Year2015

The Force Behind Gideon’s Children

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Recently I have received emails referring to my novel, Gideon’s Children, inquiring as to why I wrote it, and why I believe it is so very relevant to today’s happenings in our Criminal Justice System. The best answer to those questions, as well as several others that naturally flow from them, were set forth in a telephone interview I participated in with Renwei Chung, the brilliant young columnist for the highly popular and well regarded website, Above The Law.

Renwei and I connected through exchanges on Twitter, and after he read G.C., we agreed to a chat, which afterward was reduced to written form to insure accuracy. That format is what appears below, and most hopefully provides in-depth answers to the subject queries.

  1. What motivated you to write the book?

The current decade, 2010 to 2020, is the 50th anniversary of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle for freedom and social justice. I wanted to highlight the role of the newly created Public Defenders Offices in fighting to protect individual constitutional rights in pursuit of justice, in particular for persons who are poor and of color, as part of that revolution, and because those very rights are under attack today due to the War on Terrorism which has spawned The Patriot Act, The No-Fly Rule, and virtually unrestricted spying on Americans by the FBI, CIA, and NSA.

  1. Tell me about your career, what motivated you to become a public defender?

Gideon v. Wainwright, which expanded the right to counsel when charged with a crime to persons unable to pay for same, was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, my first year in law school. And as I watched the Civil Rights Movement expand during 1964 and 1965, I realized that while the opportunity to participate in Freedom Rides and marches like Selma had passed, I could still join the struggle by becoming a Public Defender and fighting for justice in the courtroom through protecting individual constitutional rights and insuring that poor people and people of color were treated equally and fairly.

  1. How has the profession changed since you started?

When I began as a Public Defender in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Warren was focused on expanding the meaning and enforcement of constitutional rights, in particular, the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. Today, the Court has a conservative bent under Chief Justice Roberts, and has grown more restrictive in interpreting those Amendments, making defense counsel’s job more difficult.

  1. What would you do differently if you could go back to any point in your career?

My years as a Public Defender during the late 1960s and early 1970s were the most rewarding years of my 30-year legal career, so I wouldn’t do anything differently with respect to that period. Looking back at the years spent in private practice afterward, the one change that I would make is to have become much more involved in my local bar association, as well as the state bar association, so as to advocate that both groups work harder in designing and executing programs that foster social justice in the private sector, and use their influence to lobby local and state governments to prioritize programs to alleviate poverty and inequality.

  1. What advice do you have for aspiring public-service attorneys?

If you are going to be a Public Defender, nourish your passion for justice, and remind yourself daily that the work you are doing is both noble and valuable. Representing a fellow human being who is charged with a crime, is lonely in the sense that you stand against the awesome power and resources of the State, and because the hostility focused against crime and your client spills over onto you, you will not be popular with the police authority, the prosecutor, court personnel, and often your own client. Therefore, it is essential that you maintain a strong sense of how noble and valuable your contribution is to our system of criminal justice is, so that you can fully appreciate the difficulty and the rewards of your work.

  1. What is the greatest injustice or discriminatory policy you believe we are fighting today? What are the biggest injustices we have overcome?

American society has a long history with the problem of race. It began with the importation of slavery at the time of Jamestown and the Pilgrims, and was further augmented with the extermination and subjugation of Native Americans. After 250 years of slavery and 150 more of Jim Crow, even though we achieved some progress during the Civil Rights Movement with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this problem of race, of color, still bedevils our society, economically, politically, and in our Criminal Justice System. A few months ago, Nicholas Kristof in an Op-Ed raised and explored the question of: Isn’t Everyone a Little Bit Prejudiced? Inspired by his discussion, I explored the question in a Blog-Post on my author’s website on January 19th, and just yesterday in a speech, James B. Comey, director of the FBI stated: “Maybe it’s a fact we should also face: Everyone makes judgments based on race.”

We are all human beings: average citizens, political leaders, police officers, teachers, CEOs of international corporations, and so on. And as human beings, consciously or unconsciously, we all make judgments based on race, as well as many other factors such as good looks, gender, status symbols etc., but racial differences are at the top of the list for factors clouding our judgment. There is no easy solution to this problem, but what is necessary is for us to admit that this problem does exist, and for each of us to summon Lincoln’s better angels of our nature and remind ourselves daily to do better, to try harder to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

  1. What made you successful in your career?

Two Ps: Passion and Perseverance. I believed wholeheartedly in protecting my clients’ constitutional rights and in doing everything I could to insure that they received fair and just treatment at all stages of the Criminal Justice System. And in pursuing justice for my clients, I prepared as assiduously as time permitted, spent much of my off-time reading and studying case and canon law, and in the courtroom followed a firm resolution to never, ever, give up, no matter how dark the outcome appeared.

  1. If you started today, what causes would you fight for?

As recent events from Ferguson to Cleveland to Los Angeles illustrate, the struggle for freedom and social justice that was highlighted during the tumultuous and transformative 1960s is still very much with us today, fueled by the historical legacy of racial bias. So if I started as a Public Defender today, I would still fight to protect my clients constitutional rights and make every effort to ensure that they received fair and just treatment at all stages of the Criminal Justice System.

In addition, as a member of the state bar association, I would work to move that association to exert its power to educate the public to the terrible danger to our democracy presented by the abrogation of our constitutional rights presented by The Patriot Act, the No-Fly Rule, and the virtually unrestricted spying on Americans by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA,

  1. What is currently keeping you busy?

As part and parcel of publicizing Gideon’s Children., I am blogging on my author’s website (www.howardgfranklin.com) on the Criminal Justice System, its component parts, the problems it faces, along with possible solutions, in an effort to contribute to the growing conversation in this area.

10.  What specifically can lawyers do to change the system? What can ordinary citizens do?

Lawyers can work through their state bar associations to advocate that the associations use their power and influence to press mayors, governors, and state legislatures to place improving the Criminal Justice System at the top of their list of priorities and provide the necessary funding for example to hire more Public Defenders so that their caseloads can be reduced to a level that allows time for full and proper representation. Recently, Governor Cuomo of New York requested their state legislature to provide substantial funds for this purpose, and state bar associations across the country need to lobby government officials for like funding. Likewise, additional funds must be provided to the various police authorities who provide extremely valuable services, and do so under dangerous conditions, so that they can: (1) Improve the training of officers, particularly in the area of dealing with mentally ill persons; and (2) Enlarge their efforts to meet with and better understand the communities they police, leading to a better understanding of the extremely difficult job officers perform, and hence more cooperation, thus building essential trust on both sides.

Average citizens can contribute to this effort by emailing and telephoning their governmental representatives to support the programs outlined above. And the value of thousands and thousands of emails pouring in to express support for such necessary funding of these programs should not be underestimated.

11.  Anything else we should know about your book?

I wholeheartedly hope that my novel, Gideon’s Children, will make a positive contribution by educating its readers about the workings of our Criminal Justice System and the critical need to improve those workings, as well as the equal importance of protecting our individual constitutional rights in the face of their abrogation by The Patriot Act, the No-Fly Rule, and the virtually unrestricted spying on Americans by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA.

Pluses And Minuses I: Race And The Police

In past posts, I have opined that race remains a major problem in American society. True, on the plus side, after 250 years of slavery and 90 years of  Jim Crow, we have made some progress, most notably the desegregation of schools, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the election of African Americans to local, state, and national governmental offices, culminating in Barack Obama rising to the Presidency. On the minus side, however, racial prejudice, both explicit and implicit, nevertheless remains, and most visibly in the relationship between minorities and the police.

The incidents in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland, North Charleston, Baltimore, Tulsa, and Los Angeles have been well covered by the print, television, and social media platforms, so I will not reiterate the tragic details in this post. Instead, I want to suggest what is necessary to alter the sad state of affairs that exists today and thus prevent further abuses.

To begin, let me make it perfectly clear that our police perform an extremely valuable service to our society, and place themselves in harm’s way to do so, as evidenced by officers being killed in New York City and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to name just two tragic incidents. Further, when I was a Public Defender, I had the experience of riding with officers of the Compton Police Department during night patrol, and I most definitely learned that their job is both difficult and dangerous. That said, however, the events from Ferguson to Los Angeles still scream out for police reform.

By reform, I mean a serious renewal of allegiance by police departments to community policing, i.e., maintaining public safety by engaging with communities. This requires increased foot patrols that bring officers into direct contact with residents, as well as working groups that foster dialogue between police and the community. If thoughtfully applied, this approach builds the essential element of trust and naturally encourages citizen cooperation that aids the police in performing their duties.

Further, to boost the building of trust, the police must demonstrate the same accountability that we require of ordinary citizens under the Rule of Law. Numerous officials, including police chiefs, have recognized this critical element and have implemented change to achieve transparency and accountability. However, many heads of police unions, like Thomas Lynch in New York, are married to the status quo and seek to protect their members even in cases where police officers acted wrongly. This problem must be addressed.

I would like to suggest that our police departments be further improved as follows:

First, in the hiring process, candidates must be thoroughly screened, with added emphasis placed on psychological and sociological attributes. Right from the start, let’s explore a candidate’s psychology re power and how it’s applied, and his or her viewpoints on community policing and minorities; and

Secondly, training periods must be lengthened so as to train future officers in how to separate the necessary use of force from the aggressive form, how to handle the mentally disturbed, and how best to build trust with and gain the cooperation of the community they are policing.

All of us have a huge interest in seeing that our police officers are selected from the highest quality applicants possible, then are exceedingly well trained, and like us are held to be accountable for their actions if they act improperly. And I urge everyone to communicate this message, and to keep communicating it to his or her elected officials at the local, state, and national level until change occurs and this goal is achieved.

Cross Currents

On March 22nd, I wrote a blog post entitled: When Freedom Of Speech Bumps Heads With Civil Rights. Since that time, a number of other similar issues have flashed into view and received heavy coverage by all the various media platforms.

Most notable perhaps, has been the passage by the states of Indiana and Arkansas of so-called Freedom of Religion Laws, but there has also been a controversial bill on Abortion in Kansas, and heated debate about Vaccinations and Death With Dignity statutes in a number of other states. In all of these social issue situations, religious belief is a current crossing the opposing current of civil rights.

At present, a growing majority of Americans do not have a problem with same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, vaccinations that prevent epidemics of disease, or in preventing extreme suffering in terminal illness cases. However, a well-organized and highly vocal minority, asserting that their religious beliefs are being threatened, assiduously seek to overturn legislation and court decisions which conflict with their beliefs, which if successful would have the effect of imposing their viewpoint on the far greater majority that does not agree with them.

To me, the greater worry, however, is that these culture wars spill into the political arena and further fuel the political divide between the extreme left and the extreme right elements of both of our major political parties, thereby contributing to the gridlock that has paralyzed not only our federal government, but many of our state governments as well.

America, while wonderfully protecting everyone’s freedom to worship as they wish, is basically steeped in the Christian tradition. I’m Jewish, but as I read the teachings of Jesus, I find that he taught love and inclusion, not the opposite. Pope Francis agrees. And I’d like to suggest that it is high time that we cease these wasteful culture wars, as well as labeling ourselves individually as universally conservative or liberal, and join hands and turn our focus onto solving the many serious problems that our country faces.

On the home front we must deal with the Earth’s deteriorating environment, an educational system that is failing, our infrastructure that is badly in need of repair, and the income inequality that plagues our economy. And abroad, we face challenges from anti-democratic and anti-humanitarian forces, from terrorist organizations to nations ruled by religious extremists and other forms of dictatorship to name but a few. And the solutions to these problems, especially on the home front, are not conservative or liberal solutions, they are practical solutions which our ingenuity and resources can provide if we join together and summon the will to do so.

We are a nation that can send people to space and turn watches into computers. Our ability to innovate and create solutions is limitless. Only our inability to reach a consensus is holding us back. All of us agree that these problems must be solved. So how about we all start taking an active role and for openers, relentlessly email and telephone our governmental representatives and let them know that compromise is not a dirty word, and that we demand that they formulate practical plans for solving our problems and begin implementing them now, or we’re going to vote for officials who will!

When Freedom Of Speech Bumps Heads With Civil Rights

A couple of days ago my good friend, Renwei Chung, the brilliant young writer for the esteemed website, Above the Law, asked me what I thought about the University of Oklahoma’s decision to expel two fraternity members who led a racist chant on a bus. My immediate response was that it was a tricky issue, and upon sober reflection I have come to the same conclusion.

Why? Well, to begin with, as several legal scholars have pointed out, the students’ words, however odious, were protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. These opinions were based on numerous court decisions holding that hateful, racist speech is protected by same.

Now, exceptions do exist. And official punishment could be legal if the students’ chant constituted a direct threat, leading a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety, or if it was likely to provoke an immediate violent response. Such was not the case here, however, as the chant occurred on a bus occupied by all-white fraternity members and their dates heading to a formal event, causing neither of the two aforementioned caveats to occur.

Later, though, videos of the chanted song emerged online, with the lyrics using racial slurs to boast that the fraternity would never accept an African-American member, and going so far as to refer to lynching with the words: “You can hang’em from a tree” according to newspaper accounts. The University President, Mr. David L. Boren, concluded that two students who had a leadership role in leading the racist and exclusionary chant should be expelled, as the subject chant created a hostile educational environment for others, which is a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids creation of a racially hostile environment in schools.

While I find the actions of the two students to be despicable, and I applaud the prompt action of President Boren to make it crystal clear that such behavior is odious to the University and reflects only the attitude of the two students (and some of their cohorts), and no one else, I nevertheless believe that the punishment doled out was illegal.

Why? First of all, there is no significant evidence that a racially hostile educational environment was created. The University of Oklahoma has many thousands of students, and the actions of a single fraternity involving say approximately 100 people chanting an admittedly obnoxious racist song on one occasion does not instantly create such a racially hostile educational environment.

Secondly, even if one could find that it did, many legal scholars who were interviewed in different news articles that I read were universal in pointing out that Title VI could not take precedence over First Amendment rights.

What I believe President Boren should have done is: (1) Condemn the students’ actions in the strongest possible language, which he did; (2) Have all of the student leadership groups at the University issue like statements of condemnation on behalf of the student body; and (3) Notify the subject students and all of their fraternity members that while their First Amendment Rights were in effect at the University, their future actions were going to be closely monitored to insure that as a result of same no student would have to fear for his or her safety, that no provocation of an immediate violent response was likely to occur, and that no racially hostile educational environment was created—and should the exercise of their First Amendment Rights meet either of the two exceptions, that expulsion would immediately follow, along with prosecution for violation of Title VI.

The great philosopher, Voltaire, taught that: while I may not agree with a single word you say, I will defend with my life your right to say it. We live in a free society, and in it one is free to be a bigot under the First Amendment, as long as the aforementioned exceptions to it are not in play. As a society our remedy is to condemn such bigotry, and if education of right and wrong cannot persuade bigots to eradicate their odious views, then to refuse to associate with them, socially or economically.

 

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Selma Revisited

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Last Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 protestors, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., began marching from Selma to Birmingham in support of voting rights. They were met on the Edmund Pettis Bridge by Alabama State troopers dispatched by segregationist Governor George Wallace, who attacked them with tear gas, leather whips, and billy clubs, an unprovoked act of violence whose bloodshed outraged most Americans and was a major factor in the subsequent passage by Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When I picked up my newspaper on the following Monday, the front page featured coverage of the celebration of that anniversary, highlighted by a photo of President Obama hugging Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who marched alongside MLK, Jr., and was bloodied during the tragic events of that historical day. And as my mind flooded with memories of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the question Have we overcome? also trailed into view and set off an intense reflection.

Well, we have done better, I concluded. After Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, we further reduced discrimination in commerce and transportation via the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and with respect to voting courtesy of the Voting Rights Act. And, I noted with a smile, in that photo my eyes were focused on the President of the United States—an African-American. That’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever live to see, flowed my next thought, so yes, we have progressed, some positive change has occurred. But, Have we overcome? still lingered to narrow my smile.

In view of recent events, the answer to that question is a resounding no! First off, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, removing the Federal Government’s authority to supervise electoral requirements in our states and insure that discriminatory practices were not in play. Then, further, as David Love reported in via the Tribune News Service, “the Tea Party-led Republican Party has made voter disenfranchisement and suppression a top priority. Voter ID laws across the country have put up obstacles for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the elderly, young people, and others. Some state legislatures have reduced voting days, including the Sunday before Election Day, when black churches organize campaigns to go to the polls. Moreover, as Al Jazeera has reported, Republican officials in 27 states have initiated a program that could purge 7 million voters from the rolls, particularly brown and black Americans.”

And, why? To prevent voter fraud is the answer provided, despite the fact that study after study after study reveals that voter fraud is so insignificant as to be almost non-existent. The real reason is that the voters sought to be removed from the polls overwhelmingly vote for Democratic Party candidates!

So, a new version of the poll tax, calling into mind the phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And what is truly tragic is that most Americans, including most of our citizens who identify themselves as Republicans, are not in favor of retreating from the racial progress America has made, but are witnessing a regression fostered by a small, highly vocal, and extremely well funded right-wing minority that has hijacked the Republican Party and is dictating dangerously undemocratic policies that threaten to undermine the fundamental right to vote of millions of their fellow citizens.

No, indeed, we have not yet overcome. Race remains a huge problem in America, and if anyone doubts that sad fact, recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, make the truth of that assertion clear and undeniable.

In a community that is 67% black, the police department is almost exclusively white. An accident? No. And after a thorough investigation of the events and the culture surrounding the Criminal Justice System in Ferguson, on March 5th the Justice Department issued a scathing report, describing the Ferguson police and Municipal Court “as a system whose primary function was to make poor African Americans pay as many fines and fees as possible for petty offenses, real or invented.”

After reading accounts of this report in The Oregonian, once again that haunting phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same, echoed into mind and triggered a vivid memory of the first jury trial I was involved in when I was a Deputy Public Defender in Compton, California, almost half a century ago. Depicted in detail in my novel, Gideon’s Children, the main character, Matthew Harris is defending a male African American charged with having been drunk in public. And when the jury panel of 200 persons from which twelve would be selected for trial is seated in the courtroom, Matt is stunned by his observation that not one of them is black, even though the community from which they are drawn is upwards of 80% African American.

The good news is that while Matt Harris was defeated by the stacked deck a half century ago, today the outrageous situation in Ferguson is being corrected. In the past few days, the officials responsible for the conspiracy of discrimination at work there have resigned or been removed, including the city manager, the police chief, and the municipal court judge. Unfortunately, the anger from years of persecution has unleashed violence from a few members of the community, resulting in two police officers being shot. Most hopefully calm will prevail so that plans for a new and better government in Ferguson can be implemented. I also believe that it would be helpful if those persons responsible for the utterly despicable actions in Ferguson were prosecuted for civil rights violations, thereby sending a message to all who would engage in like actions.

What worries me is that if the regressive forces at work are allowed to prevail, and millions of people of color are disenfranchised, and other Ferguson-like conditions are not ferreted out and remedied, then violence of a more significant magnitude will occur. For if a huge segment of our populace is not allowed to participate, and also feels that the Criminal Justice System is targeting them for grossly unfair treatment, then the respect for the Rule of Law necessary for it to govern disappears.

All of us lead busy lives. But each of us needs to make the time necessary to contact our local,  state, and federal representatives, and let them know that we are adamant in our desire for a new Voting Rights Act that insures voter participation by all segments of our society, and urges them to foster and nourish programs designed to promote excellent relationships between police and the communities which they serve.

Hopeful Beginnings

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Today, my novel, Gideon’s Children, is being released, for which I am both extremely excited and equally grateful. My excitement is on high, because finally G.C. now has the opportunity to contribute to the growing discussion about the need to improve the workings of our Criminal Justice System, and thereby protect the individual constitutional rights that are the cornerstone of America’s democracy. And I feel so tremendously grateful, due to my gigantic good fortune in having such an oceanic body of family and friends who have enthusiastically supported my endeavor and continue to cheer me on. To those of you who have shared life with me for many years, heartfelt thanks are warmly flowing your way. And to new friends who I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person, individuals such as the renowned litigator and legal scholar, Michael Tigar, and the brilliant young columnist Renwei Chung for the highly regarded website Above The Law, who gifted G.C. with such favorable reviews, heartfelt thanks are also flowing to you.

The second hopeful beginning that I wish to share with you today also engenders both excitement and gratitude. Since I began my blog, its theme has been the vital importance of the judicial branch of our government, and the crucial need to improve the workings of our Criminal Justice System so as to protect individual constitutional rights and maintain the Rule of Law which founds American Society.

We all know that a problem cannot be solved unless we first admit that it exists. But until recent tragic events occurred in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, relatively little attention has been paid to improving the numerous facets of our Criminal Justice System by elected officials and organizations with the power to influence.

However, as reported by Carl Hulse in the New York Times on February 18th, an extremely important development seeking to change this lack of  focus has occurred. “Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative Koch brothers, and the center (Center for American Progress), a Washington-based liberal issues group…usually bitter adversaries have found at least one thing they can agree on: The nation’s criminal justice system is broken.” And to fix it, they have come together to back a new organization: The Coalition for Public Safety.

Joining the Coalition in an unusual bipartisan approach, from the political spectrum’s left and right are the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Tea Party–oriented Freedom Works, and the Coalition plans a multi-million-dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to “reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism, and take on other similar initiatives.”

A second goal of the Coalition is “to show lawmakers in gridlocked Washington that factions with widely divergent views can find ways to work together and arrive at consensus policy  solutions.”

I hope that those of you who are reading this are breaking into smiles that steadily widen as the possibilities for real progress sink in, accompanied by a grateful, prayerfully toned, “Wow!” And our prayers are indeed needed, for the problems are numerous and complex, and the viewpoints within the Coalition widely divergent. And in recognition of the extremely difficult task they have assumed, the leaders of Coalition have agreed to a three-year time period to determine whether they can achieve success.

Obviously it won’t be easy, and progress most likely won’t come quickly. However, I’d like to suggest that in a day and age when the principal activity of our two major political parties, at all levels of government, is hurling the word “NO!” at each other, followed by a barrage of name-calling, this endeavor by the Coalition for Public Safety is the very best news reported since I can’t remember when.

A hopeful beginning, indeed. To be celebrated and supported by all of us. In fact, because we very much NEED for the Coalition to reach its goals, in an age of information overwhelm and shrinking attention spans, each of us needs to take a vow not to allow the Coalition and its work to fade from view, and to instead follow its progress towards its goals and support it whenever possible by contacting our elected representatives in support of its bipartisan solutions.

As always, thank you for listening. And please share this good and hopeful news with your friends.

Jim Crow: Yesterday and Today

In two separate blog posts, on January 19th and February 17th, I discussed the issue of race and its cancerous affect on American Society. Most of us are aware of the laws, both written and unwritten, that arose after the end of the Civil War with the purpose of ensuring that the newly freed slaves remained the lowest class in our society. However, most likely very few of our citizens are aware that under the guise of The War On Drugs, a new Jim Crow arose out of the ashes of the old.

With the discussion on how to fix our broken Criminal Justice System growing daily, I want to strongly recommend an outstanding book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. A highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar, Ms. Alexander not only possesses top-flight credentials to write about racial issues, but also the ability to write, and in this dramatic exposé of the War On Drugs and the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color by mass incarceration she makes an invaluable contribution to recognizing the need for reform.

In a crisp clear style, Alexander first provides the reader with the historical background of racial discrimination. Then, with passion, she sets forth the painful reality of what has occurred since Brown versus the Board of Education outlawed segregation, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 were enacted during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Yes, after 250 years of slavery, followed by 150 years of Jim Crow laws enacted and enforced to keep people of color in the lowest class of American Society, progress had been made. However, those elements of the White Power Structure that made Jim Crow possible in the first place did not give up. No, with great cunning they devised a strategy for a New Jim Crow.

Fully aware that a glaring weakness in communities of color is the fragility of the family structure, a product of slavery and the old Jim Crow, the opponents of social justice and equality devised a plan for magnifying that weakness, cleverly giving it a positive name: The War On Drugs. And then under the guise of protecting our society from drugs, the proponents of this so-called war turned loose the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of young black males, which in turn increased unemployment and poverty within communities of color. Brilliantly and dramatically detailing how this plan was formulated and executed, Alexander’s book is a must read for anyone seeking a full understanding of the problems facing communities of color, problems which further fuel the rage following the recent events from Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland to Los Angeles and threaten the fabric of the Rule of Law which founds American Society.

Not All Lawyers Have Lost Their Inner Atticus Finch

During the past several weeks, the media has heavily publicized the upcoming release of a sequel to the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, fifty-five years after it originally appeared, garnered a Pulitzer Prize, and became a classic work. Subsequently made into a film starring Gregory Peck, who portrayed the novel’s protagonist, a courageous lawyer battling for moral truth and racial justice while representing a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman during the height of the Jim Crow era, this character, Atticus Finch, came to symbolize the righteous attorney: idealistic, virtuous, and brave.

This stalwart image in the public’s mind, contrasts however with numerous recent studies that report widespread cynicism with the legal profession by Americans today, and combined with the steady drop in law school applications, has caused serious concern to rise amongst the legal community. In fact, in a February 9 article on Slate.com, Thane Rosenbaum, the director of the Forum on Law, Culture, & Society hosted by NYU Law School, worried that, “Apparently, upon graduation, most law students lose their inner Atticus Finch. The inspiration that once hailed personal honor and the public good as fundamental values of the bar disappears in a haze of student debt and the allure of financial reward.”

Professor Rosenbaum’s reference to “a haze of student debt” is certainly a sad reality for large numbers of law school graduates today, and well illustrated in a recently released novel, Supreme Ambitions, by David Lat, reviewed in detail in my blog post of February 1st. Student debt in general is a serious problem within our society, and likely a reason behind the drop in law school applications, especially with the greater difficulty experienced by graduates in finding jobs after the Great Recession of 2008.

As for how Americans view the legal profession, I suspect that the reported cynicism is a facet of a general malaise of cynicism affecting our country today, and it’s not hard to see why. Hyper partisanship between Democrats and Republicans has led to virtual gridlock in Congress and numerous state legislatures, with incessant power struggles insuring that little or no attention is being paid to solving the serious problems in our society. Reports of corruption in both the public and private sector surface regularly in the media, from major banks being criminally charged and fined to government officials being investigated, and convicted, for failing to comply with election fundraising rules, taking kickbacks, and abusing the power of their office, three recent examples being Governor Perry’s upcoming trial in Texas, Sheldon Silver being forced to step down as Speaker of New York’s House of Representatives, and Governor Kitzhaber of Oregon being forced to resign. And thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, unlimited rivers of money from special interests are pouring in to dangerously pollute our political and electoral processes.

However, despite this troubling environment, it is hopeful to realize that thousands of young male and female law graduates from all sections of the country still see the public good as a fundamental value, and are staffing Legal Aid Organizations that serve the poor, Non-Profit Organizations such as Earth Justice that work to preserve the Earth’s ecology, and the Prosecutorial and Public Defender Offices within our Criminal Justice System.

Professor Rosenbaum is absolutely correct in his evaluation that the idealism, integrity, courage, and commitment to the public good symbolized by Atticus Finch is needed today more than ever. My novel, Gideon’s Children, which will be released on March 3rd, was written to contribute to the growing discussion of how to summon those virtuous traits to the cause of solving the problems facing our Criminal Justice System. Most hopefully that growing discussion will soon result in the desperately needed improvements to that system which is responsible for maintaining the Rule of Law, and further inspire law graduates, and those from various other fields, to never relinquish their inner Atticus Finch, and put it to work for the public good in which each and every one of us has a vital stake.

The Problem Of Race In American Society: Part II

King Memorial, Hopes and Dreams

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wrote a blog post in which I referred to a New York Times OP-ED by Nicholas Kristof last August 27th in which he posed the portentous question: Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? And in my subsequent discussion, I confessed that after honest examination I had to admit that I fit within the class of individuals revealed by recent research “who intellectually believe in equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who also harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior,” and suggested that if most of my fellow Americans were scrupulously honest with themselves, they would come to the same unhappy conclusion.

On February 12th, James Comey, the Director of the FBI, delivered an unusually candid speech at Georgetown University about the difficult relationship between the police and African-Americans in which he confirmed this unhappy conclusion. As reported by The New York Times, “He started by acknowledging that law enforcement had a troubled legacy when it came to race. ‘All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,’ he said. ‘At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups,’” a sad situation graphically depicted in my novel, Gideon’s Children, set in the tumultuous and transformative 1960s, and scheduled for release on March 3rd.

Further, Mr. Comey stated that “there was significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases. Most cannot help their instinctive reactions,” he said, but law enforcement officers need “to design systems to overcome that very human part of us all.” (italics added) The Times article then articulated how Comey proceeded to “lay out several measures that he said could ease the tension, including more interaction between the police and those they are charged to protect. ‘It’s hard to hate up close,’ he said. He then concluded by quoting Dr. King, who said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.’ And Comey concluded his remarks with: ‘We all have work to do—hard word to do, challenging work—and it will take time. We all need to listen, not just about easy things, but about hard things, too. Relationships are hard. Relationships require work. So let’s begin. It is time to start seeing one another for who and what we really are.’”

Unlike Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Attorney General Holder, who were roundly faulted by  police groups for their critical remarks about law enforcement, I am highly pleased to report that Mr. Comey’s thoughtful and nuanced remarks were praised by a number of high-ranking officials from various police organizations.

I, too, want to commend Mr. Comey for his honesty and courage in urging all of us, police and citizenry, to face the human part of ourselves and work to overcome our biases so that we can learn to live as brothers.

© 2018 Howard G. Franklin

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