University of Minnesota student groups collaborated with legislators and community leaders last week to discuss problems in the criminal justice system and what students can do to help fix them.
The Black Student Union and Minnesota Student Association hosted a panel on Jan. 28 to have a conversation about the “broken” criminal justice system. Panelists included Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, and Leslie Redmond, president of the Minneapolis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“We're in a very polarizing state, so it's important to be able to create spaces for dialogue, where there's people of different nationalities, backgrounds and understandings ... to be able to hold these important conversations,” said BSU University Engagement Chair Majeste Phillip, who was also on the panel to represent the student voice.
Some of the topics included racial disparity in prison populations, lack of “reactivation” — adjustment to life after a person's prison release — and issues within public education. All of these, panelists said, are caused in part by the criminal justice system.
Last semester, some MSA members raised concerns about the lack of collaboration between the undergraduate student government and other student groups. Bri Sislo-Schutta, a member of BSU who also works on MSA's Government and Legislative Affairs team, decided to use her connection between both student organizations to collaborate on the topic.
Having BSU involved, Sislo-Schutta said, was vital to the conversation. “It was critically important that they were involved in this and have a seat at the table and have a seat in planning and collaborating on the event.”
Abdullahi Abdille, a student and BSU member, said he came to the panel because talking about criminal justice is ultimately talking about the betterment of society.
“The criminal justice system doesn't really do what it's intended to, per se … the tendency is to be taking people out of society, but it has no platform reactivating them … it seems more to punish people,” Abdille said.
While 6.6 percent of Minnesota's population is black, black individuals make up 36.3 percent of the adult in-state prison population, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
“Pick a subject, pick the system,” Redmond said during the panel. “They're all literally built on the backs of white supremacy, and racism and injustice in America, on American soil.”
Noor and Dziedzic encouraged MSA to hold a conversation about the topic on campus. Students, Noor said, could become the next attorneys, judges or influential community members, and so “play a vital role” in what legislators do about criminal justice reform.
“This is about empowerment and being able to give them the role and say, ‘Look you can be an effective leader’ and be able to address the issues of criminal justice as a student,” Noor said.