"First Step" In Right Direction on Prison Reform, Urban League's Morial Tells The Black Star News

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Marc Morial. Photo: Facebook

As Congress now seems committed to some level of prison reform, Marc Morial who has been at the forefront of the battle, as President of the Urban League, weighed into the ongoing debate in a recent interview about the First Step Act. This prison reform effort has been endorsed by New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond and prominent news commentator Van Jones.

Mr. Morial says the First Step Act “is a win not for any party or group; but it is a win for the prisoners and their families who suffer from the widespread incarceration crisis."

Morial says even though the proposed reforms in the Senate bill aren’t far-reaching enough, they represent an important landmark and something to build on. The House version of the First Step Act, H.R. 5682, passed House approval on May 22, and was sent to the Senate the next day. Morial believes the Senate will now take up this important piece of legislation before the beginning of 2019.

You know things must be really bad when Republicans agree to work on any measure of prison reform with Democrats. The legislation is now gaining steam because some Republicans are willing to debate the bill. Senator Chuck Grassley has expressed support. Even President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly supports it.

Here are some stark statistics regarding prison incarceration and Black America, as Mr. Morial notes, “Black men comprise only about 13 percent of the male population, but about 35 percent of those incarcerated. One in three Black men born today can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime, compared to one in 17 White men. Black women are similarly impacted: one in 18 Black women born in 2001 is likely to be incarcerated sometime in her life, compared to one in 111 White women.”

Across America, according to the Sentencing Project, “6.1 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction.” Of that number, 2.2 million are African-Americans and “One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.”

A major point of emphasis in reducing the prison population is related to the racially-applied “war on drugs” legislations, primarily spearheaded by Republicans including President Ronald Reagan, and the recently deceased President George H.W. Bush. Unfortunately, some Democrats, including Black politicians, aided these laws that have further criminalized Black America.
Mr. Morial articulates the need to further reduce sentencing disparities in so-called drug crimes like cocaine use, where, typically, Whites who use powder-cocaine often receive light sentences, like probation, whereas Blacks using crack-cocaine get stiff prison sentences. On August 3, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, to partially address this injustice that was created by legislation known as the Anti-Abuse Act of 1986, signed into law by President Reagan.
Now is the time for the mass incarceration—and larger criminalization—of Black America to be addressed seriously. This legislation before the Senate is but one step. Morial names “bail reform” and the “three strikes law” as secondary issues that must also be tackled. Ironically, one study, done by John Hopkins researchers, “indicates that three-strikes laws increase the risk of fatal assaults” on law enforcement officers.
We know many African-Americans plead guilty to felonies they would beat if they had the economic resources to fight the charges. Being Black and poor ensures more miscarriages of justice.
Many Blacks are wrongfully arrested then jailed because they have no money for bail. The case of Kalief Browder, in New York, is a tragic example of the unjust manner in which Black people are criminalized.
On May 15, 2010, 16-year-old Browder was wrongfully arrested by NYPD officers for suspicion of theft, at the 48 Police Precinct Station, in the Bronx. The next day Browder was charged with grand larceny, robbery and assault—Browder always maintained his innocence. Because Browder’s family couldn’t afford the to pay the $3,000 bail, he was jailed at Rikers Island.
After Browder’s first trial appearance, on January 28, 2011, prosecutors started doing something that illustrated their weak case against Browder: they started requesting repeated trial delays. By December, 2012, prosecutors were still filing delays in Browder’s case. After some 951 days, at Rikers, Browder had seen some eight judges.
Yet, stunningly, on March 13, 2013, Brooklyn Judge Patricia DiMango offered Browder immediate release—if he pled guilty to two misdemeanors. Browder refused.
What does it say about the justice system when a judge offers a wrongly accused person a plea deal to salvage the weak case, and probably malicious prosecution, of prosecutors? Why wasn’t this case thrown out then by this judge?
Browder was finally released on May 29, 2013. Unfortunately, by that time, Browder had already been severely brutalized—mentally and physically—by the violent environment that is allowed to exist in America’s prisons and jails, like Riker’s Island. While at Riker’s Island, Browder attempted suicide several times.
On June 6, 2015, Kalief Browder was found dead. He had hung himself from an air conditioning unit outside his bedroom window—where his mother found him.
Kalief Browder is a victim of America’s “justice” system, which has always been in the business of incarcerating Black folk—ever since White racists decided the so-called loophole in the 13th Amendment could be exploited to re-enslave us. The “Black Codes” and “vagrancy laws” of 19th Century America morphed into “law and order,” and the “war on drugs.”
Economic exploitation has always been at the root of the unjust manner in which African-Americans are policed and prosecuted.
A DOJ, Department of Justice, March 15, 2015, report “found a pattern or practice of racial bias in both the FPD (Ferguson Police Department) and municipal court.” The report further states: “The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans and that this disproportionate impact is avoidable. Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials.”
That police and courts are being used to balance the books of municipal governments shouldn’t surprise us. Under the guise of “law and order,” An assortment of crooked contrivances are always being used to profit off the backs of Blacks. Who, economically, does the NYPD quota system, and programs such as “collars for dollars” help?
Prisons are the primary employers in certain rural and country areas where Whites live. This situation drags dollars—Census funds, for example—from struggling Black communities, further impoverishing us, and puts it into circulation in the local economy of these White communities.
Corporations are currently cashing in—like plantation owners did before—on prison exploitation labor. According to the Corrections Accountability Project, their 2018 report “exposes over 3,100 corporations that profit from the devastating mass incarceration of our nation’s marginalized communities.”
The report found that “Today, more than half of the $80 billion spent on incarceration annually in the U.S. is used to pay the thousands of vendors that serve the criminal legal system. They are healthcare providers, food suppliers, commissary merchants, and more. Focused on their bottom line and advantaged by an obscure and often monopolistic environment, the private, for-profit corporations that operate in the prison industrial complex raise particular concerns for the incarcerated population, vulnerable to corporate abuse.”
Unfortunately, race and class has always designated that those of color, particularly African-Americans, will consistently be targeted criminally and locked away in the penitentiary. Black Americans have always had to fight hard for justice in White America’s courts. Organizations, like the Urban League, under Marc Morial’s committed leadership, are working hard to advance meaningful change for Blacks who’ve been ensnared in America criminal justice system.
"While not perfect, the bill takes aim at moving the process forward on reducing the harsh application of mandatory minimum sentences," which comes from legislation, like the 1994 “three strikes” law.
Morial says, of the First Step Act, "While not perfect, the bill takes aim at moving the process forward on reducing the harsh application of mandatory minimum sentences," which comes from legislation, like the 1994 “three strikes” law.
Readers must contact their respective political representatives and demand their support for initiatives like the First Step Act for prison reform.

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