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Criminal justice reform tops Southern Justice Summit

From chokehold bans to ending the money bail system, Tuesday’s (July 14) Southern Justice Summit tackled myriad topics focused on criminal justice reform.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Tonja Sesley-Baymon, president and chief executive officer for the Memphis Urban League, partnered with six other Urban League organizations across the South to stage a virtual conference on how to fix the justice system.

Harris made criminal justice reform a cornerstone of his election platform, showing particular interest in Shelby County’s juvenile justice system.

“The need for reform has never been greater,” said Harris, in opening remarks. “We are in a moment of heightened social consciousness. Reform of our criminal justice system has never been more important.”

The summit culminated in a keynote address by Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.

“In 2020, we are seeing the nation’s leadership being challenged like never before,” Morial said. “COVID-19 is disproportionately infecting black and brown people.

“And, we all saw George Floyd being murdered, lynched right before our eyes. This is, indeed, a moment in history. We must stand on the side of justice. We must embrace Black Lives Matter,” Morial said.

Morial touted the Urban League as one of the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations that has “been in the trenches helping people survive.”

He advocated for “police reimagination and reform.”

“We can’t fix communities with policing,” Morial said. “There must be a new approach for the inner city. Invest money into youth programs, affordable housing, health, and education. It is time to make an involved decision.”

While Morial praised this time of heightened awareness in protest and advocacy, it remains to be seen whether the activism will transform into a real movement.

Protests and calls for reform must translate into action at the polls. Voting en masse is the only thing that will transform this moment into a movement, he said.

The summit featured local officials, who also made virtual appearances. Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer joined Harris and Sesley-Baymon in welcoming participants to the summit.

City Councilman JB Smiley spoke on chokehold bans and the “duty (of police officers) to intervene (when another is using excessive force)” policy in one of the sessions.

Both reforms have already been adopted by the Memphis Police Department.

County Commissioner Reginald Milton joined Shelby County’s executive director of the Office of Re-entry Harold Collins in discussing the challenges of re-entry for ex-offenders and trends that have developed in the last decade.

The summit also tackled controversial concepts, such as ending the money bail system and how one should defend himself or herself against the status quo.

A highlight of the summit was a video series titled “Reclaiming Our Freedom,” sponsored by the Urban League’s Southern Region.

During a period between sessions, a topic titled “8 Minutes & 46 Seconds,” the death of George Floyd was silently observed in that period of time. Floyd was killed May 25 as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck. A video of Floyd’s death for that space of time sparked an outcry of protest and brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront.

Morial ended the summit with a strong endorsement for voting in November’s election.

“The question will be, ‘Are we still engaged in constructive anger?’ It’s okay to be angry. Be outraged, but focus on meaningful change.

“Connect protest to policy. Raise your voices. The peoples’ movement cannot be destroyed or stopped. The moment does not end today. Share the work. Inspire younger voters. We must get to the polls and vote.”

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