Examination and transformation for the Courts
BY MICHELE FUKAWA
Hisrael Carranza walks away from a building, looks into his phone’s camera, and begins recording. Through the falling snow and his COVID-19 face mask, he describes to his Instagram audience what happened to him when he went to his local courthouse to obtain his records to apply for admission to the Bar.
“I forgot how dehumanizing it is to step into a place where they don’t look at you as a person,” he says. Carranza then describes what a court employee told him when he asked for his records: “She was like, ‘I’m assuming that you are trying to apply for citizenship,’” Carranza recounts. “But when I told her that I’m getting the paperwork to apply to the Bar—because I’m going to be an attorney—the whole conversation changed. And all of a sudden it seemed like I was a person that deserves to be treated a different way.”
Carranza is a recent Gonzaga Law School graduate and new attorney who will be clerking with Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu in 2022. His video was shared with the Washington State Racial Justice Consortium as an example of how racial and ethnic bias may impact people of color accessing our courthouses.
The Racial Justice Consortium “was established in an effort to support the various responses to the Supreme Court’s invitation to take specific and concrete steps to eradicate racism, especially the devaluing of Black lives”11 The Racial Justice Consortium’s website is https://racialjusticeconsortium.net/. The Washington Supreme Court’s “invitation” refers to the court’s June 4, 2020 letter, available at: www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20News/Judiciary%20Legal%20Community%20SIGNED%20060420.pdf. by addressing inequities in the state courts. It is an initiative by all levels of the courts in Washington, and is primarily funded through the courts as well. The Consortium’s website22 Id. states that its purpose is to “maximize opportunities for collaboration and mutual support of judicial branch entities” in addressing education for their workforce, reviewing the court system, and creating meaningful reform.
The Consortium, comprised of 55 individuals, including judges, court staff, court interpreters, attorneys, law school representatives, community members, and advocates, held its first meeting on March 26, 2021. It meets via videoconference every month for four hours; to date, meetings have delved into topics such as reentry (i.e., the transition from life in jail/prison to life in the community), legal financial obligations, juvenile justice, and what it means to cultivate spaces of belonging for all community members. At the time this article was written, funding was set to expire in March 2022, with a last meeting scheduled for April 22, 2022. An Action Plan to advance their goals is expected to be finalized at that time.
The coordinator of the Racial Justice Consortium is Patricia Lally, a former director of Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights and a former federal prosecutor. Lally explains that the Consortium is focused specifically on making changes to the court system, which makes it different from other task forces and groups addressing racism and inequalities.
“We make clear that every single court level in this state needs to own its role in addressing inequality,” says Lally. “We do not have a unified court system [in Washington], so we need to do this through cooperation and persuasion. And the letter from the Washington Supreme Court signaled the time for this critical work is now.”
The Washington Supreme Court’s letter of June 4, 2020, signed by all nine justices, called on the legal community to “recognize that we all bear responsibility for this on-going injustice, and that we are capable of taking steps to address it, if only we have the courage and the will.” And to the courts, the justices were blunt:
As judges, we must recognize the role we have played in devaluing black lives. … We can develop a greater awareness of our own conscious and unconscious biases in order to make just decisions in individual cases, and we can administer justice and support court rules in a way that brings greater racial justice to our system as a whole.
For those who have been involved with the justice system, the Consortium’s attempt to address bias and create a more just system is welcomed. “This Consortium can contribute to changing laws,” says Jermaine Williams, a Consortium member and director of Freedom Project East, an organization which supports Black, Indigenous, and people of color in Eastern Washington.
Williams was invited to join the Consortium by Justice Yu. “She said ‘You are what this consortium is about. We can’t continue to make decisions if community members are not part of the process,’” Williams recalls. But Williams is aware that changes to a system by people who are part of the system might be challenging: “When a system is self-sustaining, who wants to fire themselves?”
Justice Yu, a member of the Consortium and co-chair of the Minority and Justice Commission, also recognizes how difficult it may be to change practice and culture in the courthouses. “This Consortium is intended to be a true awakening for judges—am I contributing or perpetuating [inequality] or am I working on making my court neutral?” says Justice Yu. “Judges are often afraid to step on toes, but that neutrality is silence. And you are complicit when you are silent.”
Some of the disproportionalities in the court system has been captured in data compiled by the Caseload Forecast Council.33 www.cfc.wa.gov/default.htm. This council was created in 1997 to provide forecasts of state programs such as long-term care, public assistance, and foster care. In 2018, the council was tasked by the state Legislature to also create an annual “General Disproportionality Report” which would present data on race disproportionality in felony sentencing. In 2021, their report showed that Black individuals make up 4 percent of the population and 14 percent of felony sentences, and Indigenous individuals make up 1 percent of the population and 3 percent of felony sentencing. In comparison, Caucasian individuals make up 72 percent of the population and 72 percent of the felony sentences. Similar disproportionality in felony sentencing was also found in reports from 2018 to 2020.
Chris Hoke, executive director of Underground Ministries, has witnessed that disproportionality. Hoke, who has spent 16 years working with men who have been affected by gangs, presented at the Consortium on the topic of reentry and the disparate treatment of young men he has seen in courts. “I’ve seen one Mexican man apply for drug court [who] was refused because of his past affiliation with a Mexican gang. Such applicants are routinely denied in the name of safety and security. But that same week the same prosecutors applauded an out-and-out white supremacist, biker gang member’s graduation from drug court,” says Hoke, who points out that this is not a unique story.
Lally is hopeful that the Consortium will be able to develop an implementation plan and a racial equity toolkit for courts during its one-year timeframe. And she is hopeful that, in time, addressing racial equity in the courthouse will be an everyday practice. “Compare this to the initial controversy accompanying the requirement to conduct environmental impact studies for large construction projects. Now environmental impact studies are conducted as a preliminary step and no one is fighting the requirement,” says Lally. “We can get to a place when racial equity is not a prerogative—instead, it will stand for justice in every courthouse.”
More information about the work of the Racial Justice Consortium can be found at https://racialjusticeconsortium.net/.
1. The Racial Justice Consortium’s website is https://racialjusticeconsortium.net/. The Washington Supreme Court’s “invitation” refers to the court’s June 4, 2020 letter, available at: www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20News/Judiciary%20Legal%20Community%20SIGNED%20060420.pdf.