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Criminal Justice Reform Snagged in Campaign Politics

By Dee Hunter, Urban News Service

Planned reforms to federal drug and sentencing laws that imprisoned many African-Americans have become locked up by election-year politics.

“The cost of incarceration and a growing awareness of the problems with mandatory minimum sentences have created a diverse coalition calling for reforms,” said Kevin Ring, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). Photo by Joe Ruffin

Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). Photo by Joe Ruffin

Reform supporters span civil rights advocates, law enforcement organizations, numerous federal judges, conservative groups and even Republican stalwarts, the Koch Brothers. Eighty percent of American voters support ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, according to a February Pew Charitable Trusts poll.

President Obama has made this issue a priority. He issued an executive order in January to prohibit solitary confinement of juveniles. He discussed criminal justice reform in his latest State of the Union address, and pardoned 95 federal inmates at Christmas. He also became the first president to visit a federal prison.

Several relevant bills enjoy broad bipartisan support in Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 by a 15-5 vote last October.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced this legislation, which enjoys 28 Senate co-sponsors. “Our sentencing bill is a compromise that shows that senators from both sides of the aisle can come together to address a serious problem in a reasonable and responsible way,” Grassley said.

Traditional crime fighters and criminal-justice reformers debate whether drug offenders are violent. Thirty-five percent of drug offenders in federal prison had minimal criminal histories and no previous imprisonment, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, BJS also reports that 25 percent of drug offenders also used weapons in their most recent offenses.

Senator Ted Cruz (R – Texas) voted against the bill. As amended, it provides “leniency for violent criminals who use guns and gives lighter sentences to criminals already serving time,” he said before the Judiciary Committee.

“That claim is false and does not factually line up with the reality of who is behind bars in our federal prisons,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) in response to critics who say the bill would free violent criminals. “Each case must also go before a federal judge, with the prosecutor present for an independent judicial review.”

Grassley’s measure addresses several stringent sentencing provisions that have helped swell the federal prison population over the past 30 years. It would repeal the “three strikes” law that requires a mandatory life sentence without parole for anyone with a third conviction on drug or violent-felony charges. Instead, the bill creates a mandatory 25-year sentence.

 

This legislation retroactively applies a 2010 sentencing-reform provision that reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine penalties. This change alone would let about 6,500 prisoners petition the courts for release or reduced sentences. Grassley’s bill also includes juvenile-justice reforms and language to help former prisoners transition back into society.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), facing pressure from tough-on-crime Republicans, has not said whether he will allow a vote on Grassley’s proposal. “Our system of justice is not broken,” former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft wrote last month in a letter to McConnell, signed by 40 high-ranking former law-enforcement officials. “Mandatory minimums have caused a dramatic reduction in crime.”

Reform advocates do not consider Grassley’s legislation the major overhaul of mandatory-minimum sentences for which they long have fought, saying his bill does not go far enough.

“It’s a Goldilocks reform bill. It’s not too much. It’s not too little. But it’s better than nothing,” said Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Policy Center. “There was a time when this looked like a slam dunk…It was the right issue at the right time. Now it is not so clear.”

This bill only applies to the federal justice system, where about 200,000 inmates are held. This is just 8 percent of the 2.5 million Americans confined to state prisons and local jails.

While the Senate’s path remains clouded, the measure has a brighter future in the House. Legislators and reform advocates consider Speaker Paul Ryan (R- Wisconsin) an ally in overhauling sentencing and drug laws. Ryan said he supports all the measures that have cleared the House Judiciary Committee. “We will schedule floor time for them,” Ryan told journalists at a recent Capitol press briefing.

Until then, reformers sound as impatient as ever.

“All there has been is talk, and more talk,” said civil rights leader Barbara Arwine. “Action is long overdue. Mass incarceration threatens many of the gains we fought for in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s time for a vote.”

 

 

Workforce Development youth selected for national initiative

The Colton-Redlands-Yucaipa (CRY-ROP) was one of four agencies selected nationwide to participate in the Youth Action Council on Transition (YouthACT), a national initiative designed to get more youth with disabilities to partner with advocates and organizations to improve their opportunities for disabled young adults.  Pictured from left are Fernando Olivarez, Nicole Drazin and Branley Acevedo who represented the agency in Washington, D.C. recently.

The Colton-Redlands-Yucaipa (CRY-ROP) was one of four agencies selected nationwide to participate in the Youth Action Council on Transition (YouthACT), a national initiative designed to get more youth with disabilities to partner with advocates and organizations to improve their opportunities for disabled young adults. Pictured from left are Fernando Olivarez, Nicole Drazin and Branley Acevedo who represented the agency in Washington, D.C. recently.

The Colton-Redlands-Yucaipa Regional Occupational Program (CRY-ROP) was one of four agencies nationwide selected by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth  to participate in the Youth Action Council on Transition (YouthACT).  YouthACT is a national initiative designed to get more youth with disabilities to partner with advocates and organizations to improve opportunities for disabled young adults.  The initiative is led by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability (NCWD/Youth). Program funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).

The San Bernardino County Workforce Development Board (WDB) is a nationally recognized leader in workforce issues, and is often used as a model for other boards across the country.  CRY-ROP, one of the San Bernardino County WDB youth service providers, now joins the national ranks on the youth perspective, serving as a testament to how the Workforce Development Board’s funded youth employment programs are making a positive impact on the lives of at-risk youth.

CRY-ROP’s YouthACT team is working with teams across the nation to discuss and plan leadership, advocacy and transitional strategies for young adults.

“I am proud to be named the adult partner for the YouthACT team out of Colton-Redlands-Yucaipa ROP.  The partnerships between youth and adults that the program creates are powerful forces,” said Nicole Drazin, placement specialist.  “As we collaborate, we are creating a new energy in our communities that will pave the way to better opportunities for transitioning youth.”

The Workforce Development Board is making efforts to gain input from youth about what they need during their transitioning years.  This input helps provide the right opportunities, services, and support for this population.

YouthACT aims to increase positive youth-adult partnerships where young people and adults work together, share information and learn from each other. All individuals in the partnership have the opportunity to engage in planning, decision-making, and action consistent with their own interests and skills.

“It’s imperative for us to point youth in the right direction to succeed in life during their transitional years,” said James Ramos, Chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.  “Colton Redlands Yucaipa ROP is a voice for our San Bernardino County youth community and their needs will be heard at the federal level.”

In 2016, the YouthACT team and peer leaders from CRY-ROP’s WDD-funded employment program will be making presentations at community and school organizations on how students with disabilities can advocate for themselves and their families, and identify short and long term plans to support personal and career goals.

“We are very proud that one of our youth service providers was selected as one of four national cohorts to be the voice for YouthACT.  This is a testament to the high caliber of our Workforce Development Board funded youth programs,” said Workforce Development Executive Director Sandy Harmsen.

Attorney Zulu Ali Named Top 10 Best Lawyers by the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys

Attorney Zulu Ali (PRNewsFoto/Law Office of Zulu Ali)

Attorney Zulu Ali (PRNewsFoto/Law Office of Zulu Ali)

RIVERSIDE, CA- Attorney Zulu Ali of the Law Offices of Zulu Ali in Riverside, California has been named Top 10 Best Lawyers by the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys. The American Institute of Criminal Attorneys is an invitation only legal organization recognizing excellence of practitioners in the field. Each lawyer must be formally nominated, have attained the highest degree of professional achievement in his or her field, and have an impeccable client satisfaction rating.

Attorney Zulu Ali, a native of Shelbyville, Tennessee, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, who served with the Marine Security Forces. After graduating from the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, Attorney Ali served as a sworn police officer with the City of Shelbyville, City of Lewisburg, and Vanderbilt Police Departments, respectively.

Attorney Ali earned a Juris Doctorate (law degree) from Trinity International University Law School and a liberal arts degree with an emphasis in African Studies from Regents College through a consortium with Tennessee State University.

Attorney Ali has been admitted to the California State Bar; United States District Courts for the districts of Central California, Southern California, Northern California, and Colorado; United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits; and the United States Supreme Court.

In 2007, inspired by civil rights attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and Avon Williams, Jr., who used the law and courts as a vehicle to make change and protect all people against injustice, Attorney Zulu Ali opened the Law Offices of Zulu Ali with a focus on representing persons accused of crimes and seeking criminal justice, immigrants, victims of discrimination, and persons seeking civil justice. Attorney Ali and his law firm take on extremely difficult cases and matters that provide an opportunity to make changes in the law, through the courts, when the law is unjust.

Attorney Ali serves as Director of the American Committee for United Nations Oversight, an advocacy group lobbying the United Nations for police reform; Director of the Stop and Frisk Academy, which trains at risk youth and others to deal with police encounters; Director of the Southern California Veterans Legal Clinic, a legal clinic offering no cost and low cost legal services to military veterans; and a member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. Attorney Ali was Honored Top 100 Lawyers by the National Black Lawyers-Top 100.

Attorney Ali resides in Southern California with his wife (Charito) of 30 years. Their four adult children, Christine, Whitney, Ashley, and Lynda; and two grandchildren, Amayah and Tye, also reside in Southern California.