Racism and Criminal Justice Reform Forum
By Thomas Fiebiger
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis spoke at Redeemer on January 18th as part of the year long series on systemic racism and ways to make a difference that Redeemer Lutheran, Westwood Lutheran and Edina Community Lutheran churches have partnered together to present. But the Judge's presentation was so much more than a primer on our broken criminal justice system. It was inspirational and aspirational in this time of uncertainty.
Judge Davis started his thoughtful and prophetic message the way he ended, with a sense of history and the importance of taking the long view. His great grandfathers both fought in the Civil War. They were slaves who had escaped and fought on behalf of the Union to end slavery. Judge Davis aptly referred to the Civil War as this country's "second founding." You see, prior to that, slavery permeated our country. Even after the "second founding" we continue to live in a country where black people and other folks of color are treated as less than. Our criminal justice system, according to the Judge, continues to systemically lift up and perpetuate that disparity. Judge Davis spoke of the required mandatory minimum sentences that he, as a federal judge, often through tears, was required by law to visit most harshly upon Blacks and Hispanics. We also got a glimpse into the judge's soul, as he was vulnerable in a way that let us see the human toll such a process takes over the years on a black man of great intelligence and accomplishment and who is blessed with a generous heart grounded in justice.
The Judge spoke of the need to create real opportunities for young people of color in our community if they are to have any meaningful chance to succeed. He spoke of the opportunity he had to be successful and the importance for all to have that same opportunity. The Judge noted that means tackling poverty and economic insecurity so our children have basic necessities like places to live and food to eat. It means figuring out a way to not make folks, primarily black males, continue to be punished by our society after they have already served their sentences. Judge Davis noted how when black males have convictions, it immediately limits their future options in life - including real job opportunities and housing options. These convictions prevent them from receiving student loans so they have an opportunity to move forward and can create a meaningful future.
The Judge urged people to get involved, to physically show up and view their judges hand out sentences in court and hold those judges accountable for how they sentence citizens, particularly citizens of color. He urged us, as people of faith communities, to continually contact our congressional and legislative representatives about sentencing reform and other issues that perpetuate systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
After a 40 minute presentation, Judge Davis generously spent another hour answering a wide variety of questions and responding to comments from a full sanctuary of community folks who were there to learn and engage in real dialogue.
Judge Davis made it clear to all in that sanctuary that, after a 40 year legal career of service to people and justice for all, with 34 of those years as a judge, he was as he proclaimed "still fired up."