Category Archives: Law and Justice

Is Georgia headed for a Kelly Gissendaner Execution Redux?

In September 2015, Georgia executed its only female death row inmate, Kelly Gissendaner, for the murder of her husband Douglas. I’m a self-proclaimed nerd about these kinds of cases so ahead of her execution, I did considerable research on her case. 

Kelly’s boyfriend at the time, Gregory Bruce Owen, held Douglas at knife-point and drove him to a wooded area where he struck him in the head and stabbed him in the neck and back. Kelly arrived on the scene and helped drag the body into the woods and Kelly and Gregory set fire to Douglas’ car and left. Of course, the pair was caught, questioned, and charged. Owen took a plea deal for life in prison and testified in Kelly’s trial that the entire thing was her idea. 

Kelly, who was not there for the stabbing and did not inflict the actual harm, was sentenced to death. It took almost 20 years for the state to put Kelly to death and ahead of her execution, her own children begged the state not to put her to death, citing the loss of one parent already and their mother’s remorse and path to redemption. Her final statement showed nothing short of either. Meanwhile, Gregory will be eligible for parole in 2021.

Full disclosure, I am a critic of the death penalty because I believe it is misused and I believe some of our cases are too flawed to put someone to death. Kelly Gissendaner’s case, in my opinion, is yet another glowing example of just that. She had the idea, she also helped put the body in the woods, but she didn’t kill the man…and yet, she faced a stiffer punishment than the man who actually took the life of another. The case bothered me tremendously because while both parties should have been held accountable for the actions, I’m not sure justice was served. 

Now, four years later, it is possible that Georgia is headed down that pathway again. A pathway of uncertainty that is about to yield the same result. 

Attorney General Chris Carr announced last week that the state is set to put Ray Jefferson Cromartie to death at the end of the month for the 1994 murder of Richard Slysz. Slyz was a store clerk and was shot twice in the head during a robbery.  Cromartie and his accomplice were both charged, but only Cromartie was charged with murder. His accomplice testified for the state, served time for a lesser sentence, and is already out of prison, while Cromartie rolled the dice at trial. In a press release, the AG’s office said the appeal’s process was complete, but also noted that a motion for reconsideration was filed and denied despite one of the ‘witnesses’ from the initial trial offering new testimony. 

For 21 years, Cromartie has maintained that he was there for the robbery, but did not pull the trigger. Part of the case against him cited his role in another shooting which critically injured another clerk two days prior, for which the state claimed Cromartie was responsible. But even in the AG’s own press release, they state that the store video camera was “too indistinct to conclusively identify Cromartie.” The video merely offered a person with a similar description. 

Additionally, for years, one of the key witnesses -Larry Young- says he offered false testimony during the initial trial in rural Thomas County and has agreed to testify to that effect, but the appeals process has never allowed an opportunity for such.

And then there’s DNA testing. Attorneys for Cromartie say testing would show Cromartie did not pull the trigger and sought post-conviction DNA testing in September of this year with the support of the victim’s daughter, but the trial court denied the request. The judge who denied the request for a new trial with the forensics and the witness testimony –Superior Court Judge Frank Horkan- is the same judge who oversaw the trial in which Cromartie was sentenced to death 22 years ago. Horkan said Cromartie ‘should have asked sooner.’

Georgia is ‘party to a crime state’ (OCGA 16-2-20), which means Cromartie could still face the death penalty whether he pulled the trigger or not. But the defense hopes new evidence and a new trial would yield a different result for sentencing. 

People often say, “The process takes too long!” and “He/she has had all of this time to appeal and didn’t…just end it already.” But unless you’ve been in the court system or know someone who has, you simply cannot comprehend how slow justice moves. [The case of former DeKalb police officer Robert Olsen took 4 years to simply get to trial. I have a friend who waited 18 months just to get a HEARING on a motion to consider offering him a new trial.]

In this case, it took 18 years to work through the appeals process. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus at the state level was first filed in 2000, but the first hearing was not held until 2008 and it was denied in 2012. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the denial in 2013 and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the request to appeal in April 2014. When the federal habeas corpus petition was filed in 2014, district courts took three years to weigh in and SCOTUS again denied the request to appeal in December 2018. That slowness was at the hands of the court. 

I’d argue that the state has an obligation to be slow, cautious, and exhaustive when considering taking the life of another person. Why is there not a desire to be absolutely 100% certain? If the appeals process, which was slow due to the courts and by no fault of Cromartie, had only taken five years or two years or six months, would people be more willing to allow time for forensic DNA testing. Testing, mind you, that was not available at the time the crime and trial took place. What about the witness?

“My father’s death was senseless. Executing another man would also be senseless, especially if he may not have shot my father,” the victim’s daughter, Elizabeth Ligette, wrote in the letter to the court.

If this is supposed to provide some semblance of closure for the family of the victim’s, are they not entitled to be sure it’s the right person?

Do these questions not matter? Has the system not been wrong before? Is there no desire to be sure? 


The Trouble with Police Accountability

I think there are a number of questions that we’ll never be able to pin down and answer and one of those is “What is police accountability?”

I am personally pro-law enforcement. There is no “I back the blue, but….” coming with that statement. I am pro-law enforcement and I am pro-police accountability.

But, what I have found over the last several years is that the idea of “police accountability” means different things to different people, which means it is difficult to define and even more difficult to enact.

I receive a number of “tips” and complaints from people who have what they believe are shoddy interactions with law enforcement and they want me to use my platform to hold them accountable. Ironically, only twice in my career have I published videos of law enforcement encounters and both of those times, the tips came from people within law enforcement.

[If you’re an avid reader, this may be confusing, but I consider the Brooklet series a single writing instance because it was a series within a single department and the same ‘bad actors’.]

As a writer, I am in unique position. This job has connected me with people in law enforcement in various corners of the state, people whose brains I wouldn’t have the opportunity to pick if I wasn’t in the profession that I am. The exposure has allowed me to ask them what they think, as a person “in the industry,” when a video goes viral or a story makes the news. Sometimes they will explain why something is justified and even help me better understand the circumstances and other times they will not only condemn what they saw, but encourage me to write about it. I trust their judgment immensely and when I’ve written about the police, I’ve had their support in my angle for accountability.

But that still doesn’t mean we have the same vision of “police accountability.”  It also doesn’t mean the media is always the correct avenue for accountability.

Some people expect that law enforcement officers be perfect all of the time. They believe that their every move should be recorded, that no mercy should be shown because they are public employees, and termination should follow any perceived abuse of power. A number of these “believers” spend their days looking for opportunities to point out wrongdoing and exceed the idea of a ‘watchdog.’

On the other end of the spectrum is the faction of the population that is willing to concede any and all power and excuse to the police in the name of “authority,” they believe that everyone the police deal with is a hardened criminal, and even mouthing off to someone in law enforcement should be an arrestable offense. These loyalists believe that because a person puts their life on the line that we should refrain from criticism.

Neither of these spectrum extremists, if you will, are productive or helpful. The world of social media has seemingly made both of these extremes sound the loudest by providing trials in the court of public opinion for all involved parties any time a police encounter hits the internet. Couple that with the emotional side of this debate, whether it is coming from people who have had negative interactions, the wrongly accused, or the family of someone in law enforcement, most discussions start at the trigger level of abortion, which is not conducive for civil discussion.

Per usual, where we belong is somewhere in the middle. I don’t automatically respect someone in law enforcement because they’re in a position of authority. I offer my respect because they’re another human being. It’s a great foundation for objectivity because I don’t view them as any different than the people with whom they’re interacting.

Obviously, I expect law enforcement officers to obey the law and avoid violating the rights of citizens. From there, police accountability is rooted in the expectation of professionalism, responsiveness, transparency, and how they use their discretion. “Would a…should a…reasonable person behave the same way under the same circumstances?”

We have come to a place, and rightfully so, where we expect law enforcement officers to handle themselves with a certain level of decorum and for that reason, I rarely find ‘rudeness’ acceptable. It shouldn’t matter if the person they’re dealing with is also rude, nor should it matter if that person has a criminal history. Respectfulness is paramount. But, does someone being rude mean they shouldn’t be in law enforcement? No, it’ just means they have a knack for escalating situations – something they’ll have to suffer the consequences of sooner or later, even without the accountability of the public. But even this is not a ‘standard’ as not everyone views rudeness the same.

Police accountability also places a heavy burden on not only the officer but the respective agency to understand and internalize why an interaction or incident may rub someone – or the public as whole – the wrong way. Will they listen? Do they respond? Social media and cell phone video have all but eliminated the idea of ‘handling things internally’ within an agency. Still, a level of responsiveness is necessary to affirm to the public that their concerns are heard. In some ways, this hasn’t fared well for ‘accountability,’ because not every public outrage warrants public action. In the quest for balance, sometimes the public grows more outraged by the inaction and other times, good officers are punished in the interest of ‘public perception’ when they’re undeserving of such punishment.

All of this because accountability means different things to different people – even amongst those who wear a badge.

Another facet of police accountability, and likely one of the most important components, is understanding that just because you want someone held accountable for their actions, doesn’t mean you hate the police. It quite literally means you just want someone to take responsibility for their actions. Accountability also leaves little room for excusing an action because it was a mistake.  Mistakes warrant accountability, too. But while we’re on the subject — ‘accountability’ isn’t a synonym for ‘termination.’

So, what can the public do to foster an environment of accountability? First and foremost, be honest. Don’t lie, don’t embellish, don’t sensationalize. If you record an interaction, record the whole thing, not just what is favorable to you. People will be willing to listen to why you’re upset about something that happened, even if the law or the policy isn’t on your side.  Second, don’t offer commentary about how something is wrong unless you’re prepared to answer how it should be done better – and why. Third, don’t make it personal. Principle and policy will always trump vendettas and insults. And finally, understand that accountability is a direct result of who we put in power.

We should have opinions on law enforcement behavior and we should offer them…when we have enough information to do so.

I am a strong advocate for praising people when things are on the up and up so that when it’s time to hold them accountable, your voice is one with credibility. I also believe it’s important to let law enforcement know that you’re rooting for them to do what is right, but you’re on standby to call them out when they mess up…just like we do with they other public professions.

Partisanship is failing taxpayers on justice reform

They say if you’re not a liberal at 25, you have no heart and if you’re not a conservative at 35, you have no brain. I think I’ve actually mixed those two up, judging by how ‘soft’ I’ve become with regard to the corrections system in America. When it comes to justice reform, I’m a hard moderate who can find flaws in almost everything we have in practice. But I haven’t always been this way. I used to be a lock-em-up, throw away the key, anti-drug, pro-death penalty Republican. I just had no reasonable explanation for that ideology.

Over the few past years, I’ve worked for a, a bankruptcy lawyer in San Diego, a criminal defense attorney, run a district attorney’s race, and had a friend who was wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes. I’ve seen judicial discretion usurped by higher-ups while prosecutors and police sometimes work too closely. I’ve seen the system fail from many different viewpoints.

More recently, the failures and my political ideologies have piqued my interest in the Georgia Department of Corrections, legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly, and the advocacy of organizations on the national level. I wish there was more to see out of Congress, but many of the justice reform bills are at a constant stalemate.

Why, though? Why is there little to no movement? It’s because Republicans are unwilling to move and scared to lose their “tough on crime” reputation. The biggest misconception still today is that those who believe in criminal justice reform are just liberal hacks or pro-drug hippies. That’s simply not the case. Incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people on the state and federal level who have not committed a crime against a person is not conservative. Spending 25% percent of the Department of Justice annual budget on prisons is not conservative. Having 1 in 31 Americans behind bars, on probation, or on parole is not conservative. Saying you’re “pro-family” but allowing 1 in 28 children to have a parent who is incarcerated is not conservative. Allowing legislatures to set standards for justice and sentencing instead of elected and appointed judges is not conservative.

In 2012, as taxpayers we spent $60 billion on prisoners, with federal prisoners costing Americans nearly $30,000 each every year – if they aren’t on death row. Interestingly, it costs $80.25 per day for a federal inmate, while Georgia inmates are said to cost about $46 per day. It may seem small until you consider there are 218,000 federal inmates and far too many are nonviolent drug offenders. Regardless, mass incarceration is costing a fortune, especially when you consider hidden costs not originally appropriated in budgets.

Since 1980, our federal prison population has increased by 800%, but the biggest problem of all is that “tough on crime” doesn’t actually make communities safer. It’s a false sense of security that we’ve fallen for in an effort to feel like we are holding society to a moral standard even though we aren’t actually getting hardened criminals off the street. After all, there are more than 400,000 acts that carry a criminal penalty in the United States.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group seeking to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, 92% of drug offenders in federal prisons didn’t play a leadership role in the crime they committed, meaning they aren’t the kingpin. Without the kingpin, it’s unlikely the drug operation ceased after arrest. Further, 83% of those had no weapon involved in their crime. Those numbers are based on the 20,600 federal drug offenders sentenced in 2015 alone and only 4% of those 20,000+ sentenced received a sentence of probation. Worse, incarceration is said to cost 8X as much as probationary supervision.

Even so, we’ve come a long way from where we were.

In Georgia, we’ve made decent strides as Governor Deal pushed to “ban the box” for state agencies and licensing boards who used to require criminal history to be disclosed on applications, we’ve reduced the availability of criminal records for some low-level first-time offenders, added education programs in prisons to reduce recidivism, and allowed some convicted persons to maintain their drivers licenses – all of this with the vision in mind that those who are willing and able to obtain and maintain a job after serving time are more likely to succeed and less likely to return to prison. Considerable foresight and an open mind has saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But here, we face a massive culture stigma that is hindering progress more than anything.

Unfortunately, the Georgia General Assembly passes legislation with mandatory minimum sentences nearly every year. Our elected officials lack the understanding that not all crimes are created equal and that those chosen to serve The People may not be the best decision makers when it comes to the legal system. The legislature continues to expand the supervisory authority of the state with agencies like the Georgia Department of Community Supervision and the extension of private probation companies around the state. Georgia is also home to 5 private prisons – another issue for another day – but a problem nevertheless. It seems, above all, our elected officials are unwilling to step up to the plate and explain to voters why less prison is more efficient.

On the federal level, there is no parole – something that went into effect in 1987. Prison terms are served until completion because there is no supervisory agency. While “good behavior” can take time off the back end, it doesn’t do much for inmates once they’re released. There’s also a shortage of violent criminals in federal prisons. Most murderers, rapists, child molesters, and the like are in state prisons. Mandatory minimum sentences are still a major hindrance to justice on the federal level as well. Drugs are measured by the amount of plants or in grams with strict definitions set in black and white, essentially eradicating all judicial discretion. Without even utilizing or brandishing a firearm during the commission of a federal drug offense, mere possession of a weapon with a silencer can put someone away for a mandatory 30 years for the first offense and for life on a second offense. Those sentences don’t include the punishment for the actual drug offenses. Do you want someone serving life in prison on your dime for growing weed in their backyard?

The conservative, limited government answer is NO.

I supported Rand Paul both in his presidential run and his Senate re-election because I believe he is right on crime. He has a massive platform to articulate how fiscally responsible it is to reevaluate how we’re running the criminal justice system. He joins Senator Mike Lee and Congressmen Justin Amash and Thomas Massie in a quest to change the mentality surrounding the correctional system in America. Surprisingly, I stood with President Obama as he reduced the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who had already served out the minimum sentences, something that’s far too often considered taboo for conservatives…for no good reason.

The justice system doesn’t have to just be about punishment, and it can include reform and rehabilitation. It should never be about politics, partisanship, or profit.

Organizations like FreedomWorks, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, Right on Crime, and the Faith & Freedom Coalition, are illustrating that political ideologies across the political spectrum can see rewards in justice reform and benefits to our communities. We, The People, just have to open our minds to it and allow our elected officials to cross party lines to work together.

A Domestic Violence Database? No, thank you.

It’s hard to see any story detailing domestic violence. The pictures, the comments, and the police reports all illustrate a complete violation and misappropriation of trust. It’s difficult to understand. Luckily, the number of organizations dedicated to stopping or slowing domestic violence in our communities is growing – which is beneficial since most of it boils down to the resources that are readily available. Lately, though, there’s been an even greater push to create a database of domestic violence offenders. We’ve seen one at the national level, but what about as organized through the state? What does that entail and what are the unintended consequences?

It’s an interesting concept in and of itself and a demonstration of what we’ve evolved into as a society. Some guy (or girl) asks you out, you say yes, and then head to the desktop to google whether or not they’re on ‘the database.’ How…romantic.

I’ve long battled with the idea of the sex offender database, specifically here in Georgia, because of the ‘catch-all’ nature of it. I wholeheartedly believe the public should have the most access to information as possible – and crimes against persons (excluding minors) are all public information. But our database for sexual offenders is inherently flawed as it is defined in the law. How would a domestic violence database be any different?

  1. Trying to catch those guilty of domestic violence charges will be about as effective as using a hammock to catch water. In Georgia, we call it ‘family violence’ in the Georgia code and it blankets any felony or “offenses of battery, simple battery, simple assault, assault, stalking, criminal damage to property, unlawful restraint, or criminal trespass.” Sometimes people are charged with crimes that may be similar to what they did, but not exact. Will you include people who are convicted? Or just charged? Or those who have a report filed against them? Does it have to be a first hand report? What’s the burden of proof?
  2. There is grey area in the law. We’ve seen the unintended consequences of the 17-year-old sleeping with the 16 year-old spending the rest of his life on the sex offender registry. How do we ensure this doesn’t happen with this second database?
  3. Databases create an entirely different class of people. By placing them on a database, we’re essentially saying they are too dangerous for society and we should all ‘watch out.’ If the public is endangered, should those people not still be in prison? And are we declaring that there are absolutely no exceptions and that no one can ever change? Are we also going to place domestic violence offenders on the same playing field as those who commit sexual offenses of a high and aggravated nature?
  4. Who will pay for it? If it’s a nonprofit or third-party organization, the buck stops there. That can’t even be regulated – there is no penalty from making a public record more public. But if it is run by the state, or local agencies, someone has to maintain those records and verify the information provided in the records, which is costly.
  5. It’s hard to say that a database will cut down on the the occurrence of domestic violence. Setting all judgment aside, domestic violence happens for reasons beyond the scope of what a database could ever prevent. Circumstances, internally and externally, make some women more vulnerable and keep many domestic violence victims from leaving. I personally know this to be true.

I am of the belief that we have a moral obligation to weigh who will be harmed in the process of ‘doing good’ and trying to protect victims. The possibility of negative consequences should be addressed before a database is constructed, especially if done by the state, since “fixing” problems is almost impossible. As we’ve already seen, attempting to alter the sex offender registry in any capacity is political suicide.

The idea may seem like a good one, but for now, we should hold off. In the meantime, women (and men) will have to be responsible for types of people they date.

Are the police being properly policed?

When I moved to South Georgia, I decided there wouldn’t be much I would say “no” to. I was going to try new things, keep an open mind, and learn as much as I could about everything. One of those things was participating in the Citizens Police Academy near my town. I joined for many reasons, but one reason in particular was my fascination with how much people in smaller communities love their police officers. Writing for All On Georgia, we frequently share articles about the police department and the sheriff’s office and comments usually never stray from ‘Way to go!’ and ‘Great job, guys!’ I was like a bug to the light on this issue, especially coming from Metro Atlanta where the public-police partnership is basically non-existent.

Personally, I’ve never had a terrible experience with any law enforcement officer. I grew up in a community where the cops talked to kids, came by the neighborhood pool, and talked to you about listening to your parents. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk several courteous officers with a mild sense of humor out of giving me a traffic ticket – or ten. But it’s amazing what the media can do when they have the ability to push an agenda 24/7.

Like most, I was mortified by the story of the DeKalb officers who entered the wrong home and ended up shooting the homeowner and fatally wounding his dog. Like most, my heart aches to see the calls for violence against officers around the nation for no reason other than their employment status. Like most, I have read the news articles, seen the live coverage, and watched on social media as the respect for the thin blue line fizzles into an untouchable pixie dust while all-things-policing have become racially charged and politically motivated. There’s a huge problem between the public and police right now.


(Photo: Lansing State Journal)

Just recently, I saw an article out of Michigan go viral. A “well-behaved” teenager was pulled over by an officer for flashing his lights. The article, which included body camera footage, was cluttering my Facebook feed for days, featuring the officer as some sort of animal who yanked a kid from a car, threw his phone into traffic, and emptied his weapon. SEVERAL news articles would have you think that. CNN’s headline read, “Cop kicks teens phone out of hand, shoots 7 times.” HuffingtonPost’s said, “Unarmed Teen Flashed Lights at cop and ended up dead.” The body camera footage might even have you thinking that, too, considering what was released is cut off as soon as the actual scuffle begins, but an independent Google search shows you images of the officer in the hospital, bruised and bloodied. That picture didn’t appear in one viral article, but it isn’t a hoax and certainly changes the dialogue about the incident.

I don’t know the full extent of what happened there. I can only draw conclusions from the information that is available, but it’s getting old watching people draw conclusions from a single source with one issue when in other aspects of life, they’ll trust anyone but the mainstream media. Many of my anti-government friends who question everything else reported by the media are quick to jump to the defense of anyone but the officer when a scuffle emerges.

In the story from Michigan, the teen may have been unarmed, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant in a physical fight. You don’t need a weapon to kill someone and being a police officer doesn’t make you any less of a person. If it were your husband, or son, or father, how long would you want them to wait before fighting for their life? ‘Public servant’ doesn’t translate to ‘public sacrifice.’

Consider this video from Laurens County back in the late 1990’s. The dashcam video shows three and a half minutes of heartwrenching and gruesome footage of a standoff between Deputy Kyle Dinkheller and a deranged veteran who ends up loading a rifle in front of the deputy, charging him, and emptying the magazine – killing Deputy Dinkheller. All of this is on the video. If you watch it, you would stare -dumbfounded- wondering why the deputy didn’t fire sooner.

(WARNING: The video is graphic and horrific in language and content)

It’s difficult to place ourselves in their shoes, and I am glad we hold our public servants to such a high standard of integrity and expertise, but I also know that I am not cut out to be a cop. Are you? I think back to a few weeks ago when my CPA class had to use a gun simulator on a traffic stop that escalated. We were given a gun and had to decide when to ‘use force’ on our aggressor. It was a computer game, essentially, and the ‘perpetrator’ scared the living daylights out of me when he started moving and shaking and whipping his hands in and out of his pockets. I KNEW what was coming on a game and I still reacted by firing all six bullets in my gun. And on my ride-along, we responded to a call in an area that I know that if I lived in it, I would probably walk around with my gun drawn 24/7. So, I ask again…your judgement casts easy, but would your glass house weather the storm if the shoe was on the other foot?

I also have to wonder if the people who are so angry about law enforcement officers have actually had a bad experience themselves, or if they are just living vicariously through stories and victims in the media. These stories are happening – there is no denying the incidents – but is it as often as we are led to believe?

It is almost cliche now to say ‘there are bad people in every industry,’ but it’s true. It’s just not every industry that has open records requests and the media breathing down their neck on a daily basis. When I make a mistake in my job, I fix it and the world keeps spinning. When an accountant doesn’t properly balance a sheet, the world continues turning. When a board of elected officials votes to do something unscrupulous, the world. keeps. turning.

What I’ve found is that when an officer does do something wrong, other officers are quick to point that out or condemn the action. Very few of them are looking to cast the wide net and taint the entire force or industry, if you will. And if you talk to your local officers, you’ll find that most of them don’t look at the world the way the media portrays them to be looking at the world.

This isn’t a defense of the bad ones, but rather a question of whether or not we are fighting the right fight, or just fighting to fight. I don’t know what the answer is. We cannot disarm law enforcement officers and we certainly cannot disarm the media. The difference is that the media comes out unscathed while exacerbating what is a very bad time to be a police officer in the United States. Perhaps the activists who would like to see reform on aspects of policing should save their energy for stories which expressly show wrongdoing, so not only can proper action be taken, but when there is a ‘victory for the public,’ it is not at the expense of the integrity of a movement.

Why Are Conservatives Against Early Release for Drug Offenders?

In a few weeks, the bi-partisan panel put together to assess the drug sentences of thousands of prisoners will release the first 5,500 federal inmates.

The news headlines would have you worried thousands of murderers and rapists will soon return to the streets of our hometowns and utter chaos will ensue. But that simply isn’t the case.

The offenders who are set to be released have been vetted by a judge who weighs whether there is a threat to public safety. Many are non-violent offenders who are serving time for crimes without a victim. Some are serving under mandatory minimums and could be facing decades in prison for simple drug charges that happened in their late teenage years. In many of the cases, however, the average sentence will be cut by a little over two years.

Even those conservatives who do not believe the United States is suffering from the ‘War on Drugs’ can give credit to the fiscally conservative and limited government arguments in favor of releasing many of these inmates. Here are just a few:

  1. It saves taxpayers millions of dollars every year. The cost of incarcerating non-violent offenders is astronomical. The Federal Bureau of Prisons said in 2014 that the average cost of annual incarceration of federal inmates is $30,619.85.
    • For just the 5,500 released in phase 1, consider this:
    • $63,791.35 (avg 25 months of incarceration shaved from sentenced) X 5,500 (No. of inmates) = $350,852,425.
    • It’s estimated that nearly 40,000 inmates could benefit from early release. Just considering the average of 25 months off the sentence, that’s $2,551,654,000.
  2. It makes taxpayers money. Inmates released early are placed on parole or probation, both of which have fines associated with them on a monthly basis. City and state governments both stand to gain financially from those fees. The average is about $100 per month on probation.
  3. Conservatives are supposed to oppose federal control. Aside from trafficking across state lines, why do we have federal drug laws? If conservatives feel that drug laws are absolutely necessary to the degree they are in place today, why at the federal level? Should it not be left up to the state? Shouldn’t each state have the authority to govern their drug laws as they see fit?
    • Remember: Everyone in Georgia who is benefiting from the CBD oil under Haleigh’s HOPE Act is committing a federal offense by bringing it here and possessing it. The State of Georgia simply granted amnesty for those possessing it under Georgia law. Are conservatives for or against that?

Currently, nearly 50% of the U.S. prison population is made up of non-violent drug offenders and as of September 2015, over 200,000 people sat in federal prison and more than 93,000 of them because of drug offenses. Just in federal prison.

Conservatives cannot deny the issue that smacking both taxpayers and the legal system in the face: we’re spending too much where it doesn’t count and we’re allocating resources and responsibilities to the federal government where we shouldn’t be.

Where did our souls go?

Saturday morning I covered the Wiregrass Festival in Reidsville for work and true to form, I got lost leaving to head home. I went east, instead of west, and ended up out on Highway 147 outside Reidsville city limits.

If you’re not familiar with Reidsville, it is home to two of Georgia’s prisons: Georgia State Prison – a maximum security facility and former home to the electric chair for Georgia – and Rogers State Prison – a medium security prison with just under 1,500 male inmates. Both are visible from the highway, but there is nothing to see.

The large white stone sign on Wikipedia is nothing like the real life image. Surrounded by high, sharp fences, the outdoor areas were a dusty brown. The brick was faded and even the sidewalks on the outside were dilapidated. Guard towers in every corner shadowed the buildings and the grounds. The parking spots for the Warden and just about every powerful position below him were vacant, and even though it was a humid 85 degrees outside, the premises just looked cold. It’s nothing like you see in the movies.

It was upsetting and brought tears to my eyes. If it’s this ugly and dingy on the outside, what is it like on the inside? I was upset for the *one* person I personally know to be in there wrongfully. I was upset for everyone who has been in there after a wrongful conviction – or even serving time for a crime without a victim. I was even upset for the ones that are guilty – “the monsters.”

Before we go any further, this isn’t an anti-prison post. I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I am not anti-punishment. I believe in a justice system – maybe not ours – but I believe we should have one. I think there should be a system of restitution, but as it currently operates, I don’t believe our system is one of reformation. There are dangerous people in the world and laws are in place to handle them. Prison shouldn’t be a cake walk. It shouldn’t be luxurious with high-thread count sheets and delicious foods and personal trainers. It should, however, be used sparingly.

But I want to know when we decided we wanted to forget these people and why we stopped praying for these people? When did we start saying “Hooray!” when someone’s life is changed because they chose not to make good decisions or are incapable of doing so? We all want beautiful communities filled with wonderful people and souls as good as ours. Does prison accomplish that? For some, the punishment probably isn’t nearly harsh enough, for others, it changes the course of their lives forever. Should we revel in that?

Not far from the beautiful sprawling farmland and the quaint downtowns of Small Town America are people we are ignoring as part of our society. We place them out on a county road to pretend it isn’t happening. No one has to see it. No one has to hear it. No one has to think about it.  And we do it in the name of justice. On a Saturday, the small parking lot sits half empty because even the family members of some of these inmates have forgotten them.

Yes, the Bible tells us “an eye for an eye, but it also tells us much about our enemies – and many consider the prison population to be our enemies, across the board terrible. In Acts 7: 60 – And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and Philippians 2:3-4 – Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

It didn’t used to be like this. We’ve always believed in punishment, yes, but we didn’t find it heartwarming or rewarding to watch someone be locked away. What’s changed? Surprisingly, it’s society – not the victims. If you turn on the television, forgiveness and compassion are overflowing. The families of the victims of the Charleston Church shooting were publicly offering forgiveness within days of the massacre and that doesn’t seem to be uncommon. It’s us – the regular people – that are the problem.

The criminal justice system will not see any reform until perception changes on the outside – and that starts with you and me. It’s interesting: the description of Georgia State Prison says renovations and expansions have taken place because of the “growing crime rate,” but the only thing that’s grown is the number of things we’ve made punishable by prison time. We’ve allowed that.

There will always be terrible people in this world and many of them belong in prison for their crimes. No one can deny that. But just because they belong there doesn’t mean we should banish them from our hearts and minds forever. That’s what leads to social injustice…for everyone.

For-Profit Prisons: A Breeding Ground for Corruption, Scandal, and Tax Dollar Waste

Yesterday, after months of protests by students, Columbia University in New York became the first university to divest in for-profit prison corporations after acknowledging ownership of over 230,000 shares of Corrections Corp. of America – though they still have shares in a British prison company. The university has capped their annual investment in the shares as a protest to the social repercussions of mass incarceration.

If you watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix, you’re no stranger to the for-profit prison system problems as it basically unraveled from the top down during the most recent season. While the show is obviously fictitious, there is no shortage of underlying truth in the messaging. For-profit prisons are a breeding ground for corruption, human rights violations, and excessive violence within cell walls.

How it works: Corporations make money off of the incarceration of criminals. While one may immediately jump to the entrepreneurial side of the argument, that bubble bursts quickly when you consider that companies are earning profits based on the sheer number of people they are locking up. In order for states to pass off the contracts to a corporation, states must sign a contract guaranteeing 20 years of at least 90 percent occupancy in the facility. For example, In Arizona, there are three facilities that have contracts that require 100% occupancy. The state is on the hook to fill the prisons, otherwise, they pay the corporation for empty beds.

A few other enlightening points to consider:

  • Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia have the highest occupancy guarantee requirements, all between 95-100%
  • 65% of private prisons have occupancy quotas
  • It doesn’t say taxpayers money. Crime in Colorado has dropped by 1/3 over the last 10 years but private prisons have increased Colorado’s bill by $2 million
  • Quotas don’t ensure better quality. Many facilities are overcrowded, don’t have secure doors, and are short-staffed.
  • Private prisons are currently responsible for 6% of state prison populations and 16% at the federal level.
  • Private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 in 130 facilities.
  • Private corporations now bring in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue.

Think about that last one for a moment. Prison companies make $3.3 billion off of taxpayers every year to privatize facilities. And one more thing : these entities have funneled more than $10 million to political candidates and $25 million in lobbying efforts since 1989.

No, the government doesn’t do (m)any things right and generally speaking, outsourcing is a good thing. But not here. Not with this. Not when there is so much to lose. No, this isn’t an apologist’s blog for the prison system. Prison should be uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t make the public uncomfortable because from a societal standpoint we are doing something wrong. We cannot afford to cut corners and costs at the expense of public trust.

The ACLU revealed studies that indicate higher risk factors for for-profit prisons than their public counterparts and because of such, one giant corporation – Corrections Corporation of America – has lost 4 contracts in the last month. The company has admitted to falsifying 4,800 hours of staffing records, incorrect billing, and is currently under investigation by police in Idaho. This follows two closures in Texas. Texas, y’all. Let that sink in a moment. If this is what they’re admitting to doing, imagine what is still under the rug.

In 2008, the Idaho facility found that the prison run by CCA had FOUR TIMES as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults as the other seven Idaho facilities COMBINED. Why? It wasn’t because of the population.

The operation is counter intuitive to what Republicans and Democrats are pushing from a policy perspective when it comes to criminal justice reform. Organizations like the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church USA have all condemned the practice of for-profit prisons stating it misdirects rehabilitation to instead focus on the bottom line.

It’s one thing to be tough on crime. You can do so while not overcriminalizing and overpopulating prisons – moderation in everything. But, do we really find it acceptable that a group of people have so much to gain from another group of people remaining part of the system?

Conservatives of Georgia, Are You Listening?

Whether it’s while running for city council or for Congress, activists rallying at a conference, or just every day folks trying to swing a moderate their way, Republicans can’t stop talking about serving justice. We’re ‘tough on crime!’ and we tout how many awful people we ‘put away’ in a certain period of time. Constituencies expect it and it seems to be low-hanging fruit for many hard (R’s)…but what they don’t know is they are all wrong.

The justice system has long been on the decline and in an era where Americans are becoming less and less trustworthy of the process from arrest to probation, Republicans shouldn’t be showcasing what they believe to be effectiveness in the legal system.

Mandatory minimum sentencing practices came about in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in response to criticism that judges had too much power. Additionally, it was part of a crackdown on certain offenses to serve as a deterrent – one that has since be deemed virtually ineffective.

We made some mistakes. It’s okay to admit that. It’s even better to admit that there have been a series of unintended consequences from the enactment of these laws. There will likely be more with any reforms we make. This is trial and error, but we have to start somewhere. The important thing is that we acknowledge our failures and work to remedy them.

First, and most conservatively, there are fiscal and economic repercussions to these mandatory minimum sentences:

  • Cost – We’re arbitrarily maxing out on the cost of incarceration at the expense of taxpayers. On average, it costs between $35,000-50,000 annually to house an inmate. If someone is sentenced to a mandatory 10 years, the state is on the hook for a minimum of $350,000 in direct economic costs. If the crime lacked severity, costs could top out at a mere $70,000-$100,000, but that type of cost-savings analysis relative to the crime committed is not permitted.
  • It’s forcing overcrowding – The Federal Justice Judicial Center reported that 70% of the prison growth related to sentencing since 1985 is attributed to increases in drug sentence length.
  • Job availability – Would you be more willing to hire someone who has served 15 years or less than five years in prison? The longer someone is incarcerated, the less likely it is they will attain a sustainable long-term job that will keep them a member of the workforce. The cyclical nature of this is social program dependency, another thing conservatives are against.
  • We aren’t actually fixing anything – Mandatory minimums don’t reduce crime. There are various studies out there that show the correlation between the length of time in prison and recidivism rates. They’re rather high. Why? Because we aren’t rehabilitating, we aren’t correcting behavior…Recidivism will cost us. The conservative argument is to transition these folks into a role of productivity in society,

Despite knowing these economic impacts, our state legislatures are still proposing legislation that would impose mandatory minimum sentences on various crimes – new and old. Since 1991, crimes punishable by MMS’s have doubled.

Another issue of concern: This sentencing structure completely eliminates judicial discretion. If you truly think about it, judicial power has actually been usurped by the legislature and portions of the judicial branch are operating under the direction of the legislature. It also places the power in the hands of the prosecutors because they are the ones filing charges. Remember, prosecutors keep statistics on how many people they lock up each year. This isn’t just wrong for our judicial system. It’s wrong for a Republican form of government. Judges should have the ability to weigh the facts and circumstances of every case individually because no case is the same. The justice system was never intended to operate in the one-size-fits-all mentality. Sentencing power needs to be restored to our judges from the legislative branch.

Georgia’s made minuscule progress. Aside from various rankings giving us a D- (or worse) in civil forfeiture practices and the highest number of citizens on probation, Georgia finally removed the convicted felon box on in-state job applications, made the parole process a smidgen more transparent, and slowly informing elected officials who don’t even know what civil asset forfeiture is.

The conservative stance on justice reform is not helping us economically and it isn’t helping us win elections, It’s time to reevaluate. Everyone has a story. It’s time conservatives allow those stories to be heard in inside the courtroom and on the road to rehabilitation. Georgia, are you listening? It’s time to repeal mandatory minimum sentences.

This blog is part of a series following the FreedomWorks Justice Reform Briefing organized by Jason Pye in Washington, D.C. in May 2015. FreedomWorks partnered with the Center for American Progress to bring together bloggers and activists from all corners of the political spectrum to address reforms needed for the justice system, including mandatory minimum sentencing, the death penalty, and civil forfeiture.

To read Part 1 – An Introduction, click here.


Too Much Skin in the Game

Friday afternoon whilst scrolling through the interwebs, I stumbled upon a disturbing photo heather hironimusand headline: “Mother Signs Consent for Son’s Circumcision.” The photos below showed a distressed woman praying and weeping.

The controversial case out of Florida has been dragging on for years, but my own ignorance has kept me from discovering it before this weekend. Because this story has been going on for some time and is quite lengthy, I’ll offer you a brief run down.

Heather Hironimus and Dennis Nebus were an unwed couple who discovered they were pregnant in 2010. While pregnant, the debate began, but in 2012 Heather signed a parenting plan to allow the circumcision. After additional research, she changed her mind and spent much time trying to block the procedure arguing there was no “medical need.” In 2013, Dennis filed a civil suit against Heather, which Heather countered with a federal suit (just recently dropped). He argued the procedure was necessary and not having it was causing their little boy Chase some health issues that could be remedied by the procedure. Heather fled with Chase in February of this year to again avoid the procedure, which brought about criminal charges including interference with custody which is a felony. As of today, Chase has told psychologists and other adults he is fearful of the procedure.

The issue has become such a controversial one in Florida (similar to the Xarelto MDL one, in some way), activists on Heather’s side have applied pressure and no doctor will perform the procedure. The judge has granted Dennis permission to take Chase out of Florida to have this procedure done.

Now, regardless of where you stand on the uncomfortable issue of circumcision, there is at least one thing most logical folks can agree on:

Signing a ‘consent’ form in handcuffs, while praying and hysterically crying under the guise that you will be released from jail is not entering into an agreement “freely and willingly.”

A spokesman for a Catholic organization in Ithaca, NY said of the duress: “A consent form signed under mental anguish and with the threat of staying in jail is not consent. That is coercion…”

heather hironimus2Several things went awry in this case:

  1. Chase is now 4 1/2 years old. There is a reason parents who choose to circumcise their children do so days after birth. It’s less traumatic and heals easier. Doing so at nearly 5 years old opens an entirely different can of worms.  In essence, Heather has already “won.”
  2.  This has been an ongoing battle between mother and father for over five years, and a legal one for multiple years as well. Why a judge has allowed this to drag out – and not done within the parameters of emergency hearings with final decisions – is beyond me. Every waking day Chase is aging and will remember more and more of this legal travesty. Because of his age, the procedure will require general anesthesia.

So now what happens. What do we do, legally, when two parents cannot agree on an issue such as this? And now at a point of no return – after everything that has already occurred – should the actions taken be different from had this been decided 4 years ago?