By Barney Blakeney
I found the news story about a 20-year-old Black man sentenced to 15 years in prison disturbing. The young man, charged in a robbery that resulted in a shooting death, was out on bond when authorities said he went on Facebook advertising drug sales and brandished a gun threatening people. The guy got 15 years in a plea bargain deal.
A few days later I read a commentary about new initiatives that are reducing the county’s jail population. Besides the disturbing fact that another young Black man will grow into maturity behind prison walls, I was taken aback by a statement in the commentary saying we can make our criminal justice system more effective.
The commentator cited an initiative that grew out of a grant the county receives which allows some things to happen before people charged with crimes get jail time. I wrote about the grant a few years ago. Essentially, the initiative brings together players in the criminal justice system to find alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. That should have been happening all along! But we all know the deal – prison incarceration is big business. It costs about $8,000 annually to keep a South Carolina kid in college and about $200,000 annually to keep someone in prison. You do the math.
As much as many of us hate to admit it, we need jails for some of these knuckleheads. Some folks are just so violent and unconscious to the value of life that they must be segregated from the rest of society. But my takeaway from the two articles I read was about building more effective systems. Our society is comprised of an array of various systems. I believe foremost among those is a system of public education.
What’s that old saying – “When you know better, you do better?” Making a more effective public education system, I think, would go a long way to people doing better. But before I get off on public education, I want to share a conversation I had recently with a dear friend. She said schools shouldn’t be expected to teach people everything they need to know to become productive citizens. That education begins in the home, she said.
What part have we left out of ‘home training’ that makes someone think they can say or do anything publicly without consequences? I got into a beef with a guy one time and wanted to exact retribution. I mentioned to Charleston’s ‘Midnight Mayor’ my intentions. The Midnight Mayor, himself an ex-convict who rose to become one of the Black community’s more prominent businessmen said, “Boy, keep that to yourself. Don’t ever tell anyone what you plan to do.” I believe it was sage advice.
The mayor’s advice, like the conversation with my friend, was about things parents and others in the ‘village’ must teach our young which will keep them out of a more effective criminal justice system. Then, I believe, we must make our public education system more effective. Ben Chavis and the National Newspaper Publishers Association are encouraging Black parents especially to become more aware of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which takes up where the No Child Left Behind initiative left off.
That too is sage advice. According to a recent report from the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, only 37 percent of eighth grade students are proficient in math. And while more than 80 percent of Tri-county students graduated high school on time, in 2016 only 65 percent were academically prepared for college work. And an alarming 91 percent of high school graduates attending Trident Technical College needed to take remedial math courses before they could take courses for credit. Nationally, only about 40 percent of Black students graduate college.
As ‘Mickey’ Lloyd Frazier’s friend from Alabama says, “Ya got to pay ‘taintion.” We’ve got to recognize that there’s a problem when a young man already facing a possible prison sentence chooses to conduct criminal activity on Facebook! Moral and ethical values learned at home and in the ‘villlage’ along with proficient math and reading skills learned in schools provide some of the alternatives young people need to make choices that lead to success. The bottom line is we live in a society where death and destruction comes in many forms and it affects Black people disproportionately. I think we all can agree that Black folks disproportionately are represented in the penal system.
An estimated 26,000 new jobs will come to our region in the next few years, but our kids ain’t ready. More has to be done to insure our young people have access to some of those job opportunities coming to the region – jobs that represent alternatives to crime. While others may focus on efforts that make a more effective criminal justice system, we must focus on effective systems that produce citizens who contribute to the overall wellbeing of our community.
What are those systems, where do we begin, how do we develop them? I don’t have the answers. But I’m convinced together we can find the answers. For centuries Black folks in this country have together come up with systems to overcome their oppression and disenfranchisement. I’m faithful we still have that ability.