The System is Not Broken

I respect the decisions of the jurors in the Rittenhouse trial. The jury reached a verdict, but the process was flawed: the Judge was not impartial, which led in part to this outcome. He telegraphed from the onset, by way of his rulings, his racist statements about Asians, his inappropriate physical closeness to the defendant, and his conspicuous belief the defendant was innocent, We saw so many examples of actions by Judge Schroeder that communicated to the jury his support for the defendant, including having him in such a close proximity. This is highly unusual, and in 16 years as a prosecutor, I have NEVER seen this happen — it has certainly never happens with Black and Brown defendants. It raises issues of race, equality, and of judicial impartiality.

These not so subtle messages impact justice and verdicts. Judge Schroeder left any premise of impartiality at the courtroom door. 

That said, I see much deeper implications for the rule of law, race, equity, and justice in our country. Every day, defense attorneys nationwide fight to get their clients of color the same level of respect and dignity this defendant received in his trial. Prosecutors fight for  victims of color to be heard and respected. Kyle Rittenhouse blatantly benefitted from white privilege while many others in the system that are Black and Brown must overcome so much more just to be treated with a modicum of the decency they deserve, in a country that believes in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.”

To me this case is just another example of systemic racism in our country. And it is a case that connects so many concerns —the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McCain, and the subsequent uprisings in the aftermath last summer. The procedural concerns impact, and further destroy,  the trust of some Americans in our criminal justice system. We are reminded of other cases in history including the violence the Freedom Riders, and others, faced during the first Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s where perpetrators of violence were not held accountable. 

This case also raises issues surrounding who can, and cannot, exercise their First and Second Amendment rights. It infringes on the true use and meaning of “self defense,” and renews concerns regarding the application of ‘Stand Your Ground” as well as vigilantism. Perception is reality — and if people do not perceive the system to be fair, less people will report crimes, testify in trials, or respect the rule of law.

Judges are an elected to office. Schroeder is the longest-serving circuit judge in Wisconsin. He was first appointed in 1983 and has continuously won election since, often running unopposed. Free and fair elections are the backbone of democracy, and that includes having a choice of who sits on the bench.

I’ll conclude this message with a challenge: get involved in democracy in your community. Vote all the way down the ballot, without skipping judicial races and other less discussed races. Join or start a CourtWatch program to learn about your local judges. Help build a bench: get to know stakeholders in your community and recruit and encourage them to run for office. Get involved. Mobilize. Most importantly, whatever you do – do not sit quietly on the sidelines. Do not accept the status quo. Stay vigilant, never complacent..

 If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

We stand in solidarity with those who are hurting today. I hope you will join me in the fight for our democracy, and to push forward equality for all in the legal system in this country.
 

Though we strobed
That we came in peace
He was already at war.
We have battled hard to be.
Nothing —
Nothing —
Can keep you safe.
Silence least of all.
Look alive, everyone.
May such a prayer,
A people,
A peace,
A promise,
Be outs.
Be right
& radiant
& real.
— Amanda Gorman

In solidarity & sadness,

M.

Stepping into 2021!

Well, it’s finally here.

We’ve waited, we’ve prayed, we fought, we cried…and now, 2020 is in the history books, replaced by the blank slate of the new year.

It’s a strange feeling in some ways. For me, 2020 was very much a mixed bag. There are some parts that I couldn’t wait to have behind me – watching friends suffer with their health as a result of COVID19; lockdowns; and toxicity brought on by the political climate. At the same token, it was a year of breaking boundaries as well as new beginnings.

On the positive side, I’m thankful more than ever for my health. It’s something we should never take for granted. I was able to work remotely, which is a privilege many people did not have, placing them and their families at risk. Thank you to everyone that went out to work because they were essential; I stand in solidarity with those who were forced due to corporate greed.

George Floyd protest in Miami

2020 was definitely a year of pushing boundaries and taking on new challenges. The biggest challenge for me was running for the office of Miami Dade State Attorney. In the best of times, running for office is intense, back breaking work. I knew it was going to be hard, but there was no real way to know how hard until I was in it. You spend hours on the phone asking for donations; then more time is spent trying to maximize what you have raised in order to get your message out effectively. It became clear to me why many of those in government either come from wealth, or are beholden to special interests who financed their campaigns. It’s simply very difficult to do without financial support. Add on the layer of a global pandemic, where there is uncertainty around people’s financial future as well as the loss of the ability to connect in person at local events or door to door — now it’s uncharted waters.

With all of the hurdles, we managed to leverage social media to elevate the discussion of key issues confronting Miami and America at large in the criminal justice system. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others encouraged national activism; but it also made people look in their own backyards to see what injustices may be occurring. The racial reckoning- painful as it was for me personally to watch people that look like me die for no reason – was a turning point in highlighting why change is needed locally and nationally.

With fellow activists at Women’s March Miami rally

Even though my bid was not successful- the jury is out as to whether I will do it again – it was such an honor to connect with people I never would have met otherwise. It also allowed me to thin out my contact list. Not everyone who says they are there for you really mean it. The lesson is one that is repeated often, but it is welcome in that it clears the path for new relationships to be forged. I am so grateful to everyone who donated, volunteered or assisted in some way. So many folks showed up and showed out – it was really appreciated!!! Special shout out to my beloved husband the Cowboy. His unconditional love and support made this possible.

Me and my Cowboy! Photo credit: LocShotz

Continuing on the topic of elections, I cannot wait to attend the swearing in ceremonies of Harold Pryor in Broward County (first African American man to be elected State Attorney in Florida), and Monique Worrell who will continue the legacy of Aramis Ayala as State Attorney in Orange/Osceola County. On a national level, the first African American female will be inaugurated as Vice President. The new presidential administration under Joe Biden will be not only a breath of fresh air, but very needed oxygen for us to rebuild as a country.

My new beginning came in September when I joined Florida International University as the Director of Policy and Programs for the Center for the Administration of Justice. My father always had a saying – “watch how you conduct yourself in the street because you never know who is watching”. The associate director of the Center had been watching my campaign and how I addressed the issues. He texted me on Election night when the results became final, and I began work a month later (after a much needed vacation!). It’s been great to work with prosecutors’ offices to show them how using data and alternative ways to measure success can bring more equity to our communities as well as our system. We are bringing on new offices this year, and will be expanding the work internationally. My greatest goal is to create several test sites as models of real community engagement between prosecutors and the people they serve.

So what is on deck for 2021?

There will be a lot more writing this year (yay!). I published a book on prosecutorial discretion last year; I’ll be continuing to promote it as part of the bigger dialogue as to what is next for the criminal justice system. I’m excited to be able to travel again internationally – for pleasure and for work – once the vaccine is widely available. There will be more work on a grassroots level around criminal justice – raising awareness and empowering people with the information they need to fight for change while holding those in power accountable. Make sure to tune in to Mondays With Melba every Monday at 6pm on Facebook Live. It is also posted later in the week on my Resident Legal Diva Instagram page.

Thank you for being a part of the RLD family. I wish each of you a healthy and prosperous New Year. Please let me know any topics you’d like for me to explore on the blog or via Facebook Live. Let’s make it a great year together!!

Image of Melba Pearson embracing joy on the waterfront
Happy New Year! Photo credit: LocShotz

Exploring Bail Reform

Greetings RLD Family, 

In the final days of the year (as well as the decade!) I’ve been working on the issue of bail reform. It’s sad to think many people will be spending the holidays behind bars due to poverty — not because they have been found guilty of a crime. There are some solid models around the country on how to reduce this. Please see my latest in the Florida Phoenix  on how we can make our bail system more equitable. 

grey steel grill
Photo by Cameron Casey on Pexels.com

Bail reform has received a lot of buzz lately.

Numerous states have implemented or are studying ways to make pretrial release systems more fair and effective, while improving public safety.  Taxpayers are saving tens of millions of dollars otherwise wasted by keeping people unnecessarily locked up. So far, Florida is behind the curve.

Monetary bail – also known as bond – is designed to ensure that individuals who are arrested will appear in court for their scheduled court date.

In order to benefit from our current bail system, individuals who have been charged with crimes, but have not yet had their day in court and have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, must pay approximately 10 percent of the total bond issued by the court to a bondsperson in order to return to their lives and families, pretrial.

The underlying premise is “come back or lose the money,” but the devil is in the details, as those relying on bondsmen lose their money regardless. The 10 percent is not returned, even if the person complies with the terms of release and/or is found not guilty.

This raises significant concerns over who actually benefits from this system. Should an individual who has not been convicted of any wrongdoing have to pay in order to secure their freedom pretrial?

Read the rest here.

RLD on The JustPod: Prosecutorial Discretion

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Hey RLD Family!

I had the privilege of appearing on the American Bar Association podcast “The JustPod” this week.  The host Emily Johnson and I chatted about what the ethical obligations of a prosecutor are from charging until trial.  I also shared my thoughts on the Jussie Smollett case, then US Attorney Alex Acosta’s handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case, and other recent high profile cases. Lastly, I discussed my upcoming book on prosecutorial discretion that will be coming out early next year.

Listen to my comments here!

Legal Divas of Color: 10 Ladies Rise in Alabama

Photo Credit: Andre WagnerEvery Black History Month, I have done a series on this blog on the topic of “Legal Divas of Color”. The intent is to highlight African-American women who are doing great things in the legal field. Many serve as an inspiration to me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing the boundaries as far as they can go. It is also a reminder that the term “diva” is not a pejorative term; a diva is a woman who is strong, self-assured, and commands her worth.

When one thinks of the state of Alabama, sadly what comes to mind is the long history of racism and segregation. One thinks of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King; the actions of brutal police officers; and the last state in the country to overturn miscegenation laws as required by the Supreme Court.

However, Election Day 2016 showed that times are slowly changing in this southern state. 10 female attorneys of color rose to the highest positions that one can hold in the legal field in Jefferson County. The newly elected District Attorney is Lynneice Washington; and nine women of color were elected judges in Jefferson County. The nine new judges are Javan Patton, Debra Bennett Winston, Shera Craig Grant, Nakita “Niki” Perryman Blocton, Tamara Harris Johnson, Elisabeth French, Agnes Chappell, Brendette Brown Green and Annetta Verin.

District Attorney Lynneice Washington ran on a progressive platform of reforming/reducing the use of the death penalty, creating alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, and creating a citizens-police advisory board. In doing so, she defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to the position after the retirement of his successor.

Photo Credit: Lynneice Washington campaign

These wins are even more significant when you look at the fact that the current administration carried Alabama, and defeated Hillary Clinton resoundingly.

In this day and age, there seems to be a resurgence of the “tough on crime” rhetoric coming from the Justice Department and the White House. These policies have proven to be ineffective, leading to mass incarceration and no rehabilitation to be found in the criminal justice system. Now, there is a rise of a more progressive approach to criminal justice, which has shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and integrating people back into their communities. This is why it is more important than ever to elect progressive district attorneys and judges so that the whole defendant is being considered, as well as what is right for the victim, and the community at large. Local politics have become more critical in criminal justice than national policy. Groups such as the ACLU, and activists such as Shaun King are mounting voter education campaigns on this critical issue.

The wave of power seen in Jefferson County, Alabama is absolutely historic. I look upon these wins as hope for the future!

Congratulations ladies for being Legal Divas of Color.

Please see the bios of the nine judges here as well as a great piece detailing the District Attorney Lynneice Washington’s plans for the future of her county.