This is a good short explainer by Brave New Films…
A few weeks ago writer & artist Molly Crabapple considered the theatrical nature of court proceedings:
“Courtrooms are a violent theater. The violence happens off-scene: in Rikers Island where a homeless man recently baked to death; in the shackles and beatings and the years far from everything you love. But the courtroom itself is the performative space, the stage where the best story triumphs, and where all parties, except (usually) the defendant, are just playing parts.”
I had the pleasure of talking with Molly a bit about my experiences of sitting in numerous courtrooms over the years. As she points out in her essay, most trials are not high drama or high profile. They are mostly rote and often very boring. Yet the public is weaned on television courtroom depictions and mistake “Law & Order” for real life.
There are, however, individual high profile trials that can take on the character of high drama. Billy Holiday’s 1949 drug trial fits the bill. Sara Ramshaw (2004) writes about it in an essay titled “He’s my man!”: Lyrics of Innocence and Betrayal in The People v. Billie Holiday. A number of accounts have been written about the trial. They all vary but one thing is consistent: Holiday was found not-guilty. This was seen as a surprise given the fact that she was allegedly caught in possession of narcotics by a well-respected FBI agent named George H. White. Additionally, in an era where black defendants were subject to ‘legal lynchings’ even celebrity was not a get out of jail free card.
Ramshaw (2004) addresses how “the racist, heterosexist, and classist violence and victimization [Holiday] had experienced throughout her life was brought to the fore and highlighted in order to support her trial narrative (p.88).” Billie Holiday proclaimed her ‘innocence’ at trial and an all-white jury found her credible. She was acquitted on June 3 1949.
Holiday’s attorney, Jake Ehrlich, suggested as a defense that she had been set up by her boyfriend John Levy. Yet Ramshaw contends that “Erlich’s position had obvious deficiencies…Nonetheless, the jury appears to have accepted Ehrlich’s argument (p.100).” Why did the jury believe Holiday’s defense? Ramshaw explains: “The reason for this decision, I suggest, lies in the blurring of Holiday’s personal and public lives and the credibility her celebrity persona lent to her narrative of innocence and betrayal in the courtroom (p.100).”
The defense sought to play up Billie Holiday’s public image as being ‘unlucky in life and love.’ Ramshaw describes how they relied on and constructed this image:
“To begin, Holiday entered the courtroom on 31 May 1949, looking uncharacteristically ‘unkempt in a beige suit.’ Her eyes were puffy from crying and one eye was bruised and swollen. She told a reporter in the courtroom that Levy had hit her. ‘You should see my back,’ she stated: ‘He done it Friday night. It looks better now than what it did. He went off Saturday night – even took my mink – eighteen grand worth of coat…I got nothing now, and I’m scared.’”
Holiday was probably telling the truth about being abused by Levy. He was not the first boyfriend to have allegedly assaulted her. But Ramshaw makes clear that Holiday and her lawyers chose to underscore her victimhood and to marshal the public’s perceptions of her to their benefit. They succeeded in this; overcoming racism and turning misogyny to their advantage. The entire article by Ramshaw is fascinating and worth reading.
In the conclusion to the article, Ramshaw offers the following assessment of Holiday’s courtroom ‘performance:’
Holiday’s “My Man” routine, otherwise referred to as her “unlucky in life” public persona, was configured in United States popular culture on the basis of myths and stereotypes regarding black women and their sexuality. Throughout Holiday’s trial, issues regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality were either implicitly or explicitly highlighted in order to direct attention back to Holiday’s “unlucky in life” persona. This persona, in turn, filled gaps and resolved contradictions in the evidence. The heightened authenticity that her “unlucky in life” public persona lent to her trial narrative of innocence and betrayal gave Holiday’s testimony the quality of truthfulness needed to get a jury to overlook the evidence (or lack thereof) in front of them (p.105).
When I read Molly’s article, I remembered Ramshaw’s account of Holiday’s 1949 trial as a good example of how theatricality can manifest in courtrooms (especially in high profile trials). Take a few minutes to enjoy this poignant performance of “My Man” by Lady Day and think about how she marshaled the lyrics of this song, connected them to her personal experiences, and convinced a jury of white people to acquit her on drug charges in 1949.
Over 50 percent of inmates currently in federal prison are there for drug offenses, according to an infographic recently released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (see chart below). That percentage has risen fairly consistently over decades, all the way from 16 percent in 1970.
The second-largest category, immigration-related crimes, accounts for 10.6 percent of inmates. This means that people convicted of two broad categories of nonviolent crimes — drugs and immigration — make up over 60 percent of the U.S. prison population.
More in the Huffington Post.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted musical interludes but I learned about this song through a Twitter follower yesterday & wanted to share it. It’s called “Parole” by Immortal Technique.
According to ThinkProgress:
Drug offenses remained the single most common cause of arrest in 2012, mostly for offenses involving mere possession, according to newly released FBI estimates. Of the 12.2 million estimated arrests 1.55 million were for “drug abuse violations.” Some 82 percent of those were for possession offenses, and 42.4 percent for marijuana possession. That is the equivalent of a drug arrest every 20 seconds, and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, according to calculations by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials who support the regulated legalization of drugs.
The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration
by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago
Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.
An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?
Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.
—Number of federal prison inmates: 219,000 (about 14% of the total prison/jail population)
—Number of inmates in federal prisons for drug offenses, 1980: 4,700
—Number of inmates in federal prisons for drug offenses, 2010: 97,500
—Number of federal convictions for drug offenses each year: 25,000
—Number of federal drug convictions each year for lower-level drug offenses such as street dealing or delivering: 11,250
—Percentage of federal inmates convicted of drug offenses who are African-American: 30 percent
—Percentage of federal inmates convicted of drug offenses who are Hispanic: 40 percent
- The single largest driver in the increase in the federal prison population since 1998 is longer sentences for drug offenders.
- The average inmate in minimum-security federal prison costs $21,000 each year. The average inmate in maximum-security federal prisons costs $33,000 each year.
- Federal prison costs are expected to rise to 30 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget by 2020 .
Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, The Sentencing Project, and Wonkblog
A study (PDF) by the Urban Institute examined the growth of the Federal prison population.
The report found that the number of Federal prisoners has quadrupled since 1980 to over 219,000. Over 30% of the expansion is due to longer sentences for people convicted of drug offenses. The chart below illustrates this:
Maya Schenwar did a terrific interview with Dr. Carl Hart about his new book “High Price.” The book is sitting on my summer reading shelf and the summer is almost over…
Anyway, you should read the whole interview but below is a particular interaction that stood out for me:
MS: You’ve mentioned how there aren’t many studies that acknowledge the positive effects of illegal drugs, which is funny because sometimes those effects manifest very similarly to the effects of legal drugs. At one point, you compared methamphetamine and Adderol, for example. This made me think about how in some ways, the scheduling of some drugs as illegal and some drugs as legal comes across as arbitrary.
CH: It’s not arbitrary, but it has little to do with pharmacology. It certainly doesn’t have much to do with potency. Nicotine is one of most potent drugs in the world. The reasons go back to these despised groups – when a drug is associated with them, it often becomes illegal.
This happens through history: Cocaine became associated with black people in the South. The concern with opium was that there were all these Chinese people using it – even though the average user was a 30- to 50-year-old white woman. Marijuana became associated with Mexicans and black people. And meth was restricted when people like bikers and hippies – and young people – were seen to be the ones using that drug.
I’ve already mentioned the excellent new ACLU report on the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. However it’s worth highlighting again…
White youth use pot at a slightly higher rate than black youth do.
The Economist sees an opportunity to leverage the racism of the enforcement of marijuana laws to change policy.