Partisanship Over Prison Reform

What Eric Holder and Democrats Forgot to Mention

Black Americans Applaud U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at Historic Ebenezer (Leo Smith in foreground)

In 2015 Attorney General Eric Holder hosted a town hall meeting at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.

I was on hand — not to participate in the round-table discussion with law enforcement, community leaders, and elected officials — but to engage with those in attendance and offer my support to Civil Rights leaders like Bernice King, Bill Harris and C.T. Vivian.

During the four hour rally, which was slated to focus on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, speakers advocated for accountability in law enforcement, a return to community policing, and the need to restore confidence in the courts.

After protestors were escorted out of the sanctuary, Attorney General Holder took the stage and rattled off his partisan talking points, delicately weaving in the recent shootings to reach full impact. Holder spoke of law enforcement initiatives such as body cameras to ensure accountability and the de-militarization of our state and local police departments. When Holder abruptly mentioned the harsh impact of the “prison industrial complex” on African American men and the desperate need for criminal justice reform, my ears perked.

As Minority Engagement Director for the Georgia Republican Party, I spent a majority of the year meeting with African American, Asian, and Latino groups around the state to discuss Republican efforts to empower small business owners, enhance educational opportunities for our youth, and encourage economic growth and opportunity. One of the key legislative initiatives mentioned during roundtables, rallies, and one-on-one coffee meetings was criminal justice reform.

According to recent reports, incarceration rates for African Americans in Georgia have dropped by 20 percent. This “unmistakable” downward trend is a direct result of the expansion of accountability courts throughout the state. In the first quarter of 2014, more than four thousand people where enrolled in accountability courts throughout the state, and many of these Georgians would likely be in prison today if it were not for the bold leadership of Republicans like Gov. Deal. Instead of being locked in a cell, they are home with family.

But this Republican backed initiative was not mentioned by Holder or anyone on stage that night. Credit to the Georgia General Assembly and the hundreds of pastors, judges, lawyers, and community leaders involved in these reform efforts was never given. Awards and accolades given to the Governor for his leadership on this important initiative were never applauded. Not that the Governor would expect applause, but if you want a planted idea to grow, it doesn’t hurt to give it water.

Eric Holder, like many in his Party, pretends that Democrats have exclusivity on ideas to make life better for our community when in reality they just have recycled rhetoric.

If Democrats are serious about reforming our criminal justice system, they should look no further than Georgia. The Party affiliation of those in power should not matter. The political ramifications of applauding a Republican Governor should come second to providing the incarcerated with a second chance to achieve the American Dream.

Now the ball is in the hands of President Trump’s Attorney General Jess Sessions. Stay tuned.