The blueprint for criminal justice reform: The ACLU's Brandon Buskey visits Grand Rapids

Brandon is the ACLU’s Deputy Director for Smart Justice Litigation, where he leads a team dedicated to attacking mass incarceration through impact litigation on three central issues: bail, prosecutorial misconduct, and parole and probation. The team coordinates closely with the Campaign for Smart Justice and ACLU affiliates. Brandon has been with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project since 2012. His other work focuses on expanding the right to counsel, juvenile sentencing, and collateral consequences. Prior to the ACLU, Brandon worked at the Equal Justice Initiative and the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office. He is a 2006 graduate of New York University Law School. Following law school he clerked for the Honorable Janet C. Hall of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut.

Brandon Buskey will be the keynote speaker at the 2019 ACLU of Michigan Luncheon on Thursday, May 16. 

Tell us about your experience before joining the ACLU. What sparked your interest in criminal justice reform?

I’m proud to say I have dedicated my professional career to criminal justice reform. I first worked at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, on behalf of people on death row and children sentenced to life imprisonment without release. After that, and right before I joined the ACLU, I worked at the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office, focusing on police reform and individuals denied employment because of criminal histories.

Tell us about your role as Deputy Director for Smart Justice Litigation and member of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, and how these roles intersect.

The two roles are essentially the same. The Smart Justice Litigation Team that I lead tackles pretrial reform, such as challenges to money bail, and prosecutorial reform, including lawsuits against district attorneys who systematically (and illegally) withhold favorable evidence from defendants. In the past two years we and our affiliates have filed nearly 20 cases on these issues in state and federal court. Our team sits within the Criminal Law Reform Project, which prioritizes issues like police misconduct, public defender reform, and ending the failed War on Drugs.

What are some of the ways in which the ACLU seeks to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50%?

The ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice is working tirelessly in all 50 states with ACLU affiliates, community activists, and people impacted by the criminal justice system to address the root causes of what can only be described as our nation’s carceral epidemic.

During the 2018 state legislative sessions alone, the ACLU worked with at least 2,394 volunteers, and more than 43,000 ACLU supporters took action to advance Smart Justice, helping result in the passage of over 100 new criminal justice reform bills across the country. Smart Justice is fighting in the legislatures, the courts, in voting booths, and in the streets.

But we recognize that even these victories are not enough. We cannot end our country’s addiction to punishment without also addressing systemic racism. So we are developing plans to directly combat racism in the legal system.

How does the state of Michigan compare regarding incarceration rates per capita and racial disparities in incarceration?

The bad news is that Michigan is a national leader on both incarceration rates and racial disparities. In 2016, 41,122 people were imprisoned in Michigan, nearly tripling the prison population since 1980. The state had the seventh highest rate of people under correctional supervision (in prisons or jails, on probation or parole, or in other forms of supervised release) in the country as of 2015.

On racial disparities, the Prison Policy Initiative’s most recent data indicates Black people make up 14% of the general population and 49% of the incarcerated population, while white people represent 77% of the general population and only 46% of the incarcerated population. In 2016, Michigan ranked 15th for the worst disparities in incarceration for Black people.

The good news is that if Michigan were to follow the reforms outlined in the Smart Justice Blueprint — including bail reform, diverting more people with mental health or substance abuse needs out of the criminal law enforcement system, and ending the practice of prosecuting children in adult courts — 23,451 fewer people would be in prison in Michigan by 2025, saving over $1.8 billion.

That money should be invested in schools, services, and other resources that would strengthen the minority communities most harmed by the criminal legal system.

This past November, Michigan legalized marijuana. What are your thoughts on how this will affect racial disparities in arrests and incarceration in the state?

It is difficult to say. Recent federal data indicates that Black people in Michigan are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, so differences in use cannot explain the disparities in arrests. That said, while we have seen a reduction in overall arrests for jurisdictions that have ended or scaled back marijuana enforcement, racial disparities have tended to stay the same. You have to understand that marijuana enforcement is part of a larger issue with police using low level arrests to control primarily poorer, Black communities. So reducing overall disparities really depends on whether marijuana enforcement in Michigan is more racially disparate than other law enforcement practices, and on whether police compensate for their inability to make marijuana arrests in poorer, Black communities by increasing racial disparities for other arrests.

Grand Rapids is a relatively small, but quickly growing city. What can rapidly growing regions like ours do to participate in criminal justice reform and fight racial disparities in incarceration?

Mass incarceration is born not just out of problems with our criminal legal system, but our long-term lack of investments in communities. As Grand Rapids grows, I hope it creates opportunities for people of all backgrounds to succeed through educational and economic opportunities, and to support people with mental health and substance-use issues. Investing in people isn’t just the right thing to do, it also leads to better public safety and stronger communities.

Also, Grand Rapids residents, and people throughout Kent County, can join our Smart Justice campaign to end racism in the criminal legal system and cut incarceration in half. Richard Griffin is the ACLU Michigan Smart Justice field organizer for the Grand Rapids area, and is recruiting volunteers. Our Smart Justice campaign is committed to impacted people leading our reform movement. Richard knows the system and what needs to be done to fix it as he was incarcerated 23 years. He is not just an incredible leader, but a fantastic human being, who is committed to changing our broken system. To join, people can directly contact Richard at [email protected].
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