Law and Punishment Theme of Black Heritage Symposium
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Susan BurtonPORTSMOUTH MAY 3, 2014

The Coloring of Law and Punishment: Exploring the Role of Race, Ethnicity and Class in Incarceration is the theme of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail 10th annual spring symposium on Saturday, May 3, from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the Discover Portsmouth Center, 10 Middle Street. (Click headline for details) 

Through productive dialogue, the symposium will explore the history of law and punishment in our state, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities and the range of social problems associated with incarceration. Presenters will examine the impact of incarceration on communities of color, the generalized criminalization of those communities most affected by poverty and racial discrimination and what a shift from punitive to restorative justice in the way our criminal system addresses crime would look like.

Prisons and Jails have become familiar fixtures in our communities so much so that we take them for granted and often dismiss the larger role that race, ethnicity and class plays in incarceration.  The United States has seen an increase of more than 500% in the number of people incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails since the 1970’s resulting in a total of 2.2 million people behind bars.

 2014 Black Heritage Sympoium

This growth has been accompanied by an increasingly disproportionate racial composition, with particularly high rates of incarceration for African Americans, who now constitute 900,000 of the total 2.2 million incarcerated nationally. New Hampshire is not immune from the staggering racially slanted statistics. A 2011 study done by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies showed that the arrests of black/African-American youth was more than 3 times higher than that for white non-Hispanic youth.

 The opening address outlining shifting federal prosecution priorities in New Hampshire will be given by United States District Attorney, John Kacavas. The keynote address featuring California native and founder of A New Way of Life, Susan Burton, will follow opening address.

Susan Burton is a formerly incarcerated woman who understands the challenges people face upon leaving prison. After more than 20 years cycling in and out of the criminal justice system, unable to find work, housing, or drug treatment, Susan finally gained freedom and sobriety in 1997 and made it her life’s work to help other women walking in her shoes. Challenging all of the rules, laws, policies, and attitudes Susan came to understand that real change could only happen through a powerful, grassroots community organizing effort—one that could amass enough political power to bring an end to discriminatory practices, and shift public attitudes in a way that would break the cycle of mass imprisonment.

Susan was recently nominated as a CNN Top 10 Hero in the category of “community crusader.” She was also awarded the Citizen Activist Award from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2010.

A short film, The Scholar and the Sailor, that show how a book changed one prisoner’s life, will be presented by Professor Jeff Bolster during lunch.

A panel discussion, featuring Courtney Marshall, Brenda Lett and Andrew Smith feat will bring the dialogue full circle by offering not only a historical perspective on law and punishment but will also focus on current issues around incarceration, race, ethnicity and class. 

This event is facilitated by JerriAnne Boggis, director of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, and co-sponsored by the Prudential, Discover Portsmouth Center, Portsmouth Historical Society and Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.