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Local groups sponsor Lambertville event on criminal justice reform

Imagine you’re on death row for a crime you never committed.

Shujaa Graham knows the experience all too well. He was exonerated from San Quentin’s death row in 1979, and finally released in 1981.

Graham speaks out through Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only organization dedicated to helping end the death penalty by giving voice to death row survivors. He will share his harrowing experience at the Phillip L. Pittore Justice Center in Lambertville on April 7.

Graham will be joined by Patrick Hall, co-chair of the Greater Trenton Chapter of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow. Hall is an advocate for an end to the mass incarceration, the banishment of cruel punishments, particularly solitary confinement, and exposing of the ways big business exploits prison labor.

“The U.S. has the largest number of prisoners per capita of any country in the world, accounting for 22 percent of the world’s prisoners with just 4.4 percent of the population,” said Shara Durkee, co-lead of the Indivisible Lambertville/New Hope Civil Rights group. “Make no mistake: incarceration is big business in the U.S., and the application of justice largely depends on a person’s color and income.”

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, there are pressing issues facing those accused of crimes. Pennsylvania is the only state in the  nation that fails to provide funding for poor defendants, who comprise over 80% of those accused of crimes in the Commonwealth, according to Indivisible LNH. For prisoners on death row, lack of an adequate defense has led to reversals of one-third of the convictions. In February, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a friend-of-the court brief, asking the state Supreme Court to hold the state’s capital punishment system in violation of the Pennsylvania constitution.

In New Jersey, the statehouse is considering legislation to end the torturous conditions that confine some 1,500 inmates in isolated, windowless cells for years and even decades. The current aim is to limit this extremely punitive treatment to 15 days and to bar its use on young and older inmates, as well as pregnant women.

The talk is free, and will be held at Phillip L. Pittore Justice Center, 25 S. Union St., in Lambertville, on April 7 from 2 to 4 p.m. Attendees can pre-register online. The two-hour session includes time for a Q&A with the speakers, call to action takeaways, and multiple ways to get involved, including community service opportunities for students.

The event is sponsored by the Civil Rights Group of Indivisible Lambertville/New Hope and Lambertville Free Public Library.

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