Biloxi Town Hall Meeting: A Candid Discussion on the War on Drugs on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

town_hall.jpgConcerned citizens of Biloxi gathered for a town hall meeting Thursday night March 31st to discuss the impact of the War on Drugs on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The meeting began with an overview of the criminal record expungement process given by Latrice Westbrook, Esq.  Following the informative presentation, Dawn Stough, Esq. moderated a panel discussion and a Q&A with citizens.  The town hall was organized by One Voice and My Voice Vote Campaign and co-sponsored by Steps Coalition, MS Center for Justice, Biloxi NAACP, Stone County NAACP, Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, District 119, and Law Offices of Dawn Strough, PLLC.

Criminal Record Expungement Process

What is expungement?

It is the process of sealing and concealing criminal records.  Once a record has been expunged, the individual does not need to disclose the arrest or conviction including to employers.  A person who has had his/her record expunged can honestly answer no to the question, "Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?"

What types of records can be expunged?

Only state crimes can be expunged and can only be done in the state in which the arrest or conviction took place.  Each state has its own laws for expungement.  In Mississippi, an individual can have only one record expunged after sentencing is completed.  Every misdemeanor is eligible for expungement and can be requested without a lawyer.  DUIs, however, have additional restrictions, such as the record can be expunged for the first DUI only five years after the sentence has been served and requires a lawyer.  There are are six felony charges that are eligible for conviction- 1) possession of a controlled substance; 2) larceny; 3) malicious mischief; 4) false pretense; 5) shoplifting; 6) felony bad check. There is also a five year waiting period for felony convictions, but there are some exceptions.

What are the costs associated with expungement?

There are court fees associated with the expungement that vary depending on the crime.  An individual would need to ask the court clerk and be prepared to pay costs when filing a request for expungement.  A person must also pay lawyer fees associated with filing the request unless the individual participates in a free clinic.

For more information about expungement, contact Mississippi Center for Justice.

Voting Rights

According to Mississippi law, there are 21 crimes that disenfranchise a person.  The convictions include Armed Robbery, Arson, Bigamy, Bribery, Carjacking, Embezzlement, Extortion, Felony Bad Check, Felony Shoplifting, Forgery, Larceny, Murder, Perjury, Rape, Receiving Stolen Property, Robbery, Statutory Rape, Theft, Timber Larceny, Unlawful Taking of a Vehicle, Obtaining Money or Goods under False Pretense.  However, voting rights can restored if the crime has been expunged or reinstated by the state legislature.  The process for restoring voting rights for convictions that cannot be expunged requires an individual to get state representative to introduce a bill to restore individual voting rights.  The bill is introduced through suffrage process of the judiciary committee.

Click here to learn more about your voting rights

Panel Discussion and Q&A:  The Impact of the War on Drugs on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Disparities in the impact on the War on Drugs

There are significant racial disparities in incarceration. About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug. Yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.  Check out NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet for more information.

Contributing factors

Historical and current forms of racism, lack of diversity in the criminal justice system, over policing in communities of color, and the privatization of prisons were sited as contributing to the disparity of incarceration rates. 

Solutions

The importance of diversity in the criminal justice system emerged in the panel discussion and community conversation during the town hall.  Panelists and citizens agreed that diversity in law enforcement, prosecutors, district attorneys, judges, and jury plays an important role in reducing disparity of incarceration rates and sentencing. 

Drug use diversion programs also play an important role in reducing sentencing.  The program offers an individual the opportunity to avoid persecution by completing the requirements of the program which at a minimum require drug testing.  There is a fee associated with the program.  If a person cannot afford the program, he/she can request a waiver.  However, a waiver is not available for everyone who asks for it.  The costs and transportation pose challenges for many people entering and/or completing the program.  Click here for more information about Harrison County Drug Court Program.

Transitional Programs are important for keeping ex offenders from returning to prison.  70% of ex offenders come out of prison with drug and alcohol problems and little to no skills.  Transitional programs provide housing, job training and/or re-entry, and substance abuse services for ex offenders.  Shaheed Ali, President and Founder of MS Gulf Coast Transitional Program participated as a panelist.  To learn more about his program, email msgulfcoast.tprogramali@yahoo.com or call 228.234.5425.

Drug Use: A criminal or public health issue?

More and more people are questioning whether drug use should be treated as a public health issue rather than as a criminal one.  Panelists and citizens debated this issue during the town hall meeting.  Decriminalization and ending the privatization of prison were offered by a few citizens as important solutions to address the devastating impact the War on Drugs has had on communities of color.

What to learn more? Check out the links below on the drug war:

LEAP: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition http://www.leap.cc/

A retired Narc's stunning inside view of how Drug War perpetuates itself
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3G2ca3WNCz0

Noam Chomsky discusses history of criminalization of drugs and how decriminalizing drugs will save taxpayers money.  Research shows the most effective and least costly way to handle the drug problem is prevention and treatment.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-JX0yXDlh8

Click here to check out the list of documentaries available on Netflix about US War on Drugs

A brief, disturbing history of war on drugs: http://national.suntimes.com/national-world-news/7/72/2555225/brief-troubling-history-war-on-drugs


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