NATCHITOCHES – Northwestern State University’s Black Alumni Association hosted a panel to discuss progress related to Criminal Justice reform policies, as well as the social and economic aspects of policies that have both driven and impeded the progress for reforming these laws. The panel also discussed the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act that put in place reforms to the state criminal justice systems, with provisions to expand parole eligibility, reduce mandatory sentences for certain crimes and permit the early release of inmates statewide.
Panelists included Charles Newberry, a corrections industry executive; Dr. Mark Melder, associate professor of criminal justice at NSU; Myesha Braden, director of the Criminal Justice Project, and NSU alumni Dr. Kurt Clark Sr., pastor of Sardis Missionary Baptist Church; Cloyd Benjamin Jr., first assistant to the Natchitoches Parish District Attorney; Nicole Gray, BAA founder, and Chena Johnson, BAA president.
Braden, a lawyer and Natchitoches native who worked at the U.S. Justice Department for 16 years, said the focus of her organization, the Criminal Justice Project, is ending mass incarceration, challenging the criminalization of poverty and ending practices that enable mass incarceration. Her organization is involved in indigent defense, advocacy and promoting community trust of police and hopes to improve efforts that prepare individuals coming out of incarceration to reenter society.
Braden said it is difficult to discuss criminal justice without discussing race, but the discussion was positive.
“It was a brilliant idea to have this panel. People brought their hearts and minds to the table,” she said.
“Most people don’t think about criminal justice reform unless it affects them personally or they are faced with the heavy responsibility of defending, prosecuting, and/or sentencing American citizens for both violent and non-violent crimes,” Gray said. “It is incumbent upon the larger community to participate in the conversation because it impacts everyone both financially and socially.”
Gray said BAA plans to host another panel later this spring to explore what both students and the community can do to create actionable steps towards improving the criminal justice system.