Condemning mandatory minimum sentences and mass incarceration, a group of attorneys, civil rights advocates and business leaders urged attendees at the National Urban League’s annual conference to work toward long-term solutions to eliminate these and other criminal justice issues plaguing urban societies like Baltimore.
“We cannot just have flashpoint movements to settle systemic problems,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “Flashpoints are good, immediate reactions are good, but if you don’t have permanent institutions to deal with matters, then we will not see institutional change.”
During a panel Friday called “Save Our Cities: Criminal Justice Reform & Ending Mass Incarceration,” Sharpton was one of many calling for policy change from the ground up, emphasizing the importance of activists’ presence both in the streets and at the polls in achieving lasting reforms.
The panel’s speakers included William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., the Baltimore lawyer for the family of Freddie Gray, whose death last year in in police custody sparked rioting, and Benjamin L. Crump, who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy who was fatally shot in his Florida neighborhood, and Michael Brown, who was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.
“The cards are stacked so high against you when you’re a person of color and you’re poor,” said Crump, who is based in Florida. “We are the solution, we have just got to participate in the system.”
For members of minority communities, several speakers said, the criminal justice system is often simply a vehicle for mass incarceration: They are presented with a choice between pleading guilty to a crime they may not have committed and accepting a lighter sentence or rolling the dice with a trial and risking spending several decades in prison.
“We’ve got to find 21st century solutions to this problem of mass incarceration,” Crump said. “We’ve got to quit incentivizing mass incarceration — we’ve made it very profitable to put black and brown people in prison. We’ve got to speak up. We cannot remain silent.”
Eliminating the “drug war” by advocating for addiction to be treated as a medical issue, rather than a criminal one, should be a top priority for those seeking criminal justice reform, said Murphy, a partner at Murphy, Falcon & Murphy.
“I’m a fan of micro solutions, but this is the time for macro solutions,” he said. “…We need to have the political courage to stand up and fight it until it’s done.”
Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of NAACP, said mandatory minimum sentences, such as those associated with certain drug-related offenses that disproportionately affect minorities, amount to a “mandatory condemning of our people… to the bowels of the criminal justice system.”
“This is a moment that transcends rhetoric and transcends political platforms,” Brooks said. “…It is a moment that calls for serious policy reform. We need to have sentencing reform that represents a categorical and a total end to minimum sentences.”
Noting the atmosphere of tension that has pervaded national politics as the presidential election approaches, several speakers emphasized the importance of voting for leaders who propose tangible criminal justice reforms.
“We are at a very critical time in the history of this country and in the landscape of urban America,” Sharpton said. “We are in an election that is as polarized and as hostile as we’ve ever seen, but more than the rhetoric and the theatrics is the reality that when we’re dealing with mass incarceration, when we’re dealing with the question of police reform, when we’re dealing with the question of economic inequality and wage stagnation and dealing with education inequality, all of these issues are front and center and cannot be dealt with in emotional way. They must be dealt with with concrete solutions.”