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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at Demos and a writer on social justice issues. His latest book is The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.

Recent Articles

One Nation, Under Siege

Eleven years ago, my first year living in New York, I sat on the roof of International House on the edge of Harlem, with hundreds of other students, raucously celebrating as elections in South Africa, half a world away, finished off the apartheid regime and brought Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to power. Drinking beers and singing freedom songs, none of us doubted that the election signified a historic event as transformative as the razing of the Berlin Wall. Back then, New York, a city long plagued by high crime rates, drugs, and vicious gangs, was also undergoing a transformation, becoming a place of low crime and urban revival. But it was doing so partly through fairly brutal policing strategies that exacerbated racial divides. Police began systematic crackdowns on “lifestyle” crimes they had previously ignored -- such as graffiti, street hustles, and minor drug use -- on the theory that this would signal a restoration of public order. Meanwhile, in addition to these new...

Cruel and Unusable

On Tuesday, March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in the much-watched Roper v. Simmons case on the permissibility of states' use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders. Roper v. Simmons came out of Missouri and involved the vicious saga of Christopher Simmons, a man who, at the age of 17, boasted that he was planning to kill someone, then led a group of friends in kidnapping and murdering a female neighbor. Simmons was sentenced to death and has spent the early years of his adulthood on death row. When his case reached the Missouri Supreme Court, the jurists there overturned the sentence, ruling that the juvenile death penalty should, in the wake of evolving communal standards of decency, now be viewed as a cruel and unusual punishment, and thus stand in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Missouri appealed the ruling up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was here that the battle was really joined. Fifty child-advocacy organizations filed amicus briefs urging the...

Trials in Error

Originally a strong supporter of the death penalty, Bill Kurtis, the front man on A&E's Investigative Reports, Cold Case Files , and American Justice , has recently become an outspoken opponent of the practice. Kurtis, whose new book is titled The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice , talks with journalist Sasha Abramsky about serial killers, justice, and why he can't watch CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation . Explain to me where you were, intellectually, on the death penalty when you really started looking at the issue in detail. I believed in it, being a lawyer and trained in the system; but that meant I was really on the edge, as most people are. I just assumed it worked, that the guilty were punished and the innocent went free. When I began looking into it and seeing the shocking numbers [of wrongfully convicted individuals] coming out, I changed. Not overnight. We started doing a two-hour special, “Death Penalty on Trial,” and I came upon two things. One was...

Taking Juveniles Off Death Row

Despite a judiciary increasingly dominated by conservative appointees, the federal courts have shown a heartening willingness to rein in the death penalty. In recent years, they have limited who is eligible and have placed other restrictions on states' arbitrary conduct. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, halted the practice of executing mentally retarded prisoners, declaring it unconstitutional in Atkins v. Virginia . Later this year, the Court will hear arguments in Roper v. Simmons , a watershed case involving Christopher Simmons, a young man who had lived on Missouri's death row for close to a decade after being convicted of a particularly gruesome murder committed when he was 17 years old. But in 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and, when the state appealed, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case. Since then, juvenile executions...

No Exit

Fifty years ago, more than half a million mentally ill Americans lived in state-run mental hospitals like the one depicted so searingly in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest . Today, laws protect the mentally ill from needless involuntary stays. As a result, fewer than 80,000 people now live in such institutions. The revolution in mental-health care, called "deinstitutionalization," has not, however, lived up to its promises. It is true that mentally ill persons are far less likely to be confined in the bleak, punitive, overcrowded and counterproductive warehouses that passed for hospitals decades ago. Unfortunately, though, it is also true that they are far more likely to be confined in the bleak, punitive, overcrowded and counterproductive warehouses that are U.S. prisons. Somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people currently live behind bars with a serious mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disease and major depression. Tens of thousands of these men and women are...

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