A child’s birthright is not prison.
The Charlotte Post Foundation kicked off its latest Black Lives Matter Charlotte series tonight at the Little Rock AME Zion Cultural Center with a forum on black-on-black crime. The first in a three-part series is scheduled for June 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the same location.
Tonight’s discussion featured a panel of former ex-offenders and activists Gemini Boyd and Kristie Puckett, North Carolina mitigation specialist Calvin H. Fox and attorney Yolanda Trotman, a former Mecklenburg County District Court judge. They shared their experiences, from incarceration to practicing law, after which they examined the foundation of black-on-black crime, concluding the forum with questions from the audience.
Fox provided a historical synopsis of black-on-black crime starting with “white flight,” a phrase denoting whites moving from the urban core to the suburbs during the 1950s and ‘60s.
“You move it up to the late 1970s-‘80s, you talk about this drug epidemic that rolls in,” Fox said.
“A lot of people were fed up with crime, and they supported some legislation that also crippled the black community.”
Fox noted research that points to activists like the Rev. Jesse Jackson using the phrase “black-on-black crime” out of concern for its end, only to have it co-opted by politicians and conservative activists outside the black community.
“Right-wingers and other folks got wind of that, and it took root,” he said. “They played on it, and profited from it for quite a while.”
Puckett, who said she turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with an abusive relationship, lost everything to her habit.
“I am a returning citizen, and for those who don’t know what that means, I am someone who was formerly incarcerated,” she said. “I began to resort to crime to pay for my drug habit.”
Puckett said she took a plea deal after being charged with cocaine trafficking cocaine in order to have her baby without being incarcerated. She didn’t know she was pregnant with twins.
“I had the babies five days later,” Puckett said. “I spent a lot of my adult life on probation, and probation in itself, in a lot of ways is worse than actually being incarcerated, because it’s the illusion of freedom, but you’re really not free, and that dangling of going back to jail is there every single day.”
Boyd was incarcerated on Feb. 1, 1991 at age 16 for crack and firearms charges, for which he was sentenced to 30 and 20 years respectively. The founder of Building Outstanding Lives Together, a youth intervention foundation, Boyd spent 20 years in prison, and has been home for two. He stressed the need to understand mental health and poverty, as trauma has a lasting impact on a child who sees someone’s “brains blown out right before his or her eyes.”
“Until we bring [mental health] into our space, until we bring it into our homes, until we start understanding this, along with poverty, because poverty is that hub that sits in the middle,” he said. “Everything shoots off of poverty, from violence to mental health to education to prison — anything that you can think about that deems us to not have our needs met. It’s that one word — poverty.”
Boyd noted how when one’s needs aren’t met, acting out becomes instinctive.
“We start thinking that this is what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “We have to start recognizing this in our children. We have to start having discussions in the household; why fathers aren’t there, why mothers aren’t there. We can’t keep making up stories about where they’re at. We can’t sugarcoat it.”
Trotman stressed the difference between crime and criminality.
“The crime itself can be punished, but how do we think about this in terms of how the laws that we have make the process even worse?” Trotman asked.
She explained that children as young as 5 years old can be associated with criminality, which represents an area of systemic criminalization.
“The issue is when you’re thinking about criminality itself, and who is more likely to, or who gets treated differently—from a judicial perspective, and from the perspective of being an attorney…I never ask my clients, ‘did you do it?’” Trotman said. “If I’m an attorney, and I’m more obsessed with if you did it, I’m not going to my job the same way.”
Trotman noted the need to consider the difference between children thinking emotionally, because their brains don’t fully develop until age 25. She noted charges such as possession of marijuana or an open container of alcohol, which typically have a stronger effect on children of color, as something that looks good decriminalized on paper, as individuals have to pay court costs and a fine at most, but it proves harmful down the road.
“Until you have four convictions on your record, you are not entitled to counsel on a Class 3 misdemeanor,” she said, adding the alternative is to hire a private attorney or represent yourself.
“I end up seeing young people, specifically, starting to build charges,” Trotman said. “They are told, ‘you can just pay the fine and go home,’ not understanding now you have a conviction. That’s the difference between crime and criminality. There is a huge difference between understanding the concept of a crime, the concept of criminality, and how that interconnects with implicit bias, and then also what it means long term when we decriminalize things that does nothing other than to build records, and to set people up in the long run.”
Said Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who sat in the audience: “One of the best things we can do to impact the criminal justice system is who we put on the bench, and understanding who we are electing.”