By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The Black community should take a larger role in curbing mass incarceration and be less reliant on public officials to slow prison growth, says Rev. Hebert Brown III, community organizer and leader of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore.

“In addition to banging on the system and going to the White House and moving on legislation to ban the box, et cetera, et cetera, I think it is a mistake for those who are most directly affected to wait for the experts to come do it,” Brown said.

He made his remarks during a panel sponsored by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive policy think-tank in Washington. The panel was part of an event titled, “Toward a More Perfect Union: Bringing Criminal Justice Reform to Our Communities.”

Brown said, “[During the Baltimore uprising] we started to create the systems that we needed. We’re not calling 911 for everything. Let us move into spaces where we develop the training, skills, and whatever else is necessary, and just be neighbors and sisters and brothers again so that we can help to engage some of the issues that might lead to interpersonal violence.”

Justice system professionals, activists, and community organizers all agree that empowering ex-offenders is one of the best ways to rebuild communities and keep people from re-offending. But more than 5.8 million Americans – 1 in 13 Black Americans – are disenfranchised because of their criminal offenses, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group for criminal justice reform. In effect, the people most affected by criminal justice policies are excluded from shaping policy decisions.

Though having a criminal record is no longer rare – 1 in 3 Americans has one – employers are generally unwilling to hire ex-offenders.

For decades, formerly incarcerated people have pushed to “ban the box” on job applications that require applicants to disclose past convictions. It’s often used to disqualify otherwise qualified candidates. The “ban the box” effort is gaining official traction, largely through state laws and updated guidelines from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But unless an applicant launches and wins a lawsuit, there are few repercussions for employers who dismiss applicants on this basis.

“What happens is, you have all of these folks who come home and they feel alienated from society, and they don’t feel like there’s any place for them,” said Pastor Darren A. Ferguson at the CAP event. Ferguson leads Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, N.Y. and works to provide reentry support. The community organizer is also an ex-offender who spent nearly nine years in the New York corrections system.

“They can’t get jobs because they’re afraid to go to a job interview, because they’re going to ask them that magic question that frightens anybody who’s been incarcerated: ‘have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ And there’s a feeling across the board – there’s no place for me, there’s no hope for me, so what else can I do?”

The laws that created mass incarceration have not only failed to make provisions for mass reentry, but have also devastated Black families and communities. Department of Justice data from 2007 found that 6.7 percent of Black children had at least one incarcerated parent, compared to less than 1 percent of White children and 2.3 percent of Latino children.

Among today’s Black twenty-somethings, 1 in 4 had a parent incarcerated during their childhood, according to CAP research. Another study from The Sentencing Project finds that nearly half of all Black women have a currently incarcerated family member, compared to just 11 percent of White women.

Alicia Garza, award-winning community organizer and co-founder of the national Black Lives Matter organization says that part of empowering ex-offenders is to find ways to restore their voice.

“Part of that is having those folks shape what the policies, practices, and systems look like. Because nobody knows better how to shift the trend of criminalization than those who have been criminalized,” she said at the same CAP event. “Not only do we need to center those voices, but we need to put those who have been directly impacted by the systems we’re facing in positions of power. Folks actually need to be able to make decisions that impact their lives.”

Voting is not the only way to raise one’s political voice. Pastor Michael McBride, a San Francisco-based community organizer and a program director within the PICO Network, an organization of religious leaders working for social justice, who was also part of the CAP event. He points out that elected officials are often bending to the whims of private entities.

“Many of these things happen under the cover of night. A lot of our Fortune 500 companies are actually profiting off of private prison labor, and other forms of legalized slavery. And I think we can shame them publicly in a way that at least creates some form of accountability, and we need to do the same thing with elected officials,” he explained. “We have the responsibility to make it known, and then we have another opportunity to hold them accountable through our voting, through where we shop, through our support, et cetera.”

The tide is slowly turning against mass incarceration and unfair sentencing polices. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law, which gives tax perks to employers that hire ex-offenders. In 2010 President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which significantly reduced the sentencing disparity between crack-cocaine and powder cocaine. And last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to raise the mandatory minimum threshold for drug-related offenses, and allow appeals for reduced sentences under the new guidelines.

Still, Black communities do not have to wait to have these disparities corrected by authorities.

“I am thankful for those working at the federal level trying to move things forward there, but…. It takes so long before my day-to-day reality is impacted by something whoever is in the White House signs,” Rev. Brown said.

“We have to continue to build for power socially, economically, politically so that we can … say, no more will we rely on the benevolence of a system that has an appetite for our destruction to decide our destiny. No more.”

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