COLLEGE PARK – National racial justice organization Color of Change held Happy Hour For Justice, a forum where candidates running for the position of state’s attorney had an opportunity to voice their views on criminal justice reform on June 14 at Milkboy Arthouse in College Park with over 100 people in attendance.
“Color of Change is the nation's largest racial justice organization,” said Event Coordinator Enchanta Jackson. “We have 1.3 million members, and we work to make sure those in power make the right choices for black people.”
Color of Change is heavily involved in cities and states with a sizeable black population such as St. Louis, North Carolina, and California. In Prince George’s County, the organization has 27,000 volunteers and the members have made it a priority to be heavily involved in prosecution races.
“The state’s attorney has a huge impact,” Jackson said. “They really decide whether to reduce or drive mass incarceration.”
The candidate who is elected as the next state’s attorney will have a huge impact, particularly in Prince George’s as a majority black county, Jackson said.
"Incarceration rates of black people already quadrupled that of white people, and this forum gave the black community an opportunity to engage with the candidates and have a necessary dialogue," Jackson said.
All candidates were in attendance including Maryland State Senator Victor Ramirez, former Maryland House of Delegates member Aisha Braveboy, and civil rights attorney Michael Lyles.
All candidates had the opportunity to give an introductory speech to the crowd and were asked questions by the event coordinators and then the audience members had the chance to ask their own questions as well.
“We need someone who knows the duties of the state’s attorney and understands how to prosecute with justice with people of color,” said audience member Deborah Reid.
The laid-back atmosphere with an open bar and food gave audience members the chance to interact with each other as well as the candidates.
“We want them to have the opportunity to talk with the candidates, not just about information, but about black joy,” Jackson said. “Happy hour with black people deserves to be celebrated to laugh and learn about what the candidates plan.”
Braveboy brings her experience as a lawyer and former house delegate. She grew up in Prince George’s and attended University of Maryland and Howard University. She is dedicated to getting young people out of the criminal justice system.
Over the past 15 years through her own Truancy Initiative, Braveboy has helped divert 4,000 children from prosecution.
“I’ve dedicated my career to changing the paradigm for young people who are facing the justice system,” Braveboy said.
The goals for her term are to not only further expand diversion programs for nonviolent offenders but to reach out to victims of domestic violence and child abuse by providing services such as transition housing as well as asserting a strong focus on mental health as a preventative measure to lower crime.
Ramirez has been a state senator for eight years and has practiced criminal law for 17 years. During that time, he has handled about 500 cases. He wants to make sure that crime is treated fairly and equally by providing low-level offenders with services such as rehabilitation and counseling while looking at how bail negatively affects the criminal justice system. Like Braveboy, he would also like to focus on domestic violence and child sexual assault.
“What we need is someone who can hit the ground running,” he said. Someone who has never done the job can’t lead, someone else would be running the office. Experience matters when dealing with lives.”
With his criminal and civil trial experience, Michael Lyles was appointed as an executive director of the Human Relations Commission by County Executive Rushern Baker, III in 2011 and created a human trafficking task force which he said is seen as one of the best in the country.
If elected as the next state’s attorney, he plans to aggressively prosecute cases involving child abuse and human trafficking. He believes in holding people accountable and thinks that sometimes restorative justice is the answer over jail.
People in attendance were passionate about issues that they faced and their community with a hope of whoever was elected would have their best interests at heart.
“I want someone who recognizes that mass incarceration is a huge issue,” said Victor Kwansa, another audience member. “Simply locking people away won’t solve anything.”
Audience members proposed questions to the candidates concerning police brutality, screening, immigration and the need for diversion programs and treatment instead of locking people up for small crimes.
All candidates were in favor of holding police accountable in cases of police violence against minorities. Particularly Ramirez, who has in the past sponsored a bill that allowed body cameras on police officers. They would also like to allocate resources to prevent police intimidation towards immigrants.
Each of them expressed their desire to reduce sentences for low-level offenders by instilling some kind of diversion program.
“If we want people to fix small problems we should give them the opportunity to,” Ramirez said.
Finally, they emphasized their desire to have all aspects of the criminal justice system work closely together as well as in the community. Lyles said he has given talks at schools such as the University of Maryland. Ramirez is deeply involved with the community by also giving talks and teaching soccer at Northwestern High School. As state’s attorney, Braveboy would like to get the community involved with the criminal justice system by being transparent and holding town hall forums.