Crime and Punishment in America

This past Thursday through Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend my first Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in its 43rd iteration. This was truly an informative, formative and transformational experience. I learned so much and got to meet others committed to positively impacting American society. Some of the sessions and hearings I attended included: “National Town Hall From Poverty to Prosperity: Confronting Violence, Restoring Opportunity and Investing in Our Youth”, “How to Engage and Build International Response to Local Issues: Human Trafficking, HIV/AIDS and Economic Empowerment”, “Criminal Justice Issues Forum Mandatory Minimums: Rethinking Failed Sentencing Policies and Targeting Money Laundering and Major Drug Traffickers” and “The Youth PROMISE Act: An Evidence Based Approach to Juvenile Crime Prevention”. The common theme was desperately needed criminal justice reform and its potential to positively impact the nation’s black population.

I started off the conference attending the Town Hall. The panel of distinguished guests included the mayors of Baltimore, Philadelphia and Newark, all cities that have long and sad histories of dealing with the scourges of gun violence and drugs. It was Mayor of Newark and the Democratic Party’s nominee for New Jersey’s second senate seat in the upcoming special elections that offered some remarks that resonated most with me. Mr. Cory Booker spoke about America having a “massive problem with violence” and a criminal justice system that he characterized as a “massive failure”. Moreover, he also excoriated the ineffectual and ill-conceived “War on Drugs” that has left nothing but devastation, destitution, desperation and violence in its wake.

Few people will have a grasp on the deleterious social consequences of the failed “War on Drugs” and the greater entrenchment of the prison-industrial complex that Booker has, by virtue of being mayor of a city that has been negatively impacted by the aforementioned. This was definitely on display in his remarks. Moreover, few legislators –both in the House and the Senate- would have contended with the havoc wrought by guns and draconian drug laws and if elected I hope he’ll labor assiduously with the other ninety-nine fellow senators to undo the nation’s cruel drug laws and the penal sentences that come along with them and be an advocate for the communities that are blighted as a result of their experience with those issues. In both urban and rural America, these laws and concomitant draconian sentences have been major sources of the unraveling of America’s social fabric, especially in communities where people of color overwhelmingly reside.

Of all the sessions I attended, the most shocking was the one on human trafficking. It focused primarily on the sexual trafficking of young girls. The Department of Justice estimates that of those trafficked, 77 percent are women of color. I was most shocked by how the juvenile justice system fails many of these young girls. How can girls as young as ten be charged as criminals for childhood prostitution? This is an incongruity as legally children aren’t able to give consent. There needs to be greater emphasis on rescuing, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Civic-minded citizens need to support the efforts like that of another of the panelists; Lisa Williams and her non-profit Living Water for Girls offer refuge young girls that have been abused and taken advantage of as chattel in sexual exploitative criminal enterprises. Furthermore there needs to more services available to these girls such as shelters and greater collaboration with local law enforcement agencies who can dictate whether girls under the age of eighteen end up in the juvenile justice system which makes them more likely to be ensnared in a vicious never ending cycle. Additionally, the USA is the only country where youth offenders can be sentenced to life without parole.

Attorney General Holder’s –a champion of criminal justice reform– words could not have been more apt: “America’s criminal justice system is in need of targeted reforms…we’ll never be able to prosecute or incarcerate our way to a safer country.” I got the opportunity to hear Judge Greg Mathis’ thoughts on and experiences in the juvenile justice system. And it was made clear that initiatives like Rep. Bobby Scott’s Youth Promise Act need to be supported en masse. Policy makers need to rethink the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences while in the words of Rep. Maxine Walters: “being smart on crime”. There has to be a paradigm shift in how Americans think of the criminal justice system. Is the aim rehabilitation and reintegration or is it purely retribution?

Convicted felons should have their right to vote reinstated upon release. There are simply too many barriers of reintegration for ex-convicts. Their chances of economic independence are slim to none. Now is the time to coalesce support for progressive policies like Rep. Maxine Walter’s “Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2013” and Rep. Barbara Lee’s “JUSTICE ACT” that addresses sentencing disparities for blacks who use crack and the lengthy terms that aren’t commensurate with the crime committed and HIV in prisons respectively.

Imagine the benefits that can stem from the diverting of money wasted on the “War on Drugs” into rehabilitative programs and investing into education, particularly early childhood interventions and social and youth development both in urban America and the Western Hemisphere and averting resources to going after financial institutions that launder the money made from cartels and other criminal enterprises instead of low level drug offenders. Think of the potential transformative power in some of the same savings being used by cities/states to forge “philanthrocapitalistic” ventures similar to Goldman Sachs joining up with Mayor Bloomberg’s foundation and New York City to lower recidivism of rates of 16-18 year olds caught up in the criminal justice system. Criminal justice, drug policy and prison reform are issues that are dear to me. As I attend the course I’m taking on incarceration at my university’s law school and the one on criminal justice reform next semester I’ll be contemplating ways to support innovative, humane and effective transformational changes in these arenas and the individuals that are working tirelessly to bring them about. What will you do?

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