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2023 Wishlist: Criminal Justice with Dignity

My wishlist this year highlights my belief that people are far more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. I truly believe that people can do great harm and, also, that people can be transformed. I believe that our criminal legal system can hold people accountable and still recognize their humanity.

Everything on this list celebrates the idea that people – even people who perhaps have done terrible things – deserve to be treated with care and respect. Read on to see just a few of the areas in the criminal justice system where I believe dignity needs to be added to the equation, and steps you can take to bring a little more justice in 2023.

1. End the death penalty, once and for all.

The death penalty is gruesome; you only to need to look to the last two botched executions in Alabama (and the 7 total botched executions this year alone) to know that the government should not be in the killing business.

It’s also pointless. The death penalty doesn’t make people safer. In fact, death penalty states have higher murder rates than those without the death penalty. And the death penalty doesn’t heal the very real pain of murder victim families; in fact, it may prolong it.

And it’s wildly expensive. Did you know Trump spent almost $4.7 million dollars in taxpayer money on five executions in his lame-duck session killing spree? Compare that to the $37,449 on average that it costs to keep a person locked away in federal prison per year.

Don’t get me started about how racist it is. Any punishment dictated by race should be tossed out as unfair on its face. Buh-bye, death penalty.

Most importantly, the death penalty negates the individual humanity of the people on death row. I challenge you to read Right Hear, Right Now: Life Stories from Death Row (Duke University Press, 2022), a book of short autobiographical essays by people on death row. In that thin volume, you will find far more than one-dimensional murderers who deserve to die. Instead, you’ll find real people, brimming with dignity, spirit, and human possibility.

Governor Kate Brown just commuted the death sentences of all seventeen people on Oregon’s death row to life without parole. California’s Governor has taken steps to dismantle its death row.

Let’s get President Biden and other governors in death penalty states to follow Oregon’s lead and abolish the death penalty once and for all.  

2. Stop Permanently Locking People Away

A while ago, I wrote about Bobby Bostic, who was sentenced at the age of 16 to 241 years in prison for two armed robberies in which no one was seriously injured. Through a change in law and persistent advocacy (including advocacy by the very judge who sentenced him to all that time in the first place!), Bobby was finally released on November 9, 2022.

Yet, the punitive cycle continues.

Last week, Maurice Ervin, was sentenced to 55 years in Louisiana for an armed carjacking he committed when he was 15 years old, in which no one died or was seriously injured. He will serve more time locked behind bars than I have been on this earth. He has no possibility of early release. No chance to show, at some point in the future, that he has matured and outgrown his former 15-year-old self who made the wrong decision to steal a car.

Over 200,000 people are serving life sentences in the United States; in some cases for non-violent offenses or offenses where no one was killed or seriously injured.

Long sentences make people age in prison. We now have geriatric cell blocks for incarcerated elderly people with dementia or who are wheelchair-bound, locked inside prisons designed for dangerous offenders.

Photograph by Ron Levine;

Even where people cause great harm, we need to ask whether life is the only appropriate response. Can we imagine a world with accountability that also permits remorse and then redemption? We should stop permanently imprisoning people for life, without any possibility of having their sentences reviewed. Instead, let’s create opportunities for people to show they have reformed.

And why not? If a person can demonstrate that they have learned from their wrongdoing and that they are not a safety threat to society, shouldn’t we at some point say they’ve done their time and give them a chance to come home?  

3. Start Paying Attention to the Staggering Number of Prison Deaths

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

People are dropping like flies in prison.

In the first eleven months of this year alone, 222 people died in Alabama prisons; nearly a third were under the age of 45.  They died from overdoses, violence, neglect, and suicide.

But the real cause of these deaths is the dehumanizing treatment that people in prison endure each day, in Alabama and in prisons around the country.

Blake Northern, who voluntarily turned himself in on an old “failure to appear” warrant in Kansas, was given access to his insulin while in jail waiting for his case to be sorted out. He died a preventable death after falling into a diabetic coma.

Indifference, neglect, and outright cruelty are not part of punishment. But they are the reality for far too many men and women in prison. These people matter. They are sons and daughters, parents, siblings, and friends. And they are suffering far more than any prison sentence warrants, far from public scrutiny.

Dostoyevsky warned that a society can be judged by its prisons. If he’s right, then we are failing. Miserably.  Until we pay attention to what’s happening behind our prison walls, the unnecessary tragedy of prison deaths will continue.

4. Free the Wrongly Convicted

At the time of this writing, over 3,300 innocent people spent more than 28,000 years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit before they were exonerated.

And they were the lucky ones.

Aaron Culberton, exonerated by the Ohio Innocence Project, was released on December 5, 2022. Photo shared with permission from the Blind Injustice Facebook Group.

Most innocent people will never be exonerated because the path to proving innocence is just too difficult.

The criminal legal system, including prosecutors and courts, often drag their feet when faced with claims of error. They create barriers and obstacles to proving innocence, instead of moving heaven and earth to investigate and then right these terrible wrongs.

Although some prosecutor offices have stepped up with Conviction Integrity Units to help correct wrongful convictions, most others continue to do business as usual.

Courts often appear to prioritize finality over justice. SCOTUS just this year again interpreted the law in ways that block the innocent from having their day in court.

There is nothing more shameful than the wrongful conviction and incarceration of an innocent person.  We can and should be working overtime to ensure that the innocent get a chance to clear their names and gain the freedom they deserve.

5. What You Can Do

Yes, the criminal legal system is broken. But amazing organizations are doing great work to try and fix it. Here are some of my favorites.

The Equal Justice Initiative: From direct death penalty representation and advocacy, to documenting the direct connection between our history of slavery and today’s mass incarceration, EJI is there. Join me in supporting their great work.

The Innocence Project: A national organization that works to exonerate the innocent and to bring about national policy changes that improve the criminal legal system, the Innocence Project – and local innocence projects (find your local affiliate here) – do terrific work. They could use your help.

If you are interested in supporting data-driven criminal justice initiatives, check out the work of the Sentencing Project, the National Registry of Exonerations or the Death Penalty Information Center (their research is cited in this piece).

Journalists reveal the travesties that sometimes pass as justice, but feature-length investigative reporting is becoming harder to find. Radley Balko was recently let go from the Washington Post; his reporting on the criminal legal system was ground-breaking. You can support Balko’s ongoing efforts here, or support the terrific criminal justice journalism coming out of The Appeal or The Marshall Project. We need the press to uncover the hard truths about our criminal legal system.


Criminal convictions do not negate human rights and human dignity. In 2023, let’s hold that truth close, and continue the fight for justice.

2 Responses

  1. At item 4– is the number of exonerees 3,300?

    And is there any way to estimate how many innocent people are still in prison and have not been exonerated– and the total number of years for them?

    Thank you for continuing to bring attention to the many dehumanizing and disgraceful aspects of our criminal justice system

    1. Hi David. As of today, the total number of known exonerees is 3,343 (added an extra zero — thanks for pointing it out!). That number does not include people who were cleared in “group exonerations.”

      And no, unfortunately, the total number of people who are innocent and wrongly convicted remains unknown and is perhaps unknowable. One study in capital cases estimated a 4.1% exoneration rate for death sentenced people (assuming they remained under a sentence of death)… but whether 4% can be applied generally is not clear. Given the scope of convictions and incarceration, even a 1% error rate would means that thousands and thousands of people have been wrongly convicted.

      Thanks for reaching out! — Jessica

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