Pubdate: Tue, 19 Mar 2013
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2013 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.
Author: Michael Paul Williams
Page: B1


You might call it a nascent civil rights movement in response to the
new Jim Crow.

About 150 people gathered Saturday morning at St. Peter Baptist Church
in Glen Allen to discuss mass incarceration, the war on drugs and
their effect on the black community. The Virginia Alliance Against
Mass Incarceration has scheduled forums Wednesday in Richmond's East

"The endgame is just public awareness through the community and
churches," with the hoped-for result of influencing legislation in the
General Assembly, said Jesse Frierson, executive director of the alliance.

The gospel of this movement is Michelle Alexander's best-seller, "The
New Jim Crow," which details the rising mass incarceration of
minorities. The author argues against policies that swelled the U.S.
prison population from 300,000 to more than 2 million in less than
three decades - the world's highest incarceration rate.

Alexander's lectures in Norfolk and Richmond in 2011 served as a
catalyst for the alliance.

The toll of drug offense-fueled incarcerations on the black community
has even conservative churchgoers exploring all options.

During a discussion last year at a local church, an impromptu show of
hands had one-half of the audience in favor of the decriminalization,
control, regulation and taxation of currently illegal drugs, Frierson
said. One quarter of the audience was opposed, and the remainder
wanted more information.

"That, frankly, was surprising to everybody," he said.

Of keen interest to the alliance is the restoration of voting rights
for 450,000 disenfranchised felons in Virginia. Despite the support of
Gov. Bob McDonnell, a measure to automatically restore the vote to
nonviolent felons who have finished their sentence was killed in the
state legislature. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the presumptive
Republican nominee for governor, has appointed an advisory panel to
explore options under the state constitution on the restoration of
voting rights.

Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe, the presumptive Democratic nominee for
governor, were invited to Saturday's event but did not attend. But
McAuliffe, in a letter to the attendees, said "unfair and unequal
enforcement of our drug laws is not an argument or a talking point; it
is a fact.

"Study after study shows that while drug use is similar among
different ethnic groups, young African-American men and young Latino
men are arrested and incarcerated at dramatically higher rates than
young men from other groups. This is devastating communities and
hurting our society."

But as McDonnell's case shows, a sympathetic governor hardly
guarantees results in the legislature. Or as Del. Joseph D.
Morrissey, D-Henrico, said Saturday: "Nobody ever lost an election by
being tough on crime."

St. Peter, on Mountain Road in northern Henrico County, is the church
of Kemba Smith Pradia, a leading advocate in the fight for voting
rights of former offenders. Her franchise was restored last year by
McDonnell, more than a decade after she served six years of a federal
prison sentence for drug-related offenses. She was granted clemency in
2000 by President Bill Clinton.

The audience viewed selected scenes from the documentary "The House I
Live In," a critique of the U.S. criminal justice system whose
producers include Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt and Russell

Part of the film showed the toll methamphetamine has exacted on white,
jobless rural residents in America's heartland, as drug use and
illegal activities fill the economic void. The impact of crystal meth
in those communities was likened to the effect of crack cocaine on
black urban communities in the 1980s.

During the wide-ranging panel discussion that followed, state Sen. A.
Donald McEachin, DHenrico - who sat on a panel with Morrissey, Pradia
and Henrico Commonwealth's Attorney Shannon Taylor - said the
counterproductive war on drugs coincided with the "world of no."

First came "Just Say No," the Reagan administration's response to drug
use. Later came "no parole," Gov. George Allen's politically popular
policy. That was followed by "No Car Tax," a bumper sticker that
helped land Jim Gilmore in the Executive Mansion after Allen.

Parole abolition helped fuel prison construction. And the car tax
reduction blew a hole in the state budget that McEachin says has hurt
K-12 education funding.

Virginia, in an attempt to fill empty prison beds, began importing
inmates from as far away as Hawaii. A new $105 million correctional
center in Grayson County has sat empty for 21/2 years because of a
lack of money and the state's declining prison population. Other
correctional facilities have been closed.

Meanwhile, prisons in economically bereft communities have become as
valued for job creation as for incarceration. Which begs the question:
What's driving criminal justice policy?

Conversations on that and other issues "are taking place in Baptist
churches across Virginia," Frierson said. "This is where it starts. It
starts with us."
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