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Thursday, February 25,2010

Black men still overrepresented in prison

By Charmaine Ortega Getz

When it finally came to the last panel of the Boulder conference, titled “Solutions: A New Way Forward,” one question from an audience member, businessman and attorney Michael Belochi, summed it up: “Is anyone in the country getting it right?"

When law-enforcement agencies are willing to accept and work with the research-based evidence of what works and what doesn’t, yes, was the answer. Law enforcement practices and laws may be amended, civilian cooperation improved, incarceration rates declined. But change is coming slowly, and disproportionate racial percentages remains despite declines in overall prison populations since 2007.

“I’ve seen many changes in my 21 years of service,” Keesee says. “But more by incremental steps than big moves.”

“We need to bring the power of research-based evidence to life and motivate people to think about what needs to change,” says Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.

Eberhardt’s focus is on racial stereotyping, prejudice and stigma, and the effects they can have even among people who consider themselves free of racism, whatever their own race.

Bringing in research-based evidence, she said, to address the persistence of false perceptions even among well-intentioned people is a more neutral and effective tactic to recognize assumptions that influence actions.

That requires intervention, introducing more positive interaction in the troubled relationship between law enforcement and community.

“People are just distant from one another," Eberhardt says. “They don’t have empathy for one another. Once you can bring them together, share their experiences, you can start to break that down.”

Keesee agreed. “Just speaking for Denver, we have to keep working on our training, on raising awareness and constantly assessing what’s going on. But it’s hard to assess if there is so much distrust of the police that people aren’t willing to come forward and report problems. The racial disparities of the criminal justice system have to be addressed by the whole system — the police, the lawyers, the judges, the parole board. There isn’t enough conversation going on at the levels where greater change needs to happen."

Keesee says that for many people, it’s an overwhelming subject that they would prefer to avoid.

But for budding lawyers such as CU student Jennifer Ford at the conclusion of the Boulder conference, the conversations are just beginning.

Said Ford: “I wish we could have this every year.”

Photo: Jennifer Ford, right, speaks with conference speakers Tracie Keesee, center, and Jennifer Eberhardt. (Charmaine Ortega Getz)

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