Pubdate: Tue, 26 Nov 2002
Source: Chronicle, The (NC Edu)
Copyright: 2002 The Chronicle, Box 90858, Durham, N.C. 27708 This publication m
Author: Robert Morris


Listening intently to a panel of North Carolina residents describe the 
lives of family members incarcerated under federal drug laws, students 
caught a glimpse Monday night of a world far removed from the tension of 
upcoming exams.

"Racism in the Justice System: A Forum on Racially Biased Drug Laws" was 
organized by juniors Johanna Pemberton and Brandi Peterson who were 
inspired by what they learned in their "Whiteness, Anti-Racism and Justice" 

Peterson opened the forum with emotional words about the consequences of 
the war on drugs.

"There are not enough words to describe the pain of knowing your loved ones 
are serving jail sentences," she said, displaying an obvious emotional 
commitment to the topic.

Discussion alternated between personal accounts by panelists and discussion 
of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, under which people convicted of drug 
offenses must receive a sentence set at a federally-imposed level.

Panelists Carrie Graves and Elaine Lynch, both of whom have sons in prison 
serving mandatory minimums, represented the November Coalition, a 
non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the effects 
of current drug laws.

"These laws not only affect those incarcerated but their children," said 
Lynch, whose son was a 22-year-old student at Howard University when he was 
arrested. She added that her son's baby daughter has only known him as an 

"My children are in jail because they are two young black men," Graves 
said. "Racism is alive and well in this country."

Graves and Lynch both encouraged students to vote and to contact their 
elected officials about the unfair harshness of drug sentencing laws.

"Drug offenders cannot get Pell Grants [a type of federal aid] for college 
but rapists can," Graves said.

LaFonda Jones, a North Carolina Coordinator for Families Against Mandatory 
Minimums, spoke about the limitations these laws force on judges.

"One of our major goals is to restore judicial discretion," Jones said. 
"These draconian laws are simply designed for punishment, not rehabilitation."

Panelist Richie Williams currently faces a mandatory minimum of 
25-years-to-life with no chance of parole for conspiracy to manufacture 
crystal meth. After he described the way his life has changed since his 
arrest--he has been substance-free for 18 months--another panelist put his 
situation into the context of the forum.

"We don't want to spend $22,000 a year incarcerating people like Richie who 
have turned their life around," said Louise Sides, a friend of Williams' 

Like all inmates in the federal penitentiary system, Williams will be 
ineligible for parole if convicted. His only possibility for a reduced 
sentence is to provide information that leads to the arrest of others.

The approximately 30 students in attendance were struck by the emotional 
impact of the speakers. "I thought [the forum] was really informative and 
saddening," said junior Rashida Leggett.

Sophomore Nic Alexander agreed, saying the message's importance was 
increased by the fact that students so rarely hear it.

"It's tough from a Duke student's perspective to relate to some of these 
stories," he said. "We represent a small part of the population and need to 
look out for larger concerns."
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