U.S. justice system does what it was designed to do: lock up people of color

Metro State forum examined prospects for prison reform

Can the current U.S. criminal justice system be reformed? This and other questions were recently discussed at a half-day forum at St. Paul’s Metropolitan State University. No easy answers were forthcoming.

(l-r) V.J. Smith and Jason Sole
(l-r) V.J. Smith and Jason Sole

The school’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Club and Alcohol and Drug Counseling Student Association (ADCSA) co-sponsored “Understanding and Responding to Mass Incarceration: What Does Reform Look Like?” April 14, where nearly 150 participants, which included 20 middle-school students from Southside Family Charter School, took part in “multiple facilitated discussions” at the school’s Great Hall.

This year’s forum’s main purpose was to get people talking about mass incarceration, noted David Starks, who was one of the forum organizers. “We had a good turnout [last year], but we had too many speakers and we didn’t get a chance to have these long conversations that we are having [this year],” he recalled.

Therissa Libby, the program coordinator for Metro State’s alcohol and drug counseling master’s degree program, said it helped connect her students with community people and law enforcement types. “Some of our students are younger and some are older, [but] they all are coming into a profession that they care about — law enforcement, alcohol and drug counseling, human services or whatever that is,” she explained.

“We want our students engaged in the community, to be engaged in advocacy and activism because the need is so great, but also because we want them to understand that is part of their professional obligation.”

About one-fourth of the world’s prison population is locked up in the United States, which “overwhelmingly impacts people of color,” stated Metro State Provost Ginny Arthur during her opening remarks.

Later, when a female participant asked during the morning panel discussion if the current criminal justice system is broken, Jason Sole, a Metro State law enforcement and criminal justice faculty member, responded, “The system is working. You look at the sentencing disparities, and there are more of us [Blacks] and minority people who end up in the prisons. You look at the prison system — they don’t rehabilitate you. You have over-policing, then you have a court system that’s flawed. The system is working exactly as it is designed [to work].”

Sole, Minneapolis MADDADS President V.J. Smith, Minneapolis police officer Eddie Frizell, Lawrence Hart of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, and St. Cloud State Criminal Justice Professor Mary Clifford were panelists.

(l-r) Mary Clifford, Minneapolis Police Officer Eddie Frizell and Lawrence Hart
(l-r) Mary Clifford, Minneapolis Police Officer Eddie Frizell and Lawrence Hart

“It’s so easy to be critical of the criminal justice system,” said Sole, who once served time in prison. The school-to-prison pipeline begins when students are suspended from school for behavioral concerns, or teachers begin to report such students for behavioral concerns. “Now they end up in the criminal justice system,” he pointed out.

“A lot of this is based on who are the easiest people we can get into the system,” he continued. “It’s easy to get Blacks [and other people of color] and place them in the criminal justice system… This isn’t about crime and justice. This system is so sophisticated that people can’t see what’s actually happening.”

Sole explained the “just lock them up” mentality that exists in the criminal justice system today when he talked to the MSR during a break. “When you look at the system, you can’t just look at it from a ‘they did a crime so they have to go to jail’ [point of view],” he said. “You look at our courts system and it’s based on who has the best lawyers and not based on justice at all. If I can afford a high-priced lawyer, most likely I will get a more favorable outcome. It’s all based on economics.”

Clifford noted a key point in the recent U.S. Justice Department report on Ferguson, Missouri was that “Ferguson constructed a system based on the exploitation of the poorest of people in that [city]. How do we effect change among the people with the least amount of power and the least amount of resources in the way that we structure power?”

“Just because three Black males are standing on the corner doesn’t mean they are selling dope,” said Frizell of police officers who are not culturally competent making erroneous assumptions. “Just because a group of Blacks are sitting on the porch of someone’s house on a Sunday afternoon doesn’t mean there is [going to be violence].”

Smith added that little is actually done to rehabilitate prisoners. “Then when you come out, you go back into that situation. They can’t go [anywhere] without seeing someone [who is in a gang]. The enemy is always around. There’s no money to send these young men to another city. There’s no programs that are designed [to help them].”

A Black woman participant stood up and admitted, “I too was incarcerated, and I am not a gangster or a thug. I am a Black woman who came out [of prison] with the clothes on my back and my personality. There is so much need for support out here, and it’s really hard to try and get a second chance. My past does not dictate what I am today.”

“I think it is ridiculous that we incarcerate people and ask them to come out and do the right thing,” said Smith. “But we won’t open the door to them to do the right thing. We allow them to keep going through that revolving door. These are people who have talents…and they want the ability to do right. But we won’t give them that opportunity because they are on probation, because they have been incarcerated before.”

“Housing is huge” for former inmates after they are released, said Hart, pointing out, “It is really hard for them to get a decent place to live” once it’s learned that they have served time in jail. His department has been out finding housing owners who are willing to rent to former inmates and compiling a list to make available to inmates released from Dakota County Jail.

“We are not investing” in former offenders, said Smith, calling them “a surplus in our community. The people who can help solve our problems are shunned. The folk who could really do the work in our communities don’t get a chance. We have to change that.”

Southside Family Charter School Teacher Susan Oppenheim, who brought 20 of her students to the forum, told the MSR, “For my kids to be able to sit at tables and listen and interact with people who have been speaking on this for a long time and people who are knowledgeable, and people with all different opinions, that’s enormous.”

“I am very pleased that they could come from their school to be involved with this,” said Libby.

The student participants are still compiling the action steps produced in the discussions, concluded Starks, who added, “We have to be accountable to each other to see that these [action] steps” are being followed through.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.