In This Episode
DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to Pod Save The People. In this episode it’s me, Sam, Kaya, De’Ara, as usual, covering the underreported news of the week. And then I sit down with Ashley Nellis to discuss her work with The Sentencing Project. Now given all of the news around policing that’s been at the forefront for the past two to three weeks, people have asked me how can they get involved.
They’re like, what can I do? And there is actually something you do. We do trainings every Tuesday and Thursday around police unions. So as you know, there are 18,000 police departments in the country. And we have been trying to track down the contracts in all of the police departments and then code them. So we’re looking for certain things in the contracts.
We need more volunteers to help us find the contracts to help us look through them. There’s no skill set necessary. As long as you know how to use a computer and Google, you are super equipped to do this. And we need you. So if you want to volunteer, you can just email me. It’s probably the easiest way to do it. It’s email@example.com. Super simple, D-E-R-A-Y at D-E-R-A-Y dot com. You literally– you can’t screw it up. It is actually my email address. It goes to me.
You can also text to me at 410-204-2013. Again, 410-204-2013. Just say you want to volunteer. We’ll get you looped in immediately. We do 30-minute trainings every Tuesday and Thursday. We’ll get you plugged in. So if you want to help out, you get to manage your own time. There’s, Lord knows, enough work to go around. Join us. Let’s go.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, loved ones, welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. I’m De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on the online Twitter, Instagram, both @DeAraBalenger.
KAYA HENDERSON: Hey, y’all. I’m Kaya Henderson. You can find me on Twitter @HendersonKaya.
DERAY MCKESSON: This is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Well, we– a couple of things before we jump into it. We want to give a congrats and a shout out to our friends at Lovett Or Leave It
DERAY MCKESSON: Woot-woot.
DE’ARA BALENGER: They’re hitting their four-year anniversary this week.
KAYA HENDERSON: Four years.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So congrats to y’all.
KAYA HENDERSON: Yeah, yeah.
DERAY MCKESSON: Lovett Or Leave It.
KAYA HENDERSON: Lovett Or Leave It.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Amazing. Amazing. And we’re also, here at Pod Save The People, have hit four years.
KAYA HENDERSON: Woot-woot.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So amazing. Amazing.
DERAY MCKESSON: So well, four years. I remember the first episode four years ago. It was Cory Booker and Andy Slavitt. Andy has his own podcast now. Andy is doing his own thing. And we had him on the podcast like way before anybody else to talk about the difference between Medicare and Medicaid, which is like the first thing that we– I remember that was like one of the first things. That’s when we used to have two guests on every episode which was–
DE’ARA BALENGER: Oh, my gosh.
DERAY MCKESSON: –wild. That was a whole what was I doing? What were we doing? But thanks for listening. Four years is wow.
DE’ARA BALENGER: 400 years of oppression. Four years?
KAYA HENDERSON: Of pod saving the people.
DERAY MCKESSON: Right, right. Yes. You’re a mess. Get out of here.
KAYA HENDERSON: Congratulations. You come a long way, baby.
DERAY MCKESSON: Boom, boom. We did it. Y’all are here?
KAYA HENDERSON: We’re here.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Oh, me. Yeah. Excited to be here. So let’s continue because we’re– I mean, sort of on a high here, I would say, in terms of Biden had his State of the Union address on Monday. I’m still getting used to what I’m going to call him, President Biden? Uncle Joe?
KAYA HENDERSON: You need to put some respect on it and call him President Biden.
DE’ARA BALENGER: President Biden? I guess you’re right, right? But then what do we do about Kamala? I mean, I’ve got to move from saying Kamala to Vice President Kamala Harris.
KAYA HENDERSON: There are certain times when you want to address her formally and you want to recognize the office that she was elected to. And there are other times when you want to talk about her like your cousin or your sister girl. And so–
DE’ARA BALENGER: My girl Keke, right. Speaking of Keke, she was clean as a whistle at the State of the Union. Her in fancy Nancy. So I was very excited to see them both clean–
KAYA HENDERSON: Those ladies were representing.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Beautiful pastels representing beautifully.
KAYA HENDERSON: Come through spring.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Exactly. But you know, I think it went well. I think it still had a small audience in terms of viewership overall. The AP reported that an estimated 26.9 million people watched. The lowest President Barack Obama ever had was 31 million. But I feel like that makes sense. You know, viewership aside, I think in terms of substance and direction, it sounded good.
And I feel I got generally good, good feedback. You know, I think one of the things that hit me was the plan that addresses women and families in particular. Just trying to get some of those things that the Democrats have been fighting for quite a while. So whether that’s universal paid family leave or for universal preschool program–
We were chatting earlier. And Kaya was actually talking about the proposal is preschool and also bookending that with free tuition at community colleges, which I thought was fantastic as well. So you know, I just want to raise that up and get y’all’s impression of how the State of the Union went, kind of his first big address. What do you all think?
DERAY MCKESSON: I need to keep reading up on the infrastructure plan. Obviously, infrastructure is not where my expertise is. But I know that a lot of good things packed in there. And I think, Kaya, you’ll probably talk about some of those. But I did want to just like level set about what he’s been doing around or what the administration has been doing around the police.
It’s that people do have like this weird idea that the president just has the power to mandate that all police departments do something. And that’s not true. They’re 18,000 agencies as you’ve heard I say. And the federal government actually, their biggest power is restricting money from cities and states to require them to do things. But the DOJ has done a lot in a short period of time.
So remember that the Obama administration opened up 25 investigations of local law enforcement agencies. And they enforced 14 court-approved consent decrees over the span of his time in office, like 25 investigations in two weeks. Garland opened up two, right? So we have Minneapolis Police Department pattern and practice. They’re investigating the Louisiana Police Department which is good.
But there are some other things that just like went off the radar. It’s that the DOJ also got a correctional officer to plead guilty to civil rights offenses. As you know, the DOJ can enforce civil rights laws. They got a former South Carolina Sheriff and former deputies on a set of charges around conspiracy, misuse of funds, and a set of other offenses in Chester County, South Carolina.
They got a former Louisiana police officer was indicted for assaulting an arrestee in Shreveport, Louisiana. And then in West Virginia, there was an officer who was indicted for a civil rights offense against an arrestee. So I say this because it just isn’t– it is atypical for the United States Department of Justice to indict random individual officers around the country.
And certainly, for the four years of Trump, we saw none of that enforcement happening. But we actually are starting to see that happen more and more with this DOJ. That like the DOJ, Vinita just got confirmed. That’s a good thing. Lisa Monaco is over there, Garland. They’ve started off really strong using this lever that historically, the federal government has not used all that much.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m super excited about what I am seeing around education. I think the biggest part of his education proposal is that he’s extending the guarantee from a K-12 education to sort of a pre-K through at least the first two years of community college education. He’s expanding or effectively creating a universal pre-K program for three- and four-year-olds.
And he is proposing to make– in state community college– the first two years of community college free, tuition free for folks. And that is huge. It effectively enhances the promise of a free public education to Americans. And so that’s super exciting to me. I think we all agree, no matter whether you’re rich or poor, that a good start in early childhood education is huge and has tremendous impacts.
People who are opposed to the plan say that wealthy people are going to take advantage of it, and it’s not going to go to the poor people who was meant to benefit. But in fact, once everybody knows they can get it, usually then you have kind of universal investment. You also are seeing things like an increase in the amount of Pell Grant funds.
So there’s subsidies for young people who are in other college situations. And there’s also a provision that is subsidizing tuition for students from families earning less than $125,000 at historically Black institutions, tribal colleges, and other minority-serving institutions for two years. So there’s a comprehensive approach to education in his plan.
And I’m excited to see what happens. That on top of CARES Act money to support and sustain education in response to the pandemic. So as an educationista, I’m super excited about this.
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KAYA HENDERSON: So my news this week comes from an article that I found on CNN talking about race correction in medicine. And this was a new idea for me. I think we’ve talked a lot about health disparities in medicine for people of color. But race correction is the use of a person’s race in a scientific equation that can influence how they are treated.
So these are mathematical equations that take into account several different variables, including race. And they actually determine what treatment you should get. So these are scientific equations that can calculate, for example, how well your kidneys are working or whether you should have natural birth after you’ve had a C-section or calculates your risk of dying during heart surgery or evaluates brain damage or measures your lung capacity.
And in fact, how I even started thinking about this a little bit is I was watching New Amsterdam, this hospital show on NBC. And there was an African-American woman who was pregnant. And she had a C-section previously, and she wanted to have a vaginal birth. And the doctors and the nurses said she couldn’t because whatever the equation was said that it was not going to be OK.
And she said, you do it for white women, and I want you to do it for me. And it was this huge moment where all of the protocols and the procedures said that she should not. And there is a doctor who is on his own DEI journey on New Amsterdam. And he said, if we took her race out of this, what would it be? What would be the course of action?
And in fact, if they took race out of the mathematical equation, they would have actually suggested that she had a vaginal birth. She insisted on it. And it was a huge moment. And he said, well, then that’s what we’re going to do because it’s the right thing to do. And so this is what we see, in fact, because race isn’t a biological. Race is social. But these are baked into these equations.
And you had a number of Black medical students who were asking questions about these race correction equations. But then after the George Floyd moment, students started demanding that hospitals make changes. There were online petitions, and hospitals actually began to listen. I’ll give you one other example of where race correction happens that made a huge impact.
So many of us know about the NFL settlement around concussions, right? The NFL spent $765 million to settle the concussion lawsuit. And that money went to fund medical exams and to compensate players for concussion-related injuries. Well, how do they figure out who had a concussion and the impact of that concussion?
They use these mathematical equations that look at what your cognition was before or was probably before. And the actual formula anticipates a lower level of cognition for Black people, straight out the gate. And so the NFL’s algorithms race corrected the neurological exams of Black players. And made many Black players ineligible for the medical exams and the payouts that white players got.
I think what added insult to injury for me in this, as I was reading the article, is everybody agrees that race isn’t an accurate biological measure. But doctors and researchers are still continuing to use these mathematical equations because it’s too hard to figure out something else. And that my friends, is America.
DE’ARA BALENGER: This one– so I knew about this– it’s like vaginal birth after cesarean equation just because I’ve been on my own health journey when it comes to my fibroids and my endometriosis and all these things. I mean, fibroids, in particular, that impact Black and brown women the most. They have no idea the why and the what of them.
And you have had doctors for a long time, particularly for Black and brown women, that when you have fibroids, they want to take your whole uterus and your ovaries out. So when I found out about my fibroids, I very quickly– actually, a Black woman doctor, Dr. Kumari Hobbs, who I adore and who is part of my team– Dr. Hobbs found my fibroids. And ultimately, operated on me.
But it was very important for me to find a Black doctor. And then when I eventually got diagnosed with endometriosis, again, Dr. Emily Blanton, another sister who is incredible and brilliant, who is my endometriosis doctor. Now I have another doctor that’s my OB-GYN for this baby journey who said to me– and I’ve kind of froze. She was like, you are most likely going to have a C-section.
And so I took a breath, and I said, well, are you, telling me that because I’m– and this is a woman of color. But I was like, are you telling me that because that’s what gets said to Black women, or are you telling me that just based on my medical history? And she’s like, obviously, De’Ara, I understand completely where you’re coming from. But it’s based on your medical history.
So all that to say, I am privileged enough to have a team of doctors and resource enough to have a team of doctors and have done this research. But I will say that each time a diagnosis happened, I had no idea what it meant or what I should do. So I can’t even imagine for so many women who don’t have access, resources, opportunity, and space to do research what this journey is like.
So all that to say, this article really spoke to me just because it’s happening to us personally. Like it’s one of those things– like many things around racism. But I think the health thing is really life or death. All these other factors, obviously, are compelling and are impacting our lives. But this one in particular is the most telling and the most scary.
And I’ll say the other part of this article that had my head spinning was how was some ridiculous of doctors like new doctors or residents who thought Black people had thicker skin.
KAYA HENDERSON: And less sensitive nerve endings. So–
DE’ARA BALENGER: They just don’t need to be doctors. Y’all need to go do something else. That’s wild.
DERAY MCKESSON: I looked up in the New England Journal of Medicine some examples of the reconsiderations of using race correction. And like you, Kaya, I literally didn’t know this was a thing. I was like this blew my mind. We’re actually going to have an expert on this on the pod soon to talk about it. So maybe, Kaya, we could do that together.
So for cardiology, for instance, there are guidelines called the heart failure risk score. And it predicts the risk of death in patients who are admitted to the hospital. Now it assigns three additional points to any patient identified as non-Blacks.
KAYA HENDERSON: I love non-Black. I love that non-Black.
DERAY MCKESSON: But it categorizes all Black patients as being lower risk. Like that’s the rub.
KAYA HENDERSON: Oftentimes, when race is a consideration, it’s Black and everybody else. So it’s not even like–
DERAY MCKESSON: Oh, it’s not Black.
KAYA HENDERSON: Right. It’s non-Black and Black. But that is a whole thing in and of itself.
DERAY MCKESSON: Same thing with urology. There’s a stone score that predicts the likelihood of kidney stones in patients who go to the emergency room with like side and back pain. The race in origin factor adds three points for a patient identified as non-Black. And as a result, that essentially gives a lower score at a Black patient.
So people might be missing diagnoses, might be missing treatment, all this stuff because of these random scores. And you’re like, I didn’t even know that this was like so widespread across all of the different fields. And that has been surprising. So I’m interested to see how the field moves. And like both of you already said, I’m sure there’s like an old group of doctors who are like, but this is the way we did it.
And we’ve done this for 100 years. And you’re like, yeah, but you probably– we probably have like kill people. We probably like let people suffer who didn’t know any better, who would like this is what the hospital said, right? Where it’s like that’s what I actually could’ve said something completely different if you hadn’t gotten these– if you had gotten three more points added to your score, too.
DE’ARA BALENGER: All right. So y’all, my news this week comes out of the New York Times. It’s about Black Pound Day. It’s about the British Black folks are our brothers and sisters across the pond who you know– first of all, I love to talk as a Black woman entrepreneur and business owner. I love to talk about Black business. So here I go again.
When I picked this article because it really does highlight some really incredible businesses. One is a children’s bookstore owned by Amy Felan. And so part of the context of this article is that– obviously, a year ago with the murder of George Floyd. And so many people around the world understanding that racism is a real thing.
One of the results of that, one of the impacts is that a lot of folks were supporting Black businesses with this real rigor, real commitment to buying, to supporting Black businesses. So here we are a year later, and that’s starting to dwindle off for some folks. And so Black Pound Day for these British folks is a way to kind of keep that going, to remind folks to still support Black businesses but also, as a way, empowering Black people to spend money, to keep money circulating within Black communities.
It was thought of Black Pound Day by a rapper named Swiss. And this is also just– I’ve found– this really spoke to me, too. So Swiss was actually a part of the So Solid Crew. I don’t know if anyone’s familiar with the So Solid Crew, but I am. I did study abroad in London in 2001. And that’s when So Solid Crew was basically like junkyard band. They were what’s happening.
Anyway, so he is a rapper. He’s been around for a while. And kind of more rap on the conscious side, he says he’s inspired by Tupac and Nas, probably old Nas at this point. But anywho, so what I found really interesting about this was this really this discussion and around, again, kind of the historic inspiration behind Black Pound Day.
So the concept is a variation of other efforts to increase wealth among Black people by pooling resources. And so we saw that with Black Americans, with Black banks that were founded right after the Civil War. Black folks weren’t allowed to access financial services. And so they created their own banks. Likewise– I did not know this– people who migrated from the Caribbean after World War II to help rebuild Britain and work for its new National Health Service, they dealt with discrimination, obviously.
But what they did was a form of savings and lending known as pardoner. So small groups actually still use this apparatus to save today. But I just– I would like to see just the examples of how things were done similarly when it comes to folks that obviously were descendants of the slave trade and where they ended up and how they ended up functioning.
The other thing that I’ll say about this article that was interesting in terms of British Black folks is their wealth gap is wild. The total wealth for median household headed by white British person, including property investments and pension, is 313,000 pounds essentially. For Black Caribbean household, it’s 85,000 pounds and just 34,000 pounds for a Black African household.
So just a huge variance there that I found interesting. So all that to say, just wanted to lift up Black Pound Day. And these incredible businesses, you guys can check them out in the full article. But just wanted to look them up and bring us into the pod.
KAYA HENDERSON: One of the things that I thought was interesting about this article is that it talked a lot about how Black people in Britain had to support their own financial pursuits because banks wouldn’t lend to them. They suffered discrimination. They couldn’t get access to capital when they wanted to start businesses. And so they talked about the concept of a partner.
And coming from a Caribbean heritage, I know a little something about partners where effectively, you pool your resources. It’s kind of a Christmas club or a savings club, where everybody puts in monthly, and each month, somebody gets paid out. And there’s no interest generation. There’s no– it’s just Black people working together to save money.
And I know so many people who have bought homes with their partner pay-out or cars or started businesses or going on vacations. And to me, I’m shouting that out. I’m super happy about Black Pound Day and that people are supporting Black businesses in the UK. But I also want to always come back to this heritage of we will figure out how to do it whether the systems allow us to do it or not.
And our liberation is collective. It is tied up in working together. All of this rugged individualism and pull yourself up by your bootstraps is a myth. That’s not how we survive as a community. And so, I thought it was really interesting that they highlighted this historic strategy for Black people to save money, big up to all of the people in a partner right now.
DERAY MCKESSON: The other thing is like it reminds you of the beautiful power of the internet to help people organize. Like you can just– people in their homes can say like, this is a good idea. You find people who believe in that to you, and then you do it. One of the issues that people have with Black businesses is literally just finding them. Like how do you– like you would shop there if you knew it.
And there are some incredible places that don’t have big advertising budget. So you don’t see them on Instagram, or like you just didn’t stumble across them. So the idea that there’s like actually a focused way to do this, you created a whole movement around it. It’s actually really powerful. It reminds me, too, of one of the things that is a little different from the 2014 protests and the 2020.
It’s that 2020, people walked away and started to put stakes in the ground about like, here are some things I can do. In a way, that to me, sort of responded to this idea of like people feeling overwhelmed before they were like, OK, I can do this thing. And I’m going to do this thing. And you’re like, dope. Go do that thing. What I will say and we have not–
We didn’t talk about this when it came out is that report that came out by the UK government being like, the UK is not racist, or like there’s no systemic racism here. You’re like, I think you colonized almost all the known world at some point. And it is awkward that you’re like just kidding. There’s no vestiges of systemic racism.
But it’s good to see that there are activists obviously pushing back on that, people challenging that notion and also just not letting the government gaslight them. Like I think that is important. And we did not talk about Tim Scott and his comments. We’ll leave that for another episode. But it is always interesting when people highlight all the racist things that have happened to them.
And then ended with but the country is not racist. And you’re like, OK. OK. My news is about Section 8. So in Iowa, they just passed a law, and the governor just signed it that gives landlords the right to deny housing to anybody in Section 8, which is government assistance. And this is bad for a host of reasons.
It’s interesting in the past year in 2020, you have just seen this assault on poor people like criminalizing poverty. And you think about the whole point of Section 8 was that we would allow people to have access to homes. That was like why Section 8 came up is that we would create vouchers to the people who were in lower-income brackets so could pay rent. They could have sustainable housing.
And you look at Iowa of all places– and not necessarily the place that I would have imagined would be a front runner in denying Section 8 housing to people. But the disparities are real. Black people are about 4% of the population but about almost 30% of voucher holders in Iowa. And almost all of the things that we think about with housing issues, Black people, poor people will always be hit the worst or the hardest.
Now I am heartened that Representative Fudge is now the Secretary of HUD. And I hope that she sues the pants off of Iowa. I hope that she has like the full power that we have never even seen in the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act so that Iowa can’t get away with this. And I hope that people sue and tie them up in court for a long time. Like this just is– this is not only bad policy.
But it’s such explicitly racist policy in Iowa. And I didn’t– I need to spend more time researching what’s going on in Iowa. Because if they’re doing this, they’re probably doing a lot of other stuff that like we didn’t even know.
DE’ARA BALENGER: I went and looked at the Governor’s website, which talks about her platform. And on her platform, she says that housing is the single most significant opportunity for rapid economic recovery for families and communities in Iowa. She talks about having a comprehensive housing plan with innovative solutions to bolster supply and provide financial assistance.
And so you’re like, yeah, OK, come on. Let’s get this housing on, right? And then you’re like, wait a minute. But you’re killing Section 8, or you’re saying your people don’t have to take Section 8 vouchers. And what I thought was really interesting is the justification for even the original bill, which came out in 2016, was to reduce the concentration the city was seeing in certain areas by race and income.
And over concentration of persons residing in certain neighborhoods who are of a certain race or income. Well, if only 4% of the population is Black in Iowa, right, then there’s an over concentration of white people, too. And what are we doing about that, right? Nothing. But this over concentration of Black people living in certain neighborhoods is a problem?
How can you, on the one hand, say that housing is a priority and that you have innovative solutions. And then on the other hand say that you are going to not mandate that your people take Section 8 vouchers. I’m with you DeRay. I hope– I mean, this is why we have checks and balances in our governmental systems. I also hope that HUD sues the pants off of them.
And look, sometimes you just got to take it to the streets, in this case, the courts. Let’s go to the courts with this because this is unconstitutional. OK. Maybe it’s not unconstitutional. I’m not a lawyer. But it ain’t right is what it is. How about that?
KAYA HENDERSON: Kim Reynolds has been getting on my nerves since she was elected. She is up for re-election in 2022. I don’t know what anyone’s chants are. Forgiven her run for her money. But I’m sure going to take myself back to Iowa, where I know well, from all my many times being there during the Iowa caucus, to do whatever I can. So yeah, I just– this really– this one really broke my heart to see that. But to both of y’all points, I’m sure that there is a plan in place to challenge her on this one.
DERAY MCKESSON: And we should– now as you say that we should think about who is running against her so we can help them out in any way possible because this ain’t it.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Can I give one little update on a previous article that we reported on? This is about the return of Bruce’s Beach in Los Angeles. And last Tuesday, the California Senate Bill 796 was passed with strong bipartisan support, which would actually allow the County of Los Angeles to return the beachfront property known as Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce from whom it was wrongfully taken in 1929. Woot-woot. Come on y’all. That’s some good news.
DERAY MCKESSON: Woo-woot.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So congratulations to the Bruce family and–
KAYA HENDERSON: And y’all hosting this summer’s cookout.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Exactly. We’re all coming. We’re all coming to the cookout on Bruce’s Beach.
DERAY MCKESSON: Hey. You’re listening to Pod Save The People. Don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come. Pod Save The People is brought to you by We All Count, a project for equity and data. Check them out at weallcount.com/people.
DE’ARA BALENGER: When researchers collect data on racism, how is it OK that their first step is always, raise your hand if you’re Black. Does asking a teenager a survey question about being transgender make them feel seen or just targeted?
DERAY MCKESSON: If you can’t tell what prejudices are baked into an algorithm, can anyone? If you don’t trust data or if you only trust data, the We All Count project is a place for you.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Join We All Count in learning to identify how bias and injustice sneak into every part of the data process. If you think numbers don’t lie or that a pie chart can’t be sexist, come get your mind blown and find a better way to embed equity in your data work. For a 15% discount on their upcoming workshops, visit weallcount.com/people, or use the code people at checkout.
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DERAY MCKESSON: The Sentencing Product is a D.C. based research and advocacy center, working to dramatically reduce the use of incarceration in the US and to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Today, I’m talking to Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst with The Sentencing Project about what comes next with the organization and what they learned. Ashley, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save The People.
ASHLEY NELLIS: Thank you for having me.
DERAY MCKESSON: So we first met because I had these random questions about sentencing and three strikes laws. And then I got in touch with you because you are a lead over there at The Sentencing Project. Can you talk about how did you start in your work, like how did you even get to sentencing, like how did that become a thing that you were focused on? And then help us understand where the work is today?
ASHLEY NELLIS: I started criminal justice work with an undergraduate degree in Texas. And as you might be aware, Texas has a very complicated relationship with the criminal justice system with an enormous amount of people who enter into the system, particularly prisons. And I started my work as a volunteer with the ACLU there in Austin, Texas.
And I got off the ground, really, doing advocacy work. And my degree, even though most of the people in my cohort were entering policing, usually, or correctional officer work. I just felt a real call to get into advocacy and to try to help. And so I continue on with my graduate degree from a justice and my PhD and developed the skills necessary to understand the data and to get the expertise in really having a deep understanding of the criminal justice system.
So I still– even though I moved into the academic world to get that training– felt like ultimately, I was going to end up in advocacy. So as soon as I finished, I looked out to places like The Sentencing Project, where fortunately, I landed in 2008. And I’ve been there ever since.
And our focus at The Sentencing Project is really on the impact of the policies of the ’80s, particularly in the 90s, even more so that accelerated this mass incarceration structure that we now have and the disproportionate impact it’s had on people of color, particularly African-Americans. And so my area of focus is on people who are serving long and life sentences.
DERAY MCKESSON: What is a long sentence, and what is a life sentence? Because life is really just a number of years, right?
ASHLEY NELLIS: So there’s three different categories of life sentences that we include. One is people who are serving life with no chance for parole. They call this life without the possibility of parole or natural life, life without release. It sort of depends on the state. There’s about 55,000 of those around the US. And then there’s life with the possibility of parole.
And that’s another 100,000 or so people. And that is people who have the opportunity for parole at some point. They can go before a parole board. It’s not guaranteed that they’ll be released. Most are, eventually. But typically, they are reviewed for that release until 25 years or so. So we hear the phrase “25 to life” quite a bit and that’s why.
And then there’s a third category called virtual lifers. And that amounts to people who are serving 50 years or more before they go before parole. So that someone who we could expect will not outlive that sentence. And they will die in prison. So altogether, all three of those categories create a population of our prison that is 200,000, over 200,000 people now. One in seven people in prison has a life sentence.
DERAY MCKESSON: You just wrote a piece called, “No End in Sight, America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment.” Now let’s talk about it a little bit. For most people, they would say that you had to do something really bad to get a life sentence. So like this must be murder or violent crime. And there are some people who like shouldn’t be around community.
So like if you kill anybody, you kill five people, a mass shooting, then a life sentence probably makes sense. Like you shouldn’t be around people in community. What do you say to those people?
ASHLEY NELLIS: Well, to those who say that at the time of your crime, when you cause violent harm to one person or many people, that you are stuck as that person and not able to change who you are, I would push back on that and say that, well, it’s possible. And there are people who have serious sociopathic problems that will probably never get out of prison.
And I would not want that to get out necessarily. I do believe that an ethical and morally-high society takes a look at those people every so often, to see if there has been change. The vast majority of people who are serving life sentences are not mass murderers. They are not sociopathic killers. They are not the kinds of people that we hear about in the media as going on a killing rampage.
The majority of people who are serving life sentences are there for a violent crime, no question. About half of them are there for a murder. And that is a very broad way of describing the life of a population. The reason I say that is that our policies have expanded. Who can be convicted under a homicide crime?
So much that felony murder accessories to a crime and people who were there for an underlying felony but did not commit a murder or know that a murder was going to happen, can now get sentenced to life sentences, as if they were the triggerman. And that’s a policy decision that has caused the jump in number of people serving life, particularly life without parole, which has increased 66% since 2004.
DERAY MCKESSON: OK. Let’s just go over the numbers. Now I have a lot of other questions, but I’m curious I’m fascinated by the life sentence population. I think if I look at the chart that’s on page 14 of the piece you put out. And it is Utah, Nevada, and Alaska are the top three– if I’m reading this correct. And that is not at all what I anticipated. What is going on there?
ASHLEY NELLIS: For that chart, we’re describing all life sentences. And when we include all life sentences, we include every person who is sentenced to a range of years. And in Nevada and Utah, they have policies that allow for sentences of one to life, quite a few, and also five to life. It can be seen as misleading or a misrepresentation of where most of the lifers are.
But in reality, at a time of sentencing, if a judge believes that a person can go to prison for the rest of their life or a year according to that sentence, that person should expect that they’re not coming out of prison because the judge feels that it is appropriate, possibly, for them to stay in prison for the rest of their lives.
So Utah and Nevada are states that allow this very broad range– mostly for sex offenses– that allow up to a life sentence. And it is interesting in Utah that they leave that subsequent decision of whether it’s going to be a year or life or something in between up to the parole board. So the parole board then becomes really the judge. And that, in our mind, is very problematic because really, that’s a different branch. And a person’s sentence should be decided within reason by a judge, not by a parole board.
DERAY MCKESSON: Are the parole board’s lenient? Are they– should you go from life without parole to life with parole? Is that helpful? Should we just lower the sentence cap? And then what– I know I’m asking that question. And then what do you say about victims groups? Because I can imagine that like if somebody in my family is a victim of a heinous crime that I– I would love to know where victim’s group stands on this if we know.
ASHLEY NELLIS: Victims rights groups are a very powerful voice in the life and in all sentencing. And there has been a real movement to keep that voice very strong in sentencing and also in parole. In our view, the victims rights community has mostly been sort of taken advantage of by prosecutors who are looking to secure convictions.
And that they know that using a victim to do that will help them both in getting that conviction and potentially getting them elevated in their own career. There are victims who feel that somebody should go away for the rest of their life and be punished harshly. There are also victims and the majority of victims who feel that the criminal justice system, the criminal legal system is not taking care of them at all.
It’s taking care only of putting the person away for the rest of their life. And it doesn’t provide the closure that they were hoping to attain. As far as parole boards, the parole boards are problematic. They’re politically intertwined with the governor. And usually, their members are confirmed by the Senate. And they are often not up to speed on what we know about the risk involved in somebody who is coming up for parole who had a violent crime in their past.
The vast majority of research shows that after a certain period of time, roughly around 10 to 20 years, a person who has committed violence in the past is very unlikely to commit it in the future. In fact, in the range of less than 5% would somebody commit another murder after having committed an initial murder. So it’s a very low recidivism rate.
But a lot of the discussion at parole board hearings is around that original crime of conviction. And so if you are somebody who has murder as your original crime of conviction, it’s kind of game over because you can’t get out of that even though you’ve served maybe 10, 20, 30 years for that crime. And there’s nothing you can do to undo the fact that that was your crime.
So really, parole boards really need to be restructured and reoriented focusing on what the person has done to demonstrate that they’re ready to be a strong and participating and crime-free member of society.
DERAY MCKESSON: What are misconceptions about the way we think about a life without parole and life sentences?
ASHLEY NELLIS: I think most people assume that the criminal legal system is accurate. And that if somebody is serving a life sentence, then they must have been a truly horrible person. And they must have been incorrigible and not deserving of a second look, that the criminal legal system has pinpointed the right people. And we know from looking at lower-level offenses that this is not true.
It’s easier, I think, for us as a society to accept that. We know the system gets it wrong a lot. But when it comes to these more serious offenses, there’s just a more of reliance. just out of a very understandable fear of letting somebody out who might commit a new crime. And that does happen, and that will continue to happen from time to time.
But those incidents are rare. Even though they’re severe, they’re rare. And we shouldn’t be hanging our policies on events that are rare and then throwing tens of thousands of people behind bars for the rest of their lives just to be on the safe side. And so I think one of the places where we get it wrong is to think that there’s no reason to look at people a second time and see number one, did we get it right the first time?
Conviction review boards are getting more popular, thankfully. Sentencing review boards are getting more popular, thankfully, because there is this sort of acceptance now in the progressive prosecutor movement, however small and modest it is, that we do make mistakes. We have to allow for that. It’s easy to accept life imprisonment in the United States as a regular thing because we don’t ever see these prisoners again.
We lock them up and throw away the key. Prisons are always very distant. If we want to, we never have to look at a prison. We’d never have to go inside a prison. We never have to look at that community of people that we have discarded. And 10,000 of them were under the age of 18 when they committed their crime, which is not an insignificant number.
Many of them were victims of trauma, serious, and ongoing trauma before they became victimizers. And that is never accounted for. It should be, I believe. I think we can look at both. We can be accountable and also merciful.
DERAY MCKESSON: Didn’t the Supreme Court rule that we can no longer put kids in life without parole?
ASHLEY NELLIS: That’s right. So the Supreme Court ruled that we can’t give juvenile people under 18 life without parole in states where it’s a mandatory life without parole sentence. So that has freed up the sentences of about 2,000 people. Not all of them have gotten their relief yet, but that is about 2,000 sentences. There used to be 12,000 juveniles serving life sentences, with about 2,500 of them serving what we call JLWOP.
And now, there are fewer than that. But the vast majority of the juvenile lifers have life with the possibility of parole even though that parole possibility might be decades away. In Tennessee, for instance, the first time you can go before a parole board and a life without parole sentence is after 51 years. And that’s no matter how old you were when you got there.
DERAY MCKESSON: Who’s doing this right? Is there a state that really is cutting back on their life without parole population? And how do you do it? Like how– if there’s somebody doing this right, how did they do it?
ASHLEY NELLIS: So there are states that are doing it right in some ways. But unfortunately, they’re doing it wrong in other ways at the same time. So I’ll give you a couple of– one example in particular. So New York is a state that has declined its lifer population, life with the possibility of parole, considerably, over the last 10 years or so.
But at the same time that it has done this, it has also increased its life without the possibility of parole sentence. Not nearly to the level of its life with the possibility of parole but it’s had a tremendous drop in life with. And that’s important for them because that’s a state that is very heavily reliant on life with the possibility of parole.
And parole, it has historically been very difficult to come by in that state. But sort of under the radar, life without parole has started to rise in that state. I can’t really say there is a state that is doing it right all over, in terms of the numbers. The states that are doing it right in terms of being willing to look are California, for instance, which has picked away at certain parts of its lifer population by, for instance, repealing the three strikes law that caused a lot of people to go away for life and dealing with it’s felony murder law, extending juvenile status up to age of 24.
These are all very promising actions. And then there are other states that are doing very little so that– for instance, in Florida is a state that has had a decline in life with the possibility of parole. But that’s mostly because they’re dying. And it has had a tremendous increase in life without the possibility of parole.
So the states that– without a closer look, it’s difficult to say why their numbers are changing. But states that have a decline in life with the possibility of parole, it’s possible that that is because they are sentencing fewer people. And that, of course, is encouraged. It’s also possible that those numbers are going down because people are dying, waiting for their parole.
DERAY MCKESSON: Got it. That makes sense. Who’s the biggest lobby against this work?
ASHLEY NELLIS: I wouldn’t go so far as to say lobby, but I would say obstacle. There’s a few actually. So some of it is the mindset of the criminal justice reform community. The criminal justice reforms that have been advanced in the last 10 years, let’s say, since we started this movement of reform. And in my mind, I would put it that sort of when we first passed the Second Chance Act in 2008-2009.
It’s a little over 10 years that there have been very positive reforms. But they have mostly been at the lower level, people who are serving short terms of imprisonment, people who have been apprehended or convicted of drug offenses, removing cash bail. These are all very necessary reforms. So I don’t mean to suggest that they’re not.
Oftentimes though, they come at the expense of reforms for the deeper-end sentences. And sometimes, the encouragement of harsher punishment by policymakers who maybe endorse a law– and we’ve seen this on the left and the right– that endorse a law and say, I’m just so glad we’re passing this law. And this will make sure that we’re super harsh. We’re especially harsh on people who really deserve it.
But the reality is we are already very harsh on everybody. To say we’re going to trade this policy reform for that, really misses the point that we need policy reforms across the board. And 50% of the people in prison are there for a violent crime. So releasing all the marijuana offenders tomorrow is potentially a wonderful idea, but it’s not going to do anything about mass incarceration.
It’s not going to end mass incarceration. So we have to all sort of work together so that we can get to a reasonable prison population that is reflective of those who are truly a danger to society today. And we have a ways to go for that. So that– so I would say the criminal justice reform committee can be a challenge.
It’s also a challenge. But I think something that’s really making some headway that death penalty abolitionists tend to lean on and encourage life sentences as the quote, unquote, “humane alternative.” They are sort of present life without parole as the only alternative when they do that, when that’s done because it is more humane, of course, to let somebody live than to kill them.
But we could go so much further. We are– I mean– America after all. We have some of the most draconian criminal sentences and penalties in the world. We have 83% of the world’s population of Alva prisoners. And in other countries– and I visited with advocates and policymakers in other countries. And they always want to know why the US thinks that it should be sending people, so many people away for the rest of their lives and never taking another look at them.
Death penalty abolitionists, I think, can be another challenge to overcome in sort of humanizing the people who are serving life sentences. And then, I think we have to go farther than we have gone in the victories which have been really tremendous in the juvenile arena. Juveniles, as I say, are about 10,000 of the lifer population. But there are over 200,000 people serving life.
So we want to be careful not to continually beat that drum of children are different, children are different because in many ways, they’re not too different in terms of those mitigating factors than adults. Many, many of the adults also experienced severe trauma and neglect as a youth before they committed their crimes. So I would say, I could think of other obstacles, but those are three that come to mind.
DERAY MCKESSON: So let’s talk about the solutions. I know that you’re pushing for a 20-year cap. Do you think that we could actually get there? And what does that even mean?
ASHLEY NELLIS: The first order of business is to eliminate life without the possibility of parole. That is a sentence that could easily be transferred into life with the possibility of parole if we were to just abolish it wholesale across the board. And we recommend that. Do it through litigation, do it through legislation, do it through sentencing reforms at the back end.
And just stop using a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. But then the vast majority of lifers have life without parole. And most of those lifers don’t get to go before a parole board before they get to 20 years. And so in other countries and using other countries as a model, we adopt the position that all sentences should be served no more than 20 years with the presumptive release at 20 years and having a first look at around 10 to 15 years.
That would result in a recalibration of the entire criminal system. That would put us on par for ending mass incarceration quickly, which is what we want to do. We don’t want to wait 65 years. As a colleague of mine says, at this rate of reform, it would take us 65 years to get back just to 1980. So we want to get there quickly for a range of reasons.
And so that’s why we’ve offered this bold proposal. There will always be negotiation. We work with policymakers everyday. And we know that no policymaker is going to just look at our proposal and say, sounds good. Let’s go with it. There will always be carve-outs. There will always be exemptions. We even advocate for exemptions in the case of people who continue to present threats to public safety.
Let’s say, for example, a person who has served 20 years. They go before the parole board. They participated in no programming. They’ve refused programming. And they say, when I leave here, I’m going to kill people. Obviously, at 20 years, we would not recommend that that person go out. We would recommend that there be continued incarceration through probably civil confinement.
But that, too, would have the full range of due process rights and have a careful look very regularly. So it’s a lot to take in that we would have prison sentences cap at 20 years, except that we are starting to look at other countries. Even State Department of Corrections have gone to Norway and other places to see how it’s being done elsewhere.
So I don’t think it’s inconceivable that we could get there. I don’t think we’re going to get there next year or even maybe in the next five years. But I think we can start piecemeal. And so that’s a solution that I think we should be working toward. It’s so easy because the criminal justice system is so broken in so many places.
Just to sort of harp on that and how are we ever going to fix all this. So I think it is wise to look at what would work, what something we could be moving toward. And those are two ideas that we advocate strongly for in our lifer campaign.
DERAY MCKESSON: There are people who are like, OK, got it. We shouldn’t be putting people in life sentences without parole. Parole boards aren’t the thing right now. But what can people do?
ASHLEY NELLIS: Become more educated about a crime and not believe so quickly that what we hear in the media is the reality when it comes to criminal justice. Because with crime in particular, it’s just not news to say people didn’t commit crime in this particular neighborhood where they used to. It’s always kind of focus on where the problems are.
And that can distort our view of crime. I mean, right now, we’re having a rise in violent crime, I think, it’s safe to say. And that is unfortunate. I think we’re still in the period where it could be a statistical blip. But I don’t know. It’s been a couple of years now. But the fact is that before that, for many years, crime has been going down steadily for the last 25 years.
But if you ask the public in general, whether crime is going up or down, most people think it’s been going up all this time. So there’s a real need for the public to be more educated about what is going on with crime. It’s also important, I think, to get involved at a community level with organizations and activists that are doing work on reforming the criminal legal system across the board but in particular, violence interruption and community violence intervention work.
There is effective programming out there. There are effective violence intervention programs that are usually being led by people who previously were convicted of violence. They work together with law enforcement. I think it’s also helpful if law enforcement changes its culture. A lot of people that live in high violence, low-income communities have very dysfunctional relationships with the police because of the police’s presence in there in the past has not been helpful.
And so that relationship, the police aren’t a resource to people who really need them because they’re afraid of retaliation. They’re afraid they won’t get protected. And that is work for the police to do, to get more trust from the community so that they can be relied on when real violence is happening and be helpful to communities that really need it.
DERAY MCKESSON: Cool. Well, keep them posted. And we continue from end of the pod. I can’t wait to have you back.
ASHLEY NELLIS: Oh, cool. All right. Well, thank you so much for having me. And I will talk with you all soon.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in the Pod Save The People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you raid it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save The People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special Thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe.