Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘morris lasker

The Limits of Litigation

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If I am correct in concluding that the criminal justice system of this country is incarcerating citizens at an unjustifiable level with clear overtones of racial discrimination, the quest is, where do we go from here? This issue is very different from the issue of prison conditions. Resort to the courts was appropriate and useful in the fight to improve prison conditions, but reformation of incarceration policy cannot be achieved by litigation. A change in the incarceration policy can only be achieved by political action, directed, for the most part, against Congress and state legislatures rather than, as in the cases of prison conditions litigation, against the executive.

Influencing incarceration policy will not be an easy job. It will not depend on resort to the language of the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments or (in light of Supreme Court opinions legitimizing the most severe sentences) the Eighth Amendment, but rather on rallying the troops to support (or oppose) legislation.

— Judge Morris E. Lasker, “Prison Reform Revisited: A Judge’s Perspective,” 24 Pace Law Review 427 (2004); originally presented at Prison Reform Revisited: A Symposium Held at Pace University School of Law & the New York State Judicial Institute, Oct. 16-18 2003. Full article can be downloaded here. Earlier, I noted Judge Lasker’s death here.

Written by sara

January 22, 2010 at 11:15 am

RIP Judge Morris Lasker, Soft-Spoken Advocate for Prisoners Rights

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I’m a bit late in posting this news, but wanted to note the death late last year of federal judge Morris Lasker, who oversaw litigation over conditions in New York’s notoriously overcrowded, vermin-infested city jails. As noted in this obituary by the New York Times‘ Robert McFadden,

Judge Lasker, a soft-spoken jurist who often found himself at the center of controversies, was best known for rulings in the 1970s and ’80s in the Southern District of New York that forced the city come to grips with horrendous conditions in its jails and violations of the constitutional rights of prisoners that, as he once put it, “would shock the conscience of any citizen who knew of them.”

Though today, many judges shudder in fear of being labeled that worst of epithets — a “judicial activist” — Judge Lasker was unrepentant for his role in instigating reforms. As the New York Times obituary concludes:

Judge Lasker was often called an “activist” judge, intervening in government executive affairs in ways that critics said usurped legislative functions. But he defended the role of litigation in prison reform, especially “when either the legislature, or the executive, or both, are failing in their duties to assure constitutionally adequate conditions,” he wrote in an article for The Pace Law Review in 2004. [Note: That article can be downloaded here.]

He cited “gratifying progress” but an “unfinished agenda,” and warned: “Today, some 30 to 35 years after the courts began to accept responsibility for assuring decent prison conditions, the corrections community faces an even larger and more difficult problem — that is what I call America’s love affair with imprisonment.”

Written by sara

January 20, 2010 at 11:04 am

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