A group of North Carolina public defenders rallied in Charlotte just a couple of days shy of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. What brought them together was a common belief that the criminal justice system across the country is plagued by racial bias, discrimination and inequality. The first speaker called on Dr. King’s own words in summing up the group’s message: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The state’s Association of Public Defenders was not defeated by the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. The organization is working to keep the conversation about race and injustice alive in every part of the state justice system. There are efforts, too, to encourage action to fight individual instances of injustice: Every criminal lawyer, whether defense or prosecution, should use the legal system to call attention to bias and discrimination. Litigation, petitions to courts, whatever it takes — no one should be afraid to challenge a wrong.
North Carolina is lucky enough to have data to back up accusations of racial bias. Michigan State University’s 2011 study documented inequities in jury selection and conviction rates, statistics that became the foundation of the Racial Justice Act. North Carolina was, for a short time, a leader in the fight against bias in the courts.
The public defenders’ rally was, in part, a response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. The deaths of two young African American men at the hands of the police were disturbing enough. The failure of grand juries to hand up indictments of the officers involved was shocking. The justice system failed those young men and their families twice.
Many have questioned the role of the grand juries in all of this. If North Carolina could at least try to scrutinize its jury selection process, why does no one do the same for grand juries? The two decisions prompted demonstrations across the U.S., but the inner workings of any grand jury seems to be the black box of the justice system.
We’ll talk more about grand juries in our next post.
Source: News & Observer, “NC public defenders rally against racial disparities in justice system,” Anne Blythe, Jan. 16, 2015