04/07/14 — Forum on 'prison complex' held

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Forum on 'prison complex' held

By John Joyce
Published in News on April 7, 2014 2:08 PM

The second forum on the "Prison Industrial Complex" put last week by the African-American Caucus of the state Democratic Party drew a much larger crowd than the first forum held in February.

Wayne County Sheriff Larry Pierce and Maj. Fane Greenfield attended, as did Assistant District Attorney Terry Light, who is running for district attorney this fall. Democratic candidate for Sheriff Glenn Barnes also shared a space at the table.

It was District Court Judge Ericka James, however, who took the opportunity to directly address some of the issues raised at the forum.

She said many people she sees in the criminal justice system got started by losing their driver's license and had trouble getting it back. That leads to trouble, she said.

"Contact your legislators. Ask them to create a path for people to get their (driver's) licenses back," Ms. James said.

She said that as a district court judge she deals with many traffic issues and sees many men and women jailed on traffic offenses that pile up due to their inability to get their licenses back.

"It is ridiculous the amount of people I have to lock up due to driving while their license is revoked," she said.

As judge, Ms. James said, it his her duty to apply the law as it is written.

"And that is what I am going to do. But I implore you all to contact your legislators and get these laws changed."

Traffic violations are what lead many young men, especially black men, into the judicial system, according to information provided at the forum. It begins with a person who gets a ticket they cannot afford to pay. Their license gets revoked. They are given a court date, but if they miss that date a warrant is issued for their arrest. Now they have a bond to pay, fines, the cost of the ticket and whatever penalties are assessed.

They also have a record.

Maj. Greenfield countered by saying that much of the discussion at the forum had more to do with personal accountability than the judicial system.

"A lot of it is the judicial system. But it is the people as well," he said. "You can't not blame someone for not showing up in court when you got a ticket. That's your fault," he said.

Sheriff Pierce said attending the forum showed him that there are disparities that need to be addressed.

"I did make several connections with people, and I learned some things. I am very encouraged and I will be back next time to learn some more," he said.

Hope Hart, interim-president of the African-American Caucus of the Wayne County Democratic Party, is also a substitute teacher for the Wayne County Public School system.

"A lot of parents and people that have children incarcerated have concerns. This is an issue that effects everyone," Ms. Hart said.

She echoed Ms. James' comments, saying people need to contact their legislators about laws that are or might seem discriminatory. She also stressed the need for resources and access to those resources in the community.

"We have to get angry, and stay angry, about these laws. We have to challenge our elected officials to make sure the laws are applied equally and fairly, or let them know they will not be back," said Jaymes Powell, the communications director for the state party's African-American Caucus.

The forums are held at the end of each month at Rebuilding Broken Places, 2105 N. William St.

An exact date for April's event has not yet been scheduled.