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Then & now: How racism still affects our criminal justice system

If you happen to be a history buff (or pay attention to the news), you probably know that this week marks two historic anniversaries. Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the day that President Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address to dedicate a new military cemetery during the Civil War.

And tomorrow will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Both of these presidents were assassinated, and both are remembered for their important contributions to the causes of freedom and equal rights for African Americans. Unfortunately, half a century after the death of President Kennedy, African Americans still face inequality and injustice in several aspects of American society, including the criminal justice system.

National crime statistics reveal that in Wisconsin and across the country, African Americans are much more likely than whites to be arrested and prosecuted for drug offenses and other crimes. This is despite the fact that rates of drug use are similar among the two groups.

There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the criminal justice system treats all Americans equally, regardless of color. That being said, some historically racist parts of the country are making attempts to correct the racial injustices of the past.

This week, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted posthumous pardons to three men who were among nine black teenagers wrongfully convicted of rape in 1931. The nine defendants, known collectively as the "Scottsboro Boys," had been accused of gang-raping two white women.

The Scottsboro Boys were hastily convicted by an all-white jury, and all served time in prison. The case would eventually lead to two important rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, and many believe it also helped start the modern civil rights movement.

In 1937, five of the Scottsboro Boys had their convictions overturned along with having the charges against them dismissed. It wasn't until 1976 that a sixth member of the group was pardoned by the Governor of Alabama. This week, the final three Scottsboro Boys were pardoned.

Although the men are now deceased and the gesture is therefore symbolic, it nonetheless sends an important message. It has been said that those who don't learn from history are bound to repeat it. By recognizing the racism and prejudice in America's past, we can hopefully work to erase the racial biases that still linger in our criminal justice system.

Source: New York Times, "Alabama Grants Pardons in 1931 Scottsboro Boys Rape Case," Nov. 21, 2013

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