By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr
NNPA President & CEO
There is an old adage that posits “The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same.” Once again millions of Americans are engulfed in what has become a reluctant national debate and dialogue concerning race and the urgency to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. Finding and identifying transformative remedies and solutions are long overdue.
In the wake of the most recent fatal tragedies in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, there are renewed fervent calls for improving relations between police officers and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. I believe these calls are being made in earnest seeking conclusive change.
However, the underlying systemic reasons why these and other tragedies continue to happen are somehow routinely avoided. There is a pervasive fear to speak and articulate the truth about race and the institutionalized devolving impact of racism on all levels of the criminal justice system.
To put it bluntly, there is too much intellectual dishonesty concerning the historical and contemporary role of race in America. In particular we need more intellectual honesty about why and how real reform of the criminal justice system should be achieved.
We need remedies that actually work to enable and to empower people to improve their quality of life without the debilitating and too often death-rendering consequences of a broken criminal justice system. Mass incarceration, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial inequality, racial profiling, and police brutality are all interrelated and interconnected in the counterproductive web of the system named criminal justice.
It is a system that lacks honesty, truth and integrity. Yet, my purpose here is to go beyond merely joining the public chorus that bemoans the prolonged contradictions of this failed social system. I know that there are some preventative programs and initiatives that are producing positive results about which more people should be made aware.
Criminal justice reform requires the coordinated and combined efforts and support of principled leaders in the private sector along with government officials, community organizations, and family members who are impacted. We all also should acknowledge that poverty and economic insecurity feeds the pipeline to the jails and prisons in the United States.
Acquiring a good education and training that provides everyone a means of generating a sustainable income is also a key factor if reform of our system of justice is to be productive. Last year ironically in Baton Rouge, I was pleased to be on a panel about criminal justice reform at the 57th national convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We discussed the need for re-entry programs for the thousands of ex-offenders who are returning to our communities across the nation.
One such program I want to highlight, Project JumpStart in Baltimore, MD, is an effective and efficient model to reforming an important aspect of the criminal justice system: offender re-entry workforce development. The construction trades are a growing skilled-workers industry in most urban areas where there are high-paying job opportunities.
JumpStart is Baltimore’s premier construction training program. It is a 14-week skills training program in plumbing, carpentry and the electrical trade. Trainees also received financial literacy coaching, as well as practical courses in mathematics as it is related to the construction industry. Most importantly, more than 70 percent of the JumpStart trainees actually go on to attain apprenticeships, licenses, and high-wage jobs.
Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries, was on the SCLC panel with me in Baton Rouge. We agreed that bipartisan support of results-oriented criminal justice reform programs is essential. I was also pleased recently to review Mark’s appraisal of Project JumpStart.
Holden emphasized, “Project JumpStart allows ex-offenders to rebuild their lives, providing opportunity and hope. We all have a moral obligation to stop punishing people for their past actions once they have paid their debt to society. We need to build and support a culture of opportunity so that the ex-offender leads a productive and purposeful life – Project JumpStart is essential to that process.”
Maryland, like many of other states, disproportionately incarcerates African Americans. What will happen to our brothers and sisters once they complete their prison sentences? I support President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative as one of a series of programs targeted to keep our young people from entering prison. But we also have to be concerned about the millions of people who are now hopelessly languishing in America’s prisons and jails.
When I was unjustly imprisoned in my home state of North Carolina during most of the 1970s as a member of the Wilmington Ten, I witnessed firsthand how thousands of young, gifted and talented prison inmates were given no rehabilitative chance to re-enter society with an opportunity to become productive and successful in their respective life journeys.
To that end there should be more programs like JumpStart in every city and state. We need principled national, state and local leadership on all the key reform issues, in particular on overcriminalization, re-entry training, prosecutorial accountability, community policing, and restorative equal justice. Urgently today across America we need more intellectual honesty about race and criminal justice reform.