Judges host listening session to hear concerns about justice system
Hundreds gathered at Roxbury Community College
Last week, hundreds gathered at Roxbury Community College to attend a listening session with the Massachusetts judiciary regarding improvements to the criminal justice system. In attendance were Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants and Appeals Court Chief Justice Mark Green, who both acknowledged the 400-year anniversary of African enslavement and its legacy on American systems.
“All of us here in the judiciary are on a journey towards racial and economic justice, and we all are here because we recognize that we have many, many miles to go in terms of getting to where we need to be,” said Gants, noting that community feedback was key to navigating this journey.
The Vera Institute of Justice published a study noting there was a 5.4% decline in the prison incarceration rate in Massachusetts from 2017-2018, giving it the lowest incarceration rate of any other state, and there have been efforts in recent years to increase racial equity within the Massachusetts court systems.
In 2016, each departmental chief justice founded a committee addressing issues related to implicit bias, and the chairs of each committee formed the Trial Court Race and Implicit Bias Advisory Committee (TRIBAC). The Massachusetts judiciary has outlined strategies to promote racial justice in their Strategic Plan 3.0, last updated in July of 2019. It notes that it is “dedicated to addressing bias, embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, and eradicating discrimination.” Other improvements in Fiscal Year 2019 include additional state funding to expand the Trial Court Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Experience.
Despite the efforts however, Gants noted that the court needs to do more. He said that black people in Boston are still incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites.
In the Massachusetts Trial Court’s 2017 Access and Fairness survey, data was released detailing the experiences of citizens during their court visit. Of the 995 surveyed white individuals, 93% felt safe in court. Of 188 surveyed black individuals, 84.5% felt safe. 90.7% of the surveyed white group felt like the court staff was attentive, compared to 77.6% of the black group. In terms of fairness, 81.9% of 856 white individuals felt like their case was handled fairly, compared to only 64.4% of the 169 black individuals surveyed. Over 14% more whites felt like their case was listened to before a decision was made.
The latest Annual Diversity Report from the Trial Court issued for Fiscal Year 2019 shows a lack of diverse representation in the court workforce. Although the number of racial or ethnic minorities has increased slightly since the last report, they still make up only 26% of all Trial Court employees. Only 11% of the 365 total justices and 13% of the eight Trial Court chief justices are racial or ethnic minorities.
RCC President Valerie Roberson told the Banner that as discrepancies persist, it is important for people across the community to stay involved with listening sessions. She said that she hoped the ideas presented would be carried out, and that all would be held accountable.
“I think that this is a real first step in engaging in the community, hearing the concerns from their perspective, and the community hearing from the judiciary — their concerns,” she told the Banner. “These kinds of convenings are a really important first step to change.”
Throughout the listening session, the judges recognized slavery’s lasting legacy. Green expressed shock at America’s inability to acknowledge the past. When he toured Israel’s Holocaust memorial with fellow justices, he said he was struck by the importance of confronting the past, “however difficult that may be.”
Last year, Green visited Montgomery, Alabama.
“I was struck then by the contrast between what we found in our own country to what we had seen in Israel,” he said. “As one of my colleagues put it, ‘You don’t see today in Germany, statues of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Goebbels. You don’t see Nazi flags flying.’ We have not confronted the past in this country.”
Judge Angel Kelley said that on the 400-year anniversary, “We face the harsh, brutal and barbaric truth of slavery and its legacy.” Slavery is the country’s original sin, she said. It was the birth of the racial divide in the United States, which created a false notion of superiority versus inferiority and set into motion a long history of fear and hatred that still harms black communities today.
“The addiction to illegal substances was treated as a crime in urban areas that they said required incarceration,” she said. “But when the sickness moved into suburban areas, it became a public health concern that now required a different approach — treatment and support, like other health problems.”
One community member, who spoke during the public portion of the listening section, was directly affected by drug policies. His father, mother and brother were all deported back to Jamaica. His father was taken when the speaker was still in high school due to “minimal marijuana distribution.” He said that his father had spent 20 years of his life in the country after moving to Boston in the ’70s. He raised his family there, formed relationships and paid his taxes.
“Fast forward to 2020, marijuana is now legal in the state of Massachusetts,” he said. “White men are once again now able to benefit, making millions from this emerging industry off the backs of our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who were unfairly and unjustly imprisoned as a result of the war on drugs.”
When the speaker was only a teenager, he said that he had no support to deal with his father’s absence.
“Throughout my father’s experience with the courts, never was my family contacted by a trauma counselor or a family specialist,” he said. “Never was any concern shown for me, as a 16-year-old minor, or were considerations taken as to how my family would survive after having a pillar taken from us.”
Kelley said things cannot be improved unless the judiciary understands what’s happening in the community. She said that she hopes for changes that improve public trust and confidence in the judicial process.
“By acknowledging our undeniable history, we hope this listening session can be a part of our healing process and improvement of the delivery of justice,” she said, also noting “We face our history to change the direction of our future.”