(as originally run in The Roanoke Times)
Wornie Reed, director of the Racial and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech, recently joined the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. The Roanoke Times had these questions for him.
What do you say to those who are critical of the ACLU for championing certain unpopular causes?
Critics should realize the merits of the ACLU working for the civil liberties and civil rights of everyone, and this literally means everyone. No person or group is entitled to the protection of their civil liberties and civil rights over any other person or group. This means criminals as well as non-criminals have rights to be protected. This applies to persons in political disfavor as well as those in political favor. The same holds true for social outcasts as well as society elites. The business of the ACLU is the defense of everybody. I am proud to be associated with such an organization.
What are the big civil liberties issues of the day that you see here in Virginia?
One of the most important civil liberties issues in Virginia today is racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The nature and extent of this problem can be characterized by the criminal justice processing for illegal drug offenses.
African Americans are 20 percent of the population of Virginia and they are approximately 22 percent of all persons involved with illegal drugs, whether using or selling; however, they are over 50 percent of all drug arrests, and they are three-fourths of all persons incarcerated for drug offenses. Thus, African Americans are incarcerated for drugs almost 3 ½ times their proportion of offenders.
The ACLU of Virginia has a continuing interest in reducing these racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
There are serious and broad consequences of these racial disparities. As a result of African- American men being prosecuted and incarcerated at such high rates, one-third of all young black males, men in the age group 20 to 29, are in the criminal justice system. This is the decade of life when youth transition into adulthood. During this time they tend to finish their education and get situated in a regular occupation, which often leads to marriage and family.
This transition is seriously compromised by felony convictions which make employment problematic, thus making worse the fragile situation of many African-American families.
All of us should be concerned about these racial disparities because the effects go beyond the situation of the individuals involved in the criminal justice system. It weakens families and therefore communities.
Do you have a favorite ACLU case from Virginia that you like to talk up as an example of why the group’s work is important?
The range of issues of civil liberties and civil rights that the ACLU of Virginia addresses speaks to the importance of the organization. These issues include religious freedom, privacy and free speech rights, protecting reproductive freedom, securing basic rights for LGBT Virginians, and many others. A key issue for me is the long and continuing work of the ACLU in securing and protecting voting rights. These rights are in jeopardy in Virginia with the introduction of the voter ID (photo) law after the U.S. Supreme Court 2013 decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.