With my last commentary of 2017, I want to take a few minutes to highlight some very hard fought victories we had this year around the issue of criminal justice reform.
Listen, 2017 was a rough year. As of this morning, an astounding 1,173 people have been killed by American police. That’s 20 more than last year with a few days left to go in the year. With Donald Trump as President and Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, what seemed like some real bi-partisan momentum on criminal justice reform has pretty much screeched to a grinding halt on the national level, but many very important victories have still been won on the state and local level.
And you’re going to hear me lead with that message a lot in 2018. We can win locally. We can win city by city and can even win meaningful reforms in many states across the country. We have to focus. We have to have a good game plan that everybody understands. We have to be organized. And we have to put some money and resources behind our efforts, but we can win locally.
Now let me tell you about 5 important victories of 2017 on criminal justice reform.
- At the beginning of this year, only 2 states in the country continued to prosecute children as adults for all crimes – New York & North Carolina. Through a very hard fought battle, New York became the 49th state to raise the minimum age of adult prosecution and North Carolina, kicking and screaming, finally became the final state to follow suit. The laws are not perfect, but activists in New York & North Carolina fought hard for this reform and won.
Our listeners right here on the Tom Joyner Morning Show made a real difference with this.
- New York announced that it is going to close Rikers Island – which is one of the most notorious jails in all of America. A blue ribbon panel of experts was formed to figure out how the systemic violence and abuses could be fixed at Rikers Island and to the surprise of many, the panel came back with the conclusion that Rikers Island cannot be repaired. It is beyond repair. Violence and corruption are baked into its very DNA. The panel concluded that Rikers must be shut down and something more humane and just must be built in its place. That conclusion, which many thought would never come, should happen to many jails and prisons across the country. And it’s not just about the quality of the facility, it’s about the rules, the systems, and the people.
- Two amazing District Attorneys were elected. First, Larry Krasner, who has sued the Philadelphia Police Department over 75 times, and is a national voice on criminal justice reform, was elected DA of Philadelphia and begins his work next week. It’s a huge deal in a city in desperate need of reform on criminal justice. We should run men and women like Krasner all over the country. Secondly, Stephanie Morales, one of the only DA’s in the entire country to charge and convict a police officer for murder, was reelected in Portsmouth, Virginia. Portsmouth is a small city, but her election was essential because people have said a DA could never convict a cop and win reelection. She did just that.
- Several states, including California, have not just decriminalized marijuana possession, they’ve started to establish programs to expunge previous marijuana convictions. This programs are just getting started. They are currently too slow and complicated, but they are there. We must fight to make this process simple and universal and automatic so that in a state that decriminalizes marijuana possession, people who were previously convicted should simply have their record for that expunged in one fell swoop without having to jump through 1,001 hoops to get it done.
- As you can imagine, Mississippi and Alabama don’t have great records when it comes to criminal justice reform, but in the largest cities in those two states, Jackson in Mississippi and Birmingham in Alabama, two young black men who each pledged to make criminal justice reform a real part of their platform were elected mayor in those cities. Chokwe Lumumba, who is just 34, was elected Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi and has openly declared that he aims to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” Randall Woodfin, who is just 36, and was my classmate at Morehouse, became the youngest mayor ever elected in Birmingham. Woodfin, like Lumumba, aims to not just change policing in his city, but to address the root causes of crime and despair like education, jobs, housing, health, and so much more.
And I’ll close this morning with this thought. We have power. When we focus our energy and our influence, we can dismantle systems, we can replace corrupt and bigoted politicians, and we can build the change we want to see in the world. I love and appreciate you all! Have a happy new year and I can’t wait to get back to work with you in 2018!
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