BALSA symposium addresses race, poverty, and the criminal justice system (VIDEO)

On March 26, the NYU Black Allied Students Association (BALSA) presented a symposium on “American Tragedy: Race, Poverty, and the Criminal Justice System.” Experts gathered at NYU School of Law to discuss issues ranging from the immigration consequences of criminal convictions to juvenile life without parole. Ashley Harrington '13, BALSA's symposium chair, introduced the day, explaining, "our mission is to use our privilege and resources to empower the communities we care about... and this symposium is really important to us in fulfilling that mission."

The day opened with a panel featuring JoJo Annobil, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s city-wide immigration law unit, Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, and Manuel Vargas '84, founder and senior counsel of the Immigrant Defense Project. In a conversation about the collateral immigration consequences of criminal convictions, Vargas discussed the difference between immigration law at the federal and state levels. While efforts by immigrant advocates at the federal level have been of a more defensive nature, he said, trying to prevent the law from becoming harsher, there have been more success stories at the state level. He pointed particularly to legislation in the state of Washington, where immigrant advocates joined with criminal justice advocates to compose legislation that would reduce the maximum sentence for misdemeanors to 364 days from 365 days. This crucial one-day reduction allows immigrants convicted of minor infractions to avoid mandatory deportation, which would otherwise be required by federal law.

"Domestic violence victim advocates supported this legislation," Vargas said, "because what they were seeing in many cases was that victims were reluctant to file violence complaints, to testify, because the victim may have been seeking some sanction or an order of protection, but wasn’t seeking deportation of the spouse, who might be the parent of the children of the victim."

Kim Taylor-ThompsonIn a second panel, Professor Kim Taylor-Thompson was joined by Avis E. Buchanan, director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, Sheri Lynn Johnson, assistant director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, and Jason Williamson, staff attorney at the ACLU for a discussion on “Selective Enforcement, Selective Punishment, and Disproportionate Impact: Our Criminal justice System.”

In her remarks, Taylor-Thompson brought up Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two cases challenging the constitutionality of life without parole for juvenile homicide, argued by Professor Bryan Stevenson before the Supreme Court last month. “We are the only country in the world that will sentence a thirteen-year-old to life in prison,” said Taylor-Thompson. “An overwhelming number of teenagers are placed in the adult criminal justice system, and an overwhelming number of them are children of color. It seems that while youth should be a mitigating factor, when you add race to the mix, all of the sudden that makes a child something other than a child.”

The symposium concluded with a panel discussion of current issues in juvenile justice, focusing on issues including disproportionate minority contact and juvenile life without parole.

Watch the full video of Panel 1 (1 h 20 min):


Watch the full video of Panel 2 (1 h 16 min):

Posted April 23, 2012