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Wednesday, February 1, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jordan Uhl
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On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2017, the Mid-Atlantic Black Law Students Association gathered prominent panelists from the Washington Metropolitan area to discuss Criminal Justice and the Interplay of Race and the Law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC-DCSL).

The discussion was particularly appropriate on MLK Day as it provided both evidence of how far we have yet to travel to fulfill Dr. King’s dream and, more disturbingly, how much farther from full justice and equality we may fall under a Trump/Sessions administration.

The speakers included Professor Angela Davis from American University Washington College of Law, Professor Andrew Ferguson from UDC-DCSL, Associate Professor Vida Johnson from Georgetown University Law Center, and Professor Byron Franklin, who is an adjunct professor at University of Baltimore School of Law and Coppin State University and a nationally-recognized expert on race and the law. Additionally, Dorian Spence, Counsel, Voting Rights Project at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Professor John Brittain of UDC-DCSL gave comments.

Professor Davis explained that as awful on matters of criminal justice the Trump administration may prove, over 90% of criminal prosecutions and sentencing occur outside the federal context.  And there, Professor Davis noted, activists and lawyers can make a difference.   She reminded all of the stunning victories “progressive” prosecutorial candidates had in the last election, throwing out of office some of the most conservative and punitive district attorneys in the country.  To further promote criminal justice reforms, she urged we focus on our local, elected prosecutors.

Professor Ferguson had a different emphasis.  He pointed out that for the last few years of the Obama Administration, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) actively inserted itself into matters of importance in the criminal justice arena – investigating the Chicago and Baltimore Police Departments, condemning the system that exploited people of color and poor people in Ferguson, Missouri, and filing multiple letters of interests that resulted in consent decrees favorable for indigent criminal defendants.  Professor Ferguson asserted that part of the crisis in the criminal justice system is as much one of culture as one of law and that while the “real, practical” effect of those DOJ efforts may have been disappointing, there was value and merit in the federal government expressly stating that police departments should not kill their citizens of color and that they are being watched.  Under this incoming administration, in his opinion, the message is already very different to police: “Do whatever you want; you have no fear from us.”

Professor Johnson provided balance between the preceding panelists.  She asserted that the change in administrations will cause great danger to criminal justice reform that occurred during the Obama Administration.  However, she also noted that lawyers—specifically in well-funded and trained public defender offices could provide the “pushback” to forestall disaster in the next four years. 

Attorney Spence provided an overview of preclearance and the effects of Shelby County v. Holder, how voting rights have changed in the wake of the opinion specifically with the elimination of preregistration for 16/17 year-olds and voter purges in North Carolina and Ohio—two pivotal swing states.

Prof. Brittain gave background on Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, her conservative causes, how she has supported state funding for charter and parochial schools and efforts to deregulate the federal education bureaucracy.

Finally, Professor Franklin challenged our assumptions about the incoming administration.  He noted that the Obama Administration, and Democratic administrations before him, were responsible for some of the more regressive criminal justice policies.  Professor Franklin also noted that at least the Trump administration states its intentions upfront; prior Democratic administrations would surreptitiously impose regressive legislation.  This perspective/argument elicited an immediate response from Professor Davis, who recounted hearing this argument on earlier occasions and rejected any attempts to ascribe equality between the two.


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