Sunday, April 29, 2012

Act for Racial Justice

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision McClesky v. Kemp in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there were indeed racial disparities in who gets sentenced to death but that evidence of systemic racial bias doesn't matter. Justice Lewis Powell wrote, “Apparent disparities in sentencing are an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” After he retired, Justice Powell said that this is the decision he regretted most, but those second thoughts have not reversed the damage to our justice system. An ACLU blogger calls this appalling decision, 'The Dred Scott of Our Time.'

Marking this anniversary seems like a good excuse to post Bryan Stevenson's recent TED talk. Stevenson, a true hero of the death penalty abolition movement, explains the legacy of 25 years of McClesky far better than I can. Years ago, when being a death penalty abolitionist in California was a more lonely pursuit, I hauled around a stack of copies of a magazine article Stevenson had written and handed them out while tabling, hoping he could persuade where I fumbled. In fact one woman who picked up the article at a death penalty vigil, later went to great lengths to track me down and thank me for it, letting me know it had transformed her life. I'd like to think this very popular video is working a little magic too. If you're moved by Stevenson's passionate plea for reforming our criminal justice system you can learn more from this longer presentation, visit the Equal Justice Initiative website or if you live in California you can learn more about the SAFE California initiative, Stevenson mentions at the end of his talk.

There is some good news on the racial justice front. Amnesty has pointed out that some states have gone ahead and enacted their own Racial Justice Acts that allow consideration of evidence of systemic racism and in North Carolina that law was just used for the first time to save an inmate's life. This is an example that more states need to follow.
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