MLK50: Criminal justice in the Mid-South

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Civil Rights Movement pressed on with countless arrests and intimidation tactics by lawmakers and many more issues on the legal side of things.

Today remnants of Jim Crow show up in legal proceedings, arrests and the crime rate in the South – including here in Memphis.

William Golden is 23-years-old and caught in the grip of the criminal justice system.

He was arrested for a burglary just after his eighteenth birthday and spent three months in jail.

But the label ‘felon’ remains even though he’s never committed another crime.

“They expect you to be this violent, crazy and stupid person. When I graduated I had 12 scholarships, but because I got a felony people look at me a certain kind of way,” Golden said.

Golden’s story is not uncommon in Memphis. Many employers won’t hire felons.

Josh Spickler, a former public defender, calls mass incarceration the new Jim Crow.

Shelby County’s incarceration rate is three times the rest of the county.

On any given day, blacks make up 85 to 90 percent of the Shelby County Jail yet they are only 60 percent of the county’s population.

“I thin there is a strong case to be made that we have implemented criminal justice policies that impact people of color and control people of color in a way that Jim Crow laws did,” Spickler said.

Spickler believes urban neighborhoods are often over policed.

A study by the Department of Justice after the deadly Ferguson police shooting revealed it was true.

“Whether it be stop and frisk in New York or Blue Crush in Memphis, I think these all speak to a philosophy of policing that lead to a disproportiate contact with people of color,” Spickler said.

Dr. King fought battles through the justice system and won change through legislation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public places and in the workplace.

President Lyndon Johnson even handed the civil rights leader a pen during the signing of The 1965 Voting Rights Act that removed barriers that kept blacks from voting.

50 years later, the halls of the government are still battlegrounds.

“We’re having it in a different context. Today, that conversation frequently resolves around criminal justice reform efforts and mass incarceration,” Spickler said.

Tennessee State Senator Lee Harris says they must work to change laws that lead to mass incarceration. He names the drug free school zone law from the 90’s as the worst.

“The reality is those prison sentences are disproportionate because you would get about 15 years inside a school zone versus about 29 months outside a school zone,” Harris said.

Harris says the state legislature made positive gains by lowering fees for a select group of felons to get their criminal records expunged.

There’s also legislation pending to allow felons to apply for state licenses.

Spickler founded Just City to address problems he saw clients face after their case ended.

“We work with the community. We work with addicts, with the person who can’t afford a lawyer and with people who can’t afford a $450 expungement fee. We work with the voiceless,” he said

Spickler says people should be able to move past a mistake, especially after years of doing the right thing.

23-year-old Golden has a solution that he says could work.

“Let us create options for ourselves. That’s what we need. We don’t need anymore programs. We need more options,” he said.

Golden joined life line to success, a program that steers ex-offenders away from crime by providing counseling and jobs.

He’s also goes into schools in Shelby County teaching 5th graders improv theater.

“I really want to go back to school. I want to go to a four-year college. My goal is to help kids where I’m from learn better things,” Golden said. “I want to be a philosopher.”

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