February 22, 2010
Colorado Law’s Black Law Student’s Association (BLSA) hosted a one-day conference, “Still Chained? The Overrepresentation of African Americans in the Criminal Justice System,” in which professors, students, judges, law enforcement specialists, and lawyers addressed not only the problem of the disproportionate representation of Blacks in the criminal justice system, but also sought potential solutions to this tragedy of American society.
"African Americans make up 13% of the general U.S. population, yet they constitute 28% of all arrests, 40% of all inmates held in prisons and jails, and 42% of the population on death row,” said Dr. Barry Krisberg, former president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, during his testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime on October 29, 2009. “In contrast, whites make up 67% of the total U.S. population and 70% of all arrests, yet only 40% of all inmates held in state prisons or local jails and 56% of the population on death row.”
Professor Ann England, Associate Dean Dayna Matthew, and 3L Jennifer Ford worked together to plan the conference because they felt there was a need to educate the legal community about the issue of overrepresentation and begin looking at solutions. “We want to make sure everyone is firmly educated on who is incarcerated and why,” said Ford, emphasizing the program planners goal to get good statistics. “Then, we want to start people thinking about solutions.”
Professor Kevin Reitz of the University of Minnesota Law School began Thursday’s conference by delving into these statistics He explained that while 1 in 100 young American males is incarcerated, 1 in 9 young African American males is incarcerated.
Following this discussion of the numbers, Professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a psychology professor at Stanford University, discussed one of the reasons for this disparity: the implicit social bias that results in stereotypes identifying and associating all African Americans as a criminals, animals, and entities unable to change or improve.
Professor Paul Butler of George Washington University Law School rounded out the discussion with a multi-media production “The Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.” Butler said, “Think of Martin Luther King. If he were alive today, the law he would be rebelling against is the criminal justice system. But we don’t have Martin Luther King—we have hip-hop artists, and we need to listen to them.” Using a mixture of music videos, speeches by President Obama, and hip-hop lyrics, Butler explored the idea of hip-hop as a message board for overrepresentation, causing the criminal justice system to lose its deterrent ability.
The program concluded with a dynamic panel of legal professionals—The Honorable Judge Wiley Daniel, Denver Police Department’s Division Chief of Research, Training and Technology Dr. Tracie L. Keesee, State Training Director Ann Roan, Denver’s Chief Deputy District Attorney Lamar Sims, and trial attorney Lisa Wayne—discussed their views on the overrepresentation problem. This discussion was a highlight of the program where possible solutions were discussed from multiple vantage points and audience participation was enthusiastic!
Many of the suggestions focused on police accountability. “You have to start taking the research people have to the police departments,” said Keesee.
“There’re not a lot of racial boogeymen out there,” added Butler. “There’re a lot of people with goodwill who are just looking for direction.”
The event was also sponsored by the Colorado Law Student Fee Committee, the Sam Cary Bar Association, and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law BLSA.