“Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid and poor children of color are the fodder. It is time to sound a loud alarm about this threat to American unity and community, act to stop the growing criminalization of children at younger and younger ages, and tackle the unjust treatment of minority youths and adults in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems with urgency and persistence,” explained Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman last February at the National Cradle to Prison Pipeline Summit.
The Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC) and the Black Male Initiative of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College decided to do something about this by hosting a four part series called the At Promise Summit. The first summit was last fall.
“Addressing the disproportionate number of African American males ending up in our local criminal justice system requires a community-wide, coordinated effort to find, and then change, the roots of this disparity,” Angelina N. Jackson, director of the Race and Justice Project for OJPC, a non-partisan legal agency that advocates for criminal justice reform told The Final Call.
“The goal of the At Promise initiative is to begin this coordinated effort, first, with community conversation, then with community action. Our goal is to create an action plan for individuals and organizations to implement.”
“The reclamation of African American males continues to be one of the most important challenges for our society in the 21st century, as statistics still attest,” said Cincinnati State President John Henderson.
He believes that educational institutions must intentionally collaborate. “Knowing the positive impact education and training can have on these numbers, Cincinnati State is committed to making a difference by more aggressively recruiting and graduating African American males,” he said, “but turning these statistics around will require more than what Cincinnati State can do alone.”
A report by the OJPC found that more than 90 percent of Hamilton County’s jail population is male, 70 percent are Black, over 50 percent lack a high school diploma and nearly half are unemployed. Over 59 percent of Cincinnati’s homicide victims are Black males. Overall, Black men are twice as likely to be unemployed as Whites or Hispanics, and make up 40 percent of the prison population, but are less than 14 percent of the population in the United States.
Criminal justice was the theme for the initiative’s second summit held last month. Judges, police, attorneys, social workers, educators, legislators and faith-based leaders collaborated on identifying and implementing policies and procedures to overcome the disparities that cause Black males to be at risk for contact with Ohio’s legal systems.
Interactive workshops and panel discussions led by legal experts explored topics including: indigent defense; employment and education for ex-offenders; and the factors behind disproportionate contact with the system.
One of the major issues addressed was the city’s hiring policy for people with felony records.
“The time has come for the city to open its workplace doors to qualified applicants who would otherwise be hired but for their felony convictions,” said David Singleton, OJPC’s Executive Director.
“If we really care about community safety, then we must do all we can to ensure that when ex-felons come home from prison they have a chance to succeed and become productive,” said Mr. Singleton. “We can’t expect the private sector to hire former offenders if the city is not willing to show leadership on this issue.”
OJPC currently represents 44-year-old Gene Mays, who was denied employment as an electrician with the city because of two felony drug convictions. Mr. Mays was a star in high school — both in the classroom and on the basketball court.
Ranked number one in his high school class, Mr. Mays was kicked off the basketball team during his senior year for being caught using marijuana. Harder drugs and incarceration were next.
He hit rock bottom in 1997 then turned his life around. In 2001, after four years of sobriety, Mr. Mays enrolled in a five-year electrician-training program.
He graduated number one in his class, passed the Cincinnati Civil Service exam but was denied a job because of his felony record. OJPC is handling Mr. Mays’ appeal of this decision.
“Mr. Mays is very well qualified and should be working for the city of Cincinnati, and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens,” said Mr. Singleton.
The next At Promise Summit, scheduled for the fall, will focus on the education system and the final summit will draw conclusions as well as make recommendations.
“The goal is to create an action plan for individuals and organizations,” said Ms. Jackson.