State court associations: 'More needs to be done' to ensure equality and fairness for everyone

State courts for many years have examined—and bemoaned—racial disparity, but the killing of George Floyd in May by a police officer in Minneapolis prompted an unprecedented number of court leaders to speak out against systemic racism. Recently  those leaders went a step further, pledging in a resolution to make courts fairer for all, including people of color.

The resolution from the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), endorsed at their recent annual meeting, contends that “too many persons, especially persons of color, lack confidence in the fairness of our courts and our criminal justice system.”

“CCJ and COSCA have long been committed to racial equality in the justice system,” said Texas Chief Justice and CCJ President Nathan Hecht. “Recent events in our country have reminded us more needs to be done. With this resolution, CCJ and COSCA are intensifying efforts to bring about the systemic change that is needed to make equality a reality for everyone.”

The resolution comes at a time when states have announced their own reforms. For example, New Jersey announced a plan to implement nine reforms in a year, and New York announced an independent review of its policies, practices, and initiatives.

The CCJ/COSCA resolution acknowledges specific efforts to:

• Identify and address unconscious bias, and facilitate the uncomfortable conversations that arise from the recognition of such bias.

• Diminish the extent to which pretrial release depends on a defendant’s ability to pay.

• Develop evidence-based practices in sentencing and throughout the criminal justice process.

• Establish proportionate sanctions for the failure to pay fines and fees to those who willfully fail to pay, and prevent sanctions from being imposed on those who are financially unable to pay.

• Collect, maintain and report court data regarding race and ethnicity that allows courts to identify and remedy racial disparities.

• Develop career pathways to improve the racial and ethnic diversity of the bench, law clerks, and court staff, as well as the legal community.

• Engage in conversations with communities of color, so that, in the words of (Equal Justice Initiative Founder) Bryan Stevenson, our courts “get proximate” to the challenges faced by such communities.

“As court leaders, we must ensure our justice system works for everyone,” said Laurie K. Dudgeon, director of the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts and president of COSCA. “This resolution is a call to action from CCJ and COSCA.

“We’re providing a roadmap that courts should follow to renew public confidence in a justice system that is fair and equitable to all.”

The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts.

Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and U.S. Chief Justice of the Warren E. Burger, NCSC provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation’s state courts.