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  • On July the 15th 2010 a Philadelphia court sentenced a young Puerto Rican woman named Cynthia Alvarado to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

  • At the time, Cynthia was a young mother, two small daughters working to make ends meet, and she had no significant criminal history to speak of.

  • And before I tell you the story of this case, there's a fact that I want you to keep at the forefront of your mind throughout the duration of this talk.

  • And that fact is this.

  • Everyone involved in this case, from the police to the prosecutors, the witnesses, the judge and even the jury agreed that Cynthia Alvarado did not commit a murder and did not intend to commit a murder.

  • That being said, this is a homicide case, and the victim's name is Martin Martinez.

  • And one afternoon in October of 2008 Marta was shot and killed in a neighborhood park.

  • That park is located in a section of North Philadelphia that the locals refer to as the Badlands, so called because of the prevalence of violence and drug related crime.

  • But we could also call it the Badlands because of its lack of economic opportunity and infrastructure because of the prevalence of police harassment and brutality, and because of the lack of even basic city service is shootings in that park are not uncommon.

  • And then, as now, that park is an open air drug market, something else you should know.

  • The person who shot and killed Marta Martinez is Oscar Alvarado, Cynthia's younger cousin.

  • And in 2008 Oscar Alvarado was a troubled young man with a history of substance abuse and violence as both the victim and a perpetrator and prison and poverty.

  • Oscar was driven to the park that day by Cynthia.

  • She wanted him to buy her Xanax.

  • It was a prescription drug that she became addicted to following a car accident that left her with a shattered pelvis and killed the driver who was her cousin and Oscar's older brother.

  • I can't tell you with any certainty what happened inside that park.

  • Eyewitness accounts are contradictory and compromise, and forensics is almost non existent.

  • Philadelphia I can say that within moments of entering the park, gunshots rang out and people scattered, and Oscar ran towards Cynthia's car, firing his gun back into the park as he did.

  • So one of those bullets struck and killed Martin Martinez.

  • Oscar didn't intend to kill Marta.

  • He didn't know Marta.

  • And in fact, it's not till many hours later that Oscar and Cynthia learned that someone had been struck and killed.

  • That day, we might say that Marta was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • So how does Cynthia Alvarado end up with a life sentence for murder?

  • Something that she had no involvement in the same sentence?

  • In fact, that Oscar received when she wasn't a participant in a shooting, we might say of Cynthia what we said of Marta, that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • While Marta is the victim of impersonal street violence, Cynthia is the victim of something that I'm going to refer to as state violence.

  • State violence includes dramatic exercises of government power, like war and the death penalty and incarceration, but it also includes seemingly more mundane acts like the power to stop and to frisk and to arrest.

  • In recent years, the black lives matter movement has focused our nation's attention on everyday police encounters with civilians, poignantly demonstrating that even in routine encounters police possess the power of life and death, and that all too often they abuse this power when they interact with people of color.

  • The black lives matter movement has also raised our awareness about some of the ways that state violence is gendered.

  • For example, in 2015 Officer Daniel Holtzclaw of the Oklahoma City Police Department was convicted of multiple counts of rape and sexual battery after he targeted vulnerable African American women and girls and threatened them with arrest and jail time in order to sexually assault and subsequently silenced them.

  • One victim testified that when her boyfriend told her to report the rape to police, she said.

  • But he is the police when police officers and prison staff and other state agents engaged in rape and sexual assault and sexual harassment of women and girls in custody.

  • It is an abuse of power that exists at one end of a spectrum of gendered state violence.

  • But there's a few other things on this spectrum When police arrest and jail trafficked women and girls for the crimes of their traffickers.

  • It is gendered state violence when police ignore violence against women by, for example, systematically failing to test rape kits and not responding to distress calls.

  • It is gendered state violence.

  • And when police prosecute and incarcerate domestic violence victims for engaging in self defense, it is gender, state violence.

  • But there's one other thing, too.

  • When police and prosecutors leverage women's vulnerability and by vulnerability, I'm referring to women's status as the caregivers to small Children, women's vulnerability to men's violence, women's vulnerability to poverty and to homelessness and to prosecution.

  • When police and prosecutors leverage those things to knowingly extract false and misleading statements, fabricated testimony, unfounded guilty pleas and bogus convictions, it's gendered state violence.

  • I call each of these things the hash tag me two moments within the criminal Just, um Now the Me to Movement was founded in 2006 by the civil rights activist Toronto Burke, and it went viral in 2017 following a tweet from the actress Alyssa Milano.

  • When Burke founded Hash tag, me, too.

  • She was interested in raising awareness about the prevalence of rape and sexual assault and sexual harassment, particularly as it's experienced by women and girls of color.

  • In the intervening years, me, too, has gone international, moving across the lines of race, ethnicity and class, and religion and geography.

  • The movement has demonstrated the ways that rape and sexual assault and sexual harassment deepen and reinforce gender inequality and gender discrimination in employment, education and cultural settings.

  • And the me to movement has also touched on the criminal justice system.

  • Feminist activists and scholars have problem.

  • It ties the ways that courts and law enforcement deal with the victims of human trafficking and the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

  • But we still have work to do.

  • Specifically, we need to investigate the ways that punitive police and prosecutorial practices are amplified by gender inequality and racism and women's vulnerability to violence and to poverty.

  • In other words, we need a me too reckoning with respect to mass incarceration.

  • Now I'm gonna come back to that concept of mass incarceration in just a minute.

  • But I want to bring us back to that day in the park.

  • Oscar comes running back to Cynthia's car, waving his gun and screaming, Pull off!

  • Pull off!

  • So she does.

  • Course she does.

  • She grew up in that neighborhood.

  • She knows what gunfire sounds like, and she knows not to hang around when she hears it hours later, when police turn up at Cynthia's apartment to take her and Oscar into custody.

  • The statement that she makes in the back of that patrol car is the same statement that she makes two homicide detectives during an interrogation that lasts well into the next morning.

  • That statement is this.

  • I didn't have anything to do with what happened during the hours that's Cynthia Alvarado spent handcuffed to a chair in an interrogation room.

  • Her status went from being a witness to a shooting to an accomplice to murder.

  • And that shift from witness to accomplice is a product of poverty and gender inequality and racism and gender state violence.

  • Cynthia told the detectives in the room that day exactly what she knew.

  • In fact, one of those detectives testified a trial that she was cooperative and compliant.

  • The problem is, is that what Cynthia gave them isn't what they wanted.

  • And what they wanted was a first degree murder case against Oscar, and so they leverage their coercive power as police officers end as men to capitalize on the distinct ways that gender inequality and motherhood and poverty rendered her uniquely vulnerable.

  • Imagine a boxing match, where one of the boxers is chained to a chair in the center of the ring.

  • Defenseless round one.

  • After spending hours in police custody and in that interrogation room, Cynthia pleads with homicide detectives to allow her to return home to her daughters, ages one and eight, who, as far as she knows, have been left without a caregiver.

  • Detectives refused.

  • They tell her if she wants to see her daughter's again.

  • If she wants to maintain custody of her Children, she will sign a statement that they have crafted reflecting their version of events that day in the park.

  • The problem is, their statement isn't consistent with her own recollections.

  • She refuses.

  • This exchange is repeated multiple times throughout that evening.

  • Round two, Cynthia is left alone in that interrogation room with one of those detectives for just about two hours, and during that time he leers at her and he comments on her appearance on her body and he brushes up against her and he references her employment of a dancer in a gentleman's club.

  • And finally, he makes a quid pro quo, demand sexual favors, and in exchange he'll try to help her out she refuses.

  • This exchange is repeated multiple times until the second detective returns to the room.

  • He's just conducted a search of her apartment, and he found Oscar's gun Round three.

  • Armed with a gun.

  • Homicide detectives threatened to arrest Cynthia for first degree murder, something that in the short term will destroy her financially, causing her to lose her job and her home.

  • And, of course, in the long term, it threatens to destroy her life and her family and the lives of her daughters.

  • She refuses to find the statement.

  • She has no choice but to refuse to sign.

  • That statement is to risk the very real possibility of retaliation by Oscar, as well as to undermine and and divide the loyalties of her extended family.

  • Around four, the detective who propositioned her tries another tactic.

  • Give him a name in an open homicide.

  • She refuses she has no choice but to refuse.

  • Not only does she not have information about any other unsolved murders in the city, but to name someone risks the very real possibility of retaliatory street violence around five.

  • Actually, I'm gonna retire the metaphor because it's not working anymore.

  • Unlike a boxing match, There is no referee in a homicide interrogation.

  • And Cynthia Alvarado had no one in her corner that night after spending hours chained to a chair without food or a bathroom break, being sexually degraded and humiliated.

  • Being threatened with the loss of her Children and her freedom, Cynthia begins to bend.

  • She tries to negotiate with detectives, she says.

  • I will sign the statement with your version, but I cannot name Oscar.

  • In exchange, you must let me go home to my Children and the detectives agree, and she signs, and then they immediately arrest her as an accomplice to murder.

  • Cynthia Alvarado never returned home.

  • Many months later, a jury finds her guilty of something called accomplice liability, which would I would need in a brand new Ted to fully explain.

  • And hey, I mean, you know, you could make a suggestion at the end, but suffice it to say this, that accomplice liability hooks you onto the crime of your co defendant.

  • So that when that same jury found Oscar Alvarado guilty of second degree murder, they in effect found Cynthia Alvarado guilty of second degree murder, and the mandatory sentence is the same life in prison without the possibility of parole.

  • So to answer the question that I opposed in the beginning of this talk, how does a young mother, working to make ends meet, wind up with a life sentence in prison for a shooting she had no part of?

  • The answer is in the context of poverty and racial inequality.

  • Her sentence has a lot more to do with gender inequality, engendered state violence.

  • And it does her actions that day, and I'm not suggesting that she is without blame.

  • She is guilty of participating in a drug transaction.

  • She is not guilty of participating in murder and charging her with that is retaliation, and it's abuse of power.

  • And it's gender state violence.

  • But this isn't just about Cynthia Alvarado.

  • It's about tens of thousands of women who are currently incarcerated in our nation's prison system.

  • So I want to return us now to that concept I raised earlier about mass incarceration.

  • Consider this.

  • In 1980 there were a grand total of 12,000 women in our nation's prison system, and three decades later, in 2010 there were about 100 and 12,000 women.

  • For those of you who struggle with mass.

  • That would be 100,000 increase.

  • And if we add in the number of women who are incarcerated in jail, we're at well over 200,000.

  • That increase is historically and globally unprecedented.

  • In fact, the U.

  • S locks up more women than any other nation on Earth.

  • And as a social scientist who studies these issues, I can assure you that that increase isn't because 100,000 women decided to go on a crime spree.

  • In fact, the massive increase in the size of the women's prison population is a microcosm of an overcrowding crisis that has plagued our nation's prison system for well over three decades and overcrowding crisis that was so obvious and so urgent that by the end of the 19 nineties, social scientists gave it a name mass incarceration, and what we now know is mass incarceration is a product primarily of putative crime policies and mandatory sentences.

  • Thes had the effect of sending Maur people to prison for a broader array of crimes for ever longer periods of time.

  • At its peak, the U.

  • S prison system reached a population of 1.7 million American adults in 2000 and nine, one year later in 2010.

  • The same year.

  • In fact, that Cynthia Alvarado receives her life sentence, the prison population post the decline.

  • In fact, it is the first decline in the U.

  • S.

  • Prison population since 1972.

  • Think about that every year, from 1972 through 2009.

  • The prison population in this country increased.

  • The reason that it decreased in 2010 was largely the result of bipartisan efforts to implement criminal justice reform policies and practices that were designed to reduce our nation's use of incarceration as a quick fix.

  • Too much more complicated social problems like poverty and substance abuse.

  • After decades of prison building and billions of tax dollars spent on locking people up for longer periods of time with devastating social, political and economic consequences, Americans got just a little bit smarter about crime and punishment.

  • Fast forward from 2010 until today.

  • Cynthia Varada is in the 12th year of her life sentence, and the number of people in prison has continued to decline.

  • Actually, let me correct myself.

  • The number of men in prison and jail has continued to decline the number of women in prison and jail has continued to increase.

  • In fact, women's rate of incarceration has outpaced that of men, and women's rate of incarceration has increased even during the period that criminal justice reforms have been implemented.

  • How can that be?

  • How could it possibly be that criminal justice reforms designed both to reduce the number of people who are currently in prison by finding ways to get them out as well?

  • Is to reduce the use of prison as a sentence for criminal conviction?

  • How are these things not benefiting women?

  • After all, women's crimes are consistently less serious and less violent than men's.

  • If anyone would be the primary beneficiary of criminal justice reform efforts, it should be women.

  • But it's not.

  • The reason that it's not is because gender inequality, particularly in the context of poverty and racial inequality, renders women uniquely vulnerable to the abuses and the excesses of mass incarceration and punitive crime policies.

  • It is not criminal justice reform.

  • If we leave women and girls behind, we will not solve the injustice of mass incarceration without finding ways to eliminate those practices that give rise to gendered state violence and So what we need to do is not only prioritize the needs of women and girls, but demand that our criminal justice system respect women and girls constitutional rights and recognize their fundamental humanity.

  • Thank you.

On July the 15th 2010 a Philadelphia court sentenced a young Puerto Rican woman named Cynthia Alvarado to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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