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Calls for criminal justice reform are increasing amid the worldwide protests over police violence and racism — even among those working in the criminal justice system.
The Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is proposing several steps it says could help dismantle structural racism against Black people in the system.
MADCL attorneys Victoria Kelleher and Derege Demissie spoke with WBUR's Morning Edition about the group's proposals.
Here are highlights of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
On how racial bias impacts the court system
Derege Demissie: African-Americans have disproportionately been recipients of more negative discretionary actions than positive. If the presumption is that you are a dangerous person because you look like you're a dangerous person and I don't want to release you, you end up with a higher bail. That can keep someone in jail for a number of days. What we're proposing is for the police to issue a summons directing the person to appear in court on a certain date. That would alleviate a lot of distress caused in the lives of African-Americans.
How this proposal would affect public safety
Victoria Kelleher: There's no evidence that what's what we're doing right now actually improves public safety. You know, what we're talking about are people that are that have not been convicted, who are being handcuffed, shackled and brought into courtrooms and potentially held overnight but often times longer than that. So that really should not be the focus of where the deterrent lies. There's no reason to believe that most of the people who are charged will not come into court on a summons and then if they don't get that award goes out. But that should be the presumption.
Demissie: And I think it's important for us to look at the big picture. Over the past several hundreds of years, there has been a system, in one form or another, where black families have been broken up. And arrests have continued that legacy. If we believe that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, we should not allow the system to punish people at the point of being accused of a crime.
On why change has come so slowly to the system
Kelleher: People like to think that they're being fair. For the most part. So I think change is very hard for people.
And I think it can't be more trainings. They sound good. They look good on paper. It makes it look like there's some systemic change that's going on within departments, within the courts, that kind of thing. But in fact, what the studies are showing us is that it doesn't have an impact. It can't be more status quo. It has to be that we're taking some really serious, aggressive actions to shake things up.
Demissie: You're not just going to change it by changing laws here and there. You have to change minds. You have to change perspectives. And the way we ascribe sent certain conduct and behaviors based on the color of the person's skin.
On whether the protests are a reflection of the entire justice system
Kelleher: I absolutely think so, yes. I think, you know, again, the use of a video is very powerful. We don't have that kind of video coverage of what goes on in prisons, what happens in courtrooms. So I think that's maybe why, you know, this has really forced people to have a reckoning about how bad the system really is and where we need to start really focusing.
Demissie: And I think the police do not exist outside of the criminal justice system that allows for that kind of behavior to go unpunished. And as you know, it's very hard to see the police in a civil case and win. The court's decisions allowing pretextual stops by the police under the guise of doing some more investigation have caused fatal encounters between the police and civilians, where there's absolutely no crime committed other than the person driving with a broken taillight. They have enabled each other in perpetuating systemic racism that has existed and continues to exist within the system. And the courts need to move their decisions and how their decisions impact the community and the community's relationship with the police.
This segment aired on June 17, 2020.
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