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Conference on race to discuss justice system

April 19, 2011

Conference organizers plan to intellectually battle racial inequality in the criminal justice system this week at the seventh national Race in 21st Century America Conference.

The criminal justice system in the U.S. has roughly 2.3 million residents incarcerated — the highest in the world — according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said Curtis Stokes, a professor in James Madison College and the founding chairperson of the Race and 21st Century America Project.

“(From) 18 to 24 years old, we have 10,000 black women in jails and prisons in the country and 165,000 black males,” he said. “That is just unacceptable.”

The conference will be held at Kellogg Center today and Thursday, and is open to students, members of the community and high school students, said Rita Kiki Edozie, director of the African American and African Studies program.

The conference will feature various panels discussing topics including “Islamaphobia: where
race meets religion,” “Youth of color and the police” and a special session by R. Dwayne Betts, an ex-convict who soon will attend Harvard University in the fall, said Murray Edwards, interim director of the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions.

“(Betts will) be able to give those students the opportunity to hear about his situation where he served about eight to 10 years in prison and (how) he has been able to turn his life around,” he
said.

Organizers hope the conference will be a good way to develop a path from high school to college for minority students and teach them how to engage in topics intellectually, such as talking about high incarceration rates, Edozie said.

“It’s their opportunity to one be exposed … because it’s likely that they live in communities that are under siege around racial issues,” she said.

“They need to be conscious about how to be aware of how race operates and is structured in society.”

The conference also will discuss how the criminal justice system is viewed as biased, Edwards said.

“It’s a system that has now turned into a for-profit system, now (that) more and more states are beginning to privatize the prison system,” he said.

Stokes hopes the message delivered is that it’s not a question of numbers, but an issue of public safety when it concerns race.

“A lot of research is showing a correlation (between) education and incarceration,” he said. “The more education an individual has, the less likely ­— not an absolute — but the less likely you find that person in a prison cell or a jail cell.”

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