Listening intently to a panel of North Carolina residents describe the lives of family members incarcerated under federal drug laws, students caught a glimpse Monday night of a world far removed from the tension of upcoming exams.
"Racism in the Justice System: A Forum on Racially Biased Drug Laws" was organized by juniors Johanna Pemberton and Brandi Peterson who were inspired by what they learned in their "Whiteness, Anti-Racism and Justice" class.
Peterson opened the forum with emotional words about the consequences of the war on drugs.
"There are not enough words to describe the pain of knowing your loved ones are serving jail sentences," she said, displaying an obvious emotional commitment to the topic.
Discussion alternated between personal accounts by panelists and discussion of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, under which people convicted of drug offenses must receive a sentence set at a federally-imposed level.
Panelists Carrie Graves and Elaine Lynch, both of whom have sons in prison serving mandatory minimums, represented the November Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the effects of current drug laws.
"These laws not only affect those incarcerated but their children," said Lynch, whose son was a 22-year-old student at Howard University when he was arrested. She added that her son's baby daughter has only known him as an inmate.
"My children are in jail because they are two young black men," Graves said. "Racism is alive and well in this country."
Graves and Lynch both encouraged students to vote and to contact their elected officials about the unfair harshness of drug sentencing laws.
"Drug offenders cannot get Pell Grants [a type of federal aid] for college but rapists can," Graves said.
LaFonda Jones, a North Carolina Coordinator for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, spoke about the limitations these laws force on judges.
"One of our major goals is to restore judicial discretion," Jones said. "These draconian laws are simply designed for punishment, not rehabilitation."
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Panelist Richie Williams currently faces a mandatory minimum of 25-years-to-life with no chance of parole for conspiracy to manufacture crystal meth. After he described the way his life has changed since his arrest--he has been substance-free for 18 months--another panelist put his situation into the context of the forum.
"We don't want to spend $22,000 a year incarcerating people like Richie who have turned their life around," said Louise Sides, a friend of Williams' family.
Like all inmates in the federal penitentiary system, Williams will be ineligible for parole if convicted. His only possibility for a reduced sentence is to provide information that leads to the arrest of others.
The approximately 30 students in attendance were struck by the emotional impact of the speakers. "I thought [the forum] was really informative and saddening," said junior Rashida Leggett.
Sophomore Nic Alexander agreed, saying the message's importance was increased by the fact that students so rarely hear it.
"It's tough from a Duke student's perspective to relate to some of these stories," he said. "We represent a small part of the population and need to look out for larger concerns."