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Facebook criminal justice forum led by Ashley Bell to feature presidential candidates
Carson, Sanders, O'Malley already commit to taking part in real-time discussion
Ashley Bell
Ashley Bell

20/20 Leaders of America 2015 Presidential Justice Forum sponsored by Facebook

What: Town hall forum discussing criminal justice reform and community policing with 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential candidates
When: 1 p.m. Nov. 21
Where: Allen University, Columbia, S.C.
Who is attending: Dr. Ben Carson, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley are confirmed
How to get involved: Questions can be submitted for the candidates on the 20/20 Club’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/the2020club. A television broadcaster for the event will be announced next week
More information: www.2020club.org

Gainesville attorney and former Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell has launched a national, bipartisan initiative to address criminal justice reform and today announced a partnership with social media giant Facebook to host a forum on the subject this month with 2016 presidential candidates.

“This (issue) doesn’t just affect African-Americans,” Bell said in an interview with The Times. “It affects everybody. I think all of us, whether Republican or Democrat, realize this is the case.”

All of the leading presidential campaigns have been invited to the forum, and Republican hopeful Dr. Ben Carson, along with Democratic candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, have already confirmed their attendance.

The forum is designed to bring legitimacy to an issue that has made national news in the last year after the protest group Black Lives Matter gained attention.

“They have a very aggressive approach,” Bell said, adding that some black leaders have been “taken back by the direction the conversation was going with Black Lives Matter” after the group interrupted recent campaign events for Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Bell said Black Lives Matter has few inroads to Republicans, and he hopes to shape discussion of criminal justice reform in a serious way with elected officials, business and community leaders, and the American voter. This includes having presidential candidates map out their vision for reform and community policing initiatives at the forum.

Bell worked as a criminal defense attorney when he first started practicing law, and said he has witnessed firsthand how policies like mandatory minimum sentencing have unduly burdened the public and led to the loss of “some of the best and brightest.”

Bell is the co-chair of 20/20 Leaders of America, the host of the forum, which describes itself as a “diverse and bipartisan collective of elected officials, law enforcement, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, professionals, and community leaders from across the country united to elevate issues disproportionately affecting communities of color above partisan politics.”

Bell spent the summer on the West Coast building support for the “20/20 Club,” and idea that originated in Hall County during his last run for the Board of Commissioners in 2012 as a way to increase voter engagement on local issues.

Supporters in California connected Bell with Facebook executives, and he pitched his idea for a national forum focused exclusively on criminal justice reform.

The company responded favorably and last week agreed to be the title sponsor for the forum.

Facebook will help connect people around the country to the conversation in real-time.

“The conversation about the 2016 election is happening on Facebook, and a huge part of that is a discussion of criminal justice issues,” Crystal Patterson, politics and government outreach manager at Facebook, said in a statement. “Facebook is pleased to be the title sponsor of the 2015 Presidential Justice Forum, not only to help bring more attention to the issue of criminal justice reform, but also to help connect voters around the country with the candidates participating in the event.”

The forum will be held at Allen University, a historically black college in Columbia, S.C., beginning at 1 p.m. Nov. 21.

It’s also the place where several victims of the Charleston church shooting this past summer attended school.

“I thought it was a good place to commemorate their lives,” Bell said.

Each candidate will have the opportunity to engage directly with local elected officials, law enforcement and leaders from across the country actively involved in reform projects.

“There’s nothing more difficult than trying to get a bunch of candidates in one place at one time,” Bell said.

Bell called the forum a “historic opportunity.”

“Discussions about race and criminal justice are not only happening on Facebook, but these discussions are possible because a platform like Facebook even exists,” he said. “What is taking place in cities across the country — Oakland, Sanford, Ferguson, Baltimore, Columbia — is now being discussed and debated unfiltered at a national level on social media.”

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