With a history lesson connecting the dots between the U.S. slave economy and wealth generated from today’s prison system, author, writer and Columbia University Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism William Jelani Cobb headlined a Critical Conversation on Justice Reform. The event was hosted Sun., Oct. 21, in Basking Ridge, N.J. by Greater Essex County Chapter (GECC) of Jack and Jill of America, Inc., the nation’s oldest and largest organization of African American Mothers.
Building on Cobb’s comments, Office of the Appellate Defender Attorney-in-Charge Christina Swarns gave examples of current injustices in the legal system. Recounting her experience while serving as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), she shared the story of Duane Buck. In a one-on-one conversation with session moderator Crystal McCrary, CEO/President, Crystal McCrary Productions, Swarns explained how LDF got involved in Buck’s case after learning the Texas man had been sentenced to death when a defense-hired psychologist said being black made him more likely to be a danger to society. Swarns walked the audience through the long road of fighting for Buck’s life, which ultimately resulted in a 6-2 Supreme Court decision that overturned his death sentence, recognizing that introducing racial bias into his sentencing hearing was unconstitutional.
As the conversation transitioned to the future of the U.S. criminal and youth justice systems, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP) CEO Jeff Fleischer talked about YAP’s 43-year track record of providing programs that serve as an alternative to youth incarceration and other out-of-home placements. “What do we owe our kids? When a kid walks into a courtroom, we owe it to them to be with them, to walk with them to counter the bias that makes a black kid 30 times more likely to be incarcerated in New Jersey than white youth. We owe it to them to stop using prisons,” said Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. CEO Jeff Fleischer, responding to a question posed to participants of a panel tackling issues related to the future of criminal and youth justice. “We need to invest in communities. We owe our young people justice. We owe it to every kid to help them reach their full potential.”
YAP hires Advocates who provide intensive mentorship and empower youth and families with tools that connect them with community resources that help them succeed.
Joining Fleischer on the panel were Girls for Gender Equity Director of Policy and Government Relations Ashley C. Sawyer, City of New York Kings County Acting Supreme Court Justice Dena Douglas and New Jersey State Parole Board Senior Parole Officer (Ret.) Tamaira Wilkes.
“The GECC Critical Conversation is similar to those taking place in the homes of African Americans throughout the nation,” said Greater Essex County Chapter President Carolyn Minick Mason, Esq. “What made this one unique is that it gave all of us, including our children, an opportunity to hear the diverse opinions of influencers – judges, probation professionals, civil rights lawyers, activists and nonprofit leaders in the fight for prison reform.”
GECC plans to host continued conversations on issues impacting youth in the U.S., particularly those that have a disproportionate impact on children of color.
“Jack and Jill of America nurtures African American leaders by strengthening children through leadership development, volunteer service, philanthropic giving and civic duty,” said GECC Legislative Chair Marie McGehee. “We are very pleased the GECC members’ children and their friends were actively engaged in the Conversation, along with area business leaders, elected officials and noted scholars. Jeff was great and I’m happy his participation exposed us all to an organization that knows firsthand there are effective alternatives to youth incarceration.”
To help advance the important work of criminal justice reform, a portion of the proceeds from the event will be donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., in addition to the Jack and Jill of America Foundation.