By Sherry Dibari

A panel of criminal justice experts addressed racial disparity in community policing, judicial systems and corrections during a virtual discussion Wednesday night hosted by Old Dominion University.

In remarks preceding "Deconstructing the Entanglement of Race and the Justice System," ODU President John R. Broderick provided statistics on racial disparities, noting that 70% of the U.S prison population is non-white

"This conversation tonight is particularly significant given the global outrage, protests and demand for racial and equal justice following the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers," Broderick said.

The four panelists were James Cervera, retired Virginia Beach police chief; Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections; Jerrauld Jones, a Norfolk circuit court judge and former Virginia legislator; and Cornita Riley, retired chief of the Orange County (Fla.) Department of Corrections.

Cervera, a 44-year police department veteran, emphasized officers are often the first to interact with citizens and that building trust in the community is essential.

"Police officers, police administrators and police leaders need to get out of the office and into the community and speak to people on a one-to-one basis," he said. "It's very hard to hate up close."

Cervera suggested additional training and increased education are necessary to improve the law enforcement field. "I think it's time to professionalize policing," he said.

Jones, who is in his 41st year in the criminal justice system, pointed out how judicial discretion contributes to racial disparity.

"You are a product of who you are," he said. "Who is a judge and who gets to be a judge is a huge issue."

Jones also feels policy change is needed to address felony disenfranchisement, specifically in Virginia, where only the governor can restore prisoners' rights.

"It's unfair, it's immoral and it's horrible what we are doing to people to punish them for a lifetime, Jones said.

Riley, who spent more than 37 years in the criminal justice system, discussed racial bias in corrections facilities and how it permeated throughout the system, even in how prisoner's jobs are selected.

Riley also spoke about the responsibility of supervisors and staff to keep their own bias in check.

"Culture affects us all and colors our judgement," she said.

Clarke spoke about prisons in rural areas, where corrections workers are often white, from small towns and unable to relate to those imprisoned.

"The culture of corrections facilities must be addressed," he said.

Clarke lauded the fact that Virginia has led the nation in the past four years in the lowest rates of recidivism. "We are very proud of that," he said.

Mona Danner, professor and chair of ODU's Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice moderated the event, which was sponsored by ODU's Office of the President and co-sponsored by the Office of Academic Affairs, the Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Office of Community Engagement and the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice.

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