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Judge Donald Nominated for Court of Appeals

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Special to the NNPA from the Tri-State Defender –

President Barack Obama last week announced his nomination of Judge Bernice Donald for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Donald, who serves as federal bankruptcy judge in Memphis, has a history of trailblazing.

In 1982, Donald was elected to serve as a judge on the Court of General Sessions in Shelby County, making her the first female African-American judge in the history of Tennessee. Six years later, she became the first female African-American federal bankruptcy judge in the nation when she was appointed to that position by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Congressman Steve Cohen said he congratulated Donald on the nomination during a call last week. “I’ve known Judge Donald for over 30 years, including when she presented cases before me as an attorney during my brief tenure as Shelby County General Sessions Court Judge in 1980. I’ve known her to be fair, honest and just,” said Cohen. “As I told her when we spoke today, she has served Memphis proud.”

Judge Donald will now face the confirmation process in the U.S. Senate.

Donald received both her undergraduate degree and her J.D. from the University of Memphis. Her broad range of legal experience also includes private practice and the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

Pittsburgh Assistant Chief of Police: Crack Cocaine a Key to Community Breakdown

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By Karen Harris Brooks, Special to the NNPA from the New Pittsburgh Courier –

The overwhelming existence of drugs within many African-American neighborhoods has taken a toll on the once close-knit communities. The influx of these illicit narcotics could not have been predicted by the people who live within the boundaries of once thriving and safe environments. Communities have witnessed a decline in the value of lives of the young, the care of the elderly, and trust among each other.

Assistant Pittsburgh Chief of Police Maurita Bryant, a native Pittsburgher, remembers all too well the initial breakdown of the African-American family, as a result of the infiltration of the highly addictive crack cocaine. When you watch the assistant chief of investigations update crucial crime information to the local audience, one is assured that she is both qualified and sagacious. Among those enviable attributes, you will also find a deep sense of commitment to her native Pittsburgh.

Aware of the various communities she is inherently concerned about the troubling turmoil that exists within the neighborhoods she knows so well.

While she admits there are many contributing factors, she remembers the influx of crack, relating it to the beginning of the destruction of Black communities. While heroin was always a problem, she said. It was the inducement of crack that brought about a victimization of families and communities, she said. Bryant speaks with the wisdom that has come from her 33 years in law enforcement.

“The craving for this drug was, not only more intense, but it was a continual addiction. Unfortunately, more females became victims of the addictive crack cocaine. The impact was extreme. This led to more prostitution to acquire the drug. As a result, children were left alone. Women were always the ones holding things together within the family, but with this addiction, there was no one to take care of the home or the kids,” she said. In particular, when both parties fell prey to the lure of the addictive substance,” she said.

Employed as a police officer at the time, Bryant remembers the gradual transition of crack addiction occurring in the early 1980’s. The manufacture, accessibility, and sale of the cocaine derivative became an intensifying path for many unwilling victims, leading to a new wave of rising crimes that did not previously exist within the African-American community. “Most of these crimes,” she said, “are caused by someone under the influence. Somewhere in the mix, drugs have been a contributing factor to the crime itself.”

The quest for drugs and the love of money is a force that fuels the crime rate, including the rash of violent shootings and homicides, she said. The problems exist within every community and neighborhood across the country, and Bryant is active in educating others as she resolves to do everything she can to help solve this issue.

While it is difficult to pull out concrete numbers regarding drug arrests, the numbers are high among both juveniles and adults. Adults, negotiating sales, are using more and more children to deliver the product because the sentencing guidelines for youth are not as harsh, she said. Anytime of the day or night in many neighborhoods, young men possess identifiable street corners, claiming the territorial boundaries. They are well aware of the circumstances surrounding the mother or father who ignores the security and well-being of their children for the euphoric exchange. She said although many sales are conducted with non-minorities who drive to the minority neighborhood to make a purchase, the desire for the drug or subsequent money from the sale outweighs the risks as they expose themselves to arrest or robbery, or even death.

The vicious cycle between the seller, the addict, the enabler, and family is all too familiar to Bryant. She acknowledges that there is a crucial need to touch not only the addicted, but also the young men and women on the corners and those incarcerated, her views regarding alcohol and drug addiction is empathetic.

She is easily recognizable and greets members of the community with a sincere acknowledgement and a smile. Her demeanor is reserved and concise; her schedule is engaging. She said she is dedicated to the education of herself and her peers, travelling across the country seeking and sharing knowledge that aids her in her own community. Her wisdom and skills have been acquired throughout her impressive career within the Bureau. Recently Bryant served as one of the panel experts at a Town Hall meeting addressing addiction in the Pittsburgh area, and continues to travel across the country lecturing and sharing with other communities the problems of drug addiction.

It is difficult to separate professionalism from personal sentiment, but the Assistant Chief manages to do so in a very unique and concrete manner. Because of her desire to make the streets of Pittsburgh safer, Bryant’s heart remains in the communities she serves each day.

From the addict to the boy on the corner to those incarcerated, Bryant passionately says that the solution lies in the “need to touch one individual at a time. I don’t think the young men involved in criminal activity or the drugs plaguing our communities constitute a state of hopelessness. We can do better and be better. I think we just have to work harder at lifting people up far enough, so they can see a way out of the holes they’ve dug for themselves. A state of hopelessness is when it is easier to condemn someone rather than to help them.”

Former New Orleans Police Officer Sentenced for Role in Danziger Bridge Shootings

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Special to the NNPA from theDefendersonline.com –

A former New Orleans police officer was sentenced to a maximum of eight years in prison for his role in the notorious Danziger Bridge police shooting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

The shooting, in which a group of police officers launched an unprovoked attack on unarmed civilians who were crossing the bridge, left two men dead, and four people wounded.

The officers initially claimed they had come under fire and were only defending themselves. But that claim and the cover-up the officers concocted slowly unraveled under the weight of multiple local, state, and federal investigations of the conduct of the city’s beleaguered police department after the hurricane struck.

Michael Hunter, 33, who had pleaded guilty in April to obstruction of justice and misprision of a felony — failing to report a crime — apologized to the families of the victims in a hushed courtroom of the U.S. District Court in New Orleans. He said he was sorry for “not having the courage” to admit the crime that had occurred and his own role in it.

Hunter was the driver of the rented van that delivered a group of police officers to the bridge on September 4, 2005. When their fusillade ended, James Brissette, 17, lay dead, and Ronald Madison, 40, lay fatally wounded. Four family members of the two men were wounded. The families did not know each other and were not walking together on the bridge. They had simply crossed the bridge in search of food and medical help.

The shooting immediately produced a firestorm of controversy. Hunter eventually struck a plea deal with Justice Department investigators, providing a detailed description of what had happened at the Bridge after the officers arrived, including which police officers fired the shots that killed Madison and Brissette.

The pressure to pursue justice in the case was such that when the federal indictments against the police officers were announced last July, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. traveled to the city to participate in the news conference with the U.S. Attorney for New Orleans.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah S. Vance brushed aside Hunter’s apology, excoriating him and the other officers involved for their “profound breach of public trust” and “appalling perversion” and savagery.”

She sentenced him to the maximum amount of time in prison for his guilty plea. His sentence could be reduced, depending on his testimony at the upcoming trials of his former brother officers.

Hunter is expected to testify at the trials of the six other indicted officers in the case. Those trials are scheduled to begin in June.

New Dane County District Attorney Tackles Racial Disparities

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By A. David Dahmer, Special to the NNPA from The Madison Times –

The 13th annual Autumn Gathering reception was held recently at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, in Madison, WI. The Madison Network of Black Professionals, Monona Terrace Convention Center, and The Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) hosted the event, which featured a talk by keynote speaker Ismael Ozanne, the Dane County district attorney. Ozanne is the first African-American district attorney in Wisconsin's history.

The Autumn Gathering was initiated 13 years ago as a way for convention sales managers from the GMCVB to introduce themselves to the business leaders within the African American community. During the years, this networking opportunity has grown to include many ethnically diverse business leaders and groups in the Madison area. The goal of the reception is for the GMCVB to connect with business leaders who belong to national associations and work through these contacts to bring more multi-cultural association convention business to Madison.

As part of his keynote speech, Ozanne talked about the racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Wisconsin has routinely ranked at or near the top of states for the rate it locks up Blacks compared to Whites. Ozanne talked about some of his experiences as a prosecutor in the Dane County District Attorney’s Office.

“What I found is that the young White kids coming in had attorneys and had parents and oftentimes before I could get out the true nature of what drug court is, the parents were telling the child, “Do you understand that this is what you are going to be doing? This is where you will be going,” Ozanne said. “ Oftentimes, I had minorities come in who didn't have an attorney or a parent with them and I'd explain to them what drug court was. They would tell me that, 'I don't need that' and I couldn't tell somebody what they need,” he continued. “I couldn't force somebody to do something.”

Despite Dane County's progressive tradition, half of Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 residing in the county are either incarcerated or under court-ordered supervision. “It's a community issue,” Ozanne said. “How do we educate our community? How do we teach our youth that you have to start thinking about tomorrow?”

Ozanne recently filled the vacancy created by the election of Brian Blanchard to the District IV Court of Appeals. Ozanne spent 10 years as a prosecutor in the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, before being appointed executive assistant at the Department of Corrections. Since 2009, Ozanne has served as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Corrections. Ozanne talked about his role as a prosecutor.

“My role in my mind is to make sure that the system has integrity — that a crime on this side of town is the same as a crime on that side of town,” he said. “The problem that you have though is that it's not always easy to prove a crime in my neighborhood … if I live in Shorewood or Maple Bluff... if I live in a house... there are a lot of things that happen that I can't prove unless somebody is willing to give me information or somebody is willing to call the police.” If a crime happens outside, Ozanne continued, there are more people that see it. “If it happens in an apartment building, I have more opportunity as a prosecutor to have more witnesses,” he says. “So you have some problems when you have outdoor areas where the police can see drug deals openly. The problem you have with that is that we may not look at the possession equally and that's what you have to do. We have to be able to say that six rocks on one person is the same as six rocks on another person.”

How do we address the behavior so that we can hopefully take the drugs out of the community? “It's not necessarily the drug but all of the crimes surrounding that drug that truly has an impact on your safety,” Ozanne told the crowd. “I don't know how many of you know but we have an opiate problem. It starts out with maybe pills that they got through a cabinet or a friend and then they move on to straight heroin. It's cheaper, it's more powerful.”

The district attorney's office does not know how many more drug users there are in the community, but they do know that they are seeing a rise in armed robberies and burglaries and are finding people with more drug paraphernalia. “When they get caught, they talk about their addiction,” Ozanne said. “And, that directly effects your safety in the community.” Ozanne said he has talked to people in Milwaukee who have found that they have a drug issue at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “When they actually looked at the people who were involved in the drug use and where they were coming from.... they were coming from here,” Ozanne said. “Not just Madison, but the surrounding communities — DeForest, Oregon, Verona — and going to school there and having drug issues there.

“The response from property owners when you have a poor neighborhood or when you have a drug house [is that] they are perfectly willing to get people out and to close that thing down,” Ozanne continued. “The problem we were facing when you have this neighborhood near the college and you have students there whose parents are paying the rent and who look clean cut, the landlords are calling us trying to get these people back in. Now that's a disparity. That's what you need to figure out how do we address that. Those are things that we have to talk about in the community. They aren't always nice things, but that's where we have to start.”

According to a recent study by Pam Oliver, a UW sociology professor, Black men in Dane County are 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than White men. And, according to a Justice Policy Institute report in 2007, Black men in Dane County were 97 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes, the second-highest rate in the nation. Ozanne said that his role as a prosecutor is to keep integrity in the system, to educate the community, and to try to address some of the serious issues.

“I don't think there is anybody out there in my office who says, ‘I'm going to go out there today and convict a Black person or a Latino person,'” Ozanne says. “But the number of people of color in the system is disproportionate to the number of people of color in our community.”

There are issues of crime that he is not afraid to deal with sternly. “I guarantee you that we will try to convict those who commit violent crimes and we will try to put them away for as long as we can,” Ozanne says. “I don't think there is any excuse for violence or crimes against children. That is simple and that's the easy part of my job. The hard part of my job is sort of pushing the other side because the only way that we're going to get ahead of this curve is not for me to say, ‘everybody who comes in will get incarcerated and prosecuted to the fullest our ability.'

Ozanne, who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, is active in civic organizations and youth sports. Ozanne and his wife, Stacy, have two young children and live in Madison.

“The only way to get ahead is looking and seeing who is the next generation and how we change that next generation,” he said. “Studies show that child neglect has lasting effects on children to the point where we may not be able to reverse them. We need to understand that neglect is not poverty. Because you're poor does not mean you are neglecting your children. But when I talk about drug-endangered children is when you walk into a home and there is a 55-inch plasma TV on the wall and there's a really nice car in the driveway and there's a parent laying on the floor passed out from drugs or alcohols and that four year old child is out on the street. That's neglect.

“If we don't change something for those children, they will get to the juvenile system, they will get through the juveniles system and get in the criminal system for adults,” he continued. “And we will not be able to fix that person once they get there. It's easy for us to get ahead of this curve, but there has to be partnerships — with my office and human services, schools, etc. We have to guarantee that kids that don't have food at home will get food in schools. We have to guarantee that schools will be safe. We have to focus on that. We have to get ahead of that curve.”

Ozanne talked about a program he is involved in where he would talk with young African-American males about life and about making choices.

“Once you teach somebody that they have choices, they start to realize that they have power,” Ozanne said. “And once they realize that they have power, they start to have self-esteem. Once they have self-esteem, they get away from violence.... you don't have to prove yourself in that way any more … you have choices. A lot of this is stuff that everybody in this room has learned through their parents and their families. Some of those young men have never had those role models to teach them that. And, that's what we're up against.”


President Obama Looks to Reduce Deficit with Bipartisan Proposals

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American Newspapers –

In an attempt to reduce the national deficit and improve his political standing, President Barack Obama is making bipartisan moves, which so far has been met with mixed reviews by congressional Democrats.

The president opened last week with a directive for a two-year salary freeze for federal employees, which is expected to save $2 billion for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, $28 billion during the next five years, and more than $60 billion during the next 10 years.

Non-voting Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D- D.C., hailed the move, saying that Obama had already staked out the high moral ground in January 2009 by freezing the pay of his staffers long before proposing a similar move for the rest of the federal government.

However, not all Democrats are as supportive as Norton. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-MD, said the freeze is unfair to federal employees, who should not have to carry the burden. “I am disappointed that President Obama’s proposal for a two-year pay freeze for federal employees comes without additional steps to share the burden and sacrifice of reducing our federal deficit,” Edwards said in a statement. “Unfortunately, our civil servants will continue to work alongside contractors, including military and defense contractors, who will not see their pay frozen. Our dedicated public servants are willing to do their part, but they should not bear this burden alone.”

The pay freeze proposal comes as Obama works with congressional Republicans to extend tax-cuts for every American family, a move that would also introduce new spending into the economy. The issue boiled over to the point that Senate GOP members said they would block any legislation until the tax-cut situation was resolved.

“Republicans have pleaded with Democrats to put aside their wish-list, to focus on the things Americans want us to focus on,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R.-KY, said on the Senate floor. “They've ignored us. The voters repudiated their agenda at the polls. They've ignored them.”

Seeing that things were at an impasse, Obama reached out to the Republicans, and in return for extending Bush-era tax cuts to certain wealthier individuals, asked for an extension in unemployment benefits and another year of his “Making Work Pay” tax cut for working households.

“Our hope and expectation is that unemployment insurance--something that traditionally has had bi-partisan support—is something that once again will be dealt with as part of a broader package,” Obama told The Washington Post.

However, his potential alliance with the Republicans is not been embraced by Hill Democrats, who still want to see a repeal of the Bush tax cuts. House Democrats, in a flurry designed to demonstrate support for the middle class, passed, in a 234-188 vote, a bill that would make the tax cuts permanent for families earning less than $250,000 a year but ending the cuts spawned during the Bush years for the wealthiest two percent of Americans.

“I look forward to working with my Congressional colleagues and President Obama to implement additional steps to reduce our deficit, starting with allowing tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to expire,” Edwards said.

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