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'There is a reckoning right now': Civil rights group fighting systemic racism in NC justice system

For decades, North Carolina has been called out for racism in its justice system. No one knows that problem better than the wrongfully convicted Ronnie Long.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina's criminal justice system has long been called out for racism despite longstanding pushes for reform. 

The problem dates back decades, and was on display in the case of Ronnie Long, a Black man from Concord, who was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury in the 1970s. 

"This has always been happening to people of color," Long said. 

And he'd know. He speaks from experience. Long said racism is in the fabric of the North Carolina justice system. 

"The judicial system in the state of North Carolina failed me," Long said. 

The 65-year-old spent 44 years in prison after a white woman accused him of a rape he didn't commit. Long, then 21, was sent away after an all-white jury convicted him of the crime. Decades later, attorneys discovered that the Concord Police Department hid evidence that would've exonerated Long in the case. Officers even lied on the stand. Long spent all those years in jail for a crime he didn't commit until his conviction was overturned just last year.

RELATED: Ronnie Long's son was just 3 years old when his father was arrested. Now he's ready to make new memories

Since his release from prison, Long has struggled just to get a normal life. A bank refused to open an account for him and he's had a hard time getting Medicare. 

“You lost 44 years of your life? I can’t get it back," Long said. "Only thing I can do is live as comfortable as I can with the remaining time I have on this earth.”

Dawn Blagrove is an attorney and the executive director of Emancipate North Carolina, a nonprofit working to fight racism in the justice system through awareness, bail reform and trying to end youth imprisonment. 

“There are a million Ronnie Longs all over the United States," Blagrove said. "These cases and the blatant systemic abuse that we saw in Ronnie Long's case is not special to Ronnie Long. It goes back to the underlying racism that is part of America's DNA. 

"We have a race problem in this country and I think there is a reckoning right now in this country, where we have to make some hard decisions and have some hard conversations."

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Blagrove said North Carolina's numbers tell the story. More than half of the people behind bars are Black, while Blacks make up just 23% of the state's population. Nationwide, Black people are 5.9 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison. 

Blagroves believes the disparity is throughout the system, from day-to-day policing to the courts and punishments handed down, and she says nowhere was the disparity in treatment more obvious than on Jan. 6, when a mob of mostly white rioters stormed the Capitol

“We could see from the way law enforcement looked at those folks and treated those folks, as opposed to Black Lives Matter protests we've seen for the last seven or eight months," Blagrove said. "It reinforces what Black and brown people have been saying about the criminal justice system. All along, Black and brown people are considered a threat no matter water, and white folks aren't."

The program Blagrove works for isn't just about awareness. They're solution-oriented, with Blagrove saying one of the biggest changes that needs to happen is more funding for social organizations that can help with mental health issues and poverty.