‘Kicking the poor while they’re down’


NAACP-Mpls president Levy-Pounds on the casualties of a failed war on drugs

NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds with her hands up
NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds with her hands up at I-94 protest

Nekima Levy-Pounds, activist and civil rights attorney, is potentially a dangerous individual. Not only is she committed to real social progress but, reminiscent of legendary icon Dick Gregory, she also is showing herself capable of making it happen.

Chair of the Minnesota State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, much of her legal work consists of battling against the odds on behalf of African Americans, particularly young Black men, as co-founder and board chair of Brotherhood, Inc.

Embroiled in the controversial Black Lives Matter demonstration at Mall of America, she recently saw what she refers as “those bogus charges” against her and 10 other organizers dropped in court with a 137-page opinion. As president of the Minneapolis NAACP she is now at the forefront of the North Side protest, demanding information from the Minneapolis police department that explains the death of Jamar Clark, shot by police on Sunday, November 15, and later dying as a result of his injuries.

At the University of St. Thomas Law School, Professor Levy-Pounds serves as the founding director of the award-winning civil rights legal clinic Community Justice Project. Among her own awards are Minnesota Lawyer’s 2014 Attorney of the Year, inaugural recipient of Minnesota Spokesman Recorder’s Launa Q. Newman Community Justice Award, and Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers’ Profile in Courage Award, 2012.

Levy-Pounds (NLP) recently spoke with the MSR on a number of issues, sharing an extensive knowledge of and interest in righting wrongs within the criminal justice system.


MSR: The Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances National Tour came to St. Paul November 3rd. What needs to happen with the war on drugs?

NLP: I’ve written about the Fair Sentencing Act [which in 2010 reduced sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine offenses]. The war on drugs is a significant failure and has harmed many people in communities of color [with] mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. At times the least culpable defendants receive the heaviest punishment.

You have low-level drug dealers or users and women who are dating dealers who wind up facing the harshest penalties, while kingpins are able to serve a reduced time or no time at all [by cooperating] with prosecutors, supplying information about the people they work with.

The system is stacked against the lowest level offenders in a given situation. It’s unconscionable. To spend probably trillions of dollars on the war on drugs is a travesty. Drugs are cheaper, easier to get and more potent than ever. So, what have we gained?

If anything, what we’ve done is that a new generation of African American and Latinos [are involved]. So many poor folks have wound up in the criminal justice system as a result. Root level addiction that got [many] involved is not being resolved.

Such as if someone has a substance abuse problem, they still may not get the treatment they need because of spending priorities at the state legislature, where the focus is more on public safety than preventative measures. If someone sold drugs as result of being in survival mode or to support their addiction, their [being incarcerated for] 10, 15 years is not going to fix that problem. The underlying issue [is] poverty and unemployment. [Incarceration] is going to make it worse with the collateral consequences of a criminal history.

Employers don’t want to hire someone who comes out of prison. Landlords don’t want to rent to them. In a lot of states, including Minnesota, collateral sanctions are written into law that make it impossible for a person with certain conditions to work in a variety of industries.

A person on probation with felonies can’t even vote. This is a way to perpetually punish people for the mistakes they’ve made. We’ve become a society that does not give people second chances.

MSR: Doesn’t the rate of incarceration deliberately benefit companies that build prisons, instead of being about rehabilitation?

NLP: The profit motive [is] connected to prison expansion and the overall growth within our prison system. You have correctional officers who lobby for harsher laws, like the three strikes law. You have the Corrections Corporation of America [“a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers and operates others on a concession basis,” according to their website], known for enticing and wooing legislators to support harsh penalties.

Often the policies [put forth] in the laws have little to do with public safety, but more with longer incarceration. It guarantees prisons being built and employment opportunities within the prison system, not to mention there are plenty of companies that trade prison stocks on Wall Street.

Beyond that, a number of companies benefit off the backs of inmates who do labor for them and make pennies on the dollar, doing a job that could be offered to poor people in communities of color and improving the employment rate but instead [go] to prisoners. [From] large corporations such as Target and others to packaging Sesame Street toys. I’ve seen prisoners packaging anagram balloons.

And prisoners pay a lot of money out of what they make in order to help with the cost of their incarceration, penalties or fines. And they have to purchase necessities at the prison commissary at a high rate. Then [there is] the high cost of phone calls to talk with their loved ones.

They’re essentially kicking the poor while they’re down, who were at or below the poverty line prior to their incarceration. It’s a poor decision to invest in prisons and not in the disparity of education.

MSR: Education?

NLP:  Third-grade reading scores predict the number of prisoners there’ll be in the future. A Black man without a diploma is six times more likely to be locked up than his White counterpart without a high school diploma.

Beyond that we’ve seen jobs leave poor communities to go to other places or leave the country, which leave [alternatives] like the drug game, an underground market increasing the likelihood they will wind up in the criminal justice system.

We’re dealing with folks who very often have little political power and whose voices typically are not heard in society. They’re the ones who are entangled in the system. And it’s happening at a younger and younger age, a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Nowadays, if a kid of color gets in a fight, he can be charged with assault and battery and led away from school in handcuffs. It’s unjust.


For more on and from Nekima Levy-Pounds, visit nekimalevypounds.com.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.