A couple of civic conversations on crime last week couldn’t have been timelier. They took place in the aftermath of the dismaying eruption of violence and destruction in Baltimore, the latest flash point in what President Barack Obama called “a slow-rolling crisis” of conflict between police and primarily African-American communities.
So Baltimore — along with Ferguson, Mo., and other embattled cities — was one subtext of the Village Square’s “Race and Justice” events. The panel discussions coursed over history and dealt frankly with race-based complications the nation faces in policing, the criminal justice system and the general social fabric.
The good news is that solving some of these issues has become a bipartisan effort. Leading conservatives and liberals agree the current system is “a human, social and financial disaster,” as Newt Gingrich and Van Jones put it in an essay for CNN.
Yet, some highlights of this week’s programs suggest the enormous amount of work that must be accomplished in pursuit of a more fair and equitable society.
▪ The nation must deal with the disparities that cause black men to make up 6 percent of the nation’s population but 37 percent of the prison population. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and other get-tough measures of recent decades have contributed to the imbalance.
Closer to home, Missouri’s prison population more than tripled, to more than 31,000 inmates, in a recent 25-year period.
A major challenge is deciding that the criminal justice system is not capable and should not be responsible for solving socio-economic issues such as drug addiction, mental illness and inadequate parenting.
“The criminal justice system winds up being the repository to fix it all,” David Bell, a Kansas City defense attorney said, “but it’s not set up for that.”
Drug courts as well as diversion, treatment and re-entry programs can help. But we also have to look at law enforcement on the front end. Done the wrong way, it targets and traps citizens of color and of little means, with no positive effect on public safety.
▪ Police departments, courts and prosecutors’ offices need to be more focused on recruiting, training and promoting minority citizens.
A system that looks more like the population would represent a significant step forward in community relations.
▪ The criminal justice system must do a better job understanding and reducing the cycle of woe that can result when low-income working people are jailed for the inability to pay a parking ticket or lose a drivers license. This kind of enforcement traps people in poverty and affects entire families and communities.
▪ The ability to expunge one’s record after a reasonable period of punishment for certain non-violent crimes and first-time offenders can help open the door to the job market and other economic opportunities.
Kansas does this better than Missouri. Fortunately, a coalition of defense lawyers and prosecutors is working to change Missouri’s law for the better. Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, who worked on the effort and spoke at the lunchtime panel, said he hopes the General Assembly will take up a bill next year.
These Village Square events are meant to bring together divergent voices and political views in an atmosphere of civil conversation. There was remarkably little disagreement expressed in the conversations, and a consensus that real action needed to occur. It’s especially encouraging that presidential candidates from both parties have put sentencing and prison reform in their stump speeches.