Nathalie Baptiste

Nathalie Baptiste is a writing fellow at The American Prospect

Recent Articles

After Incarceration, What Next?

Associated Press
Associated Press Sentencing reform legislation would release prisoners from incarceration, but the plan says little about what comes next. A broad bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill has rallied behind a sweeping criminal justice overhaul aimed at ending mass incarceration, which costs the nation $80 billon per year, a plan that would slash the nation’s bloated prison population. But largely unanswered in those reforms is the question of what happens to prisoners once they are released. For those freed from prison or jail, getting out is just the first step. What comes next can be a daunting reentry process fraught with built-in obstacles to employment and family reunification. If criminal justice reforms are to work, experts say, they must be accompanied with policy changes that remove institutional barriers to reentry that stigmatize prisoners once they are released. It’s a large population. Approximately one in three Americans has some sort of a criminal record, according to an...

Sanders College Tour Spotlights Black Student Power

Independent senator and Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders has launched a tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in an apparent bid to reach out to young black voters who so far favor Hillary Clinton in the polls.

In visiting HBCUs, Sanders is casting the spotlight on institutions that have given black students, who have been protesting racial discrimination on campuses across the country, a vital safe space. As Darrick Hamilton wrote in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect, HBCUs provide “safe and nurturing spaces for thousands of students,” but “are at risk of extinction” due to fiscal shortfalls.

After facing criticism from black voters that Sanders has a racial injustice blind spot, the campaign took drastic action last August by releasing a lengthy and detailed racial justice policy platform. “It is an outrage that in these early years of the 21st century we are seeing intolerable acts of violence being perpetrated by police and racist acts of terrorism by white supremacists,” it reads.

Sanders’s education platform, which calls for tuition-free and debt-free colleges, appears tailor-made to draw support from college students and may also resonate particularly with black students at severely underfunded HBCUs. Despite gains in wealth, employment, and education, the racial wealth gap persists, making college affordability a big problem within the black community, as Hamilton explains in the Prospect.

Because young college students played a crucial role in helping elect and re-elect President Barack Obama, it’s little wonder that the Sanders campaign has selected HBCUs for his next campaign tour.

HBCUs still matter to black students, notes Hamilton in the Prospect: “Given ... the ongoing societal presumption of black inferiority maintained by many college faculty and administrators, HBCUs have not outlived their purpose—indeed, their need calls for greater strengthening.”

Obama Orders More Research on Gun Violence. But Will Congress Interfere?

For years, one of the federal obstacles that has most frustrated gun safety advocates is an old prohibition on gun violence research. Without robust data on the impact of guns, safety advocates say, policymakers are unable to respond effectively to the epidemic of gun violence plaguing the nation.

On Tuesday, President Obama issued an executive order that not only tackles that problem head on but also reforms and expands background checks on firearm sales and commits $500 million towards increasing mental health access. Most importantly, the order directs the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Justice to develop and increase research into gun safety technology.

Prior to this executive order, Congress had stymied effective gun violence research. In 1996, Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey (who has since reversed his position) added a rider to a budget bill that stripped the Centers for Disease Control of its funding for gun violence research.  After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Obama ordered the CDC to begin researching gun violence prevention, but the agency still lacked funding and remained fearful of a backlash from Congress.

The research component of the new executive order bypasses the CDC by assigning those three federal departments the task of researching safety technology. These new technologies aim to minimize accidental discharges and trace lost or stolen guns.

After Obama’s emotional speech on his executive orders, Republicans were quick to weigh in. “No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment,” said Speaker Paul Ryan in a statement. “We will conduct vigilant oversight. His executive order will no doubt be challenged in the courts.”

Though Congress seems poised to fight Obama on gun control, advocates applauded the move. But, without Congress pushing for the CDC to research the gun violence epidemic, Obama’s order directing the three departments to research safety technologies can only go so far.

According to Ted Alcorn, the research director at Everytown—a nonprofit organization aimed at ending gun violence—researching gun violence is of life-and-death importance. “We won’t identify and implement measures that put a true dent in our country’s extraordinary rate of gun deaths,” he told The American Prospect, “without broad, sustained investment in research.”

Criminal Background Checks Screen College Applicants

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh Akira Lee, a senior at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., fills out a college enrollment application at her school in Washington, November 14, 2013. T he usual college application includes SAT scores, high school transcripts, and essays, but many high school students may not realize that more than half of colleges also use another, more secretive form of screening: a criminal background check. A full 66 percent of colleges and universities conduct background checks as part of the admissions process, according to a December report titled, “Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children,” released by the Center for American Progress. In most cases, the university employees doing the checks have no training on how to use background checks, and no written policies to guide them. College officials say that the checks enhance public safety. When the University of Washington was considering adding criminal background...

Will the DOJ's Chicago Police Investigation Lead to Real Reform?

Earlier this month the Chicago Police Department joined a growing list of law enforcement agencies around the nation under investigation by the Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations.

The announcement of the Justice probe came on the heels of the November release of a video showing white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald on October 21, 2014. The Chicago Police Department spent more than a year trying to cover up the shooting. But with the video’s release, Van Dyke is being charged with murder.

Though activists have cheered the Justice Department’s announcement, such investigations can only go so far. Overhauling the nation’s second largest police department will be no easy feat, civil rights advocates say. “The big challenge is going to be the culture within the department and the culture of silence and lying,” says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project.

Despite conducting a string of investigations the last two decades, Justice officials have yet to take any concrete action. The Department of Justice began investigating law enforcement agencies accused of violating civil rights after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 granted the agency the power to do so.

Since then, only a handful of police departments have been investigated, including those in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. Despite thorough investigations, complaints about each of these departments have persisted.

The Los Angeles Police Department became the first agency to be investigated by the Justice Department after the widely televised 1991 beating of Rodney King by four white police officers, which triggered riots in L.A.

The department had been plagued with complaints of corruption and misconduct for years and the resulting settlement required federal oversight of the department and a database with information on use of force, officer-involved shootings, complaints, arrest reports, and citations.

However, according to the The Guardian US’s project The Counted, which counts the number of people killed by police, LAPD has killed 20 people this year—more than any other police department.

Since its creation in 1835, the Chicago Police Department has been embroiled in dozens of scandals and allegations of abuse. In the wake of the Lynch’s announcement, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel offered a rare apology and promised change, but Chicagoans have been promised reform before, to no avail.

“There’s no doubt that this is an organization that’s resistant to change,” says the University of Chicago Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project’s founder Craig Futterman. But he stresses that community involvement is necessary if the Chicago Police Department is truly going to change. “If folks who are most deeply impacted are excluded from the process, they may not actually get to the core nature of the problem.”

Still, with or without community involvement, spurring reform from a DOJ investigation will be a herculean task. In Cleveland, a department with 1,500 officers took 18 months to complete. Chicago’s force is almost ten times that size with 12,000 officers.

One reason the Department of Justice has investigated so few police departments is a lack of resources. An investigation could be lengthy as well as extremely costly.

Like other urban police departments, the Chicago Police Department has been accused of excessive force, corruption, misconduct, brutality, racial profiling, and more.

A 2014 report by the We Charge Genocide coalition, a Chicago-based grassroots initiative, highlights some of the department’s brutality with cold statistics. Black Chicagoans, for example, are ten times more like to be shot by a police officer than white city residents. The report found that out of 1,509 excessive force complaints, only 2 percent resulted in any kind of penalty.

It’s an open question whether this latest Justice Department action will lead to changes in Chicago policing. In 2004, the Cleveland Police Department agreed to reforms after a DOJ investigation. Eight years later white police officer Michael Brelo fired 137 bullets into a car occupied by two unarmed black people.

The Brelo shooting caused the Department of Justice to launch another investigation into the patterns and practices of the department and release its findings a few weeks after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a white police officer while playing in a park with a toy gun. The Cleveland Police Department agreed to another settlement with the Justice Department in May.

The Chicago probes comes at a time of increasing public skepticism of law enforcement officers and more and more Americans are demanding policing reform nationwide.

The Justice Department investigation announcement has drawn ambivalent reactions in the civil rights community. Some voice optimism that the probe will lead to reforms. Others aren’t so sure. “I think between the police union and the rank-and-file officers and management there will be obstruction at every level,” says Siska.

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