Preaching justice and mercy, acclaimed lawyer, writer Bryan Stevenson visits Duke

Acclaimed writer and lawyer Bryan Stevenson talks with Duke Chapel Dean Luke A. Powery on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.

If there was one thing Bryan Stevenson could say to legislators when they’re writing laws to punish people convicted of crimes, the acclaimed writer and lawyer told a crowd at Duke University Wednesday night, he would encourage them to push past their anger and fear so they can see how much pain they are inflicting on people who wind up behind bars.

“Our policymakers actually think they can put crimes in prison,” Stevenson said. “You can only put a person in prison. And what I want to talk to them about is that people are not crimes. They can commit crimes, but they are not crimes, and if we believe that, then we cannot believe that these sentences are just.”

Last night Stevenson sat with Duke Chapel Dean Luke A. Powery for a public conversation titled “Seeking Justice and Redemption in the Public Square.”

Stevenson is the author of the popular memoir Just Mercy and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal services to people denied a fair trial, including those who may have been wrongly convicted of their crimes. The organization challenges the death penalty, provides reentry assistance to formerly incarcerated people who are going home and works to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s work has led to reversals, relief or release from prison for more than 135 people wrongly sent to death row. The group has also won important legal cases getting rid of excessive sentences, exonerating innocent people on death row, addressing the abuse of incarcerated and mentally ill people, and helping children prosecuted as adults for criminal charges.

Wednesday’s conversation mostly centered on justice and mercy. Stevenson talked about his work with people on death row, the emotional toll such work takes — and the importance of doing it, especially in a country that refuses to reckon with its past, in a time when democracy in the U.S. is in peril.

“I feel like we’ve been allowed to be silent about things about which no one should be silent. You can’t have a genocide of indigenous people [where] millions of people die and not talk about it,” he said. You can’t enslave people for two and a half centuries and not talk about it, not understand it;  you can’t lynch thousands of Black people and cause six million to flee the American South… and not address the trauma and the injury that that created.”

Central to Stevenson’s work is the idea that everyone is worthy of justice, compassion and mercy, even those he referred to as “the broken,” the men, women and children he represents as an attorney. People are more than the worst thing they have ever done, Stevenson said; a person not just a liar when they tell a lie, nor are they just a killer when they take another person’s life. People, Stevenson was saying, contain multitudes.

“To be broken is to not mean that you should be condemned,” he said. “And in fact, it’s the broken among us that can sometimes teach us what recovery is all about, what redemption is all about. It’s the broken that can teach us what it means to be fully human because they have experienced the inhumanity of being crushed by something.”

Stevenson’s visit at Duke — co-sponsored by Duke Chapel, the Sanford School, and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law — features two speeches and a lunch event that will take place at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 3043 at Duke Law.

Stevenson is speaking at Duke again tonight at 5:00, in a separate address titled “Standing for Equal Justice.” To register for the livestream, click here.

Lawmakers get update on soon-to-be launched Department of Adult Correction

 

Employee retention and recruitment will be a focal point for the soon-to-be launched Department of Adult Correction, the agency’s chief deputy secretary for administration told lawmakers on Thursday.

“Like everybody else, we’ve been impacted by the Great Resignation,” Douglas Holbrook told members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety. “We’re putting the wellness of our employees at the forefront because it’s a challenging job.”

Douglas Holbrook, Dept. of Public Safety

Lawmakers voted in 2011 to put the state’s Department of Correction within the Department of Public Safety as a cost-cutting measure intended to make the government run smoother. Legislators reversed course in 2021 negotiations, opting to return to a system similar to before, creating the Department of Adult Correction, which will officially launch Jan. 1. The employees currently working for DPS will be transferred to the DAC in the coming months.

Holbrook briefed legislators Thursday on the plans for the massive new state agency, which will oversee the nearly 30,000 people incarcerated in the state’s 54 prisons, 65,000 people on probation and 10,000 post-release supervision. Not to mention the 21,000 people expected to be employed by the agency.

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Durham hosting “ShotSpotter” community forums starting this weekend

Screen grab of Shotspotter technology (Video: Shotspotter.com)

This weekend the City of Durham will host the first of at least four community forums on the use of ShotSpotter technology to reduce crime.

ShotSpotter is a controversial tool used by police departments across the country to reduce gun violence. Sensors alert police when guns are fired, helping them respond faster. Microphones will be placed in a three-square-mile radius in Durham for the one-year pilot program. The first three months will be free. The next nine will cost $197,500.

The ShotSpotter website argues the sensors give police valuable data on how to manage their limited resources to deter crime and reduce violence. Critics, meanwhile, contend that the technology is often deployed in communities of color, which already are over-policed, and that program’s effectiveness is unknown and hasn’t been peer-reviewed.

Others have found serious issues with using ShotSpotter evidence in court, suggesting that innocent people can be sent to prison because of faulty technology or human bias overriding the gunshot detection algorithm.

The Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department chose not to renew its ShotSpotters contract in 2016, stating that the results didn’t justify the cost.

ShotSpotter is projected to go live in Durham on Nov. 15, joining other North Carolina cities like Fayetteville, Goldsboro and Winston-Salem that use the technology. Durham officials will hold several community forums on the technology before then, beginning this Saturday, Sept. 10, at 10:30 a.m. at Camps Hills Recreation Center.

Per the city website, the community forums are scheduled for:

DISTRICT 1 PAC– TBD

DISTRICT 2 PAC– September 12, 2022 @ 6:00PM, Edison Johnson Recreation Center, 500 W. Murray, Durham, NC 27704

DISTRICT 3 PAC– October 8, 2022 @ 9:30AM, Lyon Park Community & Recreation Center 1309 Halley Street, Durham, NC 27707

DISTRICT 4 & 5 PAC– September 10, 2022 @ 10:30AM, Campus Hills Recreation Center, 2000 South Alston Avenue, Durham, NC 27701

MCDOUGALD TERRACE COMMUNITY– September 16, 2022 @ 2:00PM, Location TBD

DURHAM BUSINESSES AGAINST CRIME (BAC)– TBD

Biden student loan forgiveness will be taxable income in North Carolina

Student loans forgiven under a plan outlined by President Joe Biden last week will be subject to state taxes, the North Carolina Department of Revenue announced on Wednesday.

Borrowers who make up to $125,000 annually — or $250,000, if they are married — could see up t0 $10,000 of their federal student debt forgiven under a plan the Biden administration unveiled on Aug. 24. Low-income borrowers who received Pell Grants for their education are eligible for up to another $10,000 in forgiveness under the plan.

The debt cancellation is exempt from federal income tax because of a provision in the American Rescue Plan passed by the U.S. Congress. The North Carolina General Assembly, however, did not adopt the same provision in relation to the state income tax, so student loan forgiveness is “currently considered taxable income in North Carolina,” per the Department of Revenue.

“The Department of Revenue is monitoring any further enactments by the General Assembly that could change the taxability of student loan forgiveness in North Carolina,” reads a press release.

According to Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit the Tax Foundation, North Carolina is one of five states that could tax student loans forgiven under the Biden plan as personal income.

“Note that, while the debt—if retained—would have been paid over a period of years, the debt cancellation is included in income in the year in which it is taxed,” the Tax Foundation post reads. “In the coming weeks and months, we are likely to see additional states issue guidance on the treatment of discharged student loan debt, and perhaps even adopt legislative fixes, causing this list to dwindle further.”

Tens of thousands of North Carolinians on parole can now vote

More than 55,000 North Carolina citizens with felony convictions who are on probation, parole or some other form of state supervision can now register to vote and will be able to cast a ballot in this year’s November elections.

The end of felony disenfranchisement for these groups follows a three-year legal battle that culminated in the largest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling is not final, as the litigation remains ongoing and is heading to the state Supreme Court.

The 2019 complaint notes that state law denied the right to vote to tens of thousands of state residents because they have a felony conviction, barring them from voting until they are “unconditionally discharged” from their state supervision, often years after they get out of prison.

“In many cases, the disenfranchisement persists solely because of a person’s inability to pay court fees,” the complaint reads.

That same filing notes that African Americans make up 20% of the state’s voting population but 40% of those who were disenfranchised while on probation, parole or a suspended sentence.

On April 21, 2022, the Court of Appeals ruled that after the primary elections on May 17 and July 26, the State Board of Elections must implement a final judgement the trial court issued earlier in the year. The trial court judges ruled 2-1 that North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement law is unconstitutional, and that all citizens who have been convicted of felonies must be allowed to register to vote.

In other words, with the July 26 primaries now passed, felony disenfranchisement for the specified groups is over in North Carolina. The only citizens who are ineligible to cast a ballot who have been convicted of a felony are those who are currently serving a prison sentence.

A broad coalition of criminal justice advocates will be at the Halifax Mall adjacent to the state Legislative Building  Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 to kick off the “Unlock Our Vote Freedom Summer” tour. The groups in attendance will include the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, Forward Justice, the NC Justice Center and the ACLU of North Carolina. (Note: Policy Watch is a project of the NCJustice Center.) There will be food, a DJ, a voter registration drive and training for volunteers so they can conduct voter registration outreach in communities across the state.