There are subtle racial prejudices within the procedural fabric of the criminal justice system, reported Evan Robinson in a Hamilton College news article.
In a recent webinar sponsored by Hamilton’s Levitt Center Law and Justice Lab, advocates for racial justice reform discussed criminal justice initiatives that could begin to heal traumatic effects such as: identifying implicit biases, lack of diversity in the courthouse, and the effects of diversion programs.
The webinar was the last one in a series of discussions covering topics that relate to racial justice reform. “Dividing these topics is really an artificial exercise,” said Professor Ronni Tichenor of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute.
“When you start to pull at any one thread, there are all these other problems that are connected to it … it just shows the importance of this initiative.”
The webinar featured Patrick Johnson, program director for Save Our Street organization; Oneida County (N.Y.) District Attorney Scott McNamara; Tichenor; and Hamilton professor Michael “Doc” Woods.
Implicit biases and the lack of diversity in courthouses around the nation was covered by Johnson. He outlined how Blacks and other people of color view their experiences within the criminal justice system.
“Many, many Black people and people of color have had less than positive experiences with people in law enforcement—intimidation, bullying, if not outright racism,” he said.
Johnson acknowledged that there are good people working within the legal system, but that implicit bias, no matter one’s status or position, affects everyone.
Johnson added that the majority of U.S. courthouses are overwhelmingly run by whites. This lack of diversity can become a factor in the criminal justice process.
“(This) could send the message—a very loud message—that in this institution, Black people and people of color do not hold the same value as their White counterparts,” said Johnson.
McNamara, who has 14 years’ tenure as a district attorney, provided discussions on traffic and marijuana diversion programs and how other reform initiative measures could be used to potentially soothe the damaging effects on poor people’s lives.
McNamara added that the traffic diversion program allows people to apply for the program without first hiring an attorney when they are charged with traffic violations. Also, the marijuana diversion program dismisses criminal charges upon completion of an online course and community service. He noted that these measures have helped locally, according to the article.
McNamara also discussed the necessity for being aware that victims and defendants may have different aspirations for the legal outcome of their cases. This awareness can apply to any legal case, he said.
“They all want justice, but obviously from your vantage point, you see it differently,” McNamara said. “Although many people would argue that we can make changes, those changes sometimes come at the cost of someone with a different vantage point.”
Woods, a professor of music at Hamilton, discussed jazz and how the Black experience is articulated in it and other forms of African American music. As an example, he said that he hears a “cry” in John Coltrane’s playing of “Giant Steps.”