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Racial & Gender Disparity in the DC Criminal Justice System

Friday, November 22, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
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On November 14, 2013, the School of Law hosted a panel discussion and conversation on Race and Gender Disparities in the DC Criminal Justice System. Over 150 students, alumni, attorneys, police officers and members of the public turned out, listened intently, and asked sometimes pointed questions. One of the primary focuses of the panelists was the District’s drug laws and racially discriminatory enforcement patterns. At one point "returning citizens” were asked to come up and make comment on their experiences.

The panel was organized by Councilmember David Grosso, the ACLU, Howard Law, and UDC David Clarke School of Law’s BLSA chapter and Student Bar Association.

DC Councilmember Grosso made brief welcoming remarks and the Panel was skillfully moderated by the Voice of Russia’s Kim Brown.  Panelists included UDC Law’s Prof. John Brittain; Seema Sadanandan of the ACLU-NCA; Howard Law’s Prof. Josephine Ross; Dr. Niaz Kasravi, Director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program; and Deborah Golden, Director of the DC Prisoners’ Rights Program of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

A collection of photos taken by Councilmember Grosso’s staff can be found HERE. Photos by UDC Clarke School of Law can be found HERE.

Max Cohen of the DCist covered the event and, we feel, summarized it quite well. His post can be found HERE.

Cohen wrote "…last night's forum essentially turned into a critical symposium on the marijuana decriminalization bill and ways that the District can turn around some of the shocking statistics as it relates to race and the marijuana arrest rate.”

Cohen continued, "Grosso gave a brief introduction, explaining what led him to become so involved in this issue. "We're here today because many people have done the hard work necessary to expose injustices in the way people are arrested, tried, arraigned, convicted, and sentenced," Grosso said. "But the reason I'm here today is because of three independent events that happened over the past 12 months, which gave profound sense of responsibility to insert myself, as a leader in the District of Columbia, into the debate on race in the criminal justice system," he said. Grosso cited the murder of Trayvon Martin (and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman), the bookThe New Jim Crowby Michelle Alexander, and comprehensive reports produced by the ACLU and Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs on racial disparity in arrests in D.C. as the three central reasons that led him to get so heavily involved on this issue.

"Moderated by the Voice of Russia's Kim Brown, each of the panelists laid out a variety of reasons why the U.S.'s failed War on Drugs has led to some disturbing trends in marijuana arrests and racial profiling, and how they've impact many black communities, specifically in D.C. Sadanandan of the ACLU said that, while working with young people in D.C., they would constantly tell her how they were "being stopped frequently by police under the pretext of marijuana," and if cops thought they smelled like marijuana, they'd be searched. "The District, as compared to other jurisdictions in the United States," Sadanandan said, "was one of the highest rates of marijuana enforcement anywhere, and we spent an enormous amount of money on marijuana arrests." According to data compiled by the ACLU, 91 percent of all marijuana arrests in D.C. were of black people, and by and large, were of black men, despite the fact that the District is about 50 percent black and 50 percent white.

John Brittain, a UDC law professor mentioned that there is equal self-reported usage rate of marijuana in the District between white and black residents. He also talked about how the War on Drugs is a failed policy and that the country needs to not only be focusing on the legalization of marijuana, but to work on "[developing] uniform policies of cannabis and hemp to avoid corporate control," he said. "Legal market of marijuana must be careful in not using taxes and other regulations to make marijuana so expensive that the criminal market continues," Brittain also said.

Several other of the discussions panelists, including Kasravi and Golden, talked about how the current simple possession laws devastate the lives of those who are charged, making it increasingly difficult for them to reenter society because they have trouble finding work and housing with a record.

Toward the end of the discussion, the panelists opened up the forum to those in attendance, asking them what they think needs to be done to help solve the D.C. criminal justice system's race and gender problem. One citizen gained many cheers and claps for calling out Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier. "You need to get rid of Cathy Lanier," he said. "She puts road blocks in Trinidad, but she wouldn't dare put those same road blocks in Georgetown."

Perhaps the most cheers and claps of the evening came from another citizen who, while admitting that the marijuana decriminalization bill is a step in the right direction, the problem lives within the training of police officers and the lack of any sort of public oversight. "There needs to be a public oversight committee," he said, "so that the police will actually have to listen and answer to the wishes of the public."

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