Crime spike threatens to politically squash prosecutors’ efforts to reform

Crime spike threatens to politically squash prosecutors’ efforts to reform

An OpEd: State prosecutors focused on progress face tough on crime narratives that threaten their reelection

By Allison Pierre
By Allison Pierre

Founder and CEO of Innovative Prosecution Consulting. Her expertise is using technology to spur reform with state prosecutors.

Criminal justice reform dominated the national discussion the past few years. In May 2020, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, the criminal justice reform movement gained national attention. Floyd’s murder was another example of wrongful killings of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police. His death was an awakening for White America, but it was a reality Black Americans have experienced for decades. His murder highlighted how race impacts how a person is treated by the justice system from arrest to sentencing.   

After his death, there was an urgency for change but most importantly a need for it. Floyd’s murder was a catalyst which gave even more life to not only police reform but also prosecutor reform

Much is at stake for the midterm elections on Nov. 8. Local elections will have a tremendous impact our civil rights. There will be an election or reelection of congress, governors, attorneys general, secretary of states, state supreme court judges but also prosecutors. Opponents to criminal justice reform have been attacking prosecutors by faulting them for the rise in crime.

To accelerate criminal justice reform, we must continue to elect reform prosecutors, and they  must demonstrate their commitment to public safety and the benefits of their policies. And to survive this political climate, they must be armed with data and a strong narrative to refute the opposition’s arguments.

"To accelerate criminal justice reform, we must continue to elect reform prosecutors, and they must demonstrate their commitment to public safety and the benefits of their policies."

The prosecutor reform movement emerged roughly in 2016 with a wave of national wins. People were exhausted with prior decades of “law and order” policies that accelerated mass incarceration. The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate of 5 to 6 times more than other countries, and the reincarceration rate is approximately 50%. The cost to keep about 2.3 million people imprisoned is more than $81 billion each year. Communities began to look at every angle for a new approach, and many saw the movement as an answer.

The movement is a new way of thinking. The mission was to elect progressive state prosecutors dedicated to safety and interested in reducing mass incarceration. These prosecutors supported alternatives: drug and mental health treatment courts, community service, and restorative justice for certain nonviolent low-level offenses. Its initial success was reflected in votes for reform-minded district attorneys specifically in large such as Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Arguably, the movement started years prior with the writings of thought leader Professor Angela J. Davis from American University’s Washington College of Law. She recognized that effective reform must start and be led by prosecutors. They decide whether to charge or to dismiss a case and are therefore the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system. 

In recent years, on the federal level, the movement included changes enacted by the Obama administration. Federal prosecutors started adopting “Smart on Crime” policies designed to reject traditional “Tough on Crime” approaches that led to overly aggressive prosecution practices. Much of the reform has continued at the state level with voters electing reform candidates.  

But the movement has struggled. Some have stayed in office, but their reform efforts have been stymied by ferocious opposition. The attacks on newly elected Black female prosecutors in large cities are particularly vicious.

"The primary opposition slogan is that reform prosecutors are “soft on crime” and do not believe in holding offenders accountable. Some prosecutors have lost elections or been recalled due to a perceived spike in crime."

The blows have been bipartisan. Elected prosecutors voted-in by constituents in arguably liberal-leaning cities have not been reelected. And some conservative governors, state attorney generals, police, and judges have aggressively opposed them, even though the voters elected them to implement change.  

Rally to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin at San Francisco Chinatown (May 28 2022). credit: wikicommons

The primary opposition slogan is that reform prosecutors are “soft on crime” and do not believe in holding offenders accountable. Some prosecutors have lost elections or been recalled due to a perceived spike in crime.

In June of 2022, San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin was recalled because he could not address his community’s concerns that crime was uncontrollable and surging. He was dubbed a soft-on-crime prosecutor who didn’t care about his constituent’s safety. In Los Angeles, newly elected District Attorney George Gascon struggled to stay in office after multiple attempts to oust him.

SF DA George Gascon speaks against gun shows at the Cow Palace, Mar. 2013. Steve Rhodes

In other major cities, opposition to reform within the justice system has been ferocious. In New York County, D.A. Alvin Bragg Jr. faced widespread condemnation from police and conservative news outlets after he released new reform policies his voters placed him in office to execute. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended an elected district attorney, Andrew Warren, because he alleged that he was neglecting his duty to enforce the law. But Warren merely signed letters opposing state laws seeking to criminalize transgender people and abortion.

Reform prosecutors must combat these attacks by telling their story better. They need to highlight examples of the movement’s dedication to fight crime and its benefits.  Campaigns need to be armed with the truth – the actual data on crime rates.  

If we look at murder and violent crime statistics from 1990 to 2020, it tells a story that conflicts with the false narrative: “reform is soft on crime.” According to the FBI, murder and violent crime have declined since the 1990s. The rates lowered dramatically from 1990 until the 2000s. From 2000 to 2020, violent crime remained low and stagnated. 

According to the American Bar Association, a study by several research universities in 35 jurisdictions, showed there were no significant effects of how a prosecutor’s policies play a role in the rise of local crime rates. 

"To combat the erroneous “surging crime” propaganda, the prosecutor needs to address the public’s true perception of crime and the reality of actual crime rates."

To combat the erroneous “surging crime” propaganda, the prosecutor needs to address the public’s true perception of crime and the reality of actual crime rates. They should use national and local crime statistics to tell the true narrative to their constituents about safety and transparency about whether their reform efforts have led to a reduction in crime and recidivism.  

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Reform prosecutors should convene and create a unanimous national messaging strategy by working with national nonprofits, policy organizations, think tanks and local district attorney associations to create a communication information hub. Elected prosecutors could use the hub to address the misleading narrative of opposition actors.

Inside their offices, district attorneys should consider hiring and creating communication divisions. Hiring a communication director and a social media director is vital. Their PR teams should implement an ongoing communication strategy – social media, interviews, videos, data dashboards and community meetings about public safety, reform and racial justice.

For instance, if shoplifting is of critical concern, the office could provide regular social media progress reports like 2-minute Instagram reels or podcasts.  It would be a consistent, potent public relations campaign focusing on data, progress, and outreach with community groups. This would inform and garner support for the movement as it grows. 

What’s at stake if the reform district attorneys fail to reshape their narrative?


Transformational progress. 


And we CANNOT afford to go back.


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Shapiro vs Mastriano: The future of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system

Shapiro vs Mastriano: The future of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system

The Des compares where the candidates for PA Governor fall on criminal justice

Today, Pennsylvanians will cast their votes for the new State Governor. The state, and nation, has a close eye on the gubernatorial race. The role, currently occupied by Democrat Tom Wolf, consists of the enforcement of state laws in addition to the powers to convene the state legislature or approve or veto the bills it passes. A number of partisan issues, most prominently abortion rights statewide, will be definitively determined by this election. Also at stake is the future of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. On the ballot, voters will be presented with a choice for Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro or Republican candidate Doug Mastriano. In the swift run up to election day, The Des brings you a complete breakdown of how these two candidates compare on all-things criminal justice.

How can each candidate’s criminal justice policies be described in one sentence? 

SHAPIRO: Smart (and tough)-on-crime reformist

MASTRIANO: Heavy on prosecution, light (or non-existent) on reform 


Have the candidates promised criminal justice reforms?

SHAPIRO: Shapiro says if elected, he will pursue reform, something Pennsylvania is in “critical need” for. He describes the “false” choice between “public safety and common sense, comprehensive criminal justice reform” as something he refuses to accept.

MASTRIANO: Mastriano’s campaign website makes no promises for criminal justice reform. However, his voting history reveals he is in favor of police reforms. Read below for more information regarding Mastriano’s position on law enforcement and policing. His policy proposal does say he wants to strengthen certain regulations.

If so, what kinds?

SHAPIRO: Shapiro enacted several reforms as Attorney General. Read more below on how Shapiro’s past actions reflect his current promises. As Governor, Shapiro is proposing seven reforms he hopes to implement: 

  • Probation and reform parole: Shapiro cites the $101 million of taxpayer money that goes towards incarcerating people who have committed only technical violations, rather than new crimes. He wants to reinvest this money into different programs targeted at “getting violent criminals off our streets.”
  • Funding indigent defense: Shapiro wants to introduce state funding for legal representation for indigent Pennsylvanians, something he pursues in his previous role as Montgomery County Commissioner. Pennsylvania is currently the only state giving zero dollars to public defense programs. 
  • Opposing mandatory minimum sentences: Shapiro will continue to oppose this policy, which has not been in use in PA law since 2015. 
  • Reform of the “felony murder rule”: Shapiro says he will legislate against this rule so that those who have committed murder do not automatically receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole. 
  • Geriatric parole: Shapiro cites concern for both members PA’s aging prison population and for the taxpayer money that funds the consequent medical expenses. Given that inmates over the age of 65 have the lowest risk of recidivism, Shapiro wants to give elderly inmates opportunities to apply for geriatric parole. 
  • Abolition of the death penalty: Shapiro vows to never sign a death warrant and to legislate against the death penalty. 
  • Legalizing marijuana: Shapiro wants to legalize recreational marijuana and expunge the records of anyone serving time for nonviolent marijuana charges. He says he will allocate the funds from incurrent tax benefits to support minority ownership within the marijuana industry. 

MASTRIANO: Mastriano has not promised reform; he does want to “keep violent criminals behind bars where they belong” and “strengthen penalties for repeat offenders and those convicted of violent crime.”

Have the candidates made policy choices that will have an indirect effect on criminal justice?

SHAPIRO & MASTRIANO: Pennsylvania, and specifically Philadelphia, has long been an arena for a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The pipeline reflects the movement of children, usually from underfunded schools, into the juvenile justice system. Interestingly, both candidates have stated they will implement similar educational policies. 


Both candidates want to either increase school funding or ensure “well-funded schools,” respectively. School funding increases can have a positive effect on narrowing the school-to-prison pipeline. However, both candidates want to introduce a policy of school choice, which would allow parents to choose the public institution they would like their children to attend, rather than being limited geographically. This could have an adverse effect on educational inequality and the school-to-prison pipeline, as school choice policies have been correlated with increased inequality between schools. 

What are the candidates’ views on law enforcement and policing?


SHAPIRO: Shapiro is pro-police and wants to hire more police officers throughout Pennsylvania. He describes his position as two fold: Pennsylvanians have a right to “be safe and feel safe.” Shapiro says that being safe represents the need for increased law enforcement presence, but feeling safe refers to the need that all citizens feel that the police will keep them safe regardless of factors like race. In a campaign launch press conference, Shapiro says he will ensure people feel safe through seeing “police that are from the community, that are properly trained, that work hand in hand with our community groups to keep us safe, and that understand they’ve got to get out of their patrol cars, walk the beat, learn the names of our children and talk to the people who really run the neighborhood.” Shapiro does not provide concrete policy choices which would ensure that his new camp of police officers would work with community groups to prevent abuse by police. His campaign website says Shapiro is calling to “immediately hire officers to fill open roles, and invest in recruitment and training to ensure you can count on law enforcement to respond in an emergency.” 


MASTRIANO: Mastriano’s campaign website says he will “support law enforcement by ensuring they have adequate funding,” and that he “won’t hesitate to assist local law enforcement with State Police and National Guard to protect law-abiding citizens and businesses during periods of mass unrest and riots.” Mastriano was photographed in attendance at the January 6 insurrection, but claims to have left before the riot broke out. While Mastriano does not outline any concrete policing policies, as a Pennsylvania House Representative, he voted in favor of three bills pertaining to policing. HB 49 authorized that school police may make arrests on school premises; SB 1205 prohibited the use of police chokeholds; HB 1910 established new training requirements for police officers. These requirements include training on interacting with individuals of diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds; implicit bias training; recognizing and reporting child abuse; and annual training on the use of appropriate force. 


How will the candidates allocate funding for the justice system? 


SHAPIRO: Shapiro’s proposed policies include increased funding for police training and the “appropriate” funding for police more generally. He also wants to allocate more state funds towards indigent defense, or criminal defense services such as public defender programs. His criminal justice plan includes the funding of mental health and various other specialty courts to try those suffering from mental illnesses. 

MASTRIANO: Mastriano’s plan entails the provision of “adequate” funding for law enforcement. He also says he will support funding for “additional prosecutors in high-crime areas.”

What crimes are the candidates paying special attention to? 


SHAPIRO: As Attorney General, Shapiro took a special interest in “ghost guns.” He wants to close a loophole in the law that renders these “ghost” guns untraceable. Ghost guns are made when separate parts are purchased and then assembled. Shapiro investigated this phenomenon by sending an agent to a suburban Philadelphia gun show, where he was sold a ghost gun kit, assembled it, fired it, and took it back to New York. 


MASTRIANO: Mastriano has not explicitly focused his policy proposals on any one crime. Notably, he does want to criminalize abortion (read more below) and ban chartered flights or busses into Pennsylvania with “illegal immigrant passengers.”

Actions speak louder than words. How have the candidates already shown how their policies might be implemented?

SHAPIRO: Shapiro’s background is in law; he has served as Pennsylvania’s Attorney General since 2017. The Pennsylvania Government website defines Josh’s previous role as Attorney General as having the responsibility “to represent victims of crime and abuse; defend individual rights; and hold the most powerful interests accountable to the law when they rip off or harm Pennsylvanians.” In his own words, as AG Shapiro “enacted bail reform for non-violent and low-level offenses,” “led the bipartisan coalition to create a statewide Police Misconduct Database,” and “directed our Agents to stop using chokeholds and end the use of no-knock warrants.”


When he served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (2005-2012), Shapiro voted YES for: 

  • Establishing the Special Juvenile Victim Compensation Fund HB 2572 06/30/2010
  • Expungement of Criminal Records and Juvenile Records HB 264 07/14/2009
  • [Intellectual disability] consideration in murder cases HB 698 06/12/2006


MASTRIANO: Serving in the Pennsylvania Senate since 2019, Mastriano has voted YES for: 

  • Prohibition of premature release of an individual who has committed a violent offense while imprisoned HB 146 07/06/2022
  • Increased penalties for fleeing the police on foot SB 814 10/26/2021
  • Established new guidelines to reduce probation sentences SB 14 07/15/2020
  • Establishes new training requirements for police officers HB 1910 06/30/2020
  • Prohibits use of police chokeholds SB 1205 06/24/2020
  • Authorizes school police to make arrests HB 49 11/21/2019 


How do the candidates address inequalities within the justice system?

SHAPIRO: On his campaign site, Shapiro says “we must address the reality that Pennsylvania’s justice system disproportionately impacts people of color.” Black residents make up 12% of the state population yet account for 46% of incarcerated people. Shapiro offers a vague solution of investing in public safety while “pursuing smart criminal justice reform that will address those inequities, restore trust, and make our communities safer.” See above for more information on Shapiro’s proposed reforms.

MASTRIANO: Mastriano does not mention inequalities within the justice system.

Are any policy points surprising?

SHAPIRO: Shapiro’s hard-on-crime stance is not standard for a democratic candidate. Recent polls have shown that the majority of voters prefer Republicans over Democrats when it comes to fighting crime and maintaining public safety. Shapiro’s approach may distance him from the rest of his party, but counters the idea of Democrats as weak on crime.

MASTRIANO: While not conceptually surprising, Mastriano’s pro-life stance is extreme. Mastriano is vehemently anti-abortion and has urged murder charges for who women who violate abortion bans. He introduced a Heartbeat Bill which would prohibit abortion from the moment a fetal heartbeat was detected, which would criminalize women and doctors who violate it. 


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Overdose Deaths Behind Bars Rise as Drug Crisis Swells

Drug-related mortality rates increased in prisons and jails even as the numbers of people incarcerated for drug offenses dropped. The pandemic visitor lockdowns didn’t eliminate the problem, showing that guards are the main source of contraband. 

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By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Annissa Holland should be excited her son is coming home from prison after four long years of incarceration. Instead, she’s researching rehab centers to send him to as soon as he walks out the gate.


She doesn’t know the person who’s coming home — the person who she said has been doing every drug he can get his hands on inside the Alabama prison system. She can hear it in the 34-year-old’s voice when he calls her on the prison phone.


Her son is one of almost 20,000 inmates in the Alabama prison system living in conditions the U.S. Department of Justice has called inhumane. In two investigations, it found that the rampant use of drugs causes sexual abuse and “severe” violence in the state’s prisons. The department has sued Alabama, alleging conditions in its prisons violate inmates’ civil rights. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ own report, almost 60 pounds of illicit drugs were confiscated from its prisons in the first three months of this year.


Even if Alabama’s prisons and jails are especially overrun by drugs, death, and violence, their problems are not unique in the U.S. Within three weeks this spring, incarcerated people died of overdoses in IllinoisOklahomaNew York, and the District of Columbia.


The alcohol and drug overdose death rate increased fivefold in prisons from 2009 through 2019, according to a recent study from the Pew Charitable Trusts — a surge that outpaced the national drug overdose rate, which tripled in the same period.


As the opioid crisis ravages America, overdose deaths are sweeping through every corner of the nation, including jails and prisons. Criminal justice experts suggest that decades of using the legal system instead of community-based addiction treatment to address drug use have not led to a drop in drug use or overdoses. Instead, the rate of drug deaths behind bars in supposedly secure facilities has increased.


This rise comes amid the decriminalization of cannabis in many parts of the country and a drop in the overall number of people incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Pew report.

According to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ own report, almost 60 pounds of illicit drugs were confiscated from its prisons in the first three months of this year.

“It certainly points to the need for alternative solutions that rely less on the criminal justice system to help people who are struggling with substance use disorders,” said Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.


For decades, drug use in America has mainly been addressed through the penal system — 1 in 5 people behind bars are there for a drug offense. Drug crimes were behind 30% of new admissions to Alabama prisons in March. Nationally, they were the leading cause of arrest, and almost 90% of arrests were for possession of drugs, not sale or manufacturing, according to the Pew study. The researchers also found that fewer than 8% of arrested people with a drug dependency received treatment while incarcerated.


Velázquez said a lot of drug use is spurred by people with mental health issues attempting to self-medicate. Almost 40% of people in prisons and 44% in jails have a history of mental illness, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.


Holland said her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD six years ago after struggling with drug use since his teens. The son, who asked that his name not be published for fear his comments could jeopardize his release from prison or subsequent parole, said a schizophrenic episode in 2017 led him to break into a house during a hurricane. He said he didn’t realize people were in the house until after he ate a sandwich, got a Coke from the fridge, and looked for dry clothes. They called the police. He was sent to prison on a charge of burglary.

Holland's son with his sister at 4-years-old.

“They don’t put the mental health patients where they should be; they put them in prison,” Holland said.


She’s not only frustrated by the lack of medical care and treatment her son has received, but also horrified at the access to drugs and the abuse she said her son has suffered in the overcrowded, understaffed Alabama prison system.


He told KHN he’s been raped and beaten because of drug debts and put on suicide watch more than a dozen times. He said he turned back to using heroin, meth, and the synthetic drug flakka while incarcerated.


“We need to really focus on not assuming that putting someone in jail or prison is going to make them abstinent from drug use,” Velázquez said. “We really need to provide treatment that not only addresses the chemical, substance use disorder, but also addresses some of the underlying issues.”

Beth Shelburne, who works with the American Civil Liberties Union, logged 19 drug-related deaths in Alabama prisons in 2021, the most she has seen since she started tracking them in 2018.


She said those numbers are just a snapshot of what is going on inside Alabama’s prisons. The Justice Department found the state corrections department failed to accurately report deaths in its facilities.


“A lot of the people that are dying, I would argue, don’t belong in prison,” Shelburne said. “What’s so disgusting about all this is we are sentencing people who are drug-addicted to time in these ‘correctional facilities,’ when we’re really just throwing them into drug dens.”


The corrections department’s reports reveal at least seven overdose deaths in 2021, three of which officials classified as natural deaths. It reported 97 deaths in the first three months of this year that have yet to be fully classified.


Though Republican Gov. Kay Ivey recently announced a grant of more than $500,000 for a program to help incarcerated people address drug use disorders, the number of graduates of drug treatment programs in the state’s prison system has plummeted in the past decade to record lows. About 3% of prisoners completed a treatment program in 2021, down from 14% in 2009.

In contrast, California reported a 60% reduction in overdose deaths in its prisons in 2020, which state officials attributed to the start of a substance use treatment program and the widespread availability of medication-assisted therapy.


Alabama’s system is developing a medication-assisted treatment plan with its health contractor, said Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson Kelly Betts. Before 2019, medications that curb drug cravings or mute highs were given only to those who could be separated from the general prison population, according to Deborah Crook, the department’s health services deputy commissioner.


“The science has changed considerably and there are more medication options that are safer to prescribe — even in general population,” she wrote in a statement.


Though prison officials have long blamed visitors for bringing in drugs, the ban on visitation during the pandemic did not lead to a drop in drug use inside. Multiple officers were arrested in Alabama last year and accused of bringing drugs into jails and prisons, and the Department of Justice’s 2019 report found dozens of officers arrested in the previous two years on charges related to drug trafficking and other misconduct.


Illegal drugs are “a challenge faced by correctional systems across the country,” Betts wrote in an email. “The ADOC is committed to enforcing our zero-tolerance policy on contraband and works very hard to eradicate it from our facilities.”


Betts did not specify how these policies are enforced. The department also refused to respond to a detailed list of questions about drug use and overdoses in its prisons, citing the litigation with the Justice Department.

Holland doesn’t know what will happen when her son gets out. He said he hopes he can restart his business as an electrician and provide for his family. But the four years of his so-called rehabilitation have been a nightmare for both of them.


“They’re released messed-up, hurt, and deeply dysfunctional. What do you do with someone that’s been through all that?” Holland said. “That’s not rehabilitation. It’s not.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

Women are increasingly getting caught up in the legal system and imprisoned often for issues relating to drug use.

The hammer of grief pounded upon Susan Burton following the senseless death of her five-year-old son in 1981. Her boy ran into the street, where an off-duty police officer’s car struck and killed him. She turned to cocaine and crack to drown out the unimaginably weighty sorrow. 

“As a young woman, I had experimented with recreational drugs,” Susan said. “But when I lost my son, I started to drink heavily and had easy access to crack cocaine. My community was saturated with it.” 


Soon her body began to depend on crack or the powder version, cocaine, to function, whichever she could get. She became addicted to the numbness and was eventually arrested for possession of crack cocaine. That landed her in prison.  


Burton’s experience is not unusual. Just because prison overpopulation is usually discussed in regards to males, America also has a glaring problem of over incarcerating mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmas. There are currently 108,000 women in prison in the United States — accounting for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated females. 


The growing trend is concerning advocates and some elected officials. Between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women in America increased by more than 750%, according to The Sentencing Project. That alarming spike is mainly traced back to two episodes in American history which continue to play supersized roles in our America-present: The ‘war on drugs’ and the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals.

More than 25% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to 15% of men; in federal prisons, 61% of women compared to 50% of men. But women don’t use drugs more than men in society.

The formal ‘war on drugs’ was officially launched in the 1970s under the leadership of President Richard Nixon. Anyone caught possessing, selling or dealing drugs was automatically sentenced to serve prison time. By the 1990s the fallout — which has only expanded since — was evident to many. A 1999 report by the Center for Gender and Justice attributed the clamp down on drug use to a war on women, because rates of female incarceration have been twice as high as that of men since the 1980s. 


More than 25% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to 15% of men; in federal prisons, 61% of women compared to 50% of men. But women don’t use drugs more than men in society. In fact, men tend to use illicit drugs more than women. It’s when women do use drugs — and the reasons they’re drawn to them — that many experts think is where the focus should be; not steel cages and being cut off from their families. 


“A woman may start using drugs for a variety of reasons that are often different from men,” Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of Global Health Sciences at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, said.


“She may have had a history of abuse, trauma or be experiencing high levels of stress. She may consider drugs as one way to help her cope. She may have a boyfriend who suggests it, and she’s curious, or he may pressure her,” Strathdee continued. “My team’s research suggests that some women start using methamphetamine to help them lose weight, and some women report using drugs the first time because it was given to her ‘as a present.’ For several years, physicians in the US liberally offered prescription opiates for minor ailments, which contributed to the country’s opioid crisis.”

The problem with imprisoning a woman for using drugs or for the offenses she commits in her struggle to feed the beast — like theft or prostitution, to name two common ancillaries of addiction — is it doesn’t address the underlying trauma that’s left her leaning on substances to momentarily feel alive.

Some of the reasons for drug use listed above may apply to men as well, but men tend to initially use drugs for acceptance from peers or the thrill of engaging in risky behavior, which then may lead to addiction. 


Nabila El-Bassel, director of the Columbia Social Intervention Group, explained how a woman is often the one on the receiving end of abuse that leads to drug use.


“They (women) are often initiated into drug use by male partners, who exert a significant amount of control of their drug use and sexual practices,” El-Bassel said. 


“Gender-power dynamics often relegate women to be ‘second to the needle’ (if injection drug use) and make condom negotiation difficult. Disagreements over drug use or sexual practices place women at additional risk for intimate partner violence, which can further exacerbate drug use through self-medicating as a coping mechanism.”


She becomes caught in a vicious circle of being made to use by an abusive partner and then starts using to cope with the side effects of being in an abusive relationship. 

According to a report from Vera Institute — a nonprofit advocating for an improved justice system — 86% of women in prison have experienced sexual violence, and 77% have experienced violence at the hands, fists or feet of a partner prior to incarceration. These women — who live at the intersection of abuse, coercive control, trauma, and an unaffordable health care system — are the very American women being thrown into prison on charges tied to their coping mechanisms, substances. 


They have taken to self-medicating with drugs to cope with their anxiety, fear or pain. Many eventually become addicted and are more prone to take part in criminal behavior just to get their fix. And the criminal justice system’s answer to the problem is to put them behind bars for their naughty behavior.


The problem with imprisoning a woman for using drugs or for the offenses she commits in her struggle to feed the beast — like theft or prostitution, to name two common ancillaries of addiction — is it doesn’t address the underlying trauma that’s left her leaning on substances to momentarily feel alive.

Indiana Women's prison. Wiki Commons

“Incarceration tends to perpetuate the problems that led a woman to use drugs in the first place, and doesn’t deal with the root causes,” Dr. Strathdee of UCSD said.


There’s an open secret within the nation’s criminal justice industrial complex: The nation’s political class set up a system intended to exact the most amount of punishment; not one intended to rehabilitate or even assist those in the most need. Unfortunately, little funding is available for treatment services, leaving women in the same position they were in upon arriving at prison.


“Mental health hospitals existed to treat. Prisons are expected to punish,” Amy Fettig, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, said.


Fettig says law enforcement officials and eventually prison staff have become the first responders for addressing the mental health problems plaguing the nation. But that was never supposed to be the case when policy officials started de-institutionalizing psychiatric hospitals beginning in the 1960s (which everyone agrees were terrible, even if they did better at diagnosing the underlying problem than incarceration). Then you throw poverty, trauma and overly criminalizing drug use into the mix, and you have a recipe for the rates we see plaguing women nationwide.


“In the seventies and eighties, the government shut down mental health hospitals and planned to fund community mental health services,” Fettig said. “Closing mental health hospitals impacted women because of the fact that so many have been subject to trauma.”


If a woman has insurance, she can likely at least access community mental health services, but the system doesn’t recognize a woman if she’s poor. Those women are left to cope on their own, using drugs as a crutch for survival — that is, until she’s in a jumpsuit.

"Mental health hospitals existed to treat. Prisons are expected to punish."

When I spoke with Debi Campbell, deputy director of Family Outreach at FAMM — a nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform — she recounted how she started using methamphetamine when she was working as a cocktail waitress.


“In my early 20s, I started struggling with anxiety. Meth made me feel normal. I started using every day and fell into selling it so that I could get it for free for myself,” Campbell said. 


She medicated herself, because no one else would. Doctors would just tell her to treat anxiety by reducing stress, which didn’t solve her uncontrollable shaking when she was overwhelmed by a panic attack. Campbell was sentenced to 19 years and 7 months in prison for conspiracy with intent to distribute methamphetamine.


“I think the thing that struck me the most was the women. I stereotyped what kind of women would be there,” Campbell said. “We picture not women like us, but the dregs of society, and then when you get there you’re shocked because you see yourself, mothers, grandmothers and sisters.”


On the second day of her incarceration, she had an intense attack — panic and fear gripped her — and she didn’t have meth to fall back on to calm her. She was seen by psychiatric services, put on Prozac and hasn’t had a panic attack since.


“When I was diagnosed and given medication, I was just desperate to feel normal. After about four months I didn’t have the anxiety anymore, and as time went by and I took self-help and addiction classes, I realized that had I been diagnosed years before I probably wouldn’t have used meth,” Campbell said.


Her time in prison could have been completely avoided, she says, had she only received treatment for her mental health issue earlier.


Campbell’s initial drug use was what led her to begin dealing. Personal drug use — whether recreational or medical — often leads to crimes in order to sustain the habit of using. Strathdee — the one at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine — explained how initial drug use then leads to other punishable crimes.


“Once a woman is addicted to a hard drug like heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, or cocaine, the withdrawal symptoms can drive her to desperation. That can start with petty theft, and it can often lead to sex work. In the drug trade, some women play specific roles, like acting as lookout, or carrying drugs across the border (‘mules’),” Strathdee continued. “If you look at the reasons why women are arrested, the reasons are much more likely to involve drug use or sex work compared to men.”


If a woman becomes addicted to a drug, her body begins to require it in order to function. She goes into survival mode in order to acquire whatever she has been using. 

Credit: Prison Policy Initiative

“The two things you see the most are prostitution or sex trafficking and drug possession,” Joy Sutton, of American Addiction Centers, said of how drug use leads to incarceration.


“It can start with a prescription of Adderall, but as the person’s use increases, they start buying it on the streets or turn to meth, which is illegal. This can spiral into a rabbit hole of needing money to fund your drugs, and that’s where prostitution can come into the picture, particularly for those who have experienced past trauma.”


To punish her crimes, many of which are the result of trauma, abuse or pain, the criminal justice system shackles her, slaps her with an extraordinarily long prison sentence and fails to treat the reason behind her initial drug use.


While terrifying, prison isn’t the worst part. Once these prisoners have ‘served their time,’ they then face the most daunting challenge of their life: They’re then thrust back into the world — those unforgiving, yet comforting, streets they once knew but that have evolved since they parted ways — without being equipped with the mental or educational tools they need; let alone the meds many can’t even afford.


“Incarceration interferes with housing, social services, food aid, travel, employment, education, and parenting; and the repeated cycles of violence, extortion, arrest, detention, and release are especially socially and economically destabilizing for women who use drugs,” El-Bassel, of the Columbia Social Intervention Group, said.

Credit: Prison Policy Initiative

She has essentially been set up to fail again upon her release. How will she get a job with a criminal record? Where will she live? Will she see her children? How does she cope with the trauma she has experienced both before and during her prison stay? What stigma will she carry following imprisonment? She may have no support to help her get her feet on solid ground again, making her vulnerable and at risk of abuse and drug use all over again.


Instead of pouring money into prisons, most advocates and reformists say those funds should be redirected to public health, housing, education, income support and childcare.


“Women with a drug addiction have special needs, and drug treatment programs that can deal with trauma, reproductive health issues, and child care,” Strathdee said.


If funding continues to be allocated to incarcerate women who have used and become addicted to drugs, women will continue to find themselves in circumstances that caused them to rely on drugs in the first place. Experts say the cycle won’t be broken until more treatment is available for addictions, mental health problems and trauma care.


It took Susan Burton — that mother who lost her son to a police cruiser — six imprisonments before she finally broke the government-sponsored cycle.


“I just kept falling into the same pattern each time I got out of prison,” Burton said. 


She was able to escape the cycle’s grip on her with the help of a friend and a drug treatment facility (the CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica) — not the concrete and shackles prescribed by the state. Burton received support in CLARE, but many aren’t so fortunate to find drug treatment centers they can afford.


It was her experience of treatment that pushed her to found A New Way Of Life, a non-profit that provides housing, case management, legal services, advocacy and leadership development for women rebuilding their lives after prison.


Burton is supporting women whose broken pieces were scattered after prison — women who should have been supported before prison.


“We’re not solving any problems putting women in prison for drug use. We’re simply putting more problems on top of already existing ones,” Burton continued, “The women are worse off coming out of prison than they were going in.”


In her book, “Becoming Ms. Burton,” she describes why she dedicated her life to helping formerly incarcerated women rebuild their lives: “I realized that formerly incarcerated people had no voice, and no one seemed willing to speak for us. As I built A New Way of Life, it sometimes felt as though a new underground railroad was taking shape. We, the people of the community, weren’t going to let each other fall.”


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Fighting for a second chance

When Dontrell Britton returned from federal prison to his mother’s DC apartment in 2017, he didn’t have tens of thousands of Instagram followers or over 400 thousand TikTok followers on his team like he does now.


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Fighting for a second chance

Dontrell Britton sits on the steps of his old apartment building where him and his mother lived in Adams Morgan, DC. Photo by LJ Dawson

Fighting for a second chance

Trell the Trainer gained clout for training Pusha T and Shy Glizzy, but his mission goes far beyond celebrity training. He wants all ex-felons to get a chance.

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

When Dontrell Britton returned from federal prison to his mother’s DC apartment in 2017, he didn’t have tens of thousands of Instagram followers or over 400 thousand TikTok followers on his team like he does now.


After spending his entire early twenties behind bars and growing up rough in DC’s low income housing projects, he faced the daunting task of reentering society with few resources to help him, the label felon following him around and an ankle monitor tracking his every move. 


But within a few years, Britton, who goes by “Trell the Trainer,” built a fitness brand that gained notoriety in the district as a workout program based on training he did in prison. He gained celebrity clients, Shy Glizzy and Pusha T, his training business boomed, and local outlets flocked to cover the success story of an ex-felon turned celebrity trainer.


Britton is one of an estimated 24 million Americans with a felony, but unlike him most of his peers don’t make it after returning home from prison. Nearly half of the people released in 2012, returned to prison within five years due to a parole or probation violation or a new sentence, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And as a whole this group of people face staggering rates of homelessness and unemployment compared to the general population.


Since returning home and starting two businesses, Britton has made it his mission to fight the stigma of “felon” by telling his story and help other returning citizens by employing them first in his personal training business and most recently through his vegan food truck. 

Britton points to his mother's old apartment window where he cut a hole in the screen to sell drugs out of.

Britton spent his childhood moving around different low income apartments with his mother – one bedroom units packed with up to seven family members. His father was absent while he was growing up and was shot and killed when Britton was 16. Britton and his friends looked up to the older men around the neighborhood with nice cars, shoes and flocks of women. The streets and selling drugs were the default option.

He got tangled up with law enforcement early in his teens for the common charges that plague DC’s youth: auto theft, armed robbery and illegal gun possession. He spent his young adult life cycling in and out of juvenile detention, spending more time behind bars than at a school desk.

“I think I was just too caught up in being the toughest or the coolest. And I thought that was getting in trouble carrying guns, selling drugs [and] getting all the girls. So I just embodied that whole entire lifestyle."

“All of us graduated to prison,” Britton said. Every time he was arrested, he returned to a juvenile detention center full of familiar faces of friends, young kids like him trapped in the same cycle from the same low income neighborhoods. 


He told his mother that his goal in life was to be “a big drug dealer.” Older mentors tried to reach Britton, but he didn’t hear them. 


“I think I was just too caught up in being the toughest or the coolest. And I thought that was getting in trouble carrying guns, selling drugs [and] getting all the girls. So I just embodied that whole entire lifestyle,” Britton said. 

Britton looks at his old elementary school in Adams Morgan.

But at 19-years-old that lifestyle came to an end. The FBI raided Britton’s home as part of a monthslong investigation into a network of over 15 people distributing drugs including heroin and crack cocaine. This time it wasn’t a short few month juvenile sentence. He was staring down federal time as an adult. His mother was put in cuffs when their home was raided, and a few months after the raid his grandmother died of a heart attack. 


Britton was sent to DC jail to await his trial, facing charges that could land him up to 10 years in prison. And DC jail was not juvenile detention. Fights in the jail meant people were stabbed and even killed, and the mental stress of seeing violence everyday wore him down. As Britton sat awaiting court dates, the gravity of his mother’s arrest and grandmother’s death sank in.

“It’s not just affecting me, it’s affecting everybody around me,” Britton said he realized. The stress of waiting trial, the environment of the jail and realizing the impacts of his actions pushed Britton to start working out. Britton and other people in the jail would sneak pull ups on the stairs when correction officers weren’t looking. He began hoarding Men’s Health magazines. 


“That book was like my Bible. I don’t know what it was about it, but it was teaching me hygiene, how to floss, how to do a proper push up,” Britton said. Everyone in jail knew to read the magazines before they permanently disappeared into the stack he kept in his cell. Britton adjusted to jail as the months wore on, and working out helped keep his mind preoccupied. 

By the time Britton was sentenced and transferred to prison, his training was paying off. He’d gotten “swole.” Within two months, over twenty other inmates began meeting Britton and his friend to train in the yard every afternoon. He was the rookie on the compound, but the most in shape in his unit. But he didn’t consider training as a career until an older friend in prison mentioned it to him. He looked into the average salary and decided to study for the certification as his release date loomed.

Graphic from The Prison Policy Institute.

“You'd be surprised, people genuinely do want to do good and change. Sometimes lack of finances or environment is the downfall for a lot of returning citizens,” Britton said.

When Britton returned from prison to his mothers one bedroom apartment in 2017, he was 24-years-old and the biggest bullet point on his resume was felon. The bartending job he landed didn’t last long after his parole officer insisted on checking up on him at work. “Everybody knew I was a felon and I was like the oddball out of the group,” Britton said. 


Britton’s ankle monitor would flag him for a violation if he left home. So when he quit his job, he started training in his apartment complex’s laundry room. He began with some Instagram pictures of his abs and then before and after photos of his first clients. Business quickly picked up as he took any clients that came his way. 


But as his business grew, he still struggled with finding housing and with his parole officers. 


“Not that they have bad intentions, but they definitely didn’t have good intentions,” Britton said. When he finally found an apartment that allowed him to rent despite his felony, his parole officer’s home visit caused his landlords to ask anxiously if they were police visiting him. 


“You’d be surprised, people genuinely do want to do good and change. Sometimes lack of finances or environment is the downfall for a lot of returning citizens,” Britton said. 


Most people return home from prison with little financial support, a record that prevents them from getting jobs and housing, and the ever-present option of slipping back to the quick money of the drug game.


A report on those released from prison in 2010 found that 33% of people found no job at all in four years post release and around two-thirds of the population were jobless at any given time, according to the Prison Policy Institute

Britton sits on his old block 17th and Euclid with some of the youth he employees with his vegan food truck.

And the jobs people do find are bad. “Harsh parole conditions, a lack of social welfare programs, and a tough job market are forcing formerly incarcerated people — already a low-income, majority-minority demographic — into the least desirable jobs,” the report added. 


Britton said he sees his peers return home and spend weeks looking for a job before returning to selling drugs in desperation often with the intention to just hold them over until they find work. 


“But once you pick up that pack, that job is less desirable,” he said. “It takes a strong, strong personal mindset and support and it hasn’t been easy. I still battle with it to this day, and I’ve been out five plus years.” 


During Britton’s reentry process he took programs like anger management that he said helped, but did not address his reality. “At the end of the day, I’m a 24-year-old man returning to society. I need money,” he said. 


“They want a 16-year-old to not sell drugs. They want a person coming home from prison to get a job. You gotta give me an alternative, if you want me to stop selling drugs, like you need to be putting some money in my pocket, and not having me just go to these free classes,” Britton said. 

Training celebrities was life changing for Britton not only because it built his training brand, but it put a light on what he said he was really trying to do: talk about reform and inspire people with his story. He became his best proof that it was possible to spend most of your life behind bars, wrapped up in selling drugs, and still make it out with your life, freedom and even your own businesses. 


Because of the stigma of being a felon and difficulty he experienced growing up and when he re-entered society after prison, Britton has made it his mission to create jobs for at-risk youth and people with records.


“With the food truck and the training, you’re getting paid so you have a legit job. And the environment that I create, it’s fun and it’s welcoming,” Britton said. It may not be life changing, but it is a start, he added.


His most recent effort, the Glizzys Vegan Food Company, started with his friend Nathan Headspeth, has been serving plant based food in district style for almost a year.


Whether someone working is making a plant-based hot dog or street corn, Britton said that they know they aren’t the only felon there.


“We together, and the goal is to uplift and show people that we collectively aren’t our mistakes that we made,” he said. 

Britton hopes to open a full restaurant for the Glizzys food truck within the next year.

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She Said Her Husband Was Abusive. A Judge Took Away Her Kids and Ordered Her Arrest.

Kevin Serna for ProPublica

She Said Her Husband Was Abusive. A Judge Took Away Her Kids and Ordered Her Arrest.

The judge in Julie Valadez’s custody case found her disruptive, questioned her credibility and put out a warrant for her arrest. A rare appellate victory is now giving her case a fresh look, but Valadez still is fighting for her four children. This story was originally published by ProPublica.

By Meg O'Matz
By Meg O'Matz

Megan O’Matz is a reporter at ProPublica, where she covers issues out of Wisconsin.

After the judge in her Wisconsin divorce case ruled that her ex-husband — a man who had sought treatment for anger and alcohol issues — would get legal custody of and equal time with their four children, Julie Valadez vowed to fight back.


But in every key ruling that followed, the Waukesha County Circuit Court judge overseeing her case, Michael J. Aprahamian, found Valadez’s concerns about her ex-husband not credible and her actions unacceptable. Aprahamian took away her ability to co-parent her children. He held her in contempt four times. And after Aprahamian ordered her arrest, she braced herself for jail.

Valadez, whose accusations of domestic abuse had led to her husband’s arrest, ran through a string of attorneys and represented herself at times. Eventually she found a Milwaukee civil rights attorney to represent her, along with a public defender, and enlisted the help of a Washington, D.C., legal service for domestic violence survivors.

And in recent weeks, with a pair of rare appeals court victories and Aprahamian’s decision to remove himself from the case, Valadez has found reason to hope that better days are ahead for her and her children.

Appellate reversals in these kinds of cases are unusual, in part because of the time and money it takes to pursue them. Valadez’s case provides a window into the largely unexplored world of family court, the appeals process and the problems encountered by women who say they’ve been victims of domestic abuse.


A common concern in these situations is that family courts will favor shared custody even if one parent says the other is abusive, sometimes misapplying the law and forcing long, expensive legal battles. ProPublica reported in September on another woman’s lengthy family court ordeal, which also took place in Wisconsin’s Waukesha County, but before a different judge. That story explored how Wisconsin courts, in working to give fathers equal parenting rights, often fail to deal with the complexities that arise in these cases and downplay women’s concerns about their own safety and that of their children.

State systems, according to women’s advocates, often put mothers who survived domestic violence at a disadvantage, liable to be seen as noncooperative when the court seeks some sort of compromise.

Valadez, believing that her case was being mishandled, went to great lengths to be heard while also fending off accusations that she was unruly or was somehow failing to do what’s best for her children.


Then, late last year, Valadez won her state appeal challenging Aprahamian’s custody decision on the basis that Ricardo Valadez, her former husband, had not completed the legally required treatment for domestic abusers. In its rebuke, the state Court of Appeals in Waukesha County found Aprahamian had “failed to explicitly apply the proper legal standard” required in cases involving domestic abuse.


The court stated in its Dec. 29 opinion that the judge “read words into the statute that are not there” and “ignored words that are there.” It ordered Aprahamian to reconsider the Valadez decision.


In the wake of that ruling, a January court session drew several spectators from the community: mothers who wore “#Julie4Change” T-shirts, a reference to a website Julie Valadez set up to bring attention to her legal quest.

But from the bench, Aprahamian declined to immediately alter the custody arrangement. The two sides were ordered to appear in court again at a later date.


“Why do we have to wait that long?” Valadez whispered to her attorney.


Weeks later, in early February, Valadez won at the appellate level again, as the court found that the judge had erred when he held her in contempt for emailing him after he had told her not to, failing to sign a release of records and refusing to undergo a psychological exam.


The contempt charges were a reflection of the tense atmosphere inside the court and how Valadez’s own actions have come under heavy scrutiny.

Ricardo Valadez’s lawyer has said that Julie Valadez has made unsubstantiated claims against her ex-husband and undermined the relationship between father and children. Guardians ad litem appointed by the court to determine the best interests of the children also have generally favored her ex-husband and supported the idea that Julie Valadez is being unreasonable. The judge, meanwhile, described her as disruptive and unwilling to follow his instructions.


Aprahamian has since acquiesced to her request for a new judge and is now off the case. He said he could not discuss the case with ProPublica. Ricardo Valadez, through his attorney, also declined to comment.


The victories have given Julie Valadez a measure of satisfaction, but they have yet to produce the desired effect: She’s still separated by court order from her four children, ages 8 to 16. The next hearing is set for Thursday.


“It’s been torture,” Valadez said of the legal battle that’s been going on since 2018 and now includes more than 800 documents. “I don’t even know what will happen to our family; it’s truly horrifying.”


Alcohol, Outbursts and a Fractured Marriage

Julie Valadez was a bride at 19 and a mother at 21. Her husband was 27 when they married. He studied to become a pastor and also sold life insurance.


They had three more children over their 16-year union, and Julie spent her days taking care of the brood and doing volunteer work. Two of the children are autistic, and she primarily handled the doctor’s appointments and school schedule and arranged for help from behavioral therapists, life-skill helpers and outside specialists.


In court papers, she described enduring her husband’s intimidating and violent outbursts, property damage, verbal insults and alcohol abuse. In about 2014 she took refuge for a couple of days at a domestic violence shelter, her husband acknowledged on the witness stand. She then returned home.


The Valadez marriage hit a breaking point in December 2017 when, according to a criminal complaint, Ricardo Valadez came home drunk, yelled and cursed at his wife for being on her cellphone and smashed an iron to pieces. Officers with the City of Waukesha Police Department found him “visibly intoxicated,” handcuffed him and took him out of the house.

He was formally charged months later, in May 2018, with one count of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor classified as domestic abuse. It later was downgraded to a municipal ordinance violation after he started participating in counseling.


At one point, Ricardo Valadez described his therapy sessions in criminal court, saying: “I cried, and I dealt with my alcohol issues. We dealt with my anger issues. We dealt with, obviously, my whole life changing, no longer in a marriage and seeing my children as much as I wanted to see my children.”


He added, “I continue to do counseling just because I want to improve myself as a person. I want to be a better dad, obviously providing for my children.”


He pleaded no contest and paid a fine.


By then, Julie Valadez had filed for divorce and secured a restraining order against him, describing incidents of stalking, harassment and violence, according to court records. “He always has threatened me if I was to ever leave him,” she wrote in her request for the restraining order. “He has said a number of times that he would kill me; and if I was ever with someone else, he’d kill them.”


At one point during the divorce, Valadez said, she abandoned her home and moved with her children to a protected address under Wisconsin’s Safe at Home program.

Wisconsin’s family law prizes cooperation between exes, but the law anticipates that interaction between parents in abusive relationships can present a dangerous, if not lethal, situation.


The law instructs court-appointed attorneys for children, called guardians ad litem, to investigate possible domestic abuse in families and then advise judges on their findings. A 2021 study by the University of Wisconsin, however, found that guardians ad litem typically don’t have enough resources for evidence collection or expert help, and they lack training about domestic abuse.


Julie Valadez has argued in her case that the initial guardian ad litem did not investigate the abusive dynamics in her marriage; she alleged that a second such attorney, appointed later during the appeal, dragged her and her ex back into court over parenting issues after the custody decision, even though neither parent had filed a motion requesting circuit court intervention about the children.


As the case wore on, Julie Valadez exasperated the court officials, including the guardians ad litem and the judge. Aprahamian deemed some of her allegations about her ex-husband “vindictive and picayune.”


As a result of her complaints, police arrested her ex-husband twice for allegedly violating the restraining order — once after he sent her reproachful electronic messages about money and once after he stepped inside the house when she wasn’t there to bring a child to a school bus. Ricardo Valadez was not prosecuted for entering the home and was found not guilty of violating the restraining order for sending the messages.

Kurt M. Schuster, Ricardo’s attorney, accused Julie in court filings of creating an unsettling environment for her children. “I don’t think she’s capable of putting her children’s best interest above her own,” Schuster said in an interview.


To Julie Valadez, the notion that she has benefited in any way from the custody battle is laughable. For instance, she said, she took a huge financial hit when she left the large house that her husband was making payments on for an apartment she had to pay for.

“It was a disaster for me,” she said. “I lost everything.”

A Skeptical Judge

The Valadez divorce trial, in early 2020, lasted five days.


Julie Valadez testified in detail about her allegations of abusive behavior by her husband. She recalled one incident in which she said he was “very drunk and being aggressive verbally and physically” as they struggled over car keys and another in which she said he grabbed her arm “to the point where it hurt and left red marks.” She testified that he threatened her, saying she would regret leaving him and he would “make me pay for this.”

She described for the judge outbursts by her husband where, she said, he punched holes in the walls of their homes. “He had punched them next to my head or he kicked a hole in the wall,” she said in court.


While on the stand, Ricardo Valadez refused to answer certain pointed questions about his wife’s allegations of domestic violence, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The questions included: “Isn’t it true you have physically hurt Miss Valadez?”


Aprahamian issued a 34-page decision in April 2020.


He agreed with recommendations by a court-appointed social worker and the first guardian ad litem that the couple exchange the children weekly. The handoffs were to be done at a police station.


Shared legal custody, however, was a different matter because of questions whether the former spouses could cooperate (although the social worker thought it unwise for either of them to act without the other’s input). Julie Valadez argued that a restraining order she obtained in 2018 against her husband made communicating with each other problematic and that she alone should have legal custody.


Aprahamian made note in his ruling of Ricardo Valadez’s 2017 arrest. Referencing incidents that spurred the divorce filing, the judge wrote that there was a “pattern of domestic abuse occurring coincident to the initiation of this case.” But he said he would not take into consideration Julie Valadez’s other accusations.


“The Court does not find credible Ms. Valadez’s other allegations of abuse and battery, including uncorroborated allegations of sexual abuse, physical abuse, stalking and property damage,” Aprahamian concluded.

The judge acknowledged that Ricardo Valadez, whom he described as an alcoholic, had lied to the court about his sobriety. Still, he wrote, “As a general matter, the Court found Ms. Valadez not credible.”


“She was evasive in answering questions and repeatedly asked to have simple, straightforward questions repeated prior to answer,” Aprahamian ruled.


For example, asked by the then guardian ad litem Katherine J. De Lorenzo if she believed she could cooperate with her ex-husband if awarded joint legal custody, Julie Valadez said at trial: “I have been cooperative.”


“Can you answer the question?” the judge asked.


“If I would be cooperative, is the question? Can you repeat your question?” she replied.

De Lorenzo obliged but warned: “Try and listen to my questions. They’re pretty simply stated, Ms. Valadez.”


Valadez said in an interview that in this and other similar instances she merely was trying to make sure she understood what she was being asked.


Aprahamian concluded that Ricardo Valadez “likely would put his children’s interests above his own.” He ruled that Ricardo should have sole legal custody, giving him control of decision-making on major issues in the children’s lives, though he was instructed not to change the kids’ school or doctors.


For Julie Valadez, the ruling was a harsh blow. She worried about how her ex would manage all the special services the children needed and about his drinking and anger issues.


“It was just a dangerous situation,” she said. “To me it seems obvious.”


She first undertook handling her own appeal in June 2020 but later had assistance from Washington, D.C., attorney Jay C. Johnson, acting as pro bono co-counsel with DV LEAP, a nonprofit that seeks to help victims pursue appeals in cases involving domestic violence.


Judges have wide discretion in custody cases and appeals are rare, said Elizabeth Vogel, DV LEAP’s managing attorney. Many litigants in family court don’t have a trial attorney, discover it’s hard to find an attorney to pursue an appeal and face short deadlines to file challenges.


DV LEAP saw merit in Julie Valadez’s case because the judge had recognized a pattern of domestic abuse but had concluded wrongly that her husband still had satisfied conditions for custody despite not receiving adequate counseling.


“Julie’s case is, sadly, such an excellent example of how judges take liberties in their reasoning to get around statutes that are meant to protect survivors,” Vogel said.


The Court of Appeals agreed that Ricardo Valadez was not entitled to sole legal custody because he had not shown he had successfully completed state-mandated treatment for batterers from a certified program.


Also, though Aprahamian required “absolute sobriety” from Ricardo and ordered the exchange of children at the police department, the appellate court ruled he did not make the safety of Julie and her children a “paramount concern” in determining who the children would live with, as required by state law.


Reversing the judgment by Aprahamian, the appellate court sent the case back to family court for reconsideration.


After the favorable appellate court ruling, Johnson tweeted that the decision “sets strong precedent for domestic abuse victims who are seeking custody of their children.”

Appealing to a Higher Court

During the year and a half that the case was on appeal, Vogel said in an interview, Aprahamian appeared to subject Julie Valadez to “an extreme level of retaliation” through his multiple rulings.

That’s not unheard of. Women across the country have told ProPublica that family courts have not only overlooked their allegations of domestic abuse but have acted to punish them by taking away much or all of their time with their children for making what the court considers to be false, or minor, allegations of abuse.


When these women openly complain, file motions or defy the court orders, judges can view them as mentally unfit or hold them in contempt.


In Valadez’s case, tensions between her and the judge never seemed to abate, and along the way she lost the ability to regularly see her children.


Aprahamian appointed a new guardian ad litem, Molly Jasmer, in September 2020 to interact with the appellate court and represent the children’s best interests.

In April 2021, Jasmer filed a 38-page brief with the appellate court outlining why Aprahamian’s ruling was correct. The brief was also signed by Ricardo Valadez’s attorney.

A month earlier, Aprahamian had taken away Julie Valadez’s parenting time with her second oldest child, then 13, after she didn’t make the boy available to meet with Jasmer. Because the judge had already ruled on custody a year earlier, Valadez questioned Jasmer’s involvement.


Jasmer declined to comment for this story.


Valadez contested the no-contact order not just in family court but in a suit she brought against Aprahamian and Jasmer in federal court in June 2021. That suit was dismissed.

“From my standpoint, it’s not personal,” Aprahamian said of the federal suit in a July hearing on the Valadez custody case. “It’s like ‘The Godfather.’ This is just business.”

Less than a month later, Aprahamian issued a bench warrant for Julie Valadez’s arrest for failing to comply with his directive to sign over certain records and undergo a psychological exam requested by Jasmer. At the same hearing, he suspended her parenting time — in effect, preventing her from seeing any of her children except under limited, supervised circumstances.


Her attorney at the time, Will Green, was taken aback. “Holy cow,” he said in court.

“Am I saying she is going to cause harm to them intentionally? That’s not what I’m saying,” the judge explained. “I’m finding she’s taken steps that are not in the best interests of the children and continues to do so.”


The judge had expressed frustration, for example, with Valadez bringing her children along with her when she served Jasmer with the federal suit.

Psychological testing is widely used in custody cases when there is a concern about a parent’s fitness.


The use of such tests, however, can be unwise when there’s a history of abuse, according to the Domestic Abuse Guidebook for Wisconsin Guardians Ad Litem. Abuse victims, it notes, may reasonably show symptoms associated with a large range of mental health difficulties, such as anxiety, paranoia, trouble sleeping, frequent worry or blaming others for their problems.


Ricardo Valadez was not asked to undergo such an exam.


“I was found to be a fit parent,” Julie Valadez said of the initial custody order. “I was never found to be an unfit parent. They had provided no valid reason for me to have a psych eval.”


Aside from some therapy sessions together, she said, she hasn’t had any significant time with her one son for nearly a year and her other three children for several months.


Valadez avoided jail when the Waukesha County public defender’s office got involved and persuaded the Court of Appeals in September 2021 to quash the bench warrant and stay the jail term during her appeal of the custody decision.

She received additional help when, last fall, William F. Sulton, a Milwaukee civil rights attorney, agreed to represent her.



“The case is so unusual in that the judge tried to put her in jail,” Sulton said. “So I really believe she was at risk of losing her liberty.”



Said Sulton: “Unfortunately, the court system does not treat unrepresented people with the respect that they deserve. And so it is not uncommon to see judges and other lawyers singling out, with draconian measures, people who are unrepresented.”



In reversing Aprahamian earlier this month, the appeals court found that the type of contempt the judge used was “punitive” and not lawful — except in one instance when the judge used it to preserve order in the court when he took issue with Julie interrupting him. It vacated the three other contempt rulings.



Getting those rulings took months of perseverance, as Valadez chased down transcripts, switched attorneys, filed court documents and appeals and studied the intricacies of Wisconsin law and court procedures. She believes her appeals exacerbated tensions inside Aprahamian’s courtroom.



“They didn’t want this,” she said. “It’s a big deal to get reversed like they did.”

At the crux of the appellate court’s ruling in the custody case were the counseling sessions Ricardo Valadez attended as a result of his criminal case and Aprahamian’s decision to accept those as proof of rehabilitation even though they weren’t certified by the Wisconsin Batterers Treatment Providers Association.

Aprahamian’s replacement will now have to rule on custody and other related issues. Sulton said in an interview that the latest treatment program completed by Valadez should be disregarded because it came too late and is inadequate because there is no proof it reduces violence.


Still to be determined is when Julie Valadez can be an active mother to her children again.


“I just want to get my kids back,” she said. Their Christmas gifts, she said, are still waiting for them, by the fireplace in her apartment.


Sentenced to death by old age

Sentenced to death by old age

A growing geriatric prison population borders on a crisis of care and life sentences turning into death sentences for thousands

By Tony Vick

Tony Vick, author of Secrets From A Prison Cell, (A Convict's Eyewitness Accounts of the Dehumanizing Drama of Life Behind Bars)," was published by Cascade Books.

One in ten state prisoners nowadays is a lifer, and about the same proportion of federal prisoners over 50 are serving 30 to life.  In short, more than 100,000 prisoners are currently destined to die in prison, and far more will remain there well into their 60s and 70s.  Many of these men—as most are men—were never violent criminals even in their youth.


The boom in geriatric prisoners is the inevitable result of legislation from the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s laws, which dramatically extended sentences and slashed parole opportunities.  According to a June 2012 report by the Pew Center on the States, drug offenders released in 2009 had spent 36 percent longer behind bars, on average, than those released in 1990.


The United States leads the world in incarceration with more than 2.3 million people in its prisons and jails, and the graying of this population is shaping up to be a crisis with moral, practical and economic implications for cash-strapped governments. In recent years, a growing number of advocates—and even a handful of corrections officials and politicians—have dared to suggest that we consider setting some of these old-timers free.

As of 2010, state and federal prisons housed more than 26,000 prisoners 65 and older and close to five times that number of 55 and up, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. (Both numbers are significant, since long-term incarceration is said to add 10 years to a person’s physical age; in prison, 55 is old). From 1995 to 2010, as America’s prison population grew 42 percent, the number of prisoners over 55 grew at nearly seven times that rate. Today, roughly 1 in 12 state and federal prisoners is 55 or older. 


And the trend is worsening.  A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that, by 2030, the over-55 group will number more than 400,000—a significant part of the overall prison population.  


Keeping thousands of old men locked away might make sense to die-hards seeking maximum retribution or politicians seeking political cover, but it has little effect on public safety.  By age 50, people are far less likely to commit serious crimes.  Arrest rates drop to 2 percent.  They are almost nil at the age of 65. The arrest rate for 16 to 19 year olds, by contrast, runs around 12 percent.


Once released, therefore, the vast majority of the older prisoners never return.  Beyond any questions of efficacy or mercy lies the looming issue of the price tag.  According to the ACLU, caring for aging prisoners costs American taxpayers some $16 billion annually.  We shell out roughly $68,000 a year for each prisoner over 50, twice what it costs to keep a younger person locked up.  And the older the prisoner, the greater the cost.


Even when you factor in post-incarceration expenses—for parole, housing and public benefits such as health care—the ACLU projects that taxpayers save $66,000 a year, on average, for each prisoner over 50 our prisons set free.  “States are con-fronting the complex, expensive repercussions of their sentencing practices,” notes a 2010 report from the Vera Institute for Justice.

Prison officials are hard-pressed to provide conditions of confinement that meet the needs and respect the rights of their elderly prisoners. They are also ill-prepared—lacking the resources, plans, commitment and support from elected officials—to handle the even greater numbers of older prisoners projected for the future.


It is not difficult to see why it costs so much. The medical conditions that present themselves to long-term elderly inmates run anywhere from dialysis to cardiac treatment to dementia.  It is staff intensive.  Prisons also are not designed for people with mobility problems.  Their assisted-living and hospice units are often full to capacity.


The activities available to inmates are limited, and usually require a prisoner to walk a distance or to climb stairs.  For some old-timers, a cell is their entire world; doing time simply means awaiting death.  The rising tide of older persons in the United States as the “baby boomers” begin to hit age 65 has been called a “silver tsunami.” U.S. corrections systems are also confronting a “silver tsunami” of aging prisoners. But the wave they confront is not the result of uncontrollable natural forces. It is the result of legislation enacted decades ago.


Officials should review their sentencing and release laws and practices to determine what can be adjusted to reduce the elderly prisoner population without risking public safety. Meanwhile, corrections officials should review the conditions of confinement for their elderly prisoners, including the services and programs available to them, and make changes as needed to ensure their human rights are respected.

About the Writer:  Tony Vick, 60, has served 25 years on a Life With Parole sentence in Tennessee. In 2018, his essays and poems, “Secrets From A Prison Cell, (A Convict’s Eyewitness Accounts of the Dehumanizing Drama of Life Behind Bars),” was published by Cascade Books.  His works have been included in multiple books and publications, most recently “Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality & the Arts,” and a poetry anthology, “A 21st Century Plague: Poetry from a Pandemic,” by Elayne Clift.  To contact him:  Tony Vick, #276187, SCCF, PO Box 279, Clifton, TN  38425.  Email:


The Controversy of Nurseries in Jails and Prisons

The Controversy of Nurseries in Jails and Prisons

 Advocates seem to agree that nurseries in jails and prisons are necessary, but far from ideal.

By Abby Ilfeld
By Abby Ilfeld

Abby Ilfeld attends Columbia University and Trinity College Dublin, where she majors in Political Science and European Studies.

While nurseries in prisons are a justifiably contentious topic, the one inside Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in Bedford Hills, New York, is respected by its community and advocates.


“[Prisons are] not places built for anyone, but especially not for children,” said Dr. Lorie Goshin, an expert in nursing and associate professor at Hunter College.


“But local advocates want it to stay open. There are no other structures to keep women and children together in the context of mass incarceration,” Goshin continued, highlighting the fundamental controversy at the center of the discussion surrounding prison nurseries.


The criminal justice system is not kind to many, much less pregnant women, as the News Station reported in September. Most who give birth while incarcerated are separated immediately from their newborns. But in select prisons across the United States, women can participate in a program in which their newborn lives with them for the first few months of his or her life.

These nurseries are part of a larger discussion about incarcerated women and, more specifically, incarcerated mothers. As of 2019, there were 231,000 women and girls in prisons, jails and other detention centers–a number seven times higher than in 1980, and the number of women in jails rose during the past few years. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 60% of women in state prisons and 80% in jails have children under 18. Most of these incarcerated women are single mothers.


Since many of these women are tackling motherhood alone, that leaves the question of what happens to their children when they are incarcerated. With no end in sight for mass incarceration and its pervasive effects, many advocates are just trying to do damage control for women and children affected by the criminal justice system, which leads advocates to look at these nurseries as a necessary Band-Aid.


For most incarcerated pregnant women, carceral nurseries are not even an option. Though many countries utilize nurseries in their prisons, they are fairly rare in the United States. Currently, the only states with prison nurseries are New York, Delaware, West Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and California.


Because they are so uncommon, many people are unaware of these nurseries’ existence and there is currently no widespread movement in favor or against them. But in New York, those fighting for women in criminal justice are acutely aware of the one at Bedford Hills, which is the oldest and most established prison nursery in the country. It is enshrined in state law in section 611, the same law that prohibits the use of shackles on incarcerated women giving birth.


According to the New York Department of Corrections, there were four mothers at the facility in August, and it can house up to 27 women and their babies at a time. It is run by an outside organization called Hour Children; the maximum-security prison has a $510,000 annual contract with the organization. A correction officer is on site 24 hours, seven days a week and Hour Children has volunteers who work at the prison during the week. Medical personnel and other officers check in on the mothers and babies regularly.

“The benefit of the nursery,” wrote Thomas Mailey, the public information officer for the New York DOC, in an email, “is to provide the nursery mother the opportunity to learn the skill[s] necessary to become a good parent in an environment that frees them from the daily struggles that they face in the community.”


“[It] allows mothers to bond and care for their children while still serving their state prison sentence and participating in their regular mandatory correctional programming.”


These benefits are supported by evidence. Dr. Goshin has worked on multiple studies concerning the effects of prison nurseries, including one that tracked children born in Bedford Hills until five years old. The data was clear. 


“Children are able to develop strong attachment styles in prison nurseries, which is usually not the case in mothers who have a history of insecure attachments [like many of the women in the nursery],” Goshin said. 


“Insecure attachment” classifies all non-secure attachment styles and is typically categorized by feelings of anxiety or fear in relationships; this is usually influenced by parent-child relationships during youth. Goshin and fellow researchers found that kids in prison nurseries had stronger attachments than ones separated from their mother in prison.


Goshin believes the Bedford Hills nursery is a place with the best interests of the women and their children in mind, especially with the guidance and oversight from Hour Children. But that still doesn’t make it an ideal place for babies.


“These women and children are kept under constant supervision. But toddlers want to roam around, be curious and explore. Prison is just not a place for that at all,” Goshin said.


Another issue for Goshin is the restrictions for women to be eligible for the prison nursery program. Participants must have a “nonviolent conviction, no history of child welfare and must be on track to give birth in prison,” she said. This set of guidelines is standard for prisons across the country, and when examining the women who are in these programs, Goshin asks, “Why are these women even in prison?”

Potentially even more concerning is the idea of women in jail nurseries with their newborns. “They’re designed to be temporary,” Dr. Goshin said, emphasizing why jails should not house children.


Nevertheless, multiple jail nursery programs do exist in New York. Aside from one on Rikers Island, there is one in operation at Yaphank jail in Suffolk County, Long Island. Advocates for New Hour, a group on Long Island that works with Hour Children, are looking to expand New Hour’s programming to the neighboring, much larger Nassau County, which bans carceral nurseries.


The jail nursery in Suffolk County Correctional Facility is not as structured as the Bedford Hills one, and the requirements are up to the local sheriff, according to Serena Liguori, the executive director for New Hour.


“Most of the people who run the jails and oversee the courts are men, and they often don’t understand or consider what is best for the mothers and their children,” Liguori said, which makes New Hour’s work all the more important. New Hour provides programs that include services for parents, children and their wellness.


But New Hour has not been able to access in-person programming at the jail since September, when they were locked out because of COVID-19 cases among officers. “They had over 80 out sick with COVID and [the officers] refuse to wear masks most times that we have been there,” Liguori said.


Programming has continued online, Danielle Donaphin, New Hour’s director of programming, said. This includes classes focusing on health and wellness, as well as the parenting program. When asked about when the organization expects to return in person, Donaphin said, “It’s unlikely to be soon with the [COVID-19] transmission rate over 6%.” She described the current atmosphere in jail as “tense.”


“We want to continue to be a resource for these women and create support systems for them, which will help their children as well,” Liguori said.


Still, Liguori wishes these nurseries didn’t have to exist at all. Like Goshin, Liguori expressed frustration that these women are in jail. “Having mothers and their babies behind bars is really barbaric,” she said. “Ultimately we want these women to be in alternative-to-incarceration programs.”

That seems to be the goal for incarcerated women’s advocates throughout New York. Kristin Edwards, a social worker and director of the Women’s Community Justice Project (WCJP), also expressed her dislike of jail nurseries. “If we ever find out there’s a woman there who’s pregnant, we try to get them out as soon as possible,” she said. However, most of her work focuses on serving women, often mothers, under threat of incarceration at Rikers.


WCJP is a consortium of organizations that includes Housing Plus, Providence House, Greenhope and Hour Children. Across these groups they provide 59 total units of supportive housing for women impacted by incarceration. Ten of them are specifically for women and their families.


WCJP is only four years old and relies on funding from the New York City mayor’s office of criminal justice. “It was very clear that most of the women we were serving at WCJP were mothers, and one of the main areas that they wanted to focus on was reunifying with their families and children,” Edwards said.


Edwards and her consortium are connected to the effort to close Rikers. “Our hope is that we can continue to build out this program and successfully house and assist as many women as possible so that they can close [the Rosie M. Singer Women’s Center at Rikers Island] way sooner than they plan on closing the other facilities,” she said.


In the meantime, WCJP offers diverse resources to support these women. “Hopefully we can lessen the chance that they would end up back in the system again,” Edwards said. 


As of October, women in the Rosie M. Singer center have been moved upstate to facilities like Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facility due to dangerous conditions at the Rikers facility. “It is unclear to me how they will handle pregnant women currently detained at Rikers,” said Edwards.


The efforts to close Rosie’s and ultimately Rikers itself offer hope that alternatives to incarceration will be relied on more, especially for pregnant women and new mothers entering prison or jail. Goshin also believes there is hope for a larger shift toward incarceration alternatives. 

“Even in conservative states, there has been a focus on incarceration reduction, for financial reasons, at least,” she said, echoing a hope that one day there will not even be the issue of newborn mothers being incarcerated.


Who’s Electing Judges in the Cleveland Area? Not Those Ensnared in the System

Who’s Electing Judges in the Cleveland Area? Not Those Ensnared in the System

In Cuyahoga County, voting patterns have resulted in mostly White judges deciding the fate of mostly Black criminal defendants

By Rachel Dissell, Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg and Wesley Lowery
By Rachel Dissell, Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg and Wesley Lowery

This story is published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the U.S. criminal justice system. You can learn more about Testify or subscribe to follow our Cleveland reporting here.

Few people in Cuyahoga County wield as much power over as many lives as the 34 elected judges who preside over felony cases. These Common Pleas judges consider the cases of thousands of people a year, making decisions about bail, plea deals and sentencing. They determine who feels the full weight of the law and who receives leniency. 


But when it comes time for residents to vote those judges in — or out — of office, the people with the most at stake often don’t cast ballots.


Take Ward 5, a majority Black area about three miles east of Cleveland’s downtown Justice Center. In the past six years, an unusually high proportion of defendants listed the ward as their home address — the second-highest in the county. Yet just about a quarter of the ward’s registered voters marked a ballot for a judge in 2020. To put that into perspective, Ward 17 saw more than half of its registered voters cast a ballot for judge in 2020.


Attorneys, academics and people who have experienced the system firsthand offered fundamental reasons for low turnout: a glaring lack of useful information about how the courts operate and the individual track records of judges themselves, compounded by a deep distrust of the entire criminal justice system. That’s also what more than 40 residents told us in interviews conducted by the Cleveland Documenters, a group that pays people to attend local government meetings and gather civic information.


Christopher Thorpes, a community activist and lifelong resident of Ward 5, told The Marshall Project even though he has worked on political campaigns, he doesn’t vote for judges. Residents tell him, he said, that they know firsthand how unfair the system is, so why should they legitimize it? “Nobody wants to vote for a person who might end up locking them up,” he said.

Black residents of Cuyahoga County are arrested and sent to prison at disproportionate rates. To understand what role the court system — and its elected judges — play in these lopsided outcomes, The Marshall Project collected and analyzed more than six years of court data.


The Marshall Project spent months using tools to “scrape” the court records, one case at a time, from public internet dockets to assemble a database. We also compared defendants’ home addresses with county elections data to understand which voters were casting ballots in judicial races. We intend to use these analyses to answer questions we’ve gathered from community members and explore the points where injustice warps the system.

Here’s what we found:

  • Court outcomes worsen existing racial disparities. Though Black people make up only about 30% of the county’s residents, almost two-thirds of the people who are arrested by police and charged with felonies by prosecutors are Black. Then, after judges impose sentences, state records show three-quarters of people in state prisons convicted in Cuyahoga County are Black.
  • Individual judges make a big difference — for example, some judges almost never send defendants to prison for common charges like theft and low-level felony drug possession, while others incarcerate 30% or more.
  • While Cleveland residents make up two-thirds of defendants in the court, votes from the city account for less than a quarter of those cast in judges’ races. That means the vote in the predominantly White suburbs in judges’ races effectively carries three times the power of the vote in the majority Black city.

Voters have more power than they may think. If everyone who showed up to vote had cast ballots for judges as well, that could have swung the outcome in 9 of 15 contested judicial races since 2016 — without turning out a single additional voter.


Judge Brendan J. Sheehan, administrative judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, said there’s no straightforward way to determine the role of judges in sentencing disparities. “A wide variety of variables then comes into play with each case,” he said. “Simply put, there is a unique story behind each sentence that raw data cannot capture.


”Cuyahoga County’s voting patterns have resulted in mostly White judges deciding the guilt or innocence of the county’s mostly Black criminal defendants. Of the 34 judges currently on the bench in Cuyahoga County, 30 are White and four are Black.


The disparity in power between county and city voters creates a big problem, because few judges on the ballot understand the experiences of people who appear in court — often people of color living in the city, said Erika Anthony, who co-founded Cleveland VOTES.


“Essentially, our bench is dominated by White, Westside Irish Catholic individuals,” Anthony said, referring to the county’s long tradition of electing judges with the same Irish and Italian surnames, like Gallagher and Russo.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 07: Christopher Thorpe, resident and community activist at a pubic rest area at the corner of E. 40th Street & Central Ave. December 07, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (CREDIT: Amber N. Ford for The Marshall Project)

Ohio, like most states, allows voters to elect its judges. Twice, in 1938 and 1987, attempts to switch back to an appointment system have appeared on the ballot, only to be soundly defeated.


But even after fighting to keep the right to elect judges, county voters consistently show up less often for judicial elections. Many judicial races in Cuyahoga County aren’t contested — 20 of the 35 county-level criminal court judicial races since 2016 had a single candidate. That often results in less participation in those elections and easy victories for incumbents.


“It’s almost impossible to vote out a judge,” said Jerry Primm II, who has managed and consulted on judicial campaigns and said there is an unwritten rule among local Democrats to never challenge a sitting judge. “And they know this. They’re keenly aware. They know they have that job for 30 or 40 years, depending on what their age is.


”Every voting precinct in Cuyahoga County — as they do largely across the country — sees a drop off in voting in judicial races. In November 2020, 29% of county voters marked their ballot for president, but not for judges. In a precinct in Cleveland’s predominantly Latino Clark-Fulton neighborhood, nearly half of voters who cast ballots in 2020’s presidential election left the judicial races blank. In contrast, in a precinct in the Ludlow neighborhood in suburban Shaker Heights, slightly more than 13% didn’t vote for judges.


It just isn’t possible for many voters to keep track of the multiple candidates and judges’ races, experts and civic leaders say.


A 2013 report by the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association concluded “it is hard to conceive how even the most industrious and conscientious voter could possibly collect enough information to make informed decisions” — noting that the county has nearly 100 judicial elections each six-year period, with every voter eligible to pick judges at the local, county and state level.


“Voters kind of lose heart after a while,” said Lawrence Baum, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University. The sheer number of judicial races and the fact they fall to the bottom of the ballot increases fatigue, he said, and sends voters on “a desperate search for relevant information.


”State and local nonpartisan groups have stepped up efforts in recent years to give voters more information on judicial candidates, Sheehan said.


“I want as many people as possible who are eligible to vote to do just that,” Sheehan said. “We should pursue all avenues to get those voters the information they need to make informed choices.”

Fred Ward and team in KHNEMU Lighthouse Center during a meeting for Building Freedom Ohio in Cleveland, OH Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021 (Photo/Daniel Lozada)

Still, more than half of the 46 city and county residents interviewed by Cleveland Documenters said there wasn’t enough information available to help them decide which judges to vote for.


Those who voted for judges said they did research using campaign ads, news articles or websites like or, which rates candidates based on interviews with local bar associations. Often, those sources didn’t answer specific questions they had about candidates or measure how current judges were doing their jobs.


“I would like to know their records of how they sentence, and how strict they are, or how lenient they are, or if they are more prejudiced one way or another way,” said Sara R. Jackson, 79, of University Circle.


“There needs to be an unbiased committee, organization, agency or something that looks at their record –– reviews the judge’s performance,” said Donna Speigner, 56, of Warrensville Heights.


The chasm between who experiences the county’s criminal justice system and who elects its judges is most stark in Cleveland’s 7-V precinct, which includes the 350-bed men’s homeless shelter in a former metal sorting warehouse on a treeless stretch of Lakeside Avenue.


The downtown shelter makes this a unique voting precinct — many of the county’s people experiencing homelessness list it as their address both in court records and on voter registration forms. The precinct had by far the highest share of criminal defendants in 2018 and 2020 of any in the county, and also contributed one of the lowest shares of votes cast in judicial races.


About 80% of those homeless throughout the county are people of color. They also are highly likely to face the justice system, often for so-called poverty crimes, like falling asleep on a public bus, said Molly Martin, of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.


But despite their frequent contact with the justice system, Martin said homeless residents may not pay close attention to local races for powerful justice system players such as judges and county prosecutors. (The last time there was a contested county prosecutor’s race, in 2016, it garnered even fewer votes than the average judicial race.)


“If folks don’t have a consistent phone, or are living in survival mode, they’re not thinking about the election,” said Martin, who has helped lead voter registration efforts across the city during recent election cycles.


But not all areas with substantial numbers of defendants have low rates of voting for judges. There are pockets in Cleveland and the suburbs that are home to more court defendants but also vote for judges at above-average rates.


The Clark-Fulton neighborhood is home to St. Rocco, a century-old church built by working-class Italian immigrants, known for producing lawyers and revered judges, like Salvatore Calandra, who sat on the municipal court for a quarter of a century.


Today, voters in the precinct where the church stands no longer turn out in force to elect judges. Nearly half of voters in the precinct who cast ballots in last year’s presidential election left the judicial races blank. More than 1 in 20 adults in this precinct appeared before a judge between 2019 and 2020, one of the highest rates in the county.

Latinos now make up more than half the population in the neighborhood; residents speak Spanish in most of the corner stores. County voters got access to bilingual ballots about a decade ago, but only after the U.S. Justice Department threatened to sue the county’s Board of Elections.


Still, many residents are new to participating in elections for city council, mayor, and judicial races, said Selina Pagan, director for the Young Latino Network. Many likely “don’t even realize that they have power to shift these dynamics within our court system” by voting for judges, she said.


Cleveland’s Latino communities are not a monolith, she said. Puerto Rican residents often voted at much higher levels on the island, but may not feel a part of democracy in Cleveland, she said. Residents from Guatemala, Colombia or Mexico sometimes live in households with family members who are applying for U.S. citizenship or who are undocumented and can’t vote, so that habit isn’t naturally passed on to children.

Pagan sees this dynamic in her own family. “I still have to jump through hoops to talk about this stuff with my family because it’s exhausting to them,” she said. “They don’t have any hope in the system.


”Few judicial candidates prioritize campaigning in the community, which is mainly in Ward 14, perhaps because of the historically low turnout, Adam Davenport, a neighborhood planner, said.


“I’ve been working in the neighborhood for over ten years, and I’ve had maybe two judges make active efforts to come to block clubs,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a judge, maybe one, that had any campaign literature in Spanish.”


Thorpes said judicial candidates also rarely show up in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, a majority Black stretch on the near east side of the city, which is thick with low-income housing complexes. He theorized that’s because voter turnout is historically low — less than 5% of registered voters in Central turned out in November’s mayoral election. That lack of engagement means fewer chances for residents to learn about the roles judges play in the system. Or to size up how the sitting judges have treated members of their community.

“If you want my vote, you need to get out. And you know what? Even let the people do a survey on you,” Thorpes said.

Common Pleas Judge William Vodrey, elected in 2020 after his second run, said he tried to campaign “anywhere I thought I might find voters,” whether the most affluent or the poorest neighborhoods in the county.


It was easier to do, he said, in places with already active Democratic ward clubs, most of which are in the suburbs. (Vodrey said he does remember attending one information session in Ward 5, which includes Central.)Vodrey said he sent out some campaign mailers in Spanish and Arabic. “I don’t know how many voters that might have reached,” he said. “But I thought it was important to meet people where they were at.


”Residents in Central have some of the most pressing reasons to care about which judges are elected. About 1 in 8 residents faced charges before a judge in the past six years, and that experience ripples out into the community, to their families and friends. It’s hard to expect people who are returning from incarceration or who have encountered police or courts to act alone to change the system, said Fred Ward, a founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Necessary Political Action Committee, which started interviewing and endorsing judicial candidates a little over a year ago.

It can be discouraging, he said, when formerly incarcerated residents see judges who they’ve found to be unfair get political endorsements and major party backing. “They don’t feel like they have a voice,” he said. Ward said that can shift with collective action. Ward’s PAC campaigned against Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell, who lost two bids for the Ohio Supreme Court, based on his decision to acquit Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo.


The officer stood trial after he and other officers fired 137 bullets into a car following a 2012 police chase, leaving two unarmed people, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, dead. Ward’s PAC also pushed for Issue 24, a police accountability ballot initiative that passed in November.


“People in power only care about two things,” Ward said. “Whether you have the capacity to keep them in power or whether you have the capacity to take them out of power.”

Testify is The Marshall Project’s investigation into Cuyahoga County’s Criminal Courts. Learn more about this project and how to contact us directly. Have questions? Attend our office hours on February 3rd or February 8th.


Thousands of prisoners caught in broken clemency system as Congress pushes Biden to make change

Thousands of prisoners caught in broken clemency system as Congress pushes Biden to make change

Biden has yet to process thousands of applications, members of Congress introduced the FIX Clemency Act to speed up that process

By Jared Sellick
By Jared Sellick

Sellick is a journalist and writer based in Tampa, Florida.

Congress Members and the president rode into office last year on the promises of passing serious criminal justice reform. But as the months passed, a slow walking administration and procedural hurdles led to growing frustration.


As even heralded policy agendas like Build Back Better, a social spending bill meant to address child care, drug pricing negotiations and green energy, and the rest of the President’s proposed agenda is left behind by the political grindstone in the Capitol, criminal justice reform seems to be falling ever further into the background.


However, a component of criminal justice reform can be implemented by the White House without a single vote from Congress. As of Feb. 2, 18,233 clemency petitions await processing at the Department of Justice. Many of the inmates sending these clemency petitions are non-violent drug offenders. 


If Congress is indeed incapable of passing any criminal justice reform legislation in the next year before the midterms the pardon power of the Presidency may be the President’s best bet at making a difference when it comes to mass incarceration. 


If the Biden administration takes up the challenge of processing this large backlog of clemency requests, he could make a difference in thousands of families’ lives. 


“If you had a fully staffed office of Pardon Attorney who was committed to reviewing petitions and you had a president who said ‘I want 100 petitions on my desk at the end of each month,’ I think we’d see better output,” the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Kevin Ring, said. 

Clemency is a power given to the President in the U.S. Constitution to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States.” Presidents are able to end imprisonment for people in the federal system. 


In 2021, the Biden Administration’s Justice department received 191 petitions for pardons and 2,952 petitions for a commutation of sentence, according to The Office of the Pardon Attorney. Among those petitions, zero were granted. The Biden administration rejected 63 pardon petitions and 1,128 commutation sentences in the year 2021.


A commutation of a sentence means the president only reduces the time served rather than completely wiping a record clean whereas a pardon completely exonerates a person of a crime. These pardons are often used after a sentence is already complete as well to clear the record of the ex-inmate. 


But the clemency process is slow and haphazard, as Trump demonstrated with his 143 pardons from Lil Wayne to Stephen Bannon in the waning hours of his presidency while in comparison, most inmates and their families wait years for their claim to even be processed much less granted. During the Trump Administration among the 10,109 clemency petitions filed,  7,498 were closed without presidential action and 98 clemency petitions were rejected. There were 94 clemency petitions granted. 


President’s have taken radical moves with the Pardon power before. During the Carter Administration, the President pardoned all draft dodgers of the Vietnam War. In theory this cleared the record of hundreds of thousands of young men, though the vast majority of draft dodgers were never charged. 

On December 10th of 2021, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Rep. Hakeem Jefferies (D-NY) announced legislation to attempt to expedite the clemency process called the Fix Clemency Act.

At the legislation announcement, Rep. Bush spoke directly to the incarcerated people that are impacted by the lack of urgency in the clemency system, “You are not inmates, you are not convicts or felons […] you are people who are incarcerated, people who deserve the right to vote, people who do not deserve to die behind bars, people with families who depend on them and people who need us to care, center and protect them.” 

These members of Congress are calling for a new, independent clemency board to replace the current Department of Justice process. The proposed board, which would be appointed by the executive branch, would be run by experts in behavioral health, rehabilitation, and reentry. 

The legislation would aim to expand access to the applications for clemency and would ensure that all applications would be reviewed within 18 months of the time they were submitted.

The board established by this legislation would have the power to compel federal judicial officers and federal agencies to give information that may be relevant to an applicant’s case.

The board would consist of nine members and would have to contain at least one individual who has been incarcerated in the past, one individual who has been directly impacted by crime, an individual who has served on a Federal defender organization and an individual who will represent the Department of Justice. 

The bill would have no ability to ensure that an incoming president would have to abide by the board that was created. Kevin Ring explains, “One concern we have about some of these bills is how prescriptive they get about the process the president needs to follow. The President can do what he wants. He can use a board, not use a board, or use existing systems,” he said.

“I’m not sure it’s congress’s job to tell them how to review these or what the process should be. I think that’s the President’s job. So, I appreciate the spirit of it and I think we’re all pushing in the same direction,” Ring added. 

Since the bill’s introduction on Dec. 9 2021, it has picked up little traction. Since its introduction, it has received 20 sponsors in the House of Representatives. The bill is currently in committee.


This legislation is a small part of a greater promise from all levels of the Democratic party to reform the American criminal justice system and like much of the Biden campaign’s agenda, its progress has been slowed by infighting and bureaucratic hurdles.


The obstacles are often cited by the Biden administration as the reason these agenda items cannot pass. Even without the implementation of this legislation, the Biden Administration could be more proactive with clemency applications.


“We want to see more clemency grants given and that would probably benefit from a better process,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said. “But I think what we lack is political will.” He thinks that the lack of political will to grant clemencies is a bigger problem than the process. 

“There’s a lot of focus among people about moving it out of the Department of Justice and into the White House, and I think that sounds great, move it to NASA for all I care, just get a President that wants to grant these things,” Ring said.


Presidents have been proactive in granting clemency in the past. The Obama Administration granted 1,715 commutations and 212 pardons, the majority of which took place at the tail end of his presidency. 


“Had he dedicated the resources to doing that throughout his eight years, he could have gone through the whole backlog,” Ring said.


Members of the Democratic Caucus in the house have made their requests for the President to take dramatic executive action for nearly a year. On Feb. 18, 2021, 35 members of Congress signed a letter requesting the president to pardon all Federal non-violent cannabis convictions.


But a year into his presidency Biden is not ramping up the number of clemencies he is granting. Perhaps he will have a similar blitz during his lame duck session like his predecessors did, but it is unlikely the administration would review every outstanding clemency application. 


The administration has been proactive in other regards, for instance the Department of Justice allowing prisoners to remain on house arrest if they were granted such accommodations due to covid. When it comes to clemency, President Biden has conformed to the status quo which leaves over 18,000 inmates waiting in prison for their applications to be processed.


“With his clemency authority, President Biden has a powerful tool available to him to reduce the federal prison population and to rectify the injustices created by the criminal legal system,” Pressley argued at the event announcing the FIX Clemency Act.