If numbers make an event a success, then day two of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual convention was just that.
The halls and conference rooms of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest Washington, D.C. were filled with attendees who sat in on policy sessions, made plans to attend a bevy of social functions, and networked with other convention-goers.
The CBCF’s Annual Legislative Conference is a gathering of African-American industry leaders, policy makers, elected officials and citizens. More than 70 policy sessions were planned for the four-day event, which began Sept. 18. As the convention unfolded, events took place in every corner of the building.
Several dozen people sat and listened to the Rev. Al Sharpton as he broadcast his radio show, “Keeping it Real with Al Sharpton” from the convention center. One of his guests was David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, who talked about his just-published memoir, “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic”
One of the most well-attended sessions was titled: “Where Do We Go From Here? 50 Years After the March,” remembering the 1963 March on Washington. Some 250 people filled the large room, some to catch a glimpse and hear from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon and last surviving speaker from the 1963 event.
Among those in attendance was Travoris Culpepper of Mobile, Ala., who said he believes the justice system needs to change.
“In our justice system, [there] is definitely a big difference,” he said. “We saw that with Trayvon Martin. It was clear as day. Everybody knew exactly what happened in that situation, but yet this person was able to murder an innocent child and then go on to live his life as if nothing happened.”
Another big draw was a session with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder entitled “Mandatory Minimums: Rethinking Failed Sentencing Policies and Targeting Money Laundering and Major Drug Traffickers.” Waters, who has been advocating for changes in sentencing laws for 15 years, hosted the event.
Holder, the keynote speaker, discussed the victims of the Sept. 16 mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. He used the opportunity to urge members of Congress “to take common sense steps to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands.”
Holder’s appearance at the CBCF convention came little more than a month after he announced that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders. Waters has introduced legislation aimed at making that practice into law.
“America’s criminal justice system is in need of reform,” Holder said, calling for a “smarter more efficient approach to battling crime.”
Since 1980, he told the audience, the U.S. prison population has grown 800 percent. In 1986 there were 36,000 federal prisoners. Currently, there are more than 219,000 and “almost half of them,” Holder said, “are serving time for drug-related crimes. Many of them have substance abuse disorders.”
The so-called war on drugs, said Holder, has had a “destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and largely of color.”
Much of that can be attributed to the Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which called for mandatory minimum sentences and targeted low-level drug offenders. For example, someone caught with possession of crack cocaine faced the same mandatory minimum as someone convicted of possessing 100 times the amount of powder cocaine. The majority of powder cocaine arrests involved White people, while 80 percent of crack cocaine convictions involved Black men. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act changed that 100-to-1 ratio to 18-to-1, officials said.
Holder also announced that the Justice Department will apply its new policies to pending cases in which the defendant was charged before the policy was issued and is still awaiting adjudication.
“This is simply the right thing to do,” he said. “It is also the smart thing to do."
Critics of mandatory minimum sentencing say consequences of the law have destroyed communities, families and lives. One of those caught in its wake was session panelist Kemba Smith, the poster child for what’s wrong with mandatory minimum laws, some believe. In 1995, Smith, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 24 1/2 years behind bars for her non-violent role in a crack cocaine ring that was led by her boyfriend.
“I’m here speaking for the women [like me] who are still there,” Smith told the audience. "There are plenty of women who were abused like I was by the drug dealer guy I was in a relationship with.” Smith served six and a half years in federal prison before President Clinton pardoned her.
After the session, panelist and Harvard law Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr., told the AFRO that money seized in drug raids should go back where it came from.
“Why shouldn’t that money go back to the community? Why not to Washington, to Baltimore, to Chicago, to New Orleans, to all these cities because they have been devastated by drugs?” He said. “And instead of a new police vehicle or building or another police officer on the street, why not put that money back into the schools, back into jobs, back into housing, all those things that make a big difference."
The evening ended on a more festive note with the Leadership Reception, which was held at Arena Stage. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) was the honoree, and a concert featured The O‘Jays.
Among the members of the Congressional Black Caucus in attendance was Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-N.J.), who spoke to the AFRO about Republican efforts to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”
“I say let them do it," he said. “Obviously they didn’t learn from when Newt Gingrich was the speaker [of the House of Representatives]. It’s a ploy to push the President, but he has stood strong. He’s made it clear, there’s not a negotiating point that he’s even going to entertain. Their thinking, their philosophy, is out there. I don’t understand it.”
However, not every lawmaker was as willing to let the shut down occur.
“This is serious and I do hope that the American people, the business people, the churches, come forward and recognize that this is not a political issue,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). “This is the salvation of our country."