State Court Chief Justices Pledge Reform to Boost Racial Equality and Justice in the Courts
By Angela Morris
The fairness of the justice system has been called into question by protesters who have marched nationwide for racial justice after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The idea that the public had lost trust and confidence in the justice system greatly concerned the chief justices in state courts across the U.S., said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.
As the protests spread around the nation, the Conference of Chief Justices, a national group of 58 chief justices of U.S. states and territories, started working on an initiative to reconfirm its members’ support for racial equality and justice for all, said Hecht, who is the conference’s president.
The result: the chief justices’ conference and Conference of State Court Administrators on Thursday approved a resolution which pledges action to eradicate systemic racism and make their court systems fairer to people of color.
“State courts are very concerned that there be public trust and confidence in the justice system,” said Hecht. “We want to put out a resolution like this to affirm our commitment, but we are also going to take steps to really try to show that the state courts are aware of racial injustice and we’re going to try to combat it.”
Some state courts have already announced reforms, said a statement by the chief justices’ conference. In New Jersey, the courts announced a nine-part reform plan to implement in a year. In New York, there will be an independent review of policies, practices and initiatives, said the statement.
Hecht noted that Texas trains all new judges about unconscious bias and has been reforming rules on court fines and fees, changing methods of criminal risk assessments, and in 2016 hosted a conversation about race in the wake of police shootings in Dallas.
The resolution by the chief justices’ conference and court administrators’ conference is a call to action for other courts to follow, said a statement by Laurie K. Dudgeon, president of the court administrators’ conference.
“As court leaders, we must ensure our justice system works for everyone,” Dudgeon said. “We’re providing a road map that courts should follow to renew public confidence in a justice system that is fair and equitable to all.”
Seven-part action plan
The resolution acknowledges that current events have underscored how persistent structural racism is in our society and institutions, and the problem negatively impacts people of color.
“Every human being is deserving of respect and is entitled to equal justice under the law,” according to the resolution. “Too many persons, especially persons of color, lack confidence in the fairness of courts and the criminal justice system.”
It laid out seven of the actions that courts around the country have initiated to promote racial justice.
State courts have identified and addressed unconscious bias and facilitated conversations from people who have recognized their own bias, said the resolution.
They have also been lessening the way that a criminal defendant’s ability to pay bail or bonds influences whether they’re released from or must stay in jail before their trials.
The resolution said that many state courts have created evidence-based practices for sentencing and other parts of the criminal justice process.
The reform of court fines and fees is another area, said the resolution. Courts have tried to place sanctions only on people who willfully refused to pay fines or fees, rather than people who could not afford to pay them.
According to the resolution, courts should begin to collect and maintain data about race and ethnicity. This data would allow courts to study racial disparities and fix them.
Another area of improvement could come from courts improving their career pathways to bring more racial and ethnic diversity to the bench, law clerks, court staff and lawyers as a whole, the resolution said.
Finally, courts could engage communities of color in discussions so they can better understand the communities’ challenges, said the resolution.
The conferences in the resolution pledged to “continue and to intensify efforts to combat racial prejudice within the justice system, both explicit and implicit, and to recommit to examine what systemic change is needed to make equality under the law an enduring reality for all, so that justice is not only fair to all but also is recognized by all to be fair.”