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Television Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/video/2016/02/the-justice-experience-of-black-men-and-boys/
Nancy Ware: Hello, and welcome to D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Nancy Ware. We have a very special program for you today. We will be discussing the justice experience of black men and boys from a congressional view, which we’ll provide an opportunity for two members of the U.S. House of Representatives to address one of the most important issues facing the country. Also discussed will be efforts to assist people with skills and programs to successfully re-enter society from prison.
I am honored to have with us today the honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia and the honorable Danny K. Davis from Chicago, Illinois, who are the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys, and true leaders of change within the justice system. As you know, we’ve had a lot of discussions across the nation about what’s been happening with black men and boys related to Ferguson, New York, and other parts of the country, so I want to ask you to talk a little bit about the mission and creation of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys. And we can start off with Eleanor Holmes Norton. Congresswoman Norton.
Congresswoman Norton: Well, this is, this, we think, is an important development in Congress to focus the entire Congress on this very special issues facing black men and boys across the country. We know that black people generally have issues of their own, but black men and boys have not been given, shall we say, equal treatment. I’ve had a commission on black men and boys in the District of Columbia for more than 10 years, and I have seen how important it has been to bring out issues that simply aren’t being discussed in the public. Because Danny has been a leader in re-entry, and in trying to ameliorate incarceration of black men, we were a perfect partnership when it came to deciding to form the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys.
Congressman Davis: Well, let me just tell you how great of an opportunity it is for me to work with someone who is as esteemed and has such a long history of advocating for the rights of all people, but especially for African Americans, and taken a good look at African American men and boys. This issue is so intricately webbed into the history of our country, and lots of people don’t like to look at it that way. They don’t wanna think that slavery and everything that has happened up to this point is part of the cause, part of the problem, and part of the need. So, working with Delegate Norton is just great because she has those kind of insights and know what it takes, and we are having some good experiences with the African American men and boys and with other entities really, that are emerging and developing and are part of this movement.
Nancy Ware: And it is a movement, and I wanna just also second the fact that you’ve brought this conversation to Washington D.C., Congresswoman Norton, in terms of pulling together a network of men and boys and women to discuss, you know, the ever-increasing domination, unfortunately, or disproportionate confinement of men and boys in our prison system, and under the criminal justice system at large. Can you talk, both of you, either one of you, talk a little bit about the mission and the creation of the Caucus on Black Men and Boys?
Congressman Davis: Well, I think the mission is to create an environment and an atmosphere at the highest level of thinking in our country so that issues surrounding the why, why are there so many African American men and boys who get caught up in the criminal justice system? Why is the treatment so disparate? So different? How do we have justice when in so many instances, people end up spelling it just us? I mean, when you go to certain kinds of judicial proceedings, even if it’s traffic court in many places, it is just us. If you go to child support court, it is just us. When I visit penitentiaries and jails, as I do often, every Christmas for the last 20 years I’ve gone to the Cook County jail to visit with the inmates, and I can tell you, it’s generally just us.
Nancy Ware: That’s a good point. I know that you’ve definitely, Congresswoman Norton, been focused a lot on some of the institutional issues that face black men and boys going into the criminal justice system. Do you wanna speak a little bit about how that has influenced this movement of sorts?
Congresswoman Norton: Certainly, and first of all, we, our own Commission on Black Men and Boys in the District began with a commission consisting of black men who have credibility in the African American community, and we decide which kinds of issues are cresting in the community and need discussion, but before we get to the notion of incarceration, we’ve got to get to why black men, black boys, and notice it’s called Black Men and Boys, both in Congressional Caucus and our own local Caucus, it’s ’cause you gotta begin with boys, and because you see these disproportions from the earliest years. You see them in
drop-outs. You see them before drop-out. You see them in suspensions. You finally have come to a point in our country where there is a huge disproportion in almost every phase of life between black men and black women, for example, in those who finish high school, in those who finish middle school, in those who go to college. You’re going to have a people where, as we finally see, marriage becomes less often. Because if you have black women who’ve finished high school, going to college, and you have black men who got cut off somehow in the early years of life, you are not gonna have marriages of a kind that have been traditionally in the African American community. So this runs up and down the line, and by the time you get to a young man, then the notion of whether he can remain out of prison. For example, just let me give you the latest situation in the District, I’ve gone around fighting now, because the Council of the District of Columbia passed a bill to legalize marijuana. Now, nobody wants anybody to smoke dope, even these weeds. Of course, people tend to outgrow marijuana. But why did they pass that? Unlike in the four western states that have passed similar laws, they passed it because of two independent studies that show that blacks and whites in this town, and by the way, throughout the United States, use marijuana at the same rate, and the
progressive District of Columbia, 90% of those who are arrested are African Americans, and most of them are African American men or boys. Now, think of it. You are now 18 years old. Your drug conviction is for a small possession of a small amount of marijuana. On your record, when you go to apply for a job, you have a drug conviction. You have black skin. Forget about that job. That then sentences you, if you will forgive the use of a word, I think it’s apropos here, to the underground economy, or worse, unemployment. And we wonder why our jails are just us, Danny.
Congressman Davis: Oh, no doubt about it, and there are just so many factors which contribute. I mean, we still have the problem of parents too soon. That is, of young individuals who aren’t ready for parenting to continue to produce children. We have the enormous problem of poverty. We have a lack of opportunity. For example, I cite the fact that finding an African American male teacher in early childhood education is practically nonexistent, and so many boys grow up, for example, with the idea that education is a girl, female, kind of thing, and so by the time they’re third grade, many of them have sort of decided that this formal education thing is not for them. That becomes another factor, and so we have to find a way to cure
that element of causation.
Nancy Ware: Those are really cross-cutting issues and cross-cutting concerns that are often overlooked by, you know, the general population. People don’t always appreciate the gateways to the criminal justice system for men and boys, particularly African American men and boys. So that’s quite a big charge that you have ahead of you for the Caucus to embrace, for public policy to begin to speak to. Are there any policies, specific issues that you wanna present to our audience that you’ve begun to see coming out of the Caucus?
Congressman Davis: Well, one of the things that we recognize is that, if individuals, say for example those who’ve been incarcerated, once they get ready to return, if they receive assistance, if they receive help, that will have a great impact on whether or not they go back, which means that one of the first things that you can really do is try and reduce recidivism for those who have already done, what society calls, offended in some kind of way. So if you can keep them from going back, that’s going to help reduce the numbers who are incarcerated. It’s also going to help them become productive citizens so that they can get a job, they can earn money, they can pay taxes, they can become contributing members of society.
Nancy Ware: Well, you have both been powerful role models for the nation in terms of this issue. Are there any things that you think our viewers should consider in terms of supporting the work that you’ve done? You spoke about the hard work that you’ve done in the District of Columbia, and across the country, quite frankly. Are there things that you’d like our viewers to hear that you’d like us to consider?
Congresswoman Norton: Well there is a hunger for people to participate in this work, and one of the things we wanna do with the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys is to encourage communities to do what we’re doing. First, to air the issues. Some of these issues are painful to air, but if black people step up and air them, then the community is very much open to hearing them, and then you can work on remedies. But if you won’t even talk about them, such as the kinds of discussions we have in forms of the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys, then of course, they disappear, they don’t exist.
Congressman Davis: Everybody can help. I think that’s the key. Churches, organizations, groups, fraternities, sororities, every kind of group you can mention actually has the potential of helping with this process.
Nancy Ware: Well, I wanna thank you both. We’re going to take a brief break from our first segment and we’ll be moving into our next segment in just a few moments. So thank you both, and we’ll take a break now.
Nancy Ware: Welcome back to the D.C. Public Safety show. I’m your host, Nancy Ware, from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia. We have today the honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton and the honorable Danny K. Davis, and they’re back with us on the second half of our show as we discuss the justice experience of black men and boys from a congressional view. A separate topic of prison re-entry will be our focus for the second half. I’d like to start with talking about the needs of juveniles within the justice system and why that’s important to the two of you.
Congresswoman Norton: There’s beginning to be some horrific exposure of what happens to juveniles in the justice system. For example, we know that solitary confinement is, should be forbidden for adults. Now we’re finding that it happens, some of the time, for children. If a child gets into the criminal justice system, you have a magic moment to make sure that child does not progress in that system the way he progresses in school. But I’m afraid juvenile justice systems too often become escalators to the next segment of criminal life for a child, ’cause it usually means there’s been some family disruption, some failures in the community that led this child into the juvenile justice system.
Nancy Ware: And it’s a pretty challenging issue. Congressman Davis?
Congressman Davis: Of course, in some jurisdictions court systems have come up with programs to avert or to keep individuals out of incarcerated situations to the highest level that they can. That is, finding alternatives to incarceration, and those work quite well where judicial systems have made a determination to really do it, and so we have to prevent to the extent possible our young people from getting into the culture of incarceration. I mean, things that you learn there, in many instances, just causes them, when they get out, if they get out, to be in worse shape than they were when they went in. So I think there has to be a comprehensive approach to the extent that they can be developed, and I think all units of government,
that is, from the municipal level, to the county, to the state, to the federal level, have to put resources into activities. If there is no money, there is no fund, and if you don’t put in resources for programatic efforts, then they’re not going to take place and you’re just going to see the continuation of what we see now, and that has to stop because it’s non-productive, it costs money, and it creates more reliance on a prison or incarcerated system rather than having people be out learning to be productive citizens.
Nancy Ware: And both of you have touched on some of the indicators that often lead young men, and particularly juveniles, into the justice system, such as educational deficits, mental health issues and challenges, economics. Can you speak a little bit about what you see as some of the remedies for addressing some of those issues?
Congresswoman Norton: Well it’s no accident that those who most often find themselves in the criminal justice system are among the poorest in the country. And by the way, it’s been that way when there were immigrants in this country, it’s that way now, when you have black and brown people in the system. So you’ve got to look at who your population is and while they’re in this system where they, I must say, tragically may have resources that they will not even have in the community. It seems
to me those, you’ve got to take advantage of that period, but the notion of diversion that Danny was talking about is so very important, but you don’t want to divert ’em back into what may be the kinda culture that brought them to the attention of the authorities in the first place. So, how do you divert children so that when they just begin to surface in the criminal justice system you’re able to guide them away? I mean, this a very complicated issue because they’re not moving out of that community. They’re not moving out of poverty. Takes a lot of social work, and yes, a lot of surrounding of resources from various segments of government itself.
Congressman Davis: We know that political advocacy is always appropriate and greatly in need, and political types do that, but then there are things that others can do. I mean, one church, one family. One church, one child. One Boy Scout. I mean, Boy Scouts is a way if we can get young, I advocate that there ought to be a Boy Scout troop on every block. On every block. That boys should be able to get that experience. But you’ve gotta have mentors. You must have volunteers. And so people who don’t wanna get their hands and feet and their minds dirty doing politics, they can do other things. They don’t necessarily just have to do the hard-nosed political work. They can be engaged at their own level of comfort, and that helps. You can’t measure how much mentoring actually will help young people.
Nancy Ware: And I’ve seen that work, but I have to say that it is really a tribute to both of you to have you as advocates on the political level because leadership is so critical and bringing this issue to the forefront is so critical because otherwise there wouldn’t be the kinds of discussions that we’re having today, which you mentioned earlier. And so, I don’t wanna underplay the importance of that political advocacy in kinda guiding people towards some of those remedies that you discussed. Are there programs in particular in prison that you’d like to see increased? Things that you think while people are imprisoned, either in the juvenile system or the adult system, that you think would help to increase opportunities once people are released?
Congressman Davis: There are indeed. Of course, once again, it becomes this question of putting resources in place and not cutting everything to the bone. I mean, we’ve seen over the last several years, I can think of programs that used to exist where individuals, for example, who were incarcerated, all they could actually earn college degrees, they could come out with, you know, skills that had been developed, and then we go into this business of cut, cut, cut, cut, and you don’t have those resources in play and in place, so we have to be smart in terms of what it is that we fund and where we place money, and we can’t take the idea that these individuals are going to somehow or another emerge as good, solid citizens without the help that need to be provided.
Nancy Ware: Are you beginning to see these kinds of reforms taking place?
Congresswoman Norton: There’s a very important period of reform emerging now. It’s led by the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, who was of course U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. You see him beginning what is real reform it seems to me. For example, in this leadership that is producing a cut-reduction in the sentences of low, of those who are incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes, so we’ve had the over-incarceration of African American men that they’re bringing down. We even see some on the Republican side calling for less incarceration and beginning to understand, as Danny says, that
without resources, very little will happen. Now, one of the things that’s driving less incarceration, saves the government money. Fewer people, you know, being held in high-cost prisons, ’cause it’s very costly to keep someone on a daily basis in prison. Now, what Danny and I share, despite the fact that prison systems are state systems, is that all of our constituents in the 50 states and the District of Columbia will be in federal prisons. Now, of all the prisons, of federal prisons, the Bureau of Prison has the best reputation. I would like to see some of the programs of the federal prisons more often in state prisons. For example, one of the things that the United States Congress keeps the Bureau of Prison from doing, state prisons allow, and that is that you cannot get a college degree in a federal prison, though you can in some state prisons. We got
somebody who wants to get a college degree while he’s incarcerated and we’re denying him the opportunity to do that? Now, I’m not sure, Danny, whether you can even get a Pell Grant now when you get out of prison if you’ve been in prison. I know at one point you could not.
Congressman Davis: Depends on the kind of crime that you have been convicted of and all of that. One of the other things I think that I certainly want to commend the Attorney General for has been convening all of the agencies, the departments, of the federal government as part of the implementation of the Second Chance Act for all departments to take a look at what it is they can do. How can they be effectively involved in reducing the prison population? In reducing recidivism? And that’s something that I certainly hope that whoever becomes next will continue that effort because every agency can do a little bit.
Nancy Ware: To help towards…
Congressman Davis: And if you get a lot of people doing a little bit, that becomes a whole lot.
Nancy Ware: That’s true, that’s true. And our agency has been involved in that, so I’ve seen first-hand some of the opportunities for federal agencies to participate in resolving some of these issues. I do want to ask a little bit about what you think we need to think about as we move forward in the correctional arena in terms of addressing some of these areas that you’ve mentioned, substance abuse, I mentioned mental health, economics you talked a little bit about, education, beyond opportunities for folks to get their college education there, are there other things that you can think of that we might wanna push for in our prison systems, and even in our community corrections and under probation?
Congresswoman Norton: Well I think one of the most important things the Bureau of Prisons does, and it doesn’t have enough resources to do it for every incarcerated person, is to help people get rid of and no longer want narcotics. Because one of the first things that will happen, if you go back in the community that you’ve just come from, is you’re exposed to the drug culture. So to the extent that we can wean people off of drugs while they are in prison, we have done a great service to them and to the society to which they are returning.
Congressman Davis: And we know that an ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure, which means that those things that we can do of a preventative nature obviously will reduce the likelihood and the possibility that people will get caught up. One of the things that we’ve been doing lately has been, and it was very pleasant, taking children to actually visit their fathers who were in prison. We did that just before Father’s Day, and it was just a great experience in terms of what individuals themselves feel and can do, and if they’re motivated, stimulated, and activated, yes, there are things that each person can take the responsibility of doing for him or herself, and that does not let society off the hook, but there has to be, and there need to be a partnership existing between the individuals and the systems.
Nancy Ware: And the communities that they come from.
Congresswoman Norton: You have all the things, studies show, of all the things that work in keeping people out of prison, it is providing that kind of relationship with a support system or their own families while they are in prison.
Nancy Ware: Well, I wanna thank both of you, and ladies and gentlemen, I wanna thank you, our viewers, for watching today’s show. Please watch for us. Next time we explore another important topic in today’s criminal justice system. Again, I wanna thank Congresswoman Norton and Congressman Davis for your leadership and guidance in this area. It has been so critical to the African American community and to helping to resolve these issues that are very complex facing men and boys entering the criminal justice system. Again, thank you and have a great day.
Congressman Davis: Thank you.
Congresswoman Norton: Thank you.
Nancy Ware: Thank you very much.