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Racism in the Criminal System: Communities Fight for Justice

March 25, 2021

On the screens we scan and in our own lives, we constantly see examples of racial inequality in our policing, our courts and our prison system. We ask ourselves what can be done to rectify wrongs older than the country itself. Why is a Black or brown person more likely to face violent treatment if arrested? What forms of institutionalized racism exist in courts that too often hand out unequal sentences? How can we reform a system of mass incarceration that has crippled the futures of countless people of color, their families and their communities? What changes in consciousness must we all undertake, beginning with a deeper understanding of the systems of control put in place from the time of slavery onward.

Our moderator Sylvester Monroe ’73, award winning journalist and former Washington Post Assistant Foreign Editor, lead a panel of experts dedicated to redressing racial injustice by transforming the criminal system and empowering the communities most adversely affected by it. The panelists included Gina Clayton-Johnson, Executive Director and Founder of the Essie Justice Group; Rick Jones, Executive Director and a founding member of Neighborhood Defender Services; Christy E. Lopez, Georgetown Law School Professor and Co-Director of its Innovative Policing Program; and Jason Williams, District Attorney of New Orleans. Together these panelists explored the impact of racism on policing and the court system, explained what actions have worked best for the organizations and communities they serve, and offered possibilities for lasting reforms in legal systems and civic awareness.

Neighborhood Defender Service’s (NDS) PACE Program is the 2021 grantee partner of JusticeAid, founded by HR ’73 classmate Steven Milliken.


We have created 14 videos from this forum--one of the whole event, and 13 others, divided by topic. They are all available by clicking on the image of the YouTube video screen below. Then, you can either click "play all" on the left side of your screen and the videos will play in succession, or pick and choose which videos you want to watch, all of which are listed on the right.





Sylvester Monroe '73 served as an Assistant Foreign Editor at The Washington Post in charge of reporting from Europe and South Asia from 2014 to December 2017. During his storied career, Monroe has had a variety of important assignments with Newsweek, TIME, The San Jose Mercury News, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Ebony. He is currently working on a book about the black men in Harvard’s 1973 graduating class.

Monroe graduated from Harvard University, cum laude with a B.A. in social studies in 1973. He then started as a full-time correspondent in Newsweek’s Boston bureau, where he covered the Kenneth Edelin abortion trial and school desegregation in South Boston. He served as Newsweek’s Chicago correspondent and from 1976 to 1978, as Deputy Bureau Chief from 1978 to 1983 and as Boston Bureau Chief from 1983 to 1985, when he joined Newsweek’s Washington bureau.

Monroe won several awards for his reporting on such stories as “Why Johnny Can’t Write”, “American Innovation”, and the three part series “Why Public Schools are Flunking”. Monroe covered Harold Washington’s successful Chicago mayoral campaign in 1983 and Reverend Jesse L. Jackson’s bid for the U.S. presidency in 1984. In 1987, Newsweek featured a cover story about Monroe’s return to Chicago’s housing projects to follow up on eleven of his childhood friends. The story, “Brothers” co-authored with Newsweek senior editor, Peter Goldman, developed into a best selling book, Brothers: Black and Poor—A True Story of Courage and Survival.

Monroe joined TIME Magazine in 1989 as a Los Angeles-based correspondent. There, he worked as a principal reporter for post riot coverage of the Rodney King trial, as well as on the 1993 cover story, “Is L.A. Going to Hell?” and a 1994 feature about Minister Louis Farrakhan. Monroe became deputy managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News in 2001, but later that year joined the Atlanta Journal – Constitution as Sunday editor for the National /Foreign Desk. In 2006, Monroe joined the staff of Ebony Magazine as Senior Editor, where he was political editor and covered Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Since leaving Ebony in 2009, he has worked as a freelance editor and writer for several publications including The and The Monroe has been a contract editor and writer on the Corporate Citizenship Team at Oracle Corp. and Oracle Education Foundation.

A long time member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Monroe served on the board of St. Georges Preparatory School and is a frequently sought after as a public speaker.


  • Take the time to learn more about African American history and the ongoing racial discrimination they have enduring throughout the history of this country, and with that newfound appreciation for the structural and institutional inequality African Americans still deal with to this very day, put pressure on elected officials from district attorneys to judges to take steps to end this gross inequality in the criminal system. Black people can cry racism until they have no voice left, but when whites people of good will say this is intolerable and act upon, then we get change.



Gina is the Founder and Executive Director of Essie Justice Group, the nation’s leading advocacy organization of women with incarcerated loved ones. She is also a central architect of the BREATHE Act, the largest piece of federal legislation delivered to Congress by a social movement. She has spent more than 15 years advocating for Black communities as an organizer, attorney, and advocate. As a public defense attorney, she specialized in representing low-income women facing eviction as the result of a family member’s criminal matter. She previously served on the NAACP Board of Directors. She is currently a leader of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table, a founding Advisory Council member of the National Bail Out collective, and a leading advocate for bail reform in California. Gina holds a B.A. from the University of Southern California and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.


  • Support the BREATHE Act, a visionary bill that divests our taxpayer dollars from brutal and discriminatory policing and invests in a new vision of public safety—a vision that answers the call to defund the police and allows all communities to finally BREATHE free.
  • Read and engage with the Vision for Black Lives - the Movement for Black Lives Policy platform



Rick Jones is the Executive Director and a founding member of the Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS), a community-based, client-centered holistic public defense organization with offices in Harlem and Detroit. He is a nationally and internationally recognized leader and expert in public defense and has significantly advanced the cause of racial justice and equity throughout the United States and abroad.

In 2008, Rick became the Executive Director of NDS. Under his leadership, the organization has become one of the leading public interest law firms in the world and is instrumental in continuing to transform the landscape of public defense. In October 2018, the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) awarded NDS the inaugural Defender of Justice Award, recognizing NDS as the public defense office that best exemplifies, nationally, NAPD’s mission “to provide a voice to advocate for those who cannot afford a lawyer and to provide support, training and resources in either federal, state or local justice systems.”

He served as the 59th President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) where he launched a groundbreaking racial justice agenda, including establishing the inaugural Presidential Summit on Race Matters in Detroit. He was an inaugural member of the steering committee of the NAPD, is the Vice-Chair of the board of The International Legal Foundation, a commissioner on the New York State Council on Community Re-Entry and Restoration and is a trustee of Fair Trials International.

Rick is committed to developing the next generation of public defenders both in the United States and abroad. He has lectured and trained lawyers in Afghanistan, Argentina, Brazil, India, Liberia, Nepal and throughout the United States. He is a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School and a faculty member of the National Criminal Defense College, an organization devoted to training the best criminal trial lawyers in the nation.

He is a frequent guest speaker and has appeared on CNN, C-SPAN, NPR, PBS, in The New York Times and other media presentations. He has testified before Congress, the United Nations and numerous state and local legislative bodies.


  • Get to know your general police budget and how your tax dollars are spent on policing compared with mental health services, housing, health care, and more community focused programs.
  • Get to know what your local school district is spending on police in schools. What are districts paying to keep police in schools compared with spending for textbooks, laptops, and extracurricular programs? How does this compare with other school districts in Detroit, Jackson, and Antelope Valley?
  • Get to know settlement payouts for police abuse and misconduct for your local police department. Does your municipality have a risk management fund separate and apart from the general police budget?



Christy E. Lopez is a Professor from Practice at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington D.C. She teaches courses on policing and criminal procedure and co-directs Georgetown’s Innovative Policing Program, including the Police for Tomorrow Fellowship and the ABLE (Active Bystandership in Law Enforcement) Project. She currently is co-chair of the Washington D.C. Police Reform Commission. She also is a Fellow on the American Law Institute (ALI) Principles of Law, Policing, Project and a contributing columnist to the Washington Post opinions page.

From 2010 to 2017, Professor Lopez served as a Deputy Chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. She led the Division’s group conducting pattern-or-practice investigations of police departments and other law enforcement agencies, including litigating, negotiating, and implementing consent decrees. Professor Lopez directly led the team that investigated the Ferguson Police Department and was a primary drafter of the Ferguson Report and negotiator of the Ferguson consent decree. Professor Lopez also helped coordinate the Department’s broader efforts to ensure constitutional policing. Professor Lopez was a Senior Trial Attorney in the Civil Rights Division from 1995 to 2000.

From 2003 to 2010, Professor Lopez served as a federal court monitor of the Oakland (California) Police Department for Senior District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the Northern District of California. Professor Lopez holds a juris doctor from the Yale Law School and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California at Riverside.


  • Engage and figure out what your community in particular wants police officers to do. This will probably include first responders, but we need to be thoughtful about what police would do in your community, and fund it accordingly.




The Honorable Jason Rogers Williams was sworn in as District Attorney of Orleans Parish on January 11, 2021. He attended Tulane Law School and soon after started his own law practice focused on criminal defense. After winning a series of high profile criminal cases, the Louisiana Supreme Court appointed Jason to serve as a judge in New Orleans’ Criminal District Court. In 2014, he saw an opportunity to begin trying to make government work for the people of New Orleans and ran for City Council. He was a council member for six years, four of which he served as Council President, before being elected District Attorney on a promise of sweeping justice reforms. Jason is a proud and devoted father to three children: 2 year old Xavier, 14 year old Graham and 20 year old Zoe. He lives in uptown New Orleans with his wife, Dr. Liz Marcell Williams, founder and CEO of the Center for Resilience, his two young sons, and a very lazy pit bull, Ignatius.


We have a progressive agenda aimed at reforms and changes to ensure we have a criminal legal system that serves all people. With that, we need help spreading the word and helping people to know about and understand the work that DA Williams is doing in New Orleans. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @OrleansParishDA and @RunWithJason.

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