Sometimes I feel as if freedom is slowly slipping away from African Americans.
Not because someone is violently attempting to take it from us. No. Our freedom is slipping like sand between our fingers, and it is doing so because of voter apathy.
I felt our freedom slipping away after the presidential election, when the winning candidate thanked blacks for not coming out to vote for his opponent. I felt it slipping away in the last mayoral primary, when Democrat Jim Kenney won with only 27 percent of eligible voters casting ballots.
But perhaps most troubling, I feel our freedom slipping away now. Monday is the final day to register to vote in the May 16 Pennsylvania primary. That election will likely decide Philadelphia’s next District Attorney. If blacks don’t participate, apathy will have won the day again, and black voters will have no one to blame but ourselves.
We are, after all, the people most likely to be victimized by an unfair criminal justice system. Numerous studies from Yale, the Sentencing Project and other sources have shown that blacks are more likely to be arrested than our white counterparts, even when the records and offenses are similar. Once arrested, blacks are more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, blacks are more likely to face harsher sentences.
In Philadelphia, where poverty is concentrated in black and Latino communities, there are also other issues at play. Blacks who are too poor to afford lawyers are often represented by overburdened public defenders who don’t provide adequate defense. At other times, impoverished blacks get court-appointed attorneys who take the money and run.
But perhaps the most insidious racial inequity at the root of our criminal justice system is high bail.
When people are charged with crimes in Philadelphia, they are often imprisoned in municipal jails for many months simply because they are too poor to pay the bail.
A district attorney who understands the racial and economic disparities in the system could help to solve that problem by using the prosecutorial discretion that comes with the office.
A community-focused DA would make sure the charges are commensurate with the crime, working to assure that black defendants with records similar to their white counterparts are not overcharged.
A community-focused DA could recommend lower bail or seek pre-trial alternatives other than county prisons when the situation warrants leniency. A community-focused DA could seek to use his office to uplift Philadelphians rather than advance his or her political career.
We need a community-focused DA, and it’s up to us to get one.
The black community cannot afford to vote for a District Attorney just because established politicians endorse him. We cannot afford to vote for a district attorney because he has the glossiest commercials. And given the Fraternal Order of Police’s animosity toward the movement to stop police from killing unarmed blacks, African Americans must look warily at anyone the FOP endorses.
This is no time for politics as usual. The district attorney’s office is too important to our community, and the stakes are too high for our children.
African Americans must not stay home on May 16 and watch someone else choose the city’s top law enforcement officer. If we do, we will have lost just a little more freedom. And we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.
Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 7 to 10 a.m. on 900 AM WURD