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.

Is Bill Cosby Headed to Prison?

PHOTO: Bill Cosby is seen leaving the Montgomery County Court House after a hearing on his upcoming sexual assault trial, Photo Date: 4/3/2017

Is Bill Cosby going to prison?
As actor Bill Cosby trial for sexual assault continues, everyone is asking the million dollar question is this it? Is the legendary actor that we all grew up with (Mr. Huxtable, Fat Albert, Jell-o pudding pops man) going to serve prison time for the alleged sexual assault of Andrea Constand?
Several factors come into play. 

First, he’s got to be found guilty. The prosecution has an uphill battle convincing the 12 person jury. There was a delayed report of the assault (one year later), no physical evidence, and no eyewitnesses. The alleged victim stayed in contact with Cosby afterwards. Jurors, in the age of DNA, need more than an accuser’s word more often than not. He also has a squeaky clean image, and was someone who seemed endearing on television. It may be hard to separate the character from the person. 

But, the prosecution is not walking in empty handed. There was much pretrial press, including television specials and magazine articles, of the long line of women (over 50 in total) who claim to have been victimized by Cosby. This includes supermodels, struggling actresses, and an airline stewardess among others. As much as the judge and attorneys for both sides asked probing questions during the jury selection process, this publicity will be in the jurors minds no matter what they may have said. Also, another victim will be sharing her experience with the jury — hearing from multiple victims is more powerful. Lastly, the prosecution will present expert testimony with the goal of enlightening the jury as to the different, unexpected ways victims of sexual assault may act or react. 

So, it is a toss up which way the case will go. If he is found not guilty, he walks out the door. If he is found guilty, he would not be sent to jail immediately. Sentencing would be set for several weeks after the verdict is read. At the sentencing hearing, the defense attorney would bring a host of character witnesses. We saw Keisha Pullman Knight come to court with him in support; she and other Cosby show co-stars have been vocal in their support. They will probably be called to testify, along with others who will discuss the positive things he has done for the community, for the field of acting, etc. The defense will be quick to remind the court that Cosby does not have a criminal history. 

Along with his lack of criminal history, the judge can consider Cosby’s age (79) and health. If he is truly going blind due to glaucoma, along with other physical ailments, the judge may determine that incarceration may not be the best punishment. The judge may feel that because of his age/physical condition, he is unlikely to reoffend, therefore not posing a risk to the public. 

Cosby faces a max of ten years in prison if convicted. But as we have seen in recent cases at Stanford University and in Colorado, judges may conclude that prison is not appropriate for a variety of reasons. Granted, historically, men of color have not had the best luck when it comes to sentencing, as seen by the disproportionate numbers in prison. But wealth is often the great equalizer, as seen in the OJ Simpson case. 

So is he going to jail? 
In my opinion, doubtful