Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The LEAA (1965) and Shane Watson

Professor Elizabeth Hinton's new book FROM THE WAR ON POVERTY TO THE WAR ON CRIME: THE MAKING OF MASS INCARCERATION IN AMERICA traces the origin of our current mass incarceration crisis back to the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965. This legislation empowered the federal government to take an active role in funding and militarizing local police forces in the US, particularly African-American neighborhoods in New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark and Los Angeles.  Ironically,  LEAA was an outgrowth of President Lyndon Johnson's so-called "Great Society" initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Opportunity Act, landmarks in progressive social legislation.  

I am convinced that there is a clear connection between the legacy of the LEAA and cases of wrongful conviction such as Shane's case. Professor Hinton's astounding volume has shed yet more light on the sad legacy of racist law enforcement policies from Johnson's administration through that of Nixon and Reagan, all of which have continued to fester to this day. I share this recent exchange I have had with Professor Hinton. I encourage you to purchase this very important book and read it slowly and carefully.

Dear Professor Hinton,

I've been slowly digesting the wealth of information in your new book, and the more I read the more I am convinced that this work is the most important and cohesive summary/explanation of the atrocious criminal justice system and mass incarceration industry that exists here in the US. 

A sentence on page 5 especially struck me: "....assuming punitive programs continue in their present form, African Americans born after 1965 and lacking a high school diploma are more likely to eventually go to prison than not." 

Shane Watson, who has been in prison since his 1993 wrongful conviction, was born in the Bronx in 1965. I don't know whether or not he graduated high school, but I suspect not. Accordingly, it is not surprising that he encountered problems with the police at a young age, (minor drug charges) and then was chosen as a convenient target to pin a crime on (the shooting death of a paroled drug dealer). 

I was born in 1960 and grew up with a single mother in White Plains, NY, and was encouraged by her example to treat people fairly, sense hypocrisy and racism and speak out against unjust policies and practices, etc. Despite all of this I had never heard of the LEAA (my mother does not recall it either), and your discourse on the punitive and targeted policies resulting from that initiative explained a lot. 

Over the past 12 years of working to exonerate Shane, I have found that people react more strongly and instinctively to injustice once a human face, or a "real person" is attached to the "issue". As a result of reading your book, I now am interested in trying to articulate a correlation between the LEAA and its resulting policies and Shane’s wrongful arrest and conviction. Given that the LEAA was launched in the same year that Shane was born, it seems to me that in a sense his life and the LEAA policies were bound to meet at some point. Would you agree with this? 

By specifically connecting the LEAA policies and Shane's life and case, I feel that a light could be shed on similar cases of wrongful (and even "justified”) convictions. 

If you don't mind, I would like to share with you my results and would appreciate any input.

Thank you,
Will Duchon

Dear Will,

Thank you for your kind words about the book-- the feedback means the world to me coming from you!

Most people don't know about the LEAA-- a short-lived but really critical agency (even most of the librarians working at the National Archives have never heard of the agency, and can't locate its records from the Nixon and Ford era). 

I am in complete agreement that in order to change people's perceptions of incarceration and incarcerated citizens, they need real human contact. Putting slave narratives at the forefront of the abolitionist cause eventually led to Emancipation, after all. 

And it sounds to me that Shane's life trajectory is aligned with the story of the LEAA and the War on Crime. One of the points I tried to make in the book is that, beginning in the 1960s, policymakers essentially decided that generations of black youth were "potentially delinquent"-- long before the War on Drugs and long before violent crime became such a devastating problem in low-income urban communities. Shane would fit squarely within this preemptively labeled generation.

Please do continue to share your thoughts and findings, even if I am a bit slow to respond. In the meantime, enjoy your summer!

All my best,



Elizabeth Hinton
Assistant Professor
Departments of History and African and African American Studies
Harvard University


Last Stop Before Coming Home

On July 10, Shane was  moved from Otisville Correctional Facility to  Queensboro Correctional Facility , a minimum-security prison, where...