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Intellectual Honesty about Race and Criminal Justice Reform

Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. | NNPA News Wire | 7/26/2016, 9:49 a.m.
There is an old adage that posits “The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same.” Once ...

There is an old adage that posits “The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same.” Once again, millions of Americans are engulfed in what has become a reluctant national debate and dialogue concerning race and the urgency to reform the nation's criminal justice system. Finding and identifying transformative remedies and solutions are long overdue.

In the wake of the most recent fatal tragedies in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, there are renewed fervent calls for improving relations between police officers and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. I believe these calls are being made in earnest, seeking conclusive change.

However, the underlying systemic reasons why these and other tragedies continue to happen are somehow routinely avoided. There is a pervasive fear to speak and articulate the truth about race and the institutionalized devolving impact of racism on all levels of the criminal justice system.

To put it bluntly, there is too much intellectual dishonesty concerning the historical and contemporary role of race in America. In particular we need more intellectual honesty about why and how real reform of the criminal justice system should be achieved.

We need remedies that actually work to enable and to empower people to improve their quality of life without the debilitating and too often death-rendering consequences of a broken criminal justice system. Mass incarceration, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial inequality, racial profiling, and police brutality are all interrelated and interconnected in the counterproductive web of the system named criminal justice.

It is a system that lacks honesty, truth and integrity. Yet, my purpose here is to go beyond merely joining the public chorus that bemoans the prolonged contradictions of this failed social system. I know that there are some preventative programs and initiatives that are producing positive results about which more people should be made aware.

Criminal justice reform requires the coordinated and combined efforts and support of principled leaders in the private sector along with government officials, community organizations, and family members who are impacted. We should also acknowledge that poverty and economic insecurity feeds the pipeline to the jails and prisons in the United States.

Acquiring a good education and training that provide a means of generating a sustainable income are also key factors that are necessary, if reform of our system of justice is to be productive. Last year in Baton Rouge, ironically, I was pleased to be on a panel about criminal justice reform at the 57th national convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We discussed the need for re-entry programs for the thousands of ex-offenders who are returning to our communities across the nation.

One such program I want to highlight, Project JumpStart in Baltimore, Md., is an effective and efficient model to reforming an important aspect of the criminal justice system: offender re-entry workforce development. The construction trades are a growing skilled-workers industry in most urban areas where there are high-paying job opportunities.

JumpStart is Baltimore's premier construction training program. It is a 14-week skills training program in plumbing, carpentry and the electrical trade. Trainees also receive financial literacy coaching as well as practical courses in mathematics as it relates to the construction industry. Most importantly more than 70 percent of the JumpStart trainees actually go on to attain apprenticeships, licenses, and high-wage jobs.