Students and members of the Lewis and Clark community gathered in Hatheway Hall April 12 to observe and participate in a panel discussion on the topic of race in America’s criminal justice system, entitled “Justice for All? Panel on Race in the Criminal Justice System.”
Hosted jointly by the L&C Diversity Council and Professor Jen Cline’s Race and Ethnic Relations students, the panel brought together a unique collection of individuals from the Riverbend area to field questions prepared by the students and offer their points of view on the matter of the criminal justice system and how it treats minorities and the poor.
The panel was comprised of five unique individuals. Wesley Bell, professor of Criminal Justice at St. Louis Community College and a member of the Ferguson City Council was in attendance, as well as, Larry Golden, Director of the Illinois Innocence Project and an Emeritus professor of Political Studies and Legal Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Mario Love, L&C adjunct professor of Political Science and History, and Joe Splittorff, a detective with the City of Alton, helped round out the various professional insights that the panel offered.
The final member, who also brought his own unique point of view to the discussion, was Charles Palmer. Palmer was exonerated and freed from prison the day before Thanksgiving of 2016, after spending 18 years in prison due to being convicted of a crime he did not commit, with the assistance of the Illinois Innocence Project.
During the course of the event, the panel touched on many different topics that revolved around the centerpoint of the discussion, the position of race within the criminal justice system and what could be done to address the issues inherent in the system.
“We need to go away from the talking points, away from the blurbs that sound good,” Bell said at one point, following up a line of thought where he had discussed how the $10 million in budget cuts to the Missouri Public Defender’s office would affect all of the cases that they are currently involved in.
This line of thought also included an in-depth discussion about the unreasonable workload that public defenders are put under, with Bell estimating that some of them are managing upwards of 300 cases at once, which can severely affect their ability to meet with, and ultimately defend, their client.
Detective Splittorff expressed a sentiment for law enforcement officers to work with members of low-income and minority communities and build a rapport with them. Splittorff urged that for any real change to be enacted, law enforcement will need the cooperation of these communities and will need to work with them to break down the “no snitching policy” that appears to be all too common.
“I tell my students, it only benefits one group of people…criminals,” Bell said of this self-enforced code of silence.
The panel addressed many questions, and raised many more, but most importantly, it allowed the L&C community a chance to start a dialogue over this important topic.
“I think the takeaway is that all of the problems that we’re talking about on this panel, everything with race and the criminal justice system is complicated and nuanced. So, if you want to approach a new problem, you have to think about it from many different angles. And that is what happened today,” Cline said.