowers who are in arrears, said, “It’s easier to settle when the debtor is under arrest,” the report’s authors found.

The people who are jailed or threatened with jail often are the most vulnerable Americans living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from financial catastrophe, the report said.

Many were struggling to recover after the loss of a job, mounting medical bills, the death of a family member, a divorce, or an illness.

“They included retirees or people with disabilities who are unable to work. Some were subsisting solely on Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability benefits, or veterans’ benefits – income that is legally protected from outstanding debt judgments,” the report’s authors wrote.

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REPORT: Black Men Are Biggest Beneficiaries of the First Step Act

NNPA NEWSWIRE — More than 1,000 individuals incarcerated in federal prisons were granted sentence reductions in the four months since the First Step Act was signed into law, according to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).

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“To be clear, the First Step Act is a win for criminal justice reform. But the Republicans who wrote the law never meant for it to reduce the sentences of hundreds of prisoners. They never intended for it to address the racist war on drugs,” said Michael Harriot in a piece for The Root. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
“To be clear, the First Step Act is a win for criminal justice reform. But the Republicans who wrote the law never meant for it to reduce the sentences of hundreds of prisoners. They never intended for it to address the racist war on drugs,” said Michael Harriot in a piece for The Root. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

The First Step Act, which replaced a federal “three strikes” rule that imposed a life sentence for three or more convictions – with a 25-year sentence, is benefiting thousands of incarcerated Black men, according to a new report.

More than 1,000 individuals incarcerated in federal prisons were granted sentence reductions in the four months since the First Step Act was signed into law, according to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).

Their sentences were reduced by a mean of 73 months or 29.4 percent, as a result of the resentencing provisions allowed under the Act which, in addition to shortening mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, applied resentencing to be applied retroactively to individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010 – when the federal government reduced disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

The USSC found that over a quarter of the 1,051 resentencing motions were granted by federal courts in Florida, South Carolina and Virginia.

Over 91 percent of the individuals whose sentences were shortened were African American and 98 percent were male, the USSC said.

The average age of those granted resentencing motions was 45 – and the average age at the time of the original sentence was 32.

“The 2010 re-set of the crack-powder cocaine disparity, under the Fair Sentencing Act passed that year, disparity was aimed at tackling the disproportionate racial impact on nonviolent drug offenders,” according to the Criminal Justice Network’s Crime Report.

Signed into law by President Donald Trump in December, the First Step Act reportedly was the first major overhaul of the nation’s sentencing regime in decades.

“More ambitious overhaul plans had been stalled in Congress, despite widespread bipartisan support,” according to the Criminal Justice Network.

In writing about the latest report on the First Step Act for The Root, Michael Harriot said people should hold off in praising the GOP for reducing sentencing disparities until they understand that the provision that “released these hundreds of black inmates was not included in the first draft of the First Step Act.”

It did not address the crack vs. cocaine disparity. It didn’t address drug sentencing. It didn’t address sentencing reform at all,” Harriot said.

“These amendments were only included when dozens of organizations like the Color of Change and the Prison Policy Initiative urged Democratic lawmakers to vote against the bill unless Republicans agreed to include prison and sentencing reform initiatives,” he said.

Harriot said conservative senators eventually agreed, much to the dismay of hardcore right-wingers like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

“To be clear, the First Step Act is a win for criminal justice reform. But the Republicans who wrote the law never meant for it to reduce the sentences of hundreds of prisoners. They never intended for it to address the racist war on drugs,” he said.

“Even though some people insist that we must  ‘give the president his due,’ the reason hundreds of black people have been removed from America’s system of mass incarceration is that a Democratic senator wrote a bill, a Democratic president signed it and Democrats forced Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress to make it retroactive,” Harriot said.

In a recent Op-Ed, CNN host Van Jones, who worked with lawmakers on Criminal Justice Reform and the co-founder of the #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps., indicated that he’s pleased with the progress of the First Step Act.

“This time last year, practically no one believed that a bipartisan breakthrough of this scale and magnitude was even possible,” wrote Jones, who was on hand for the signing of the legislation.

“For those of us who continue to believe and fight for a victory on what was once considered to be a lost cause, celebrating the First Step Act is something we experience with a great deal of pride,” Jones said.

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