Criminal Justice & Race Relations: Millennial Priority, Election 2016

By, Siraj Hashmi

In the final year of Barack Obama's presidency, the urgency has never been higher to reform the criminal justice system in the United States, especially in relation to communities of color.

An August poll released by USA Today/Rock the Vote found that criminal justice reform has now become as important to millennials under the age of 35 as jobs & the economy, student loan reform, and foreign policy. Nearly a quarter of millennials surveyed believe the issues within our nation's criminal justice system should be a priority for the next president.

The same poll also found that a growing number of millennials believe that police violence against African Americans is a problem--72 percent of millennials--which is up 11 points from a similar poll conducted in January. Alternatively, 77 percent of millennials say they are concerned for the safety of police officers.

While violence between law enforcement and communities of color has been an issue throughout America's history, these last few years have increased public awareness to the issue and has created a debate over whose lives matter more.

"I think in terms of All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, we're not really discussing the power and privileges that are afforded to non-black bodies," said Whitney Shepard, organizer for the Black Youth Project in Washington, D.C.

Black Lives Matter, the grassroots organization that has fought for criminal justice reform amongst other causes, has been criticized for ignoring black-on-black crime in cities such as Chicago, and instead protest and riot against local law enforcement when an officer uses lethal force against a person of color that results either in severe injury or death.

"We can't ignore the fact that the criminal element within the black and Hispanic community is quite high," said Dana W. White, founder and CEO of the consultation firm, 1055 Grandy, and a former advisor to Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic blacks accounted for nearly 40 percent of the prison and jail population in 2009. And, according to the Sentencing Project , a report found that one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life. Compared to other males of different races, one in six Latinos and one in 17 whites can expect to go to prison in their life.

Despite the racial disparity, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the population . Jesse Wiese, Director of Community Engagement at the Prison Fellowship, has an idea why that is.

"The federal government told states, 'We will give you money to build prisons if you increase your sentencing laws to match the federal guidelines in certain cases," Wiese explained.

The signs are all pointing towards reform, it's just a matter of when the next president decides to tackle the issue.