Criminal Justice Reform

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War, abolished slavery across the United States with one notable exception. According to the amendment, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (emphasis added). In other words, slavery and involuntary servitude remain constitutionally acceptable forms of punishment for individuals who are convicted of crimes. This loophole has a disturbing history of being used to target Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War, with local authorities imprisoning thousands of formerly enslaved people on faulty charges and exploiting their labor. In upholding the legality of forced prison labor, the Virginia Supreme Court even went so far as to describe a prisoner who challenged the practice as a “slave of the State.” Ruffin v. Commonwealth (1871).

As part of its mission to raise awareness about the impact and importance of The Legal Aid Society, Proskauer’s Associates’ Campaign for Legal Aid organized a special event on wrongful convictions featuring Elizabeth Felber from Legal Aid’s Wrongful Conviction Unit, Jason Flom, a renowned criminal justice reform advocate, and Jimmy Dennis, an exoneree who served 25 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.   

A critical part of criminal justice reform is making it easier for those with criminal records to reenter society. This means greater job training, more employment opportunities, affordable housing, and stronger laws prohibiting discrimination and facilitating the expungement of old convictions.  Successful reentry into a free society, however, requires more than just the basic needs of life. It also requires the restoration of basic rights, and there is no more basic right in a democracy than the right to vote.

In commemoration of Juneteenth 2021, Proskauer was honored to host Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of The 1619 Project, as part of its A Path Forward lecture series and Collaborate for Change program.  The discussion was moderated by Keisha-Ann Gray, a partner in the New York office, with support from Proskauer’s Black Lawyer Affinity Group.

Hannah-Jones shared insight into the enduring legacy of slavery and how systemic racial inequities contrast with American ideals. Although this holiday celebrates a moment of hope and joy, its existence also raises important questions and invites reflection.

The 1619 Project, an initiative at The New York Times spearheaded by Hannah-Jones, is provocative for some because it challenges the concept of our national identity. Hannah-Jones questions the framing of the nation’s founders as ushering in liberty and equality for all when some Americans were considered to be less than human. No longer should we view slavery and the contributions of Black Americans as a footnote, but rather “at the very center of the United States.”  

Earlier this year, New York passed legislation legalizing the adult use of cannabis. New Yorkers can now legally possess three ounces for any use, and can smoke marijuana in any publically-designed area where tobacco smoking is allowed, although home cultivation is still not permitted. Importantly, certain convictions – possessing up to 16 ounces or selling up to 25 grams of marijuana – will be automatically expunged from criminal records.

Not only does this law expand existing medical marijuana programs and create a licensing system for producers and distributors, but it also acts as an important step toward addressing the racial disparities in drug-related arrests. During the 1970s and 1980s, the so-called “War on Drugs” stigmatized drug use as a criminal and moral issue rather than treating it as a public health issue.

Staying in touch with loved ones has become more important today than ever before. While technology offers many ways to stay in contact, incarcerated individuals face barriers to communication. Several prisons have paused in-person visitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A phone call can cost up to $25, creating a financial burden for many families of the incarcerated. As the United States, which incarcerates more individuals than any other country, confronts the challenges of its criminal justice system, Proskauer’s pro bono client Ameelio, a nonprofit organization, is working to facilitate communication between incarcerated individuals and their families by removing cost barriers.

Ameelio’s Founder, Uzoma Orchingwa, explains below how he is finding innovative ways to keep people connected, no matter the cost.

Could you briefly explain how Ameelio works?

Ameelio serves as a technological bridge to the outside world for incarcerated individuals. We have three core products, our mobile application where loved ones can upload letters, postcards and photos for incarcerated individuals. Our second product is Letters for Organizations, where Ameelio helps organizations, like ministries, rehab groups, and educators send mass mail to prisons. Our third product is “Connect,” which is a videoconferencing tool we are launching in April 2021.

On November 25, 2020, Proskauer filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief on behalf of Citizens for Juvenile Justice and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Youth Advocacy Division in support of Raymond Concepcion, a youth with disabilities who was automatically tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 20 years.  Proskauer’s brief urged the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to find that section 74 of the Youthful Offender Act is unconstitutional, reverse Raymond’s conviction and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Background

When Raymond was 15 years old, two adult gang members ordered him to shoot a stranger, promising that he could leave the gang if he complied.  Out of fear, Raymond did as instructed and shot a man, killing him.  Raymond has an IQ of 66 and the developmental maturity of an eight- or nine-year-old.  As a younger child living in the Dominican Republic, Raymond suffered emotional distress after witnessing shootings of multiple family members.  When he was 12 years old, Raymond moved to Boston, where he attended three different public schools and failed nearly all his classes.  An expert testified to Raymond’s psychological, social and intellectual capacities.  Nevertheless, pursuant to section 74 of the Youthful Offender Act, due to his age and alleged offense, Raymond was automatically tried in adult court, where he was automatically sentenced to life imprisonment and given an above-minimum parole eligibility date.  Raymond’s youth and intellectual disability were disregarded at his indictment, trial and sentencing.

The idea that individuals with a felony conviction should be barred from voting for at least some period of time is widely accepted across the United States. But when you consider that current laws arose out of explicit racial animus following the Civil War and the end of slavery; when you look at the disproportionate effect the practice has had on people of color; and when you weigh the arguments in favor of disenfranchising millions of Americans – it becomes apparent that states should revisit this issue as part of broader criminal justice reform efforts and broader calls to address systemic racism.

Currently, over five million Americans who otherwise qualify to vote cannot do so as the result of a felony conviction.