By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
Whenever I have an opportunity to rejoin the transformational activities of the civil rights organization that was founded and led by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am always eager to participate. Such was the case July 23 in Baton Rouge, La. The occasion was the 57th annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and I had been invited to participate as part of a panel on criminal justice reform.
In my younger days, I was the statewide youth coordinator for Dr. King and SCLC in my home state of North Carolina. I learned firsthand how to organize and mobilize effectively following the living example of Dr. King. I only mention this because one of my enduring memories about Dr. King was his ability to see the social change benefits of encouraging coalition-building across partisan political and racial lines.
Principles of multiracial and bipartisan coalition-building are important to any movement that seeks to reform or change the status quo. I had no reluctance, therefore, to join a panel discussion on a topic that is dear to my heart, soul and spirit – “Uniting for Progress and Opportunity: Bipartisan Efforts to Reform the Criminal Justice System.”
I was pleased to join my fellow panelists: Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries; attorney Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL); and noted Capitol Hill journalist Lauren Victoria Burke. The panel was moderated by Curley M. Dossman Jr., president of the Georgia-Pacific Foundation, and board chairman of 100 Black Men. Georgia-Pacific is a subsidiary of Koch Industries.
According to Mark Holden, “The criminal justice system as it is set up today is a major impediment to opportunity for disadvantaged and poor people. There is a two-tiered system where if you’re rich and guilty you get a better deal than if you’re poor and innocent.” Holden is accurate, and I agree with his principled position.
Holden is a libertarian and I am a Democrat, but we are now working together to build an effective, bipartisan national criminal justice reform movement across America. If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, I believe he would be at the forefront of this movement.
The “land of the free” has now become “the land of the imprisoned.” Although we are only 5 percent of the world’s population, our nation holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color and people of poverty.
There is, however, good news. A growing number of major companies and national organizations are now following the lead of Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Institute by bonding together on the issue of criminal justice reform, including Apple, Starbucks, Walmart, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, SCLC, NAACP, Coalition for Public Safety, and the Center for American Progress.
In its report from the SCLC convention, Rolling Out magazine stated, “Along with Apple, the computer juggernaut, Koch Industries is a leader in removing prior convictions from stopping individuals from receiving a fair chance at employment. These two companies are at the front of a movement to ‘remove the box’ (the ‘have you ever been convicted of a felony’ box) on employment applications by implementing that change themselves.”
There is progress now in Congress on this important issue. Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) have introduced the SAFE Justice Act. The acronym SAFE stands for Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Mark Holden, said writing for Politico, “. . . the legislation is an important step in addressing America’s ballooning, costly and ultimately unfair federal sentencing and corrections system, which needlessly throws away lives and decimates entire communities.”
You should let your Congressional representatives know that this bipartisan bill should be enacted without delay. We must be vigilant, principled and persistent in order to achieve the goal of effective reform.
Recently, I visited the headquarters of the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) in Arlington, Va. When you are building a social, a political or an economic change movement, it is also important, from my perspective, to get to know something about the integrity and commitments of the people who you are working with. I was impressed by the diligence of the diverse team of scholars and staff I met with at the institute.
I took a selfie with Richard Fink, president of the Charles Koch Institute. I have that photograph on display in my office at the National Newspaper Publishers Association in Washington, D.C. Actually, we took the photo in front of large poster of another one my freedom movement heroes, Frederick Douglass, which is prominently displayed outside the entrance to Fink’s office. There is a very relevant quote from Frederick Douglass that serves as the caption for the poster: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is the President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and can be reached for national advertisement sales and partnership proposals at: firstname.lastname@example.org; and for lectures and other professional consultations at: http://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc.