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Inside Criminal Justice

‘The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’

December 23, 2015 09:58:22 am

Ashley Bell, co-chair of 20/20 Leaders of America addresses the audience during a recent forum on criminal justice.(Photo by 20/20 Leaders of America)

A newly formed group of 40 African-American political leaders—including  elected officials from the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as prosecutors and police chiefs from jurisdictions across the country—is trying to reshape the national conversation on criminal justice by reaching out directly to 2016 presidential hopefuls.

Although their limited success so far suggests they have a long way to go, group leaders hope to gain momentum as 2016 progresses.

“The issue of criminal justice in policing is going to be the top issue for African-American voters in this country in this cycle. We truly believe that it is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Ashley Bell, co-chair of the Atlanta-based 20/20 Leaders of America, and former commissioner in Hall County, Ga.

“There are no lobbyists in DC for criminal justice reform. There are no lobbyists fighting for people who are locked up.”

The organization was launched last summer partly in response to the massacre at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. and partly to address issues that Black Lives Matter had started to bring up. Its members include: Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman of Columbia, S.C., the organization’s co-chair, Malik Aziz, Deputy Police Chief & President of the National Black Police Association in Dallas, Texas, and Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby.

“It was our opinion that we needed a movement that could work within the system,” to bring about a conversation with candidates in both parties, Bell said, noting that the street protests and other tactics used by groups like Black Lives Matter had alienated many parts of the political establishment. “Black Lives Matter and 2020, we’re part of the same orchestra for justice--we just play different instruments," Bell said. 

Bell said the organization has identified six focus areas they want candidates to address—police detention and racial profiling, community policing, diversity training in the justice system, pretrial detention, sentencing and restorative justice—and its members are currently working with each major campaign to encourage them to develop detailed programs on each area.

The group is pressing every candidate running for president to explain how he or she would implement criminal justice reform through the end of the first term, in 2020.

(The 20/20 in the group’s name refers to the year 2020, as well as the fact that it is evenly split between 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats).

So far, they have had an uphill battle in catching the attention of other prominent black legislators and officials.

Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana. and chair of the Crime and Social Justice Committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, admitted she had not heard of the group before speaking with The Crime Report.

But she said 20/20 could add a valuable grassroots voice to the national debate.

“I think that they have, certainly, a gauge on concerns that many of our communities have on criminal justice,” the mayor  said in a telephone interview. “I think they can be very influential… because of their leadership in their respective communities and the fact that they come from a variety of places.”

One of 20/20’s early successes was gaining a hearing with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. The Democratic presidential candidate ,who had recently been booed off stage by Black Lives Matters protesters sat down in August with some of the 20/20 members to discuss his criminal justice platform.

One of the main issues discussed was expanding diversity in the system, at the policing and prosecutorial level, as well as the judicial level.

According to Sean Savett, a spokesman for the O'Malley campaign, the meeting underscored the governor’s commitment to criminal justice reform.

O’Malley’s criminal justice plan “is the most comprehensive in the field,” Savett claimed in an email to The Crime Report.

“He believes that criminal justice reform is one of the most pressing challenges our country faces, and he wants to continue this conversation and dialogue."

Last month, 20/20 invited candidates to a forum on criminal justice reform at Allen University in Columbia, S.C.—an event attended by O’Malley, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is also running for the Democratic Party nomination, and Republican candidate Ben Carson. They discussed reducing incarceration rates for African Americans, and Carson repeated his opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

The current front-runners for each party—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—were not present.

Their absence was “telling,” Bell said.

“We have a long way to go,” he continued, calling on both front-runners to  release “comprehensive criminal justice reform platforms.”

Editor’s Note: For another perspective on Donald Trump’s approach to crime and justice issues, please see the Viewpoint essay by Christopher Lasch, “Donald Trump’s Threat to Criminal Justice.”

The Crime Report reached out for comment to other 2016 presidential candidates in addition to O’Malley, but did not receive a response.

Law professor Robert Weisberg, who is co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford University, said he had not heard of 20/20, but looks forward to seeing what they can accomplish—although he has some “cautionary concerns.”

“I don’t think it’s good when presidential candidates talk about crime…it tends to be an opportunity for hot-air posturing at the federal level,” Weisberg said, adding that he believes reform works better when state legislatures and city councils implement policies at the local level.

“There’s a kind of feel-good mantra right now about the bipartisan consensus.“

Weisberg said he would have been more optimistic about a successful conversation on criminal justice reform policies at the federal level a year ago, but “the relationship between constructive criminal justice reform and the national divisiveness over police violence has really muddied the picture.”

Freeman-Wilson said the challenges in African-American communities throughout the U.S. require policy solutions that go beyond fixing the criminal justice system.

“It’s not just crime and police,” she said. “It’s about restoration in the communities, which inherently means that you have to focus on jobs and education.”

20/20 will continue lobbying over the next several months, particularly at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Bell said, adding that the group plans to work closely with the nominee from each party to help “steer the conversation” as the general election gets underway.

“It’s not so much [about] talking to us, it’s not about 20/20,” Bell said. “It’s about us doing our job to prod these candidates to release something to the public.”

Alice Popovici is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She can be reached at @alicepopovici and welcomes readers’ comments.

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