Panelists at the Annual Legislative Conference’s forum on Black women and the criminal justice system. (Photo by Shantella Sherman)

With more than 12 percent of Black girls subjected to seclusionary discipline – including suspension, expulsions, and arrests – in America, their numbers within the criminal justice system have reached epidemic proportions.  In areas like Orange County, Fla., arrests of 5- to 10-year-olds is up to 60 percent, and those arrested are predominately Black.

The Sojourner Truth Legacy Project’s “Black Women & the Criminal Justice System: We, Too, Sing America” forum, held Sept. 18 during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th Annual Legislative Conference, offered a sobering examination of the systemic practices that disproportionately usher Black girls into prisons and the challenges to these practices citizens need to undertake in order to end them.

According to panelist Brenda V. Smith, project director of the Project on Addressing Prison Rape and a professor at American University, there are currently more than 100,000 Black women currently incarcerated, and the common denominators to their detainment are race, poverty and victimization.

“Many of these women experience victimization as children, as adults, and while they are in custodial settings – like girls’ homes.  They quickly, then, come into contact with abusive people,” Smith said.  “Abused in residential placement and sexually victimized in custody, what is created is a pathway of disinvestment in Black girls – at home, in school, and while in custody.”

Smith said that the girls and women are often charged under “Girlfriend Laws” that automatically charge the wives, lovers, and other female relatives of male offenders as co-conspirators – whether they are proven to be involved or not.

“Most of these girls and woman are non-violent, afraid, and victims of the men in their lives.  Despite being close to these men, they are major players in offenses and have little to no information to provide prosecutors in order to levy their own release,” Smith said.  “These women may have carried drugs, but not known for whom, they may go to work every day not knowing their homes are being used by boyfriends as a place where drugs or weapons are stored. Even without a specific offense, with no prior convictions, these women are getting 12- to 20-year minimums.”

Fellow panelist Maj. Charlene L. Hinton, chief of staff for the Petersburg Bureau of Police, said that while a lot of Black girls have issues at home that warrant mental health and medical evaluation, rather than incarceration, most would benefit from having officers and legal counsel who more closely resemble themselves.

“When White male officers arrive on the scene, they are not looking at a woman as a person but as an incident, and they are not always equipped to handle her as a victim,” Hinton said.  “The question that needs to be raised is ‘How do they make a change there or occupy that space in a conducive way?’  As someone who oversees recruitment and training, I believe that it often takes a female officer to break down that barrier when she encounters a distraught mother or a victimized girl on a call.”

However, said Natalie A. Jackson, managing partner of the Women’s Trial Group, the “old-boys” network of police unions had a chokehold on politicians and city officials that allowed them to arrest children as means of social control.

“The police is a government entity that has the right to take your life, not individual people, who are having a bad day or have a bias against you.  That culture of nepotism – fathers, grandfathers, and sons, who make up law enforcement officers – is what needs to be addressed,” Jackson said. “It is through the bias of these unions that mandatory sentencing laws and guidelines for arrests are championed.”

Barbara Williams-Skinner, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the standing room-only crowd that the culture of police fraternities and unions had the power to create real havoc for city officials.  Citing the show of NYPD officers who turned their backs to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio after he challenged them on their chokehold methods, she said said it signaled who was in charge of the city.

“That type of culture perpetuated within the police fraternity was the equivalent of the U.S. military turning their backs on President Obama.  How much power do people have when the mayor is met with this level of resistance in changing 21st century policing?” Williams-Skinner asked.  “We need to better understand how these unions were founded and how they operate today.”

Suggestions by the panel for average citizens included: knowing who the police chief is and interacting with his or her office regularly; increased recruitment of minority women into the ranks of law enforcement and the judicial system; and outreach into communities through schools and churches to ensure that Black women know their neighborhood officers by name.