Convener’s Corner Archives

June 1, 2018

Clemency Letter for Alice Marie Johnson to Donald Trump


May 30, 2018

President Donald Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

Re: Clemency for Alice Marie Johnson #14873-076


Dear Mr. President:
We are writing to urge you to grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson. We join a strong list of supporters for clemency for Alice including U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen (TN), Bennie Thompson (MS), Marc Veasey (TX), retired Deputy Sheriff Randall Wade of Shelby County, Tennessee, the African American Mayors Association, the NAACP chapter of DeSoto County, Mississippi, and numerous religious leaders in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. In addition, BOP officials at the prison where she is incarcerated, FCI Aliceville, including the former Warden, the Captain, her former case manager, and her vocational training instructor, have recommended clemency in her case.Alice is serving her 22nd year of a life without parole sentence in federal prison for her role in a non-violent drug conspiracy – her first ever arrest or conviction, felony or otherwise. Even though Alice was not, by any calculus, a drug kingpin and has never been involved in any type of violent act, mandatory federal sentencing guidelines provided no discretion to her sentencing judge. If sentenced under current laws, not only would Alice not face a mandatory life sentence but, given the 21 years she has already served and her exemplary conduct in prison, she would be eligible for immediate release. Despite facing the harsh reality of dying in prison as a first-time nonviolent drug offender, Alice has an outstanding record of achievement in prison and worked diligently to prove that she is deserving of a second chance at life. Alice has maintained a spotless disciplinary record throughout the 21 years she has been incarcerated and takes full responsibility for her actions. Given her work experience prior to and during her incarceration, the extensive rehabilitative programming she has completed in prison, the unwavering support of her close-knit family, and a detailed release plan that includes concrete offers of employment and housing, she is well-positioned to succeed as a productive citizen if she is released. A 63-year-old grandmother and ordained minister, Alice presents a compelling and appropriate case for clemency. With no parole in the federal system, Alice has essentially been condemned to die in prison as a non-violent drug offender for her very first conviction. Unless Alice is granted clemency, she will spend the rest of her life in prison. Keeping Alice in prison for the rest of her life serves no useful purpose. The two decades Alice has already spent behind bars reflects the seriousness of her conduct. Alice is the first to admit that her crime harmed society. However, Alice has more than paid her debt to society by serving the past 21 years of her life in prison laboring under the dark cloud of dying there.

 Clemency from you will literally save her life. Please give her a second chance to become a contributing member of society.

 Thank you for your consideration.

Douglas A. Berman – Professor of Law
Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law

The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

Sentencing Law Review

Geraldine Downey – Nivens Professor of Humane Letters in Psychology Columbia University

Shon Hopwood – Professor of Law Georgetown University

Marc Morjé Howard – Professor of Government and Law Director, Prisons and Justice Initiative
Georgetown University

Piper Kerman
Author of
Orange is the New Black

Mark Osler – Professor of Law
Robert & Marion Short Distinguished Chair University of St. Thomas

Stephen Smith – Professor of Law University of Notre Dame#cut50 (California)
A New Way of Life (California)
Beauty After the Bars (North Carolina)
Beyond the Box (New York)
Block Builderz (Oklahoma)
Bronx Element Strategies (New York)
Buried Alive Project (Texas)
California Coalition for Women Prisoners (California) CAN-DO Foundation (California)Center for Community Alternatives (New York)

Civil Survival (Washington)
Core Legal Support (New York)
Corrections Accountability Project – Urban Justice Center (New York) Crack Open the Door (Texas)Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (Washington DC) Cross Roads (New York)
Drug Policy Alliance (New York)
Equal Justice Under the Law (Washington DC) Families for Justice as Healing (Massachusetts) Family Unity Network (California)Fed Fam for Life (Massachusetts)
Felony Friday (California)
First Followers Reentry Program (Illinois)
Florida Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (Florida)Fortune Society (New York)
Free Hearts (Tennessee)
Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce (Virginia)
From Life to Life (New York)
Hope House NYC (New York)
Justice Roundtable (Washington DC)
L.A. Progressive (California)
Ladies of Hope Ministries (New York)
Law Enforcement Action Partnership (Massachusetts)
Let’s Start, Inc (Missouri)
Life for Pot (Ohio)
Lions of Liberty (Pennsylvania)
Mission: Launch, Inc. (Maryland)
Mommie Activist and Sons (Washington DC)
Moms Rising (Washington)
Moms United to End the Drug War (California)
National Juvenile Justice Network (Washington DC)
November Coalition (Washington)
Numbers 2 Names (Washington)
Operation Restoration (Louisiana)
P.A.T.H. (California)
Prison Professor (California)
Project Liberation (New York)
Project New Opportunity (Washington DC)
Project Restart Reentry Coalition, Inc (Alabama)
RAPP – Release Aging People in Prison (New York)
Reentry Campus Program ((Rhode Island)
Restore Her (Georgia)

Rich Family Ministry (Louisiana)Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (New York) (California)
Sister Survivor Network (Illinois)
Starting Over Inc (California)
Starting Point, Inc (Alabama) (Washington DC)
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (Washington DC)
Talk 2 Me Foundation (Illinois)
The BLOOM Connection Inc. (Georgia)
The Gathering for Justice (New York)
The Inner Voices (New York)
The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (Massachusetts)
The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (Louisiana)
The Real Cost of Prisons Project (Massachusetts)
The Sentencing Project (Washington DC)
Thomas Paine Society (California)
The Soze Agency (New York)
We Got Us Now (New York)
We Rise (Minnesota)
What’s Next Washington (Washington)
Witness to Mass Incarceration (New York)
Women and Justice Issues (California)
Women in the World (New York)
Women Who Never Give Up (New Jersey)
Women’s Prison Association (New York)
WORTH – Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (New York)
Young Women’s Freedom Center (California)

May 15, 2018

Entire video here – VOTE FOR JUSTICE “Vote for Justice: An Evening of Empowerment with Artists and Activists,” powered by the Justice Roundtable coalition on May 9 was spectacular. The event began with a reception featuring a poignant Art for Justice display; a justice-themed book pavilion made up largely of titles authored by Soros Justice Fellows; the ACLU Smart Justice Initiative’s voter education demonstration website; a social media photo booth with the tag, #JusticeLooksLike; and a well tread red carpet.

The theatre program was a fast-moving mosaic of conversation, performance, video and awards, bringing together artists with advocates and the community at large to reflect, celebrate and be reenergized. The event launched a six month social media impact and civic engagement campaign to inspire the public to individually and collectively imagine what #JusticeLooksLike and to remember those visions when they go to the polls in November and beyond. The campaign challenges celebrity, athlete and policy influencers to help make the vision of justice reform personal and proximate to themselves and their followers by posting to social media words and visions of what #JusticeLooksLike in their lives and motivating others to do the same. We hope such mass action will help normalize progressive narratives on justice system reform and transformation, and translate into concrete policy changes.

During his opening remarks at the program Open Society Foundations President Patrick Gaspard challenged the live and online audience to imagine what #JusticeLooksLike even while we are, in the words of Bryan Stevenson, proximate to injustice. It is our hope that the #JusticeLooksLike campaign will help shape and amplify a narrative change in policies that slash mass incarceration, reunite families, and strengthen communities. As I stated in my closing remarks, “We want candidates to be empowered to say ‘No more drug war. No more felony disenfranchisement. No more juvenile life without parole. No more money bail system. No more fees and fines. No more collateral consequences. No more warehousing a generation.’ And we want the community, in a non-partisan fashion, to vote for those candidates that lift up justice and vote smart justice.” The event combined grassroots, on the ground activists who are making a difference in state and local campaigns with national leaders, policy makers and directly impacted people. For people across the country who were not able to come to DC, the program was live streamed by media partner, MIC.

#VoteforJustice and #JusticeLooksLike trended all evening. That night there were over 90 million impressions on social media, 856 shares of the live stream video and 74K views.  Entire video can be viewed at VOTE FOR JUSTICE . The event was hosted by Tichina Arnold and Michael Eric Dyson.Readings and testimonials were performed by Senator Kamala Harris, actor Michael K. Williams, Congressman Cedric Richmond, Congressman Lacy Clay, State Attorney Kim Foxx, District Attorney Larry Krasner, Open Society Foundations President Patrick Gaspard, ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice director Udi Ofer, Mic Video Columnist Brittany Packnett, commentator Shaun King, Florida Rights Restoration Chair Desmond Meade, 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, Carmen Perez, Kemba Smith, Jamira Burley, Jessica Perez, Judith Browne Dianis, former NFL player Donte Stallworth, and more.The evening also featured performances by Grammy-nominated artist John Forté, Goapele, Raheem Devaughn and Wes Felton, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ayanna Gregory and Ka’Ba Akintunde.Certificates of Excellence were awarded to 40 formerly incarcerated leaders, and the Legacy Justice Award was presented to Harry Belafonte and Dick Gregory (posthumously).


November 3, 2017

Despite Gross Disparities Between Opioid and Crack Treatment, No Funding for Restorative Justice“There’s racial disparities here. When there was a drug issue in the African American community we were prosecuted, we were put in jail, children were put in foster care, families were ripped apart. It was treated like a criminal justice issue. We had Rockefeller drug laws. Our jails were filled with men and women that look just like me and people from the 43rd Assembly District.But now, we have an opiate issue. It is affecting another demographic and now it is a health issue and now we have to put money into diverting individuals from prison into treatment.And so what is missing from this package is a restorative justice package for all those individuals that were jailed, and for all those families that were ripped apart and for the individuals who have criminal records because they had addiction issues just like the people who are now suffering. So with that I vote in the affirmative, but more needs to be done here.”Words of New York State Assemblywoman Diana C. Richardson who spoke on the issue in 2016 as New York State was debating legislation to combat the opioid crisis. New York State’s 2017 budget invested nearly $200 million to combat the rising use of heroin and opioids. The plan did not include funding for restorative justice …   Review the video of Assemblywoman Richardson’s remarks.



August 25, 2017

Trump Pardoned Arpaio – What we gonna do???Excuse my language, but I am pissed. Not because Trump pardoned Arpaio — the Executive has an unfettered constitutional right to grant clemency to whoever s/he wishes. I am outraged because we as a progressive community are too often stymied by what the conservative and law enforcement communities think about our thoughts and actions and, as a result, are afraid to go bold. Trump went bold. He cut right through the red tape and pardoned his bigoted buddy.The handwriting was on the wall toward the end of the Obama administration. The Executive was urged, time and again, to go bold. Instead, although well-meaning, the progressive administration adopted a process on top of an already flawed process. It followed the long-standing but problematic rule of law of deferring to the same agency that prosecuted and imprisoned those now appealing for release. It would likely be the last opportunity for at least four years for people like William Underwood, Michelle West, Leonard Peltier, Mutulu Shakur, Alice Johnson and John Knock to have any hope of release from lengthy incarceration. But the progressive administration was stymied by criteria, by prosecutorial veto, by blind adherence to process and procedure, by red tape, and by the time-honored rule of law. And now, in one fell swoop and under cover of darkness with an impending hurricane, we witness the bold pardon of the scandalous former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Trump followed no process; indeed sentencing had not even occurred. The gall and audacity of the President. But clemency is his constitutional right, unfettered by process, procedure or public opinion.When are we as a progressive community going to realize that it doesn’t matter whether we carefully follow the rules (as we did during the Obama-era clemency initiative); or thumb our nose at process (what we should have done) – we are going to be criticized, ostracized and condemned by our adversaries. It always is “damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” Thus we as a progressive community must at all times unabashedly and boldly step up to the plate for justice. In the words of the great anti-slavery orator Henry Highland Garnett, “Let Our Motto be Resistance, Resistance Resistance!”Trump May Pardon Joe Arpaio but History will Not, Brennan Center, August 25, 2017Trump’s Pardon of Joe Arpaio is an Endorsement of Racism, Civil Rights Leaders Say, August 25, 2017Trump’s Pardon of Joe Arpaio is a Presidential Endorsement of Racism, ACLU says, August 25, 2017Jeff Sessions Should be Screaming Bloody Murder About a Potential Joe Arpaio Pardon, Reason, August 24, 2017.Five Reasons Racism Sheriff Joe Arpaio Should not Receive a Presidential Pardon, ACLU, August 23, 2017Sheriff Arpaio: Trump has ‘Guts & Courage,’ NPR, August 18, 2017


July 14, 2017


Who is the Justice Roundtable? What do you do? What happens at your Assemblies and Meetings? As convener of the Roundtable, I get these questions all the time. Now, you can see for yourself The Justice Roundtable Assembly in action. We are on a roll! The livestream video from  our last quarterly Assembly (June 13), is available for your viewing pleasure, 24/7. Check us out, get involved and Take Action! In case you missed it earlier this year, the Justice Roundtable’s Report – Roadmap to Criminal Justice Reform is posted on our website. Review, get involved, and Take Action!


Taifa pensiveJune 19, 2017
From Juneteenth to Lynchings to Mass Incarceration

Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of chattel slavery in the United States. It was on June 19, 1865 that Texas became the last jurisdiction to hear the news that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were free. This was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Despite joyous celebrations, there was no where to go, staunch resistance by whites, and exclusion from all aspects of civil society and the political process. Tumultuous times followed, continuing the legacy of enslavement through the decades, manifesting in mass murders and mass incarceration.Over four thousand African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. We rarely talk about these acts of racial terror, but they profoundly shaped our country. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), led by public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, is working to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment of people of color. These issues are part of the present-day legacy of America’s past lynching violence. And in order to address them now, we all have to speak up about this history .EJI has partnered with Google to create a digital experience, Lynching in America, packed with documentaries, audio stories and interactive data visualizations that make this history come alive and help to show us a way forward. The responsibility is on all of us to speak the truth, and we know you will be a powerful catalyst to make sure every American knows about the legacy of lynching. The platform launched in June at Please help in sharing it. To make it as simple as possible, below are suggested share copy and graphics from EJI.We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.— Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative

THREE VIDEOS TO SHARE during this season of Juneteenth:#1 Bryan Stevenson VideoBryan explains the importance of confronting our history of racial injustice, its relevance in the modern world, and what can be accomplished by speaking the truth. Talking points for Facebook/InstagramSlavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved. We are haunted by our history of racial injustice. Over 4,000 African Americans were lynched in 20 states from 1877 to 1950. This legacy of lynching has evolved into mass incarceration and capital punishment. Based on current trends, 1 in 3 black boys born in America today will be imprisoned at some point in their life. Before we can effect change today, we need to speak the truth about our past. Take the first step at Suggested copy options for TwitterI support Bryan Stevenson and @eji_org in their mission to fight racial injustice. #SlaveryEvolved. The effects of lynching are still felt today. I support @eji_org as they work for a better future “Diaspora” VideoThe subjects of the films explain the many reasons African Americans were forced to flee the South in order to escape racial terrorism.
Suggested talking points for Facebook/Instagram During the Great Migration, over 6 million African Americans fled the South for the North and West out of fear for their lives – not for economic opportunity alone. This is one of the largest migrations of people in the history of the world. The demographics of America today, especially in cities, are a direct result of the Great Migration. Understand your connection to the Great Migration at lynchinginamerica.eji.orgSuggested copy options for Twitter. During the Great Migration, 6 million African Americans fled the South in fear @eji_org #SlaveryEvolvedOne of the largest migrations in history happened in America. Revisit the Great Migration @eji_org #SlaveryEvolved#3 Anthony Ray Hinton Story. A story connecting our history of lynching to today’s problems of mass incarceration and the death penalty. Suggested talking points Facebook/InstagramAnthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative secured his freedom in 2015.The states with the highest lynching rates are the states with the highest execution rates. Learn about America’s history of racial injustice, and how we are still affected by it, at Learn about our shared past at Suggested copy options for TwitterAnthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Hear his story @eji_org #SlaveryEvolvedThe states with the highest lynching rates are the states with the highest execution rates @eji_org #SlaveryEvolved

Taifa pensiveMay 12, 2017

New DOJ Guidance to Prosecutors Fundamentally Flawed

Attorney General Sessions has dusted off the atrocious Ashcroft sentencing memo from 14 years ago, which directed prosecutors to charge arrestees with the most serious provable offense, and resurrected it as Trump’s bid to obliterate Smart on Crime sentencing policies from the Obama Administration.

The progressive advocacy community must boldly oppose this new DOJ charging and sentencing policy that will not only re-boost the destructive war on drugs but also exacerbate racial disparities, soar the prison population and increase costs to taxpayers.

See May 12, 2017 Justice Roundtable Coalition Statement Condemning New Charging Policy.

See March 31, 2017 Justice Roundtable Coalition Letter to AG Sessions Urging Preservation of DOJ Smart on Crime Guidance.

Get Educated and Take Action!

Taifa pensiveMarch 31, 2017

Congratulations Vanita!

As founder and convener of the Justice Roundtable, I am thrilled with the announcement of Vanita Gupta as President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. I smile when I think of Vanita as a new young lawyer at the very first meeting of the Justice Roundtable coalition in October 2002. She had received a Soros Justice Fellowship to work with the NAACP-Legal Defense and Educational Fund and was deployed by them to investigate allegations of law enforcement misconduct in the little town of Tulia, Texas.

It was Vanita who exposed the abuses of the system that allowed 15% of the African-American adult population of that little Texas town to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned on bogus drug trafficking charges. It was Vanita who unmasked glitches with the uncorroborated testimonies of the white undercover officer who was part of a federally-funded drug task force. It was Vanita who brought to light his racist background coupled with a ludicrous modus operandi of recording purported drug buys on his arms and legs. And it was Vanita who galvanized mega law firms and negotiated a hefty financial settlement on behalf of the town’s victims and their release from years of unjust imprisonment.

The Justice Roundtable’s Law Enforcement Reform Working Group worked with Vanita Gupta in challenging the abuses of federally funded drug task forces, brought Tulia family members to Washington to testify, and promoted legislation to prevent future abuses of law enforcement overreach. Vanita went on to be Assistant Counsel at the NAACP-Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU, before serving as the country’s top civil rights litigator and advocate in the Department of Justice.

As we congratulate Vanita on this outstanding appointment and wish her all the best, the Justice Roundtable extends its heartfelt honor and praise to outgoing President and CEO Wade Henderson, for his exceptionally pivotal leadership which catapulted the Leadership Conference as the premier civil and human rights organization in the country. We thank you Wade, and applaud Vanita, as we seek to collectively protect the gains of the past 50 years and resist the threats to the future.

Taifa pensiveMarch 14, 2017

My reflection:  From his 1980s–style “tough on crime” and “law and order” bombast, his selection of the controversial Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and his criminal punishment-focused Executive Orders, the handwriting is on the wall that we will likely see a return to the flawed policies of the past which resulted in the current era of mass incarceration. The best case scenario would be the passage without delay of bipartisan sentencing reform legislation ripe from the last Congress. Among the worst scenarios would be such legislation lit up like a Christmas tree weighted down with poison ornaments such as mandatory sentences, aggressive policing measures, and death penalties. Criminal justice policy reform at the federal level remains pertinent, despite an Administration and Congress seemingly hostile to reform. It is incumbent that the progressive voice in federal criminal justice is principled, valued and strong, that we protect the gains previously made, and engage in defensive strategies that make it more difficult for harmful policies to pass.

*See excerpts from my reflection quoted in the Prison Policy Initiative’s annual report on U.S. prison populations, which offers a reality check on the administration’s fear-loaded rhetoric on rising violent crime. The number of incarcerated persons in the U.S. remains unchanged at 2.3 million–a figure the authors say should make the feds think about how to encourage states to reduce that number instead of filling more prison cells.

Taifa pensiveFeb. 15, 2017

reprinting – FEATURE HILL ARTICLE ON ACLU’S JESSELYN MCCURDY, a stalwart leader with the Justice Roundtable coalition!

“In Civil Liberties Fight, Never Say Never”

The Hill, by Megan Wilson, 2/14/17

Jesselyn McCurdy still remembers the call. “Clarence is going to come home,” a voice said.

It was the attorney for Clarence Aaron, a man whose triple life sentence on nonviolent drug charges was commuted by President Obama after he had served 20 years. Both prosecutors and judges had urged his release, but federal policies largely prevented it.
McCurdy, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Washington legislative office, is able to list the names of others whose lawyers phoned her with similar results, when incarcerated individuals with prison terms many found excessive would be going home to their families.
While the ACLU has already positioned itself as a force against President Trump’s immigration policies, McCurdy is preparing for an uphill battle on criminal justice reform. She has been in tough battles before — including against the Obama administration — and is quick to remind young lawyers and interns not to become discouraged.

“When somebody tells you no, that just means no for that particular day. Don’t get too caught up in your feelings and feel like that’s a rejection for life,” she says as part of her spiel. “That is just a rejection for that moment in time.”

McCurdy has spent a total of 13 years with the ACLU, broken up by a brief stint on Capitol Hill, when she was a counsel to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime.

Now she has new challenges, as the 97-year-old organization has been butting heads with the Trump administration from its first day.

In the weekend following the president’s executive order banning individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States, the ACLU received $24 million in online donations — roughly six times what it typically receives in a single year. Since the election, it has taken in nearly $80 million in donations and now has nearly 1.2 million members, double the number from before Trump’s victory.

The group was among the first to file lawsuits opposing the travel ban, which a federal judge put on hold earlier this month.

There is, however, a new front and a renewed purpose for McCurdy in the fight for criminal justice reform.

Advocates like her are disheartened by new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama, who has shown a reluctance to move forward with overhauls to the criminal justice system.

“One of the reasons we got as far as we did in the last Congress and with the last administration is because we had attorneys general who were supportive of reform, and that is key,” McCurdy says. “Not only were they supportive of legislative reform; they created policies or changed policies within the Department of Justice.”

“If you don’t have someone willing to rethink the way the system works, it could be a recipe for disaster,” she says.

Trump ran his presidential campaign, in part, promising more “law and order” for the country.

In Congress, Sessions has criticized sentencing reform legislation sponsored by Republicans as a “criminal leniency bill” and supported then-candidate Trump on his suggestion to re-implement random stop-and-frisk searches — a practice found unconstitutional in federal court — in cities such with high crime rates such as Chicago.

Sessions disparaged Trump’s predecessor for granting so many clemencies and suggested in his confirmation hearings that he would move away from the Obama administration’s efforts on policing reform.

He was, however, a lead GOP sponsor in the Senate of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, a piece of legislation on which McCurdy worked as chief counsel while on Capitol Hill. The legislation, which became law, reduced the disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1.

The ACLU’s Washington office is focused primarily on advocating before Capitol Hill and the executive branch, spending anywhere from $1 million to $2 million per year on a massive portfolio of issues including Guantanamo Bay, LGBT rights, fair housing, fake news and free speech.

McCurdy — a native of D.C. suburb Columbia, Md. — decided to become a lobbyist because, she says, she felt as if she could affect more lives by changing policy, rather than using her law degree to help people one by one.

If the policies around incarceration are bad, she adds, then people are going to continue to cycle through the system.

She ultimately decided to go into advocacy while working as a law clerk for the D.C. police department, a job she started after receiving her law degree at Catholic University in Washington.

The department needed someone to accompany the chief of police to City Hall when bills affecting the police department came up.

“They didn’t have anybody to do it, so as a law clerk working there, they let me do it. That was the beginning of me analyzing legislation, analyzing policy,” McCurdy says.

“I had never thought of it as a real profession. I had always thought I was going to be a public defender or a defense attorney, criminal defense attorney,” she adds. “The concept of looking at bills and looking at policy and trying to address policy, that’s really where it was born.”

She continued to catch the lobbying bug at subsequent positions at the National District Attorney Association, the American Bar Association working on civil rights, and the Children’s Defense Fund, she says.

As part of that advocacy, the ACLU works with a broad coalition of other organizations interested in pushing criminal justice reform, including groups that fall on both sides of the political spectrum.

Achieving progress with the Obama administration, however, was initially a challenge, McCurdy recalls.

In November 2009, she and her team had their first meeting with the White House, a time she affectionately calls “pardon season” — near Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Our idea was like, ‘OK, you’re going to pardon some turkeys, let’s pardon some people,’ ” she says.

“The immediate response from the very young Obama White House was, ‘He will never commute or pardon anybody’s sentence,’ ” she says, smiling. “I think their ‘never’ — at least, I took their ‘never’ — to mean ‘right now,’ this year, maybe this month. I was not deterred by the word ‘never.’ ”

According to Justice Department figures, Obama pardoned more than 200 individuals during his presidency and commuted the sentences of 1,750 more, including 146 and 1,558 in his last year as president, respectively. By the end of his tenure, he had granted more commutations than any other president in history.

“Ultimately, we kept at it; we kept meeting with them; we kept proposing ways they could do it. … Eight years later, we see the results and how it has resulted in so many people being reunited with their families.”

Taifa pensiveFeb. 6, 2017

Criminal Justice Reform Must Include Life Without Parole Sentences

The recently released report from The Sentencing Project, “Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences,” stresses that “thus far, criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences. This growing “lifer” population both illustrates and contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration.”

The report reveals that continued incarceration of those who have “aged out” of crime-prone years is not only ineffective in promoting public safety, it is also costly, impeding public investments in preventive and rehabilitative programs. To increase the opportunity for release from prison for parole-eligible lifers, the report recommends 1) that parole eligibility be expedited; 2) that parole boards be depoliticized and professionalized; 3) that there be a presumption of release; and 4) that the integrity of parole hearings be improved.

Although the Sentencing Project’s report focuses on state systems where parole is still in effect, in the federal system a life sentence is, in actuality, a death sentence as parole was abolished in 1984. As such, there are extremely limited options for federal sentence review, slashing opportunities for incarcerated individuals to demonstrate reform. Because there is no federal parole, it is critical that there be viable mechanisms by which lengthy sentences can be systematically reviewed.

For federal prisoners whose sentences are not parole eligible, a judicial “Second Look” process should be implemented, which would permit a judicial panel or other judicial decision-maker to review an individual’s sentence in light of current circumstances. Such a process would ensure that sentences that may have seemed appropriate at the time of conviction actually remain the appropriate punishment throughout the sentence. The 2016 bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force Report on Federal Corrections recommended implementation of such a process.

Mass incarceration has proliferated because we as a nation have numbed ourselves into accepting harsh punishments with lengthy sentences, including life without parole. If we are to stunt the spiraling growth of the prison population and tackle rampant racism in our system of punishment, then we must express outrage and act to end such unconscionably lengthy sentences and punishments that end with death in prison. Indeed, regardless of whether we are motivated by fiscal, religious, big government, or racial concerns, such punishments should not only offend society’s sense of decency, but should be unacceptable to our own personal consciences as well.

Taifa pensiveJan. 17, 2017

As one Administration comes to a close and another prepares to assume the helm, Justice Roundtable takes a moment to thank the outgoing chair of the United States Sentencing Commission for her leadership in moving issues of federal sentencing reform.

Re: Chief Judge Patti B. Saris’ Outstanding Service to the United States Sentencing Commission 

Dear Chief Judge Saris:

In honor of your six years of service at the United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”), the Justice Roundtable writes to thank and congratulate you for the Commission’s accomplishments under your leadership.

During your tenure as chair, the Commission has promulgated policies that have resulted in a significantly reduced prison population. For example, in 2010, Bureau of Prison (“BOP”) facilities were approximately 37 percent over capacity. Today, those facilities are less than 18 percent overcrowded due in large part to the Commission taking its mandate to address prison overcrowding seriously. In 2011, the Commission not only implemented the Fair Sentencing Act reductions for the statutory penalties of crack cocaine offenses but also made those guideline reductions retroactive. This decision resulted in more than 7,000 people receiving a reduction in their sentence.

In 2014, the Commission adopted what is commonly known as “Drugs -2” which reduced the guideline levels in the Drug Quantity Table by two levels. This was estimated to reduce sentences, by an average of 11 months, for people who committed drug crimes. Even more significant, the Commission made the bold decision to make the “Drugs -2” reductions retroactive. As a result, over 29,000 sentences have been reduced. In 2015, BOP reported that over 6,000 people were released on the first day of eligibility. But the impact of retroactivity on the BOP population will continue to be felt for years to come, as the Commission estimated that up to 46,000 people could ultimately be eligible for a retroactive reduction. Finally, the Commission clarified the definition of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” so that it is more consistent with the intent of the authorizing statute.

Judge Saris, your work with the Commission will have long lasting effects on the overall fairness of sentencing policy and the federal criminal justice system. We truly thank you for the leadership you have shown during your tenure as the Chair of the Commission.


Nkechi Taifa, Co-Chair

Jesselyn McCurdy,Co-Chair

Sentencing Reform Working Group, The Justice Roundtable Coalition

Taifa pensiveDec. 7, 2016

“Commutations – the fierce urgency of now”

There is unprecedented momentum appealing to President Obama to go bold in granting commutations, and for good reason — there is the fierce urgency of now. The clock is running out on commutations as President-elect Trump prepares to assume power on January 20th. Despite the Obama Administration’s exceptional clemency initiative which, to date, has brought relief to over 1000 petitioners, thousands more await relief. Luckily, those with life sentences who hit the clemency jackpot receive the windfall of release; yet those who don’t win remain saddled with a death sentence because there is no parole in the federal system.

Last month the African American Mayors Association, in a unique move, wrote a letter to the President that they would welcome back to their communities all those who no longer present a threat to society, particularly those who have aged in prison, and women. Recently, I was one of over 50 signees to a letter likewise appealing to President Obama to expand the categories of petitioners eligible for relief, thereby leaving “a legacy that will stand throughout history.” The letter’s expanded criteria included those still languishing in prison despite the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act; those convicted of drug offenses who have been placed in lower security institutions signaling a lack of threat to society; elders and veterans; and providing a reasonable date for release for those serving overly punitive sentences for drug crimes. All this can be accomplished by the stroke of the presidential pen.

The 50-day countdown has begun. In light of an upcoming Administration that appears unsympathetic to those who once broke the law — no matter how much they and laws may have changed — and the prospect of an Attorney General inimical to bipartisan legislation that would have addressed archaic and lengthy drug sentences, President Obama is the prisoner’s only hope, particularly those whose cells will become coffins because of their life without parole drug sentences.

Taifa pensiveNov. 22, 2016

Eerie Blast from the Past

An eerie somber blast from the past – Taifa’s January 7, 1995, analysis of the “Take Back Our Streets” Act of Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America, several months after the passage of the now-infamous 1994 Crime Bill – the Violent Crime Control and Safe Streets Act.  Click here to view  21-year old C-Span video of Rainbow Coalition briefing.

Taifa pensiveNov. 3, 2016

Taifa’s Reflection on Hatch and Clemency

I can’t believe something I just did. After reading Senator Orrin Hatch’s November 2, 2016 National Review article, “The President Needs to Show More Caution in Commuting Felons’ Sentences,” I immediately scribbled off an email to five of my criminal justice reform colleagues (Doug Berman, Mark Osler, Rachel Barkow, Marc Mauer and Marc Schindler), attached the article and pleaded, “Can someone please respond to this nonsense?!”

Immediately after pressing “send,” I thought, ‘damn – why am I requesting that they respond? ‘Ain’t I an expert too?’ I chastized myself, channeling anti-slavery orator Sojourner Truth’s poignant demand back in the day, of Ain’t I a woman?’

And especially since my article equating the U.S. criminal justice system with the international definition of genocide was just published by the American Constitution Society today, I’m feeling fired up and decided to write this speedy reflection to the comments made by the long-standing senator from Utah.

During the midst of crime bill hysteria over two decades ago, I was elated when I read Senator Hatch’s concerns about mandatory minimum sentences in his 1993 Wake Forest Law Review article. However, I am totally disappointed with the position he has embraced today. The President needs to be “very careful about letting convicted criminals out of jail early, particularly ones convicted of serious drug and firearm offenses,” he recently wrote.

Having just watched a very touching documentary produced by Revolt TV, highlighting the case of a mother who received two life sentences plus 50 years for aiding and abetting a drug-related murder, my heart is heavy with outrage. You see, I have had the distinct opportunity to, in the words of McArthur awardee Bryan Stevenson, become very “proximate” to families and friends of people convicted of serious drug offenses. As convener of The Justice Roundtable, I helped to provide the opportunity for the documentary’s feature, Miquelle West, daughter of incarcerated Michelle West, to travel to Washington, DC last March to participate in activities at the Justice Roundtable and White House around clemency. Miquelle, who has not seen her mother outside of prison walls since she was 10 years old, is now thriving as a celebrity stylist, and has grown as an ardent supporter for her mother’s release. But even more captivating than the film’s riveting depictions of Miquelle, are the personal stories I constantly hear from women who served time with her mother, Michelle, some of whom have been released pursuant to executive clemency. Although Mchelle’s case may not fit the trendy “nonviolent” narrative, is she really a “violent” person and will society be unsafe should she, after 23 years, be released from prison?

In the documentary’s background images I caught a glimpse of Miko and Ebony Underwood, 2 of 4 siblings whose father, William Underwood, was sentenced to die in prison. I happen to be their father’s pro bono clemency attorney, and have become very close to his now-adult children, who spend untold hours organizing in support of release for their father. Mr. Underwood was sentenced to a concurrent 20-year sentence on RICO, RICO conspiracy and drug conspiracy charges (Counts 1, 2 &3), and received mandatory life without parole on a continuing criminal enterprise charge (count 4). Counts 1 and 2, which he completed serving nearly 8 years ago, included predicate acts of gang-related homicides, although there was never a suggestion, evidence or finding that he pulled the trigger. He seeks commutation of Count 4’s life sentence for conspiracy to distribute narcotics, to time-served. The life sentence was the result of the judge’s finding by the lowest evidentiary standard that he continued in the conspiracy as a principal, despite an FBI memo that states his case was being closed due to lack of information. He was arrested 2-1/2 years after that memo, and charged with a continuing leadership role in a narcotics conspiracy, despite his assertions that he was no longer involved in criminal activity, but engaged in a legitimate fulltime career in the music industry. But because the judge’s ruling had the effect of enhancing his sentence to life without parole, the issue of whether and when he left the conspiracy should have been presented to a jury to prove by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard of today’s law.

Life without the possibility of parole has meant that William Underwood and Michelle West, no matter how long they live, no matter how much their lives have changed, no matter what steps they have taken to better themselves, no matter how many laws have changed – can never, ever leave prison alive. Such sentences, devoid of hope and compassion, is inhumane and akin to a living death. Both Underwood and West have a window of opportunity right now, with this Administration’s willingness to re-examine and correct excessive sentences through the constitutional executive clemency power, and Senator Hatch should not deny them that opportunity.

Senator Hatch says he has taken “a cautious approach” to recent Congressional initiatives for criminal-justice reform, and likewise urges caution in releasing those currently in prison. The reality however, is that if Congress had taken “a cautious approach” when it enacted slews of mandatory minimum sentences over the past thirty years, President Obama may not have felt as obliged to intervene now, decades later.

The Senator also spoke of his concern that because of the plea bargaining process “an offender’s crime of conviction does not necessarily reflect his or her actual danger to the community.” This concern, however is twisted, if it fails to include violent people who receive less or no time if they inform on others or otherwise cooperate with the government, while those who exercise their constitutional right to go to trial are often penalized with what amounts to death sentences. The Senator’s article also fails to acknowledge issues with wide-ranging conspiracy laws that sweep broadly and the continued incarceration of elders who have aged out of criminality and pose no risk to society.

If we are to stunt the spiraling growth of the prison population and tackle rampant racism in our system of punishment, then we must express outrage and act to end unconscionably lengthy sentencing schemes. Correcting the injustice of such sentences through clemency is imperative, particularly where the legislature has failed to act, as it is the remedy most immediately attainable and shielded from reversal. And armed with this constitutional authority, President Obama should proceed full steam ahead to review and remedy these lengthy sentences as a fundamental public policy objective.

I will leave it to Marc Schindler to expound on the results of the Justice Policy Institute’s report on rethinking violence. I will leave it to Marc Mauer to stress the trends in U.S. corrections. I will leave it to Mark Osler and Rachel Barkow to chart out how to make the clemency process more robust, and to Doug Berman to highlight all on his blog.

As for me, I will emphasize the personal stories of very real people. And I will express my personal indignation and the outrage of my community to sentences that have resulted in the removal of vast numbers of people from their families and communities, sometimes for decades, and in the cases of Michelle West, William Underwood and countless others, for life.

No, Senator Hatch, the President does not need to show “more caution” in commuting sentences. The President needs to be more robust and go even bolder in commuting sentences, consistent with public safety, to rectify the sentencing abuses of the past. And the Congress needs to stop procrastinating in passing sensible bipartisan sentencing reform, and do its job.

Taifa pensive

October 8, 2016

Ava DuVernay takes the 13th amendment by storm!

“The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.” Synopsis by Netflix.

See Netflix trailer here. Watch the 1 hr. 40 min. documentary here.  Some of the featured interviewees in 13th include Marc Mauer, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, Glenn Martin, Dorsey Nunn, Shaka Senghor, Deborah Small, Lisa Graves, Angela Davis, Nick Turner, Jessica Jackson, Kung-Ji Rhee, Skip Gates, Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Charles Rangel, and libertarian and conservative allies such as Craig DeRoche, Pat Nolan, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and more.  Whew! This is a not to miss film.

Last year, as part of the American Constitution Society’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium, I wrote a piece about lengthy sentences, using the 13th amendment as backdrop. I reprint it here.

Lengthy Sentences: Cruel and ‘Usual’ Punishment

September 16, 2015

Guest Post

by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations

*This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist, except as punishment for a crime ….”  This criminal punishment exception to the 13th Amendment is all the more brazen when one considers the inhumanity of lengthy prison sentences today – often handed out in assembly-line fashion, and dispensed more often to Blacks. Although we call our system a criminal justice system, its focus is punishment and it punishes very severely.  Punishment’s correlation to enslavement remains in the Constitution and, as such, must be closely scrutinized.

As a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project in the 1980s, I often cited in my conditions of confinement briefs Chief Justice Warren’s notable 1957 quote in Trop v. Dulles. His statement heralded the importance of considering the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This principle recognizes a people’s moral growth due to advancements in attitude and approaches.

During the height of the war on drugs with mandatory minimum sentences firmly in vogue, unnecessarily long sentences were robotically meted out with seemingly callous abandon.  Shocking punishments over the past 30 years of 10, 20, 30 years and life imprisonment for drug offenses hardly raised an eyebrow. These commonplace sentences snatched mothers from children, men from loved ones, and furthered the destabilization of families and communities. Such punishments should offend our society’s standard of decency.

But they have not.

In 1991 the Supreme Court ruled in Harmelin v. Michigan that mandatory life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the 8th Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment because, although the punishment was cruel, it was not unusual. It sounds ludicrous and left many of us flabbergasted.

The twisted rationale reminded me of McClesky v. Kemp, decided a few years earlier in 1987. There the Court declined to provide relief in a death penalty case despite overwhelming evidence of racial bias because the justices feared that the floodgates would be opened to widespread racial challenges in other parts of criminal sentencing as well.

Lengthy sentences are cruel, but they are usual. Systemic racism exists, but that is the norm. Fortunately, since Harmelin, the Supreme Court has seen fit to use the 8th Amendment to ban the beating by prison guards of a handcuffed prisoner (Hudson v. McMillian, 1992); to prohibit the execution of a mentally retarded person (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002); to bar the execution of a prisoner for crimes committed while a minor (Roper v. Simmons, 2005); and to abolish life without parole for minors who commit non-homicidal crimes (Graham v. Florida, 2010).

Public consensus had emerged in many of these issues, demonstrating evolving standards against the practices. Just as society has matured in not executing minors and the mentally challenged, public consciousness must evolve in the eradication of severe sentencing that has become routine. A common law, policy or practice can be just as detrimental as the unusual one. Chattel slavery was cruel and usual yet it was overturned. Jim Crow was cruel and usual yet it was overturned. Lengthy sentences for drug offenses are likewise cruel and usual and are given disproportionately to people of color. They must also be eradicated.

John Forte’s 14-year sentence, Kemba Smith’s 24-year sentence, and Clarence Aaron’s punishment of life without parole were all cruel, but unfortunately usual for drug cases.  However, if each had been sentenced in Norway, they likely would have received no more than eight months, with a maximum penalty of 21 years, regardless of the nature of their crime.

Luckily, Forte, Smith and Aaron’s egregiously lengthy sentences were cut short by three different presidents as a legitimate exercise of their constitutional pardon power.  Correcting the injustice of harshly severe, fiscally unsound and often racially discriminatory sentences through executive clemency is imperative. Regardless of prosecutorial intransigence or congressional delay, it is the remedy most immediately attainable and constitutionally shielded from reversal.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is addressing issues of sentencing reform as part of its annual legislative conference this week. Appropriately, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters’ panel on mandatory minimum sentences falls on Constitution Day, September 17. This year she is urging participants to petition the White House to increase its focus on granting clemency requests for those unfairly subjected to mandatory minimum sentences, particularly where old sentences have been discredited by newer law.  Armed with his constitutional authority, President Obama should proceed full steam ahead to review and remedy these lengthy sentences as a fundamental public policy objective.

We as a nation have either numbed ourselves into accepting harsh punishments or just don’t care.  Why haven’t our standards of decency evolved in this area? Is it because too many of us are unaware of how extreme sentencing in the U.S.  has become?  If we are to stunt the spiraling growth of the prison population and tackle rampant racism in our system of punishment, then we must express outrage and act to end unconscionably lengthy sentencing schemes.  Regardless of whether we are motivated by fiscal, religious, big government, or racial concerns, such punishments should not only offend society’s decency, but should be unacceptable to our personal conscience as well.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and its exception as punishment for a crime.  It is time we take the bull by the horns and reach a public consensus that today’s standard of decency has evolved to include an abhorrence to lengthy cruel, yet usual, sentences, and rectify the past through speedy passage of legislation abolishing mandatory minimums and executive action through widespread sentence commutations.

Taifa pensiveSeptember 12, 2016


“With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”  New York State Special Commission on Attica, 1971.

I am looking forward to reading Professor Heather Ann Thompson’s newly released book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.”  The long-awaited book coincides with the 45th anniversary of the September 9 – 13, 1971 prison rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility, in upstate New York. Blood in the Water sheds new light on the uprising, the unnecessarily violent response and fabrications of New York State, and the impact of Attica down to this day. The book reveals significant amounts of material never before released to the public, and includes interviews with former Attica prisoners, hostages, families of victims, lawyers, judges, law enforcement, and state officials.

There will be a webcast of an event at the National Museum of African American History and Culture discussing the book, on Thursday September 29th, 7:00-9:00pm (EDT). It can be viewed by visiting September 29th.

The book can be purchased from Amazon.

Tragically, 45 years later, conditions in many prisons remain abysmal. On September 9, 2016 Democracy Now aired information on a current day  9/9/2016 National Strike by Prison Workers –in over 24 states & 40 Facilities.  View  the 1971  Attica Uprising segment .


Taifa pensiveAugust 18, 2016

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced that it plans to end its use of private prison facilities after concluding the facilities are less safe than government-run prisons. The DOJ says it will decline to renew existing for-profit prison contracts.  In this Justice Roundtable Convener’s Corner I highlight an interview with the director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, Nicole D. Porter, who joins RT America’s Ashlee Banks and says the conditions at private prisons are poor because they are mostly concerned with their “bottom line” and “corners were cut in terms of labor, employee training, healthcare, food and in-prison programming” at for-profit prisons. The Sentencing Project is a long-standing participant in the Justice Roundtable Coalition.






Taifa pensiveJuly 18, 2016

The following article, “Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas” by Linda Burnham spoke volumes to me. I reprint it as my Convener’s Corner message this week:

“Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas,” by Linda Burnham, July 11, 2016

A thick strand in the history of U.S. policing is rooted back in the slave patrols of the 19th century. Patty rollers were authorized to stop, question, search, harass and summarily punish any Black person they encountered. The five- and six-pointed badges many of them wore to symbolize their authority were predecessors to those of today’s sheriffs and patrolmen. They regularly entered the plantation living quarters of enslaved people, leaving terror and grief in their wake. Together with the hunters of runaways, these patrols had a crystal clear mandate: to constrain the enslaved population to its role as the embodiment and producer of massive wealth for whites and to forestall the possibility that labor subordinated to the lash might rebel at the cost of white lives.

How far have we come, really? Having extricated ourselves from a system of bottomless and blatant cruelty we have evolved a system that depends on the patty rollers of today to constrain and contain a population that, while no longer enslaved, is ruthlessly exploited, criminally neglected and justifiably aggrieved. Ruthlessly exploited by the low-wage industries that depend on ample supplies of cheap labor, by the bottom feeders of capital – pay-day loan companies and slumlords come to mind –­ by the incarceration-for-profit industry, by the municipalities that meet their budgets by preying on poor people, generating revenue by way of broken taillights, lapsed vehicle registrations and failures to signal.

Criminally neglected by policy makers – 152 years’ worth and counting – at every level of government. And so our education policy appears to be: starve the public system until it collapses and to hell with the children whose parents have no alternative. Housing policy stubbornly stacked against the development and maintenance of low-income housing. Jobs policy that, against an ideological backdrop that touts personal fulfillment and prosperity through honest effort, reduces grown men to selling loosies and cd’s on street corners to provide for their families.

Justifiably aggrieved because we still must assert, against the relentless accumulation of evidence to the contrary, that Black lives matter.

And all this on top of the foundational failure to financially repair or compensate the formerly enslaved or their descendants.

So today’s patty rollers are expected to contain any overflow of bitterness and anger on the part of the exploited, neglected and aggrieved, maintaining order in a fundamentally – and racially – disordered system. Their mandate is as clear as that of their forefathers: to constrain a population whose designated role is to absorb absurdly high rates of unemployment and make itself available for low-wage, low-status work without complaint, much less rebellion. Those who fear a spiraling descent into disorder, know this: we are merely witnessing the periodic, explosive surfacing of entrenched disorders we have refused to face or fix.

Our narratives and debates about good cops and rogue cops, better training and community policing are important but entirely insufficient. No doubt the patty rollers of the 1850s could have been trained to reign in their brutality. Given the gloriously diverse dispositions of our human family, patrollers likely ranged from the breathtakingly cruel to the queasily reluctant enforcers of patent injustice. All that is, at bottom, beside the point. Whether cruel or kind, restrained or rogue, their job was to police – and by policing, maintain – a barbaric system.

Today’s police can be better trained to recognize implicit bias, to dial back on aggression and deescalate tense encounters. All to the good, as far as it goes. But none of it changes their core mandate in poor Black communities: to control and contain, by any means necessary, a population that has every reason to be restive and rebellious.

** *

“Was he colored?” That’s what my grandmother would say whenever she heard news about a criminal act. She knew that if the alleged perpetrator were “colored” his criminality would be read not simply as the act of an individual, but as an expression of an ingrained racial tendency. Somehow being Black meant that the actions of every random thief, rapist or murderer who was also Black redounded to you and your people. I imagine most Black families had a version of “Was he colored?” And I wouldn’t be surprised if Muslim American families have an equivalent expression today. Untying the knot of individual culpability and the consequences of racial belonging is nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem.

I was on a dance floor on Thursday night, desperately trying to shake off the news from Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. My phone was in my back pocket and, like an idiot, when it buzzed with an incoming text, I left the dance floor and stepped outside to the news from Dallas. Though the action was still unfolding, I immediately surmised that the shooter was “colored,” and that he had been trained by the U.S. military.

It has fallen to President Obama, time and again, to make sense out of the incomprehensible and bind the wounds of a nation apparently bent on self-destruction. In the aftermath of Dallas, Obama quickly condemned the despicable violence of a demented, troubled individual. The president’s intent was clear and laudable. He sought to defuse tensions by definitively asserting that the shooter’s action was not associated with a political movement or a particular organization, that his murderous deeds should in no way be linked to African Americans in general. He struggled to shift the focus from “Was he colored?” to “Clearly he was crazy, right?”

But before boxing Micah Johnson up and setting him aside as deranged and demented it’s worth asking a few questions. Honestly, good people, did anybody in their right mind – that is, not troubled or demented – think that the police could continue to pick off Black people at will and on camera without producing a Micah Johnson? And is troubled and demented shorthand for “traumatized by repeated exposure to the graphic depiction of the murder of people who look just like me?” Or for “agonized by the fact that the officers of the law who placed a handcuffed man in the back of a van and snapped his spine in an intentionally “rough ride” were neither held criminally accountable nor labeled troubled and demented?” Or for “depressed beyond imagining and haunted by the ghosts of the men and women whose lives were snatched by the side of the road, down back alleyways, and in precinct stations from one end of the country to the other before the era of cell phone video?” Or for “pierced through the heart by the voice of four-year-old Dae’Anna, comforting her mama?” Because if demented and troubled is shorthand for any of that, then Micah Johnson may have been a lone gunman, but he is far from alone.

That whoosh you heard on Friday morning was the sound of people rushing to condemn the Dallas shootings, or to extract condemnations from others. There is, of course, no moral justification for gunning down police officers. And, retaliatory violence aimed at the armed representatives of the state, beyond being a suicidal provocation, also shuts down all avenues for advancing the cause of racial justice. But there is a lot of room for reflection between the cheap polarities of condemn or condone.

So here we are, once again, with calls from all quarters for dialogue across the racial divide. But if the long years before the emergence of the various movements for Black lives have taught us anything, it is this: our purported partners in dialogue simply turn their backs and leave the table as soon as the pressure is off. This moment calls for the vigorous defense of our right to continued protest and the intensification and elaboration of multiple movements for Black lives – for the sake of our ancestors and the generations to come. And for the sake of this country that is our home.

Linda Burnham


Nkechi Taifa is the convener of the Justice Roundtable. An expert in the field of criminal justice, she is the Advocacy Director for Criminal Justice for the Open Society Foundations and Open Society Policy Center.

Click here to read Convener’s Corner archives

Taifa pensiveJune 30, 2016

An open letter to President Obama on clemency

Dear Mr. President:

We have applauded your administration’s work to reform the criminal justice system, particularly your efforts to grant clemency to people in federal prisons serving unjust and unduly long sentences. Your clemency initiative has given hope to thousands of incarcerated individuals who had lost faith that anyone in authority understood or cared about their plight. We believe your leadership will bring lasting change to the country and set the table for further reforms in future administrations.

However, we are concerned that as your days in office diminish, the clemency initiative is moving too slowly to meet the goals you set when you announced it in 2014. As the Washington Post, NPR, and other media outlets have reported, the initiative has been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies that have kept petitions that meet all of your stated criteria from reaching your desk. The Pardon Attorney originally hired by the Justice Department to oversee the process has resigned in protest, complaining that her office was given too few resources to process the thousands of applications it received. Attorneys involved in submitting petitions have said it is unclear that all of those received by the administration will be given even cursory review before you leave office, let alone a full vetting and a recommendation for action.

As of this week, nearly 12,000 commutation petitions are pending before the Justice Department. While the 348 commutations you have already granted are a worthy step in the right direction, by our estimates more than 1,500 people in prison are eligible for commutation under the criteria you established. The Justice Department seems to agree, telling the Post that somewhere short of 2,000 of the pending petitions appear to be eligible for relief.

At the pace the administration has currently set, it will fall far short of granting that number of commutations before you leave office. Many of these individuals have already served decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses. Their families have been torn apart and their chances for happy, successful lives curtailed. Nothing can undo the injustice of their original sentences, but failing to grant the commutations for which they are eligible will add a second injustice. These individuals know they meet the criteria you laid out, and they justifiably believed they would obtain relief. If they are denied clemency because the process does not work, they and their families will suffer yet again. This injustice is one only you can prevent.

We know you are committed to this effort. We have seen how much it means to you when you meet with the individuals whose sentences you have commuted. Those interactions have been inspiring not just to us, but to the thousands of petitioners who wonder whether their applications will be given the proper review they were promised. They deserve that review, and many of them have begun to lose hope that they will receive it.

There is still time to accelerate the process so your clemency initiative fulfills the goals you set. But we believe that only your personal leadership will break the bureaucratic logjam that is plaguing the program. No person in prison who meets the criteria for relief should still be behind bars when you leave office. We hope you will move quickly to ensure everyone in your administration acts with the proper diligence to make that promise a reality.


Julie Stewart

President and Founder, Families Against Mandatory Minimums

Glenn E. Martin

Founder, JustLeadershipUSA

Nkechi Taifa

Convener, Justice Roundtable

Marc Mauer

Executive Director, The Sentencing Project

Matt Haney

Co-founder, #cut50

Van Jones

Co-founder, #cut50 and Dream Corps

Michelle Alexander

Author, The New Jim Crow

The Honorable Nancy Gertner

Senior Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School; former Judge, U.S. District Court of Massachusetts

Julie L. Biehl

Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Director, Children and Family Justice Center, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law

Tamar R. Birckhead

Associate Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs, University of North Carolina School of Law

Paul Butler

Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center

Stephen B. Bright

Harvey Karp Visiting Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School

Erin Collins

Executive Director, Clemency Resource Center, Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, New York University Law School

Nora V. Demleitner

Roy L. Steinheimer, Jr. Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University College of Law

James Forman Jr.

Clinical Professor of Law, Yale Law School

Malcolm M. Feeley

Claire Sanders Clements Dean’s Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law

Phillip Goff

Associate Professor (on leave), Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles

Bernard E. Harcourt

Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Director, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, Columbia Law School

David A. Harris

Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law, University of Pittsburgh School of Law

Carissa Byrne Hessick

Professor, College Of Law, University of Utah

Thea Johnson

Assistant Federal Defender, Federal Defenders of New York

Justin D. Levinson

Professor of Law, University of Hawaii at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law

Erik Luna

Foundation Professor of Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University

Sara Mayeux

Sharswood Fellow, University of Pennsylvania Law School

Tracey L. Meares

Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law, Yale Law School

Daniel S. Medwed

Professor of Law and Faculty Director of Professional Development, Northeastern University School of Law

Judith P. Miller

Assistant Clinical Professor, Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, University of Chicago Law School

Marc L. Miller

Dean and Ralph W. Bilby Professor of Law, University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law

Tom Nolan

Associate Professor and Program Director, Criminology & Criminal Justice Graduate Program, Merrimack College

Michael M. O’Hear

Professor of Law, Marquette University Law School

Mark Osler

Professor and Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law, University of St. Thomas School of Law

David Patton

Executive Director, Federal Defenders of New York

Zoë Robinson

Professor of Law, DePaul University College of Law

Maureen Ruane

Former Assistant United States Attorney, District of New Jersey

Margo Schlanger

Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School

Larry Schwartzol

Executive Director, Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School

Jonathan Simon

Adrian A. Kragen Professor of Law and Director, Center for the Study of Law and Society, University of California, Berkeley School of Law

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr.

Clinical Professor of Law and Director, Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law School

Carol S. Steiker

Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director, Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School

Jessica Steinberg

Associate Professor of Clinical Law, George Washington University Law School

Alex Whiting

Professor of Practice and Faculty Co-Director, Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School

*Institutional affiliations are provided for identification purposes only.


Nkechi Taifa is the founder and convener of the Justice Roundtable. An expert in the field of criminal justice, she is the Advocacy Director for Criminal Justice for the Open Society Foundations and Open Society Policy Center.

Click here to read Convener’s Corner archives





Taifa pensiveJune 22, 2016

Justice Radiothon Reflection

The National Clemency and Criminal Justice Reform Radiothon (#JusticeRadiothon), broadcast Friday, June 17 from noon-6:00pm was outstanding.  The programming reached such a high level of attention that #JusticeRadiothon trended on Twitter, reaching the number two spot in top tags that day!  Now that we trended, we’ve got to get unfair and outdated criminal justice laws changed!  The one bill cited over and over for immediate passage was the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act pending in the Senate. The need for the President to grant more commutations was also a frequent focus of comments.

The Radiothon gave voice to men, women and families who have been impacted by mass incarceration, and examined various strategies for relief in the criminal justice reform toolbox, including legislative reform and executive clemency. All vowed to step up the pace in support of criminal justice reform.

The half-day broadcast was co-hosted by Ford-era commutation recipient and host of WPFW’s Crossroads show Roach Brown, and Justice Roundtable convener Attorney Nkechi Taifa.  Clemency expert Mark Osler participated throughout the day in studio. Veteran WPFW anchors Askia Muhammad and Gloria Minott added their special flavor.

This first ever six-hour radio focus on clemency and criminal justice reform was chock full of change-makers. Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers called in to make remarks, and DC’s Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton dropped by the WPFW radio station to announce her bill calling on the President to delegate clemency authority for DC prisoners to the District’s Mayor, as DC has no governor to play that critical role. Celebrities MC Hammer, Keith Sweat, Adam Rodriguez, Lamman Rucker and Maria McDonald called in stressing the need for sentencing reform and executive clemency.

Commutation recipients Norman Brown, Kemba Smith, Amy Povah, Jason Hernandez, Ramona Brant, Shauna Berry-Scott and Sharanda Jones joined scores of other formerly incarcerated women and men such as Andrea James, Weldon Angelos, Yango Sawyer, Glenn Martin, Teresa Hodge, Topeka Sam, and Phyllis Johnson in calling for criminal justice reform.  Alice Johnson, Craig Cesal, Tyrie Bell, Eric Wilson, Ian Shepherd and others called in from prison.  Family members Ebony and Anthony Underwood, Miquelle West, Tony Lewis, Deborah Cain, Erica Wilson, and Ms. Clementine brought attention to their loved ones languishing behind bars. Civil rights leaders Wade Henderson (Leadership Conference), Sherrilyn Ifill (NAACP-LDF), Dorian Spence (Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law), and Sara Totonchi (Southern Center for Human Rights) lent their voices and the power of their organizations.

The voices of the #Cut 50 crew including Shaka Senghor, Matt Haney and Jessica Jackson were heard.  Conservative and libertarian allies Mark Holden (Koch), Craig DeRoche (Prison Fellowship), and John Malcolm (Heritage) joined in, as did Utah Judge Mark Bennett. Attorneys MiAngel Cody, Rachel Barkow, Kendall Minter, Cynthia Roseberry, Vicki Casanova Willis, Brittany Byrd, Soffiyah Elijah, and Damon Hewitt weighed in.  Criminal justice advocates Marc Mauer, Norman Reimer, Marc Schindler, Angelyn Frazer-Giles, Jesselyn McCurdy, Jasmine Tyler, Todd Cox, Karen Garrison and others lent their expertise.

Faith leaders Aundreia Alexander (NCC) and Kara Gotsch (ICJC) and those representing special issues such as Meghan Maury (LGBTQ), Dara Baldwin (disability), Maritza Perez and Jasmine Mickens (crimmigration) educated the public. The views of progressive law enforcement were heard with Ron Hampton and Damon Jones. Other scheduled critical voices such as Dorsey Nunn, Divine Pryor, Johnny Gill, Hilary Shelton, Ron Daniels, Pat Nolan, Jeremy Haile, Bruce Nicholson, Judge Burnett, Yasmine Arrington and others were not able to get through the packed phone lines.

For the past 45 years the media has played a huge role in fanning the flames of the horrific war on drugs. We challenge the media and policymakers today to listen to the featured speakers who called into the Justice RADIOTHON, and use their personal stories and educational information as an important part of narrative change, with the goal of slashing mass incarceration, reuniting families and strengthening communities.

The link to the entire National Clemency and Criminal Justice Reform RadioTHON will be available shortly.

(Special thanks to WPFW-FM Pacifica radio, Roach & Mertine Brown, Angelyn Frazer and Zerline Hughes for your special efforts in making this historic broadcast a success)


Taifa pensiveJune 5, 2016

I am pleased to announce the first ever National Clemency and Criminal Justice Reform RADIOTHON, to be broadcast Friday, June 17 th from noon-6:00pm (ET) andaccessible live via the internet,

The Radiothon is scheduled 45 years after former President Nixon declared drug abuse as “Public Enemy Number 1.” Shortly after his June 18, 1971 proclamation, the media popularized the term, “War on Drugs.” We now know that this “war on drugs” was a stratagem for criminalizing Black people and critics of the Viet Nam war, and has today resulted in the mass incarceration of over 2 million people.

The purpose of this first-ever Justice RADIOTHON is two-fold: to spotlight and give voice to the men, women and families who have been impacted by mass incarceration, and examine various strategies in the criminal justice reform toolbox that can be used to provide relief, including:

executive clemency legislative reform compassionate release judicial second look mechanisms reentry; eliminating adverse policies restricting jobs, housing; education

The half-day RADIOTHON will feature:

Formerly Incarcerated People; Incarcerated People
Children; Family members of the Incarcerated
Celebrities for Justice
Criminal Justice Advocates
Civil Rights Leaders
Conservative Allies
Faith Leaders
Representatives from Executive, Legislative, Judicial branches
Media Influencers
Organizational Representatives
Foundation Representatives
Special Issues

For the past 45 years the media has played a huge role in fanning the flames of the horrific war on drugs. We challenge the media and policymakers today to listen to the featured speakers in this RADIOTHON, and use the personal stories and educational information to be an important part of narrative change, with the goal of reuniting families and strengthening communities.

May 26, 2016

An excellent and timely article from Illinois Federal Public Defender MiAngel Cody. “But the Legislation Doesn’t Go Far Enough — Its Time to Check Our Unincarcerated Privilege in the Conversation About Sentencing Reform.” Huff Post Politics, May 24, 2016

Toward the end of her article Cody stresses, “As the unincarcerated, we should be acutely aware of our privilege. Do I think the sentencing reform bills are perfect? No. However, I am not in prison. As a federal defender, I’ve defended hundreds of cases. An imprisoned client has never called me and said, “Hey, Ms. Cody. Although that new law would free me, it doesn’t go far enough; so I am going to just sit in prison until better legislation comes along.” Sentencing reform is not simply impressive bipartisan politics blog fodder or robust intellectual conversation. Sentencing reform is a moral imperative, particularly for the thousands of melanated bodies disproportionately over sentenced during America’s addiction to incarceration. There are prisoners like Tyrie who are overserving time. Like Tyrie, they are disproportionately African American. Life Tyrie, they would directly benefit from sentencing reform. Their freedom must be an indispensable, non-negotiated starting point … Not one opponent of S.2123 or H.R. 3713 has volunteered to switch places with Tyrie or the thousands of prisoners like him until better legislation comes along. A privileged critique that does not begin with the swift decarceration of the unfairly imprisoned ignores their bondage at best and perpetuates it most probably. I refuse to entertain the “does the bill go far enough” conversation until Tyrie and the thousands like him are free. I encourage leaders in the African American community, our representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus, our defenders and allies to #freethe5000.”

April 2016

The Justice Roundtable applauds the United States Sentencing Commission for strengthening and broadening the criteria of compassionate release by stressing eligibility for federal prisoners based on any of four categories: medical conditions, age, family circumstance, or other extraordinary and compelling reasons. As stated in its April 15 press release, “The Commission’s action encourages the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to use its current authority if an eligible offender meets any of the circumstances defined by the Commission’s expanded criteria for compassionate release.” Citing documented concerns that the BOP has neglected to use this authority in the past to recommend compassionate release, Commission Chief Judge Patti Saris continued, “(w)e encourage BOP to use its discretion consistent with this new policy so that eligible applications are reviewed by a trial judge.”I submit that the BOP should use this explicit criteria to recommend, in particular, the release of scores of elderly prisoners serving inordinately lengthly sentences whose continued incarceration no longer serves the interests of justice.  People such as William Underwood, age 62, whose grandchildren have never seen him outside of prison walls – the traumatic impact on his family alone of his nearly three decades behind bars is extraordinary and compelling.It is critical that all tools in the criminal justice toolbox be used to reform the system and the Sentencing Commission has now provided the BOP with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the power of the authority it possesses to counter over-incarceration, slash unnecessary prison costs and reunite families.

March 2016

As convener of the Justice Roundtable, I am thrilled that our advocacy in the area of executive clemency has culminated in some very exciting and memorable moments for formerly incarcerated people who have been granted clemency. On March 30-31, we successfully coordinated the attendance of nearly 30 commutation recipients from the Obama, Bush, Clinton and Ford eras, along with family members of commutation applicants, to come to Washington, DC – seven of whom were selected by the President to join him for a private lunch at Busboys and Poets restaurant. This lunch directly followed the President’s March 30th announcement of 61 new commutation grants. I am so very proud that Ramona Brant, Norman Brown, Phillip Emmett, Angie Jenkins, Serena Nunn, Michael Short, and Kemba Smith, had the opportunity for this unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the President. See a snippet here.

President Obama’s announcement and private lunch occurred as part of the myriad of criminal justice and clemency advocacy engaged in by Justice Roundtable participants – the latest being the March 31st  Conversations on Justice with Shaka Senghor, whose seminal book, Writing my Wrongs is a tale of forgiveness, hope and second chances, and reminds us that our worst deeds don’t define who we are, which preceded an historic White House briefing, “Life After Clemency.”

President Obama’s special advisor Valerie Jarrett announced at a Women and Criminal Justice White House convening today that the President, after dining with the commutation recipients, stated that he “has felt this enormous sense of urgency,” and she also stressed that going forward, every commutation recipient “does not have to be squeaky clean.” Read her White House blog post. It is our hope that our President was so moved by the men and women he met and dined with, that he will do everything he can to grant as many clemency applications as possible so that they can return home to their families and loved ones.



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