Sandra Bland, Sensenbenner’s SAFE Act and Illusionary Reform

Good news. We’re making progress in reforming police brutality – instead of executing us in the streets police are hanging us in jails and framing us for murdering ourselves. This is the tragic story of Sandra Bland, a black educator and activist who was returning to Waller County, Texas from Chicago to begin a new job as an outreach coordinator at her alma mater. Instead of giving back to the community, “community policing” in the form of taking her to jail on Friday for failing to use a turn signal, resulted in her life being taken from her on Monday. Not only that, the murderers tried to steal from her, in death, our memories of her as a courageous and spiritual woman by framing her for suicide. But we refuse to allow the police to police our personal narratives. Our collective story is coming to a climax where we win the right to be free from violence.

But we’re going to have to stand up for this right ourselves – our representatives won’t give it to us on desert alone, they are only interested in token reform of the institutions of justice that keep us from seeking out these rights. Today, the same day that the President went to a federal prison and repeated his comments on the need for sentencing reform, the Senate passed its version of the education oversight bill, No Child Left Behind — now called the Every Child Achieves Act, which in its current form makes the modest gain of deemphasizing teaching to standardized tests, but removes state accountability for fixing failing schools by limiting federal oversight. One step forward, many, many steps back. Underfunded inner-city public school counties that create a pipeline from schools to prisons will only be addressed if the state can find room in the budget after the tax write-offs for the corporations that open shop in the state – not something the federal government needs to know about, sure.

Until we start investing in these communities hit hard by poverty, reforms to sentencing will make little difference to the people trapped in these systems. Without investments in education, jobs and infrastructure, and the curtailment of the power of Robocop policemen, a shorter stay in prison for a first-time nonviolent offender will do as much good as a longer stay after the arrest warrants for failure to pay court fines and board from prison due to being unable to find work make them end up back in prison, with new fines and fees that can’t be paid. Such a cycle of debt and prison is just as possible from probation as a prison stay, so the much-touted SAFE act put forward by Sensenbrenner and Scott, with its modest language of a “presumption of probation” does little to prevent young men and women from serving spaced-out life sentences. What’s more, the SAFE act keeps in place harsh mandatory minimums for organizers, leaders, managers and supervisors of a criminal activity involving at least five people.

That might sound fine until one finds out that prosecutors build misleading cases that accused non-organizes of being organizers, and non-dealers of being dealers. The Washington Post featured an article just today on Sharanda Jones, a mother who has experienced this injustice in serving a life sentence.

The minimal reforms being put forward and the President’s modest actions of commuting sentences are purely for the political optics and do little to resolve the deeper issues of our prison system society. They are illusions that obscure our leaders’ responsibility for the death beyond them – hardly different from Waller County officers obscuring their responsibility for Bland’s death by framing her for suicide.

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