Public defenders from across North Carolina gathered around a Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Charlotte on Friday to decry racial inequities in the justice system.
The attorneys, who get a close-up view of what’s happening in the courts and jails across the state, called for a system free of racial inequality, discrimination and bias.
James E. Williams Jr., the chief public defender in Orange and Chatham counties, started the rally with a quote from King, the civil rights leader whose legacy will be honored across the country on Monday with ceremonies, marches and service projects.
“I could have picked many,” Williams said afterward, “but I picked, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
For several years, Williams has been working on projects to eliminate racial inequities in the courts. He has spoken out against racial profiling and used statistics to show that such practices continue, whether intentional or not.
Williams is chairman of the N.C. Public Defender Committee on Racial Inequity.
The committee’s goals and objectives include:
• Initiate ongoing dialogue about race and justice with defense attorneys and others;
• Make it a priority in public defender offices to address racial inequities, litigate issues when necessary and to collect and track data and anecdotal evidence;
• Encourage legal training agencies to make the issue part of education programs for lawyers.
“The recent deaths of several African-American men following interactions with police, and the challenge of holding the officers who killed them responsible, have compelled us to express our concerns regarding the criminal justice system nationally and within the state of North Carolina,” Williams said in a statement he read at the rally.
“While we are encouraged by the outcry and conversation that has resulted from these tragedies and the efforts being made by many to advocate for necessary reforms, the reality is that people of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by our criminal justice system,” Williams said.
Study highlights disparities
In 2011, Michigan State researchers released findings of a study that highlighted racial disparities in North Carolina courts.
The statistics showed that out of 159 death row inmates, 40 percent were sentenced by juries with one or no person of color.
They also found that across North Carolina, qualified African-Americans were more than twice as likely to be dismissed from capital juries by the prosecution than similarly situated whites.
The study was cited often in the rise and fall of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.
The law, adopted in 2009 to give death row inmates an opportunity to use statistics to bolster claims of racial bias in their cases, was repealed in 2013.
Prosecutors pushed for the law to be wiped from the books and, while doing so, countered claims that racial bias is as rampant in the system as some said.
The dozens of public defenders who stood together Friday, three days before the King federal holiday, stated that “the most compelling and disturbing feature of this country’s criminal and juvenile justice system is its disparate impact on people of color.”
They acknowledged that many factors contribute to the problem, but a significant one, they said, is “implicit and explicit racial bias.”
They stated that “disparate policing practices” have an impact on the number of arrests but that they cannot ignore the effects of race at every stage of the criminal-justice process – from the determination to charge someone to grand jury procedures, bond decisions, plea negotiations, jury selection and sentencing.
The trends and statistics that support such findings can lead to a lack of confidence in the fairness of the system, Williams and other public defenders say.
“Men, women and children of color are treated differently, and often more harshly, by the criminal justice system in North Carolina and across the country,” he said.