By Patrick C. Graham, Ph.D.
The fact that America is the largest jailor globally is no longer a secret, especially for African Americans. Black bodies disproportionately fill our prison industrial complex in states five times higher than whites despite a 34 percent decrease in the number of African Americans imprisoned since 2006. One of the major causes of the perpetuation of Black imprisonment is racialized sentencing in our court systems. Disparities in sentencing overshadow the reduction in the Black crime rate. However, a faith-based movement in Richmond, Virginia, “The Save Robert ‘Wize’ Green Coalition,” has a solution. Governors need to use their clemency powers to dismantle systemic over-sentencing of African Americans as states and our nation consider sentencing reform.
Disparities in Sentencing of African Americans
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Black men receive sentences 20 times longer than white men for the same crimes. A national study by The Sentencing Project out of Washington, DC, attributes the top three contributing factors of sentencing disparities to race. Factors include the legacy of racial subordination, discriminatory policies and practices, and structural disadvantages. While these findings are not surprising to judicial reform advocates, the resilience of these systemic practices is so deeply rooted in our American psyche and identity that it will take drastic measures to dismantle. Justice advocates in Virginia have found a solution for a man over-sentenced in the state’s corrections system, whose will has inspired a movement.
A Movement for Clemency and a Black Man
On January 1, 2021, The Save Robert “Wize” Green Coalition, a group of faith-based organizations led by the Exodus Foundation.org, Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Richmond and Vicinity, Faith Leaders Moving Forward, Henrico’s Ministers Conference, Initiatives for Change, LIVE FREE, and partners launched the “Century of Mass Clemency.” The Century of Mass Clemency is a strategy to inspire governors across the country to use their clemency powers to reduce the sentences of over-incarcerated individuals in the 21st Century. It is also a proposed tool to address racial disparities for over-incarceration. Interestingly, the coalition’s identity is inseparable from a prisoner who inspired the movement.
Robert “Wize” Green has served 20 years of a 36-year sentence for youthful minor offenses he committed at 19 years old. He was prosecuted for burglary and wounding of an officer (an arresting officer scraped their knee during the arrest) and has not known freedom for most of his life. However, Wize’s existence in the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) is a story filled with irony. Wize is a prisoner-employee of the VADOC in charge of preparing and introducing fellow inmates back into society. In other words, Wize prepares others for reentry into communities but cannot have that same freedom for himself. He has one of the best profiles based on criteria for non-recidivism. It is hard for the Wize Coalition, and myself for that matter, to understand why a person like Wize would be over-incarcerated. The life of Wize, his demeanor, and his resilience for himself and fellow inmates inspired the Wize Coalition to start a clemency movement.
Governors Must Use Their Powers for Good
The story of Wize is not uncommon. Thousands of Black men and women find themselves behind bars for extended periods due to unfair practices of many judges, prosecutors, and jail systems. In Wize’s case, Virginia’s Ralph Northam, a lame-duck governor in his last year of office, could permit him to see the freedom Wize inspires for others. The skills of Wize could be used on the outside to prevent others from reaching the doors of our prisons. No politics are facing Northam, or anyone in his cabinet that could further justify Wize’s continued incarceration. Northam, must develop the courage to change a system of over-incarceration with the stroke of his pen.
Like Northam,, governors across the country should consider clemency as a way to right systemic injustices in sentencing while inspiring new reforms. Too much of America’s talent, especially Black talent, is locked away due to unjust policies and practices. Other organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Urban Institute support clemency by governors as a corrective tool. The majority of voting Americans support the commuting of sentences in various forms. Our country does not have to be the top global jailor. We certainly must overcome our racism, as it harms our ability to compete and lead the world. Governors can set us on a path of reform and redemption. They can make a “Wize” choice with a signature.
About the Author
Patrick Graham, Ph.D., is a social and public sector leader and historian with over 20 years of executive-level experience in policy development and programs. He is also a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) practitioner. Dr. Graham currently serves as the CEO of the Concord Family Enrichment Association and several regional and national boards.
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