Disparities in sentencing and law enforcement – among the challenges facing judicial and criminal justice professionals gathered in Buffalo this week – are part of a national focus, one of the country’s most controversial civil rights leaders noted Thursday.
“How you stand up can make you the model of where the nation is going,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said during the keynote address at the 27th National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts Conference, which continues through Saturday in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
Sharpton said the National Action Network, which he founded in 1991, has been trying to raise those issues for years but the group’s efforts have been marginalized or ignored “unless there was an incident or an explosion.” Over the past year, Sharpton found himself at the center of several “explosive” situations related to deaths of black men at the hands of police officers – in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Staten Island.
“The incidents are not new,” Sharpton said. “What is new is the technology where everybody is seeing the incidents.”
Sharpton and his organization have come under fire for becoming involved in them, often at the request of relatives.
“Many times, they call us because they want national attention. People do not call me because they want to keep a secret,” he said.
The real issue is why they don’t have confidence in calling law enforcement officials, he said.
“Those in the criminal justice system should not be angry at me for standing in the gap they made in the first place,” Sharpton said.
“When we march ... we are marching, appealing for the system to work,” Sharpton said. “Is it really that extreme for me to ask judges to be fair?”
People have to work together – even with those with whom they disagree – to resolve issues, he said.
William Bratton, New York City’s police commissioner, has been under fire this week for saying the department was having difficulty recruiting black officers because many young black men have felony records. In response, Bratton blamed a British reporter for quoting him out of context.
Sharpton implied that was no excuse.
“Context or not, the issue is why do you have a disparate amount of blacks that are going to jail ... that cannot serve the police department?” Sharpton said Thursday. “The underlying issue is a challenge for the criminal justice system in this state.”
Sharpton is advocating for other changes to the system, including having the Justice Department or a special prosecutor oversee cases related to alleged police misconduct. “It removes the appearance of politics,” he said.
Also, reform of the grand jury process is “very, very much needed,” Sharpton said.
“The secret proceedings only add to the level of tensions,” he explained, especially when the public has seen a recording of an incident but wasn’t privy to what was presented to a grand jury.
Sharpton offered the gathered judges and attorneys food for thought.
“The question is ... when your service is over, what did it mean? Did you just hide behind a title? Was your achievement that you were able to get the job? “Or did you make the title mean something more?” Sharpton said.