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Decrying Over-Representation of African-Americans in Prisons, Reformers Ask Senate for Changes

Reforming the nation’s ailing criminal justice system can help African-Americans and many of the nation’s youth, whose brushes with the law leave them with bleak futures and few opportunities, a prominent Black legal scholar and other leaders told Congress Thursday.


“There are too many people in prison and too many of them are Black, brown and young,” said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor. “It’s the right time to look at the criminal justice system. It has been a failure,” he told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs.


Ogletree, who taught President Barack Obama at Harvard, said services such as after-school programs and mentoring can go a long way toward keeping youth out of trouble. He even cited the example of his former student, now the president of the United States.


As an African-American male being raised by a single mother, Obama could have faced trouble in his youth, Ogletree said. But mentors and other caring adults played a valuable role. “Mentors kept him in check,” he said.


The Harvard scholar was testifying in support of S. 714, a bill from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that calls for a blue-ribbon panel to review the nation’s criminal justice system. A commission appointed by the president and Congress would spend 18 months studying all facets of the system, including policies on incarceration, parole and prisoner re-entry.


“We find ourselves as a nation in the midst of a profound, deeply corrosive crisis that we have largely been ignoring at our peril,” Webb told the panel. This crisis is particularly hard on African-Americans.


While representing 12 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of monthly drug users, African-Americans are 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges and 59 percent of those convicted on drug charges, he said. They also account for 74 percent of drug offenders sentenced to prison.


The disintegration of this costly system, with a “movement toward mass incarceration,” is affecting millions of lives and destroying neighborhoods and families, Webb said. It also “is not making our country a safer or fairer place,” he added.


Those working in the system also face “dire” conditions, he noted. Inadequate staff training, potentially violent working conditions and high administrator turnover are pressing problems, he said, while prisoners trying to re-enter public life often face daunting career and personal challenges.


A decorated former marine, Webb said his interest in the issue goes back 25 years when, as a journalist, he wrote about Japan’s prison system. The senator said his bill seeks a top-to-bottom review of criminal justice, with goals to:


n       re-focus incarceration policies on criminal activities that threaten public safety;

n       lower the incarceration rate, prioritizing public safety, crime reduction, and fairness;

n        decrease prison violence;

n        improve prison administration;

n       establish meaningful re-entry programs for former offenders;

n       reform drug laws;

n       improve treatment of the mentally ill; and

n       improve responses to international and domestic criminal activity by gangs and cartels.


The Judiciary subcommittee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., is a co-sponsor of Webb’s bill and said he hopes to move it forward this summer.


More information on the proposal, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, is available from the senator’s home page,

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