Election time is here, and prison reform is now a hot topic. Much of the focus recently has been on the crime bill that then-President Bill Clinton signed in 1994, a law now seen as a driving force behind mass incarceration. Poor Blacks, Hispanics and Whites were the targets. President Clinton sent billions of dollars to state governments to construct more prisons--fueling the prison boom that swallowed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, including juveniles. (Remember the so-called "super-predators"?) The Prison Litigation Reform Act, which emerged from a provision in the 1994 bill, shut the door to federal courts for thousands of prisoners seeking to appeal their convictions, weakened court protections, and lowered fees awardable to lawyers in lawsuits concerning prison conditions.
Last week, CNN held the Democratic presidential debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Both candidates supported the 1994 bill at the time -- Sanders voted for it as a Congressman, and Clinton advocated for it as First Lady. When it came to the topic of reforming the criminal justice system, Clinton was pressed on whether she regretted supporting the bill. She said, "I'm sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that have had a very unfortunate impact on people's lives." She had previously expressed regret for using the phrase "super-predators" in the 1990s, which Sanders called "a racist term" at last week's debate.
But the 1994 crime bill wasn't the only law signed by Bill Clinton that fueled mass incarceration. In 1996, he signed a another bill that isn't being mentioned: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). This law stemmed from the Oklahoma City bomber case -- lawmakers wanted to speed up the process of convicting and executing Timothy McVeigh and prevent him from filing appeals. The result was another mass incarceration tool targeting (who else?) the poor.
The AEDPA, in conjunction with some U.S. Supreme Court decisions, has made it much harder to appeal a state-level criminal conviction in federal court. This has made the law of habeas corpus enormously complicated and challenging. There are landmines at virtually every juncture. Federal courts must now follow strict guidelines regarding the scope and standard of review applied to each case. Therefore, litigants must know the standard of review pertaining to each issue they raise on appeal. Otherwise, petitioners will, essentially, find themselves running for a touchdown when basketball rules are in effect. As a result of the AEDPA, it's also harder to get evidence of innocence and prosecutorial misconduct before a judge for an evidentiary hearing.
The AEDPA has been devastating for wrongfully convicted prisoners and their families. Reform is long overdue and very much needed. I know this from personal experience. In 2012, I was judicially exonerated by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals after spending sixteen and a half years in prison for a crime I did not commit. But after just four months of freedom, the Supreme Court issued a decision under the AEDPA that sent me back to a life-without-parole sentence. I had to start my fight all over again. Although I'm living through a nightmare, I'm also just one of many others. Too many deserving litigants (innocent prisoners) have been unfairly denied review and relief due to unreasonable procedural hurdles established by the AEDPA.
The late Rubin "Hurricane" Carter -- exonerated in 1985 -- once told President Clinton that, had the AEDPA been law when he was in court, he would still be in prison on a wrongful conviction for life!
Who suffers the most? Innocent prisoners. The last two years have both seen record numbers of exonerations: 137 in 2014 and 149 in 2015. But these numbers have not even scratched the surface; there are many other wrongfully convicted people still in prison. What's really needed -- reform? Or the total overhaul of our criminal justice system?
Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence until 2012, when the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for four months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered him back to prison to resume the sentence. With the support of The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Though he does not have internet access himself, you can email his campaign, make a donation, or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.