Ellis: As we honor King, let’s examine criminal justice reform

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Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life on a mission to make America true to its constitutional promise of equal opportunity and justice for all. Unfortunately, recent events are a sobering reminder that 50 years after Selma, the gap between the vision of the dream and reality of disparate justice persists.

Though we have made progress, the need to push for reforms to ensure all people, regardless of race or income, receive fair and equal justice under the law is as important and necessary today as it was that bloody Sunday.

These problems aren’t unique to Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has appropriately labeled our nation’s criminal justice policies “the New Jim Crow,” and as the Chronicle’s recent coverage tells us, we have the same issues – perhaps even worse – right here at home. They are as persistent and extensive as they are disturbing, and the numbers don’t lie:

In 2012, African-Americans made up only 18.9 percent of Harris County’s population, but they comprised 65.8 percent of those from the county incarcerated in state prison for drug possession and 50 percent of the people detained in Harris County jails, despite the fact that rates of drug use barely differ between racial groups.

Houston Police Department officers shot 121 civilians between 2008 and 2012, yet not a single officer was indicted or disciplined.

Seventy percent of people in the Harris County Jail have yet to be convicted of any crime, the majority of whom merely cannot afford to post bail.

These aren’t just statistics – they are real lives affected. We must decide whether we care enough about those lives to take action, right now, to move us forward toward a more fair, equitable and effective justice system we can rely on.

We can start by advancing smart-on-crime diversion alternatives for low-level, nonviolent drug possession offenses, which are proven to be more effective at improving public safety, and move away from our ineffective and wasteful over-reliance on incarceration. It’s equally important to reform how these laws are enforced by moving toward community policing and away from “broken windows” policing and practices like “stop-and-frisk” that disproportionately target the poor and communities of color.

Most of our police officers do honorable work, and their service is to be praised and respected. But as with any profession, we must have transparency and accountability to ensure public trust. An independent police review board with subpoena power should be established; independent prosecutors should be required in any case with a law enforcement-related death; body cameras, with proper policies regarding their operation and accessibility, should be mandatory; and all police interrogations should be recorded.

We need to advance reforms to ensure every person, regardless of color, rich or poor, stands equal before the law if they are accused of a crime. Our right to be judged by a jury of our peers must be protected through measures to eliminate the broken key man grand jury system, prevent outside influence and bias, and eliminate barriers to community participation. Everyone in a free society deserves that their constitutional right to counsel be protected by access to quality legal representation, which we can help through the expansion and funding of public defenders and managed assigned counsel systems.

People should not be imprisoned simply because they are poor, so it’s imperative we fix our bail bond system to stop locking in jail those who have yet to be convicted of a crime because they cannot afford bail.

We should establish an entity to consistently oversee and compile data on our criminal justice policies to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing crime and the reliability, efficiency, and fairness in their application.

As we celebrate King’s birthday this week, let’s dedicate ourselves to honoring his legacy with more than rhetoric and commit ourselves to making his dream a reality through meaningful action.

King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It’s our responsibility, each and every one of us, working together, to dedicate ourselves to advancing the cause of equality and justice for all. We can start today, and we’ll be a better city, state and nation as a result. What better way to honor a true American hero?

Ellis, a Democrat, represents Houston in the Texas Senate.

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