Some members of UD’s Race, Justice, Policy Initiative who attended the forum are, from left, Kassra Oskooii, Yasser Payne, Rita Landgraf, Eric Rise, Karen Parker, Darryl Chambers, Leland Ware and K.C. Morrison.

The University of Delaware’s Race, Justice, Policy Research Initiative (RJP), which was created to identify and address issues of race and justice that affect Delaware communities, met directly with residents and leaders of some of those communities at an Oct. 18 forum.

The public event drew participants from UD, government, nonprofit organizations and the Wilmington community to share concerns about such issues as violence and poverty and to lay the groundwork for future collaborations.

Among the panelists were New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer and Wilmington Mayor Michael Purzycki.

During the past year, the UD researchers who established RJP have met with numerous state and local policy makers to gather and share information and perspectives. Members of the initiative aim to develop a research agenda they can use to assist the government agencies and community organizations that have been working for years to address issues of race, justice and inequality.

The forum, held at the Delaware History Museum in Wilmington, consisted of two panel discussions followed by questions and comments from the audience of about 200 community members.

The panels focused on the high levels of violence, and particularly gun violence, afflicting Wilmington and on possible policy solutions that could be found through collaboration. The forum concluded with a keynote speech that traced the history and impact of mass incarceration.

In exploring the issue of violence in Wilmington, panelists discussed underlying causes that led to the situation today and difficulties in developing and funding programs to address the problem.

Yasser Payne, associate professor of sociology and of Africana studies at UD, said the basis of the problem is structural, with a lack of opportunity for too many individuals and communities. He called on the audience to work more aggressively for programs that create opportunity and to take risks in advocating for such efforts.

Darryl Chambers, a researcher with UD’s Center for Drug and Health Studies, said that as a Wilmington resident and a long-time activist, he has seen a cycle of efforts to combat problems of violence, poverty and inequality.

He said programs often are implemented and begin to show successful outcomes, but then political changes occur and new leaders stop funding the programs. Later, he said, similar programs might again be launched, “but we’re reinventing the wheel” and losing ground with each interruption and delay.

“There’s a lack of resources, but there’s also a lack of political will,” Chambers said. “This isn’t just a police problem. This is all of our problem.”

​James Forman Jr., author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” gives the keynote address on mass incarceration.

Panelists discussing possible solutions that could be found by academics, agencies and residents working together focused on violence prevention and on ways for the justice system to function more fairly.

Kathleen Jennings, chief administrative officer for New Castle County and a former prosecutor and defense attorney, said much of the criminal justice community is “frustrated and angry.” Harsh laws and long prison terms may have been well intentioned initially, she said, but have actually harmed individuals and communities without making neighborhoods safer.

Delaware is examining its sentencing system in the hope of making changes, she said.

Ashley Biden, executive director of the Delaware Center for Justice, urged support for children’s services that succeed in creating opportunities that reduce the risk of violence later in life. Early education, adequate numbers of social workers and counselors in schools and truancy-prevention programs are all effective measures, she said.

Purzycki agreed with other speakers that many neighborhoods have been decimated by the number of adults and teens who are or have been incarcerated. Rehabilitation and help with jobs and services for former offenders are needed, he said.

The keynote address was given by James Forman Jr., a Yale Law professor and author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

In his talk, he traced the history of the laws that have resulted in so many Americans, especially those who are poor and African American, being imprisoned for long terms.

The son of two civil rights workers, Forman said he views taking on the issue of mass incarceration as “the civil rights work of my generation.”

About the Race, Justice, Policy initiative

The University’s Race, Justice, Policy Research Initiative is composed of experts from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, School of Public Policy and Administration, Legal Studies Program and Center for Drug and Health Studies.

It was organized to examine and research policy-related questions on race and justice issues.

Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape