On November 14, DC Councilman David Grosso, in cooperation with the ACLU, University of DC School of Law, NAACP, and Howard University School of Law, presented a forum on Race and Gender Disparities in the DC Criminal System. Members of the forum spoke on a wide range of topics, however.
The occasion for the forum is the publication of a report by the ACLU and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Several other forums have been held and more will undoubtedly be held in future.
Grosso has introduced several bills concerning criminal justice before the DC Council. One bill would legalize marijuana and set up a drug supply system to regulate the price of drugs. Most of the high price of illegal drugs stems from the difficulty in smuggling them into the country and evading police detection. Legalizing drugs would make drugs cheaper, although studies have shown that it would not cause drug use to increase. Another bill proposed by Grosso would make it illegal for a pregnant woman in prison to be placed in shackles. This bill is just common sense. Grosso deserves our applause for recognizing some of the ills of our society and trying to help rectify them.
Seema Sadanandan, a program director for the ACLU and a member of the National Lawyers Guild, was the most voluble member of the panel. She spoke persuasively about the need to change the tightly integrated system of laws that oppress the minority community. Sadanandan repeatedly invited members of the community to address the meeting, which a few of them did after the panelists completed their presentation.
The listeners heard some disturbing facts during the course of a two-hour forum, many of them from panelist Deborah Golden, Director of DC Prisoners' Rights Project. DC holds 50% of its prisoners in private prisons, information that is not publicized by the DC government. The private prison industry has aggressively pursued growth policies which have included determinate sentencing laws and opposition to liberalization of drug laws, continuing the so-called War on Drugs, and passing harsh immigration detention laws, such as the one in Arizona.
One of the audience members noticed police observers at the rear of the auditorium and challenged the police to explain their tactics. A large portion of the audience loudly voiced its disapproval of DC police tactics in the minority community. The observers wisely stayed quiet and the moderator of the forum was able to restore order after a few tense moments.
Other audience members identified themselves as objects of police misconduct and told stories about youthful experiences and how they became fearful of the police. Returning citizens--people returning to the community after being incarcerated--told stories of how they got involved in crime and how they escaped from the throes of the justice system.
Some mention was made of how much money private prisons made--about $5 billion a year--and how their profits led to passage of bad laws. No one noted the fact that welfare payments were abolished at the same time that prison sentences got longer. The War on Drugs led drug offenders to be banished from public housing. Increased imprisonment made it harder to find a job. All of these pressures combine to make it difficult for minorities to lead normal lives even when they try.