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Western New York Conversations on Race: The Judicial System

WNY Conversations About Race

Racism in the judicial system

Linwood Roberts: Is there a history of racism in the judicial system? The immediate answer is yes. I think the more relevant or current question I will say, at least as it relates to me is, Do I still see it now? Or do I see some type of biases of this racism and not just talk about the cases I read in constitutional law and say I agree to disagree that a lot of it needs to be overturned.

Carrie Phillips: Unfortunately, I do agree that our criminal justice system, you know, was born out of and developed through a long history of racism that has unfortunately permeated the whole system. You know, a big problem in our system is that racial disparity comes in and builds throughout the entire course of the case and sentencing is sort of the end of the road there and that's where you see a lot of the real unjust results.

Phillips: Somebody is first approached by the police more often, because they're a person of color, there's discretion there, then there's discretion in who to arrest and people of color are more likely to then get arrested. People of color are more likely than to be charged at a higher level. And then they are more likely to have bail placed on them in the in the beginning of their case and kept in custody throughout their case, hurting their case, as the case rolls on. And I think sentencing is where all of that needs to be pointed out to the judge, you know, then we're left with the judge’s discretion.

Roberts: Currently, yeah, I think it is, I think is the current system is based on a lot of those historic racist bias decisions. And we're kind of like when I say we to litigate, the participants, the defendant, plaintiffs, everyone involved the party, kind of like wading into with midst of this, of those decisions that we're just trying to find our way.

Solutions to racial inequality within the judicial system

Discretion by Law Enforcement, District Attorneys and Judges

Roberts: I'm from the School of Buffalo where they were community police officers and discretion was used because that was the old role of a community police up on a police officer knew who I was the discretion was I can take this little teenager who's just being belligerent and then run up to the system and stare straight or whatever the case may be. Or I guess they go to his mother's house or his neighbor because I know who they are. I'm a community person, and they will deal with it right and not now have an issue with the police or this is just kid now having some animosity with the police.

Phillips: Community Policing that Linwood just pointed out is so important as well. And I agree with him on that if our solution or if the police officers only tools are to go into communities and they're targeting low income communities and they're the only tools are to either arrest and prosecute a person or to ignore the issue, then you know, what can they do their hands are tied to a certain extent.

Phillips: You know, our system has a lot of points where individual people have a lot of discretion on how the case is going to proceed. And we can't and we don't really want to take that discretion away from the system because otherwise we'd have no flexibility in it. But we have to ensure that the people and the leaders in those roles, the attorneys, the judges, the people who work in the courthouse are people who first even understand that there is an inequality going on and that there is a racial disparity because there's plenty of people who work in those roles that see no issue.

More People of Color within the judicial system—will it change anything

Roberts: You're talking to a black attorney. I want to see the influx, I'm not going to say don't have the influx, I'm not sure what tha,t in and of itself will change. Just being black is one thing or being a minority is one thing, but what are you doing in that role or position? I don't know too many black individuals that want to be a DA right because of the perception of what it is.

Phillips: I see Black Attorney’s come into the courtroom, if they don’t go regularly, the Court Officer is asking them if they have a case today because they are just making an assumption that they’re a defendant and not the attorney.

Roberts: That’s happened to me a couple of times.

Phillips: And it happens to Attorney’s in our office and I’ve seen it happen multiple times with a District Attorney that has been there for years, so representation definitely matters.”

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.