Slave Narratives and the Sentencing Court
42 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 125 (2018)
49 Pages Posted: 29 Sep 2016 Last revised: 30 Oct 2018
Date Written: September 28, 2016
The United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world. Courts are substantially more likely to sentence African American and Latino people to prison than white people in similar circumstances, and African Americans in particular represent a grossly disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population. Violence and other ills endemic to jails and prisons are thus disproportionately experienced by people of color.
This Article argues that criminal defense lawyers should explicitly address conditions of confinement at sentencing. In doing so, a criminal defense lawyer has the opportunity to serve as both advocate and abolitionist. As advocates, defense lawyers can incorporate information about conditions of confinement into sentencing narratives to support arguments for shorter sentences or against imprisonment altogether. As abolitionists, defense lawyers can juxtapose the humanity of their clients with the poor or even dire conditions of confinement in our jails and prisons – not only to influence the court’s decision about an individual client’s sentence, but to impact the court’s view of our systems of incarceration as a whole. Defense lawyers acting as abolitionists thus seek to disrupt and dismantle a system of imprisonment that disproportionately affects African American and Latino people in significant and damaging ways.
In examining how invoking conditions of confinement at sentencing engages defense attorneys as advocates and abolitionists, this Article seeks insight from a tool of abolitionists and advocates from a different time: Civil War-era slave narratives. Slave narratives exposed the hidden conditions of slavery while also seeking to humanize the enslaved people subjected to those conditions. Using slave narratives as a touchstone in a conversation about sentencing advocacy provides a new perspective on the role of storytelling in litigation and social movements, including questions of who tells the story and which stories are told, in the context of systems of control with deep disparate impacts based on race.
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