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By Donna Owens

A panel of civil rights activists, legal minds, thought leaders and community members assembled Friday at the National Urban League conference in Baltimore to discuss the issue of criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration.

The two-hour forum, kicked off by Urban League president Marc Morial and moderated by the Reverend Al Sharpton, drew a receptive audience. To date, the convention has welcomed guests such as Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine, and held sessions on topics such as economic empowerment and saving America's cities.

After attorney Jenny Kim of Koch Industries, which sponsored the event, declared that there has been an “explosive increase” in incarceration in the United States, several panelists ticked off data. For example, one in 10 black men in their 30s are in incarcerated in the U.S. One in 50 children have a parent in prison. And there are some 6,000 youth in adult jails nationwide.

“We cannot have flash-point movements to settle systemic problems,” said Sharpton of the statistics, noting that black America has to “change the temperature in the kitchen” when it comes to battling systemic racism.

That outgrowth, said Morial, has contributed to mass incarceration across the country, hitting black communities especially hard.

Cornell William-Brooks, a Yale-educated attorney and President of the NAACP, told the audience that what's happening across the nation involving the outcomes of African Americans and the penal system demands attention and reform. He said mandatory minimums and other sentencing laws are “condemning our people to the bowels of the criminal justice system.”

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Brooks urged protests, polls and policy change “en masse and in the millions.” He added that in 2015 more than 900 lives were lost via police and citizen encounters; so far this year, he added, more than 500 people have been killed at the hands of law enforcement. He noted that the nation needs national standards regarding use of force and police conduct.

Among the panelists was attorney William ‘Billy' Murphy Jr., who represented the family of Freddie Gray, whose police custody death last year in Baltimore sparked unrest.He told the crowd that with the upcoming November 8th Presidential Election, people of color must do everything possible to help elect someone other than Republican nominee Donald Trump. He described the rhetoric around the candidate as “hopelessly ignorant and hopelessly racist.”

Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, a nonpartisan group, said “African Americans must turn out the black vote in record numbers.” “What’s at stake? Everything!”

The panel discussion came one day after President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of more than 200 men and women in prisons across the country, most for non-violent drug offenses.

Benjamin Crump, president of the National Bar Association, comprised of African-American lawyers, compared today's high prison rates to slavery, and noted "we’ve got to quit incentivizing mass-incarceration.” Like others on the panel, he urged the audience to use the power of the ballot to hold elected officials accountable.

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Destiny-Simone Ramjohn, a healthcare industry professional in her 30’s, was attending her first Urban League conference. She called the event “powerful.” “The intellect and authority of the panelists had been transformative,” she says. She added, “Young people are uniquely positioned to organize a modern movement that can help change policies and practices.”

The panel exchange inspired many in the audience and built on existing relationships. For example, Stephen Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety, said he had been working with panelist Mark V. Holden of Koch Industries.

Both men described today’s dialogue as an important step towards changing the system.

"It was an exceptional gathering of the many voices both within the black and community and individuals outside the community concerned about the impact of mass incarceration,” said Hawkins.

Holden agreed. “We're speaking to the depth of the problems and also solutions. "

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