In the last week, there has been some extremely good news on the criminal justice front. No, the federal government didn’t pass any new sentencing laws. Nothing like that. Rather, three individuals were given the chance, after long prison sentences, to reclaim their lives.
Cornelius Dupree Jr. served three decades in prison for a rape and robbery he didn’t commit. Arrested in Dallas in 1979 and paroled in 2010, Dupree’s name was finally cleared, thanks to DNA evidence. A Texas law guarantees Dupree $80,000 for every year he spent in prison; that adds up to $2.4 million. Dupree is also entitled to a lifetime annuity.
In Mississippi, Republican governor Haley Barbour, who is considered by many to be a 2012 presidential candidate, granted clemency for sisters Gladys and Jamie Scott. The sisters served 16 years of a double life sentence for a 1993 robbery. No one was injured during the robbery and the sisters and their accomplice made off with anywhere from $11 to $200. Considering the nature of the crime and the fact that the sisters had no prior documented criminal history, the excessive sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Jamie Scott is ill and requires kidney dialysis; her sister offered—and is required to, as a condition of their release—to donate a kidney. The two plan to move to Florida to be near family.
The Dupree and Scott cases are more than just personal victories for these three; they are milestones for the nation’s often biased criminal justice system. In the African-American community, many view the criminal justice system in a negative light…with good reason. For many the criminal justice system is just that: criminal. Blacks are often the victims of racial profiling, flawed prosecutions and excessive, unfair sentencing. Consider this: African-Americans are imprisoned at least eight times as often as Whites and, according to the Innocence Project, 265 incarcerated individuals have been exonerated thanks to DNA testing; of those, 158 have been African-American.
While we celebrate the victories in the Dupree and Scott cases, it’s important that we don’t rest on our laurels. As a collective, we must continue to advocate for justice in our communities. The NAACP has a new focus on fighting injustices in the criminal justice system. You too can make a difference by joining your local chapter; visit www.naacp.org for more information.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)