I have worked for over 30 years as both a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer—primarily with communities of color. Although I certainly don’t have any brilliant answers about the problems in Ferguson, MO, from my experience in the criminal justice system, there are three things I’ve learned.
1. Perceptions. The different perceptions between white clients and clients of color was astounding. As a white person, I was often surprised at the attitudes of my minority clients—they were so different from the way I saw the world. For instance, white defendants assume they will get fair treatment by the criminal justice system. Clients of color assume they will get screwed—again. White defendants talked about taking personal responsibility while clients of color talked about “The Man” and how no matter what they did (with personal responsibility) they would still get screwed. White clients, although they didn’t like the police interfering with their criminal lives, accepted the authority and felt the police played fair with them. Clients of color didn’t trust the police and could tell me endless stories of their family members who had been harassed, beaten, or killed by police. Sounds like Ferguson, MO, doesn’t it?
2. Unintended bias in the system. Here’s a good example of bias from a practice that is intended to be fair but has the effect of treating people differently. When people are arrested and make their first appearance in court, a carefully drafted questionnaire is used to recommend bail levels to the judge. The questions are ones that wouldn’t surprise any of us: Are you a home owner? How long have you lived at your present address? Do you have a job? How long have you worked? Are you married? Unfortunately, for many clients of color, these questions must be answered “no.” They are poor, unemployed, must move around, and take whatever jobs they can get. And since the levels of unemployment are higher among communities of color and home ownership in the same group is lower, of course they score badly on these bail evaluations. Even if they pose no greater risk than a white defendant, the effect to is keep more people of color in jail. These are the kinds of things that must frustrate people of color in Ferguson, MO, for instance.
3. Poverty. I know, it’s always used as an excuse. It is true that many people are poor but still do not commit crime. But here’s a startling example of something I experienced in my work. In the late 70′ and early 80’s, Native American people made up a significant percentage of the criminals in the courts. Suddenly, by the lat 80’s they had all disappeared. Gone. Today, it is rare to see a Native person in the court system even thought their population is high in Minnesota. What happened? The casinos opened. That’s the only thing I can see that made a difference—these “criminals” got jobs and money—none of it provided by the government. Could it be something as simple as that? If people of color had jobs and money, maybe there would be a reduction in their presence in the criminal justice system.
I don’t pretend that these ideas will provide answers for tragedies like Ferguson, MO, but maybe my experiences can help others try to understand—from both sides—what this terrible divide is between the races and the criminal justice system.