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Wednesday, 20 March 2013 00:00

Michael Paul Williams: Waging a war against mass incarceration

Written by  Michael Paul Williams | The Richmod Times Dispatch
Michael Paul Williams: Waging a war against mass incarceration Facebook.com/OccupyDemocrats

You might call it a nascent civil rights movement in response to the new Jim Crow.

About 150 people gathered Saturday morning at St. Peter Baptist Church in Glen Allen to discuss mass incarceration, the war on drugs and their effect on the black community. The Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration has scheduled forums Wednesday in Richmond’s East End.

“The endgame is just public awareness through the community and churches,” with the hoped-for result of influencing legislation in the General Assembly, said Jesse Frierson, executive director of the alliance.

The gospel of this movement is Michelle Alexander’s best-seller, “The New Jim Crow,” which details the rising mass incarceration of minorities. The author argues against policies that swelled the U.S. prison population from 300,000 to more than 2 million in less than three decades — the world’s highest incarceration rate.

Alexander’s lectures in Norfolk and Richmond in 2011 served as a catalyst for the alliance.

The toll of drug offense-fueled incarcerations on the black community has even conservative churchgoers exploring all options.

During a discussion last year at a local church, an impromptu show of hands had one-half of the audience in favor of the decriminalization, control, regulation and taxation of currently illegal drugs, Frierson said. One-quarter of the audience was opposed, and the remainder wanted more information.

“That, frankly, was surprising to everybody,” he said.

Of keen interest to the alliance is the restoration of voting rights for 450,000 disenfranchised felons in Virginia. Despite the support of Gov. Bob McDonnell, a measure to automatically restore the vote to nonviolent felons who have finished their sentence was killed in the state legislature. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, has appointed an advisory panel to explore options under the state constitution on the restoration of voting rights.

Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, were invited to Saturday’s event but did not attend. But McAuliffe, in a letter to the attendees, said “unfair and unequal enforcement of our drug laws is not an argument or a talking point; it is a fact.

“Study after study shows that while drug use is similar among different ethnic groups, young African-American men and young Latino men are arrested and incarcerated at dramatically higher rates than young men from other groups. This is devastating communities and hurting our society.”

But as McDonnell’s case shows, a sympathetic governor hardly guarantees results in the legislature. Or as Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Henrico, said Saturday: “Nobody ever lost an election by being tough on crime.”

St. Peter, on Mountain Road in northern Henrico County, is the church of Kemba Smith Pradia, a leading advocate in the fight for voting rights of former offenders. Her franchise was restored last year by McDonnell, more than a decade after she served six years of a federal prison sentence for drug-related offenses. She was granted clemency in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

The audience viewed selected scenes from the documentary “The House I Live In,” a critique of the U.S. criminal justice system whose producers include Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons.

Part of the film showed the toll methamphetamine has exacted on white, jobless rural residents in America’s heartland, as drug use and illegal activities fill the economic void. The impact of crystal meth in those communities was likened to the effect of crack cocaine on black urban communities in the 1980s.

During the wide-ranging panel discussion that followed, state Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico — who sat on a panel with Morrissey, Pradia and Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor — said the counterproductive war on drugs coincided with the “world of no.”

First came “Just Say No,” the Reagan administration’s response to drug use. Later came “no parole,” Gov. George Allen’s politically popular policy. That was followed by “No Car Tax,” a bumper sticker that helped land Jim Gilmore in the Executive Mansion after Allen.

Parole abolition helped fuel prison construction. And the car tax reduction blew a hole in the state budget that McEachin says has hurt K-12 education funding.

Virginia, in an attempt to fill empty prison beds, began importing inmates from as far away as Hawaii. A new $105 million correctional center in Grayson County has sat empty for 2½ years because of a lack of money and the state’s declining prison population. Other correctional facilities have been closed.

Meanwhile, prisons in economically bereft communities have become as valued for job creation as for incarceration. Which begs the question: What’s driving criminal justice policy?

Conversations on that and other issues “are taking place in Baptist churches across Virginia,” Frierson said. “This is where it starts. It starts with us.”

Link to original article from The Richmond Times Dispatch

Read 6658 times Last modified on Tuesday, 26 November 2013 21:11

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