Monday, January 09, 2017

Texas' top judges hold summit to address trust in criminal justice system

Thanks to Grits contributing writer Eva Ruth Moravec for attending this event in Dallas. Grits had wanted to go but ended up at the dentist instead, so I appreciate her writing it up.

A daylong summit on race in the justice system for Texas judges recently held in Dallas was initially supposed to be 20-minute shorts aired nationally on the Public Broadcasting Service.

"But we're different here in Texas," said Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas at the December summit in Dallas. "We decided instead just to invite all the judges."

Personal invitations from Hecht and Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, were enough to summon 50 Texas judges out of their courtrooms on a weekday and into a heavily secured auditorium at Paul Quinn College. Total attendance at the summit was about 200.

The need for the curriculum - whether in televised shorts or taught live - arose in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and riots that followed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Hecht said. Over the past 12 months, he said, the Conference of Chief Justices has been working on how to keep the community from distrusting courts.

"We need to be proactive about trust issues and to enhance trust," Hecht said. "We're concerned about how courts are affected by mistrust."

He opened the summit with a montage of news footage from high-profile shootings by and of police, then asked attendees to reflect quietly. Otherwise, the day was completely packed by the summit's planners, including state supreme court Justice Eva Guzman - the wife of a Houston police sergeant and daughter of immigrants - with interesting speakers.

"A single day is certainly not enough time to restore complete trust in the justice system," Guzman said, adding she hoped attendees realize how their life experiences affect how they handle things.

Keynote speaker Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo implored attendees to be courageous, bold and to "put away broad brushes. Don't be afraid to lose your job."

The theme of courage united several of the day's diverse speakers and panel participants, like Emily Thompson, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer who is back to work after her husband was killed in an ambush attack along with four others officers last summer.

Arielle Clarkson, a Paul Quinn student, said the strangulation of her brother by a police officer 10 years ago "shattered my understanding of what it meant to be protected by the police." She hopes to become a lawyer to address injustices.

 At St. Paul United Methodist Church in Dallas, a program called Together We Learn tries to bring the community and law enforcement together for things like basketball games so their interactions aren't always negative.

"The harsh reality is, people of color, when we see the police, we think something's wrong," Senior Pastor Richie Butler said. "We have to change perceptions and see people for who they really are - humans."

Cornell Law School professor Jeffrey Rachlinski said even the well-intended have biases and lectured on human beings' decision-making processes. He advised judges to start recording demographics and outcomes of their cases so they are more aware of disparities.

(Rachlinski's suggestion was one of two I heard throughout the day on how to improve trust in the courts; the other was an idea from Hecht for trial judges to explain their rulings.)

To demonstrate how underlying biases may affect juvenile justice, former state judge and professor F. Scott McCown moderated a panel of experts who told the audience what would happen to a hypothetical foster child who got in trouble at a new school. Sadly, most panelists concluded the youngster would eventually end up in jail.

"We have to get past race," said criminal defense attorney Carmen Roe of Houston, a panelist whose pretend-task it was to defend the troubled foster child.

"How do we make changes? One person at a time," said Dr. Griselda Villalobos, a licensed clinical social worker in El Paso who regularly works with children in and out of the system.

Although most of the day's dialogue pointed out problems that lacked solutions, attendees seemed pleased they were there. As the summit closed with remarks from Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship's Senior Pastor Tony Evans, sunlight streamed through the oatmeal-colored floor-to-ceiling drapes that had separated the day's events from the campus and surrounding deprived neighborhood.

"We are looking at a fraying society," said Evans, analogizing that high-profile shootings are like cracks in the walls of a home with a failing foundation. "If we get the one thing right, it can solve many things."


Jackie Buffalo said...

You mean lack of trust. Some of the biggest liars work in that courthouse and you can't built trust now. But it starts with lying police and prosecutors. Big fat liars used to doing whatever they want and getting away with it forever. Like who do you complain to when you see the prosecutors and their little goon squads behaving in an openly criminal manner? The FBI? lmao

Anonymous said...

We've got data on strategies that enhance the notion of "procedural fairness" among both offenders and victims, which directly impacts trust in the system. Most of it's around restorative justice - a philosophy and broad set of practices that courts don't seem to know much about.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the other comments: I see the problems with local county courthouses and lack of respect for the innocent American citizens.

rozmataz said...

Glad to see Judge Height's opinion that judges should follow-up on the human beings whose cases they decided. I just learned that one of the judges in the Texas Criminal Appeals Court will resign because the other members refuse to follow the Texas Constitution as it relates to habeas corpus rulings. The practice is apparently a matter of clerks deciding which petitions should be heard and then only one judge makes the ruling. Habeas corpus is one of the last vestiges of hope for poor defendants who lack funds to hire a lawyer, personally writing to the courts who grant only a minuscule number. Even good lawyers being paid substantial amounts to represent a habeas corpus petitioner can be denied because of a technicality in filing (as in my son's case). This makes two failures of attorneys representing him and he will die in prison if he doesn't get relief from a federal court. He is mentally ill and suffers the effects of a TBI. Like untold numbers of inmates, he is thrown into prison instead of a mental facility where he can get treatment. Likewise, his family was powerless to have him treated before his offense occurred. The entire system is broken. We need to stop impounding human beings and treating them like even animals in shelters are not. Judges need to travel abroad and look at how more sophisticated countries work with offenders to their dignity is not destroyed and they can become contributing society members. What we as a nation have been doing for hundreds of years is not and was never working.