ABA logoThis morning, the American Bar Association and the NAACP released a joint statement on “Eliminating Bias in the Criminal Justice System.” It’s likely to get a lot of attention, for a few reasons:

  1. It offers a dozen specific recommendations that have the possibility of engaging the community and law enforcement and criminal justice officials in a deep and change-making way.
  2. It is a joint statement that is a result of collaboration between two persuasive organizations, the ABA and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
  3. It is drafted in straightforward language that faces head-on a crisis in race and policing.
  4. Its signatories include respected legal leaders, including prosecuting attorneys. (And it also includes Arizona’s own Professor Myles Lynk, of the ASU College of Law.)

The complete statement is available here.

NAACP LDF logoAmong the opening paragraphs are sentences like these:

“One would have to have been outside of the United States and cut off from media to be unaware of the recent spate of killings of unarmed African American men and women at the hands of white law enforcement officers. … Given the history of implicit and explicit racial bias and discrimination in this country, there has long been a strained relationship between the African-American and law enforcement. But with video cameras and extensive news coverage bringing images and stories of violent encounters between (mostly white) law enforcement officers and (almost exclusively African-American and Latino) unarmed individuals into American homes, it is not surprising that the absence of criminal charges in many of these cases has caused so many people to doubt the ability of the criminal justice system to treat individuals fairly, impartially and without regard to their race.”

After mentioning statistics on race in the criminal justice system and the recent Justice Department investigation of law enforcement practices in Ferguson, Missouri, the statement continues:

“Given these realities, it is not only time for a careful look at what caused the current crisis, but also time to initiate an affirmative effort to eradicate implied or perceived racial bias—in all of its forms—from the criminal justice system.”

Among its suggestions, the statement calls for:

  • More complete and comprehensive data collection on interactions between law enforcement and citizens, and more transparency from prosecutors’ offices on the use of prosecutorial discretion.
  • More training and assistance for all members of the justice system on the problems that can occur from real or perceived bias.
  • More hiring and retention of lawyers and officers “who live in and reflect the communities they serve” by prosecutors’ offices and law enforcement.
  • Greater use of body and vehicle cameras “to create an actual record of police–citizen encounters.”
  • Promotion of dialogue about the criminal justice process between representatives of the judiciary, law enforcement and prosecutors, defenders and defense counsel, probation and parole officers and community organizations as well the community.
  • More accountability and quicker response to issues that arise.
  • A better understanding of the collateral consequences of convictions and the damage they can inflict on individuals who have paid their debt to society.
William Hubbard, American Bar Association

William Hubbard, American Bar Association

In a press release, leaders of the two organizations offered remarks.

“The American criminal justice system is clearly in need of reform on multiple levels,” said ABA President William C. Hubbard. “As lawyers, we have a duty and responsibility to ensure the fair administration of justice and to promote public trust in the system. The solutions are not quick or easy, but these proposals offer a tangible and potentially significant framework to make sure the system provides justice for all.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, added, “The events of the last year have powerfully demonstrated the need for the members of our profession to confront the issue of racial bias in our justice system. We are very gratified that the ABA joined with us in convening a group of prosecutors to discuss the role they can play in dealing with this important issue.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund

Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund

“Both the ABA and the LDF share a commitment to building confidence in the rule of law that has been badly shaken over the past year among many Americans. Prosecutors and other members of the criminal justice system must play a role as we move forward in the critical days ahead. The measures identified by the ABA and LDF present a powerful framework for prosecutors who are committed to taking on the issue of racial bias.”

I look forward to more news on this topic. Specifically, which of the 12 recommendations are likely to be adopted first and on a widespread basis? Are any of these suggestions currently being implemented, but on a smaller scale, perhaps in a state or in one jurisdiction?

After reading the statement, write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org to offer your thoughts.

the n word

It may be in the darkest corners of our history—and ourselves—that we locate the self-awareness to make positive change.

That thought occurred to me when yesterday I came across a lecture at noon today that takes on the uncomfortable but vital topic of one of the most vile insults that can be uttered. Kudos to the ASU Law School for inviting a speaker to address “The N Word.”

The speaker is Neal Lester, an ASU Foundation Professor of English and the Director of Project Humanities—a surprising choice for a law school speaker, but an inspired one. Lester’s research and his experience as a literary scholar combine to bring to today’s lecture what I’m sure will be a nuanced and incisive commentary.

Here’s how the Law School describes the event:

 “The N-word is unique in American English usage. No other word is so charged with negative meaning and racial insult that its very use is deemed a hostile act, and it is routinely referred to by a well-understood euphemism—’the N-word’—rather than spoken or written explicitly. … This program will be moderated by Professor Myles Lynk of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. College of Law Professor James Weinstein will offer comments after Dr. Lester’s presentation.”

Whether or not you can attend today, you may enjoy a Q&A with Lester on the site Teaching Tolerance, where the scholar is described:

“Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, recognized that the complexity of the n-word’s evolution demanded greater critical attention. In 2008, he taught the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word ‘nigger’ (which will be referred to as the n-word). Lester said the subject fascinated him precisely because he didn’t understand its layered complexities.”

ASU Foundation Professor Neal Lester

ASU Foundation Professor Neal Lester

Coincidentally, it was another ASU Law School event that suggested to me that hard issues may often be best met at an angle rather than head-on. (Not an original idea. In The Rings of Saturn, the great German author W. G. Sebald pondered how to present his resistant countrymen some hard messages about its 20th-century genocidal history. He opted for a compelling and subtle stroll—plus commentary—through English towns. Your careful read is rewarded.)

Last fall, I attended a striking ASU debate between scholars over the nature of hate speech (it also included Professor James Weinstein). They pondered a question we Americans tend to think is a settled issue: Is it best to meet hate speech with regulation, or simply with more speech?

I wrote about the event here, and I still wonder whether our “more speech” antidote is a cure or just a placebo.

Meantime, someone I respect greatly pointed me to an arresting quotation of the poet Maya Angelou, which I leave you with:

“The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.”

If anyone attends today’s lecture and wants to write a blog post (with a cellphone photo or two), contact me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.