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Criminal system ‘job one’ for rights groups

Racial profiling. Disparate sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine. Bulging prison populations of mostly minority inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. Plummeting faith in the police and the way justice is dispensed.

Separate and unequal standards of criminal justice could threaten 50 years of progress on civil rights, but ‘many people at the national level look at what Baltimore is doing and are encouraged,’ Wade Henderson, above, told the Open Society Institute.

According to one national expert on civil rights, problems like these and more add up to the number-one civil rights issue of the 21st century: separate and unequal standards of justice for whites and minorities.

“Unless we turn our attention to the criminal justice system, gains made over the last 50 years will be lost — and Baltimore is a graphic example of that,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, at a forum in Baltimore earlier this week.

“You have a growing number of people caught up in the criminal justice system,” Henderson said. “It’s taking away a whole generation of productive people who should be pursuing the good life by establishing families and laying down work experience that would take them to the next step.”

Henderson spoke on Wednesday at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore in one of a series of forums that brings community leaders together with policymakers, researchers and legal experts. About 35 civil rights activists and criminal law experts — including Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy — attended the meeting.

“A great concern of OSI here and nationally is the over-incarceration of people,” said Diana Morris, director of OSI-Baltimore, one of many foundations funded by billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros.

“We’re very concerned about the nexus of poverty and crime,” Morris said. “Whole neighborhoods in Baltimore have been destabilized. Baltimore is a good setting for us to work because there are so many marginalized individuals and communities. It’s anathema to an open society.”

Henderson’s coalition was founded in 1950 and represents about 180 civil and human rights organizations. In a study released last summer, “Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System,” the Leadership Conference reported that U.S. criminal laws are enforced “in a manner that is massively and pervasively biased.”

Henderson, an attorney and the former Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, noted that many people in the system are there for a good reason: They broke the law.

“We should be very concerned that people who prey on communities aren’t permitted to do that,” Henderson told the group. “But when the system is stacked against people because of race, it goes against the civil rights movement. … Criminal justice reform is not a partisan issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

Blacks and Latinos, Henderson said, are no more likely to break the law than whites.

“But when the police concentrate on them, the arrest rates are higher,” he noted. Many people have been reluctant to address disparities in the criminal justice system that effect minorities.

“That’s because it focuses on people who have committed crimes,” Henderson said. “There is a narrow-mindedness that limits some organizations from addressing it.”Local ‘laboratory’

Yet the chances for meaningful reform in prosecuting, sentencing and prison reform are good, he added.

“Today, there is an opportunity for change,” Henderson concluded. “It doesn’t have to happen at the federal level. Baltimore is a great laboratory for that kind of activity. Maryland is a great laboratory for that kind of activity. Many people at the national level look at what Baltimore is doing and are encouraged.”