National News

Mandatory sentencing, wrongful convictions and Black demands for criminal justice reform

By Michael Z. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Sep 18, 2019 - 9:29:05 AM

What's your opinion on this article?

WASHINGTON—Rep. Maxine Waters hosted an exciting, timely workshop during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference at the Washington Convention Center. “Reclaiming My Time.

Rep. Maxine Waters
From Incarceration to Exoneration: Examining the Consequences of a Broken Criminal Justice System” focused on the devastating consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing, wrongful conviction and the need for criminal justice reform.

Participants argued the criminal justice system has been used a tool for suppression going back to slavery.

Featured panelists included former victims of the system with moderator Kemba Smith and panelists Obie Anthony, Yusef Salaam, and Kory Wise. Ms. Smith was a victim of mandatory minimum sentencing when she was given 24 years in prison in 1994. She was charged with participating in her boyfriend’s illegal drug activities. She had no prior criminal record, was a college student, and seven months pregnant. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the court was unable to consider that Ms. Smith had been part of her boyfriend’s illegal activities out of fear for her life. After spending six and half years in prison, she was granted clemency in December 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton. She told the audience her life’s mission is to help others come home. “I want to humanize the problem,” she said. Ms. Smith called Congress-women Waters “our champion” in this fight.

In recounting her story, Ms. Smith reminded the audience that there was no social media at the time. Advocacy on her behalf came from her parents and Emerge magazine, a Black monthly led by the late Black journalist George Curry who championed her story. “What has now emerged is a community of leaders such as our panelists,” she stated. “It’s a trauma-informed leadership reeducating the public and changing the mindset on deincarceration education.”

Ms. Smith pointed out that the panelists were all wrongly incarcerated—they were jailed but committed no crimes.

Mr. Anthony, founder and director of the Exonerated Nation program, shared how he was sentenced to life without parole plus 50 years. He served 17 years in prison before being freed in 2011. Mr. Anthony was wrongfully incarcerated on murder and armed robbery charges in 1996 at the age of 19. No physical evidence tied him to the crimes.

During his presentation, he highlighted the epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct. After 10 years of incarceration, evidence emerged that the police and district attorney fabricated an eyewitness account in the case, leading to his eventual release.

Mr. Anthony also stressed the need for support services for exonerees. “In California, at the time of my release there were no services,” he said. “No services, no one to talk too, no mental health services.”

Mr. Anthony was instrumental in passage of California Assembly Bill No. 672, nicknamed “Obie’s Law.” The bill requires the California Department of Corrections to assist exonerees with transitional services, including housing assistance, job training, and mental health services.

“I was kidnapped,” said Korey Wise during his brief presentation. Mr. Wise was part of the Central Park Five now known as the Exonerated Five. He was arrested in 1989 at age 16, tried as an adult, and served 14 years for rape and assault in the infamous Central Park Jogger case. What was most compelling in Mr. Wise’s case was his vulnerability. He struggled with hearing issues and a learning disability. Mr. Wise also received the most time of the five Black and Latino young men jailed for a crime they did not commit.

That didn’t destroy him however. “We made it,” Mr. Wise told the audience. “We were down now we are up.” Mr. Wise still lives in New York City where he works as a public speaker and criminal justice activist. In 2015, he donated $190,000 to the University of Colorado’s chapter of the Innocence Project, which then changed its name to the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law in his honor.

The most articulate panelist was Yusef Salaam, who was also convicted in Central Park 5 case. “The population in the prison industrial complex now is overwhelmingly Black and Brown,” he said. “Slavery was morphed into the 13th amendment.” While the U.S. Constitution outlaws slavery, the 13th allows for involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.

Mr. Salaam described egregious prosecutorial misconduct in his case. He said he served seven years in jail as a result. “You need to understand what the criminal system of injustice is all about,” he said, holding up a copy of an ad published by Donald Trump two weeks after the boys were arrested for the heinous assault on a White jogger. In the newspaper ad, Mr. Trump, then a prominent real estate developer, called for New York to return to the death penalty in the Central Park jogger case. “There is no due process,” he said. “They wanted to do to us the same thing that was done to Emmett Till.” A Chicago teenager who went South to visit relatives, 14-year-old Till was brutally beaten and murdered by Whites in Money, Miss., and his death helped ignite the modern civil rights movement.

Mr. Salaam shared how he and others wrongfully convicted were barraged with hate mail. “They want to make people fear, it’s an old game. Remember you were born on purpose with a purpose,” he told the audience. In this case, justice system failures allowed the real perpetrator of the crime to commit more crimes, Mr. Salaam noted. The story of the Exonerated 5 has been captured in the Netflix series, “When They See Us.”

Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow and is morphing old slave and slavery practices into a new system, he warned. Ms. Smith, closing the workshop, asked the audience to consider the toll mass incarceration takes on the Black community. There is a psychological impact where Blacks are socialized to function in jail rather than in society, causing them to return time and time again, she said. “Consider the destruction it causes to the Black family. In reality, they don’t want us to survive. They don’t care. Think of the billions spent on prisons being redirected to education and health care for the Black community and the change it would cause. They spend more money on prisons than education.” In the upcoming election, at the forefront of the Black agenda, should be reform of the criminal justice system. We need African American warriors to come forth and help, a cadre of Black lawyers who are willing to sacrifice and help those wrongfully incarcerated,” she said.

Meka Phillips, of the World Youth Foundation out of Houston, Texas, felt the workshop was excellent. “I thought it was informative for the youth to be able to listen to the stories, to see the positive outcomes. For me, the discussion about the need for bold community involvement was especially interesting. Things as simple as participating in jury duty,” she said.