NAACP: It's time to fix criminal-justice system

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Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., reaches outto shake an attendee’s hand. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (below) speaks yesterday. (MICHAEL PRONZATO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

EVEN the president of the NAACP isn't immune from being racially profiled.

Yesterday at the 106th Annual NAACP Convention, Cornell William Brooks shared stories of driving while black, once with his two sons in the back seat.

"When you are racially profiled day in and day out, when you've been pulled over close to 20 times without getting a ticket, without getting any kind of a warning, and simply being asked, 'Why are you in this neighborhood?' 'What do you do for a living?' and 'Why are you out this late at night?' " Brooks recalled, "my answer is always the same: 'I'm a lawyer. I work long hours and I live here.' We deserve better. Our children deserve better. And, more importantly, our country deserves better."

"Pursuing Liberty In the Face of Injustice" is the theme of the convention, which began Saturday and continues through tomorrow at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

As I walked around the center yesterday, I paused to read several large signs explaining the dos and don'ts of interacting with police officers.

A volunteer gave me a pocket-size pamphlet titled "The 411 on the Five-O." I know not to ever touch a police officer and that I have a right to deny a cop entry into my home without a warrant. But I tucked it into my purse to pass along.

I also chatted with people inside the retail expo and attended a legislative workshop featuring U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Phila., and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. With almost everyone, the conversations came back to the same theme: the pressing need for criminal justice reform.

"We still live in an America right now where we have a criminal justice system that has so overdone mass incarceration," Booker said during an afternoon legislative workshop.

He added dramatically, "In human history, there's never been a nation like ours that has now incarcerated one out of every four people on the planet Earth and has done so in a way that's so biased against the poor, mentally ill, addicted and minorities that we now have a worse black-white ratio of incarceration than apartheid South Africa."

At that, audience members groaned audibly. (A quick Google search revealed that a website called Prisonpolicy.org had reported similar findings.)

So it's no wonder that convention-goers greeted with enthusiasm yesterday's news that President Obama had cut prison sentences of 46 nonviolent offenders.

The president is scheduled to address the convention today and to present his ideas on improving the penal system. On Thursday, he's scheduled to visit the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. NAACP members called it a step in the right direction and said they are hopeful more will follow.

"When you look at the criminal justice system, it really has become a $70 billion industry," said Paul L. Jones, president of the Beaumont, Texas, branch of the NAACP, as he exited the legislative workshop. "It's gotten to the point that it's a monster that needs to be fed."

"When you talk about the prison pipeline, they start with our kids with a record," he continued. "And so it's to the point now that we have to feed the monster. I'm hoping the president will stop this."

Nehemiah Rolle, an NAACP member from New York City, pointed to the killing of Eric Garner - whose death a year ago prompted people to take to the streets chanting, "I can't breathe" - and to other highly publicized killings of African-American males by police officers as evidence that change is overdue.

Garner, 43, was stopped outside a Staten Island convenience store because police officers believed he was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The city medical examiner found that a police chokehold contributed to his death. But a grand jury declined to indict the officer who performed the maneuver. His family reached a $5.9 million settlement yesterday, but a federal probe is ongoing.

Rolle told me: "We want President Obama to use the federal government to uphold the rights of black Americans when they are murdered by the police."

- The Associated Press

contributed to this report.


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