More needs to be done to ensure everyone — regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation — receives equal treatment under the law because the current criminal justice system disproportionately negatively impacts African Americans.
That was the message from Judges Olly Neal and Maxine White during last week Thursday’s “Racial Justice in the Courts: North and South” webinar, which was hosted by the Center for Politics and the People at Ripon College.
While the judges come from different regions of the United States as Neal is a former judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals and White is a judge on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, they shared similar experiences with systemic racism that helped guide them on the bench.
Neal grew up in the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas, 60 miles from where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. Till and Neal were the same age. White, meanwhile, was born in 1951 and grew up in Mississippi in a family of sharecroppers.
“I saw the [Ku Klux] Klan when I was an undergrad; I saw my dad, who was third-grade educated and a sharecropper, fight to protect his family,” White said. “It did not deter me from claiming my piece of the American dream.”
Before joining the courts, they experienced both personally and professionally how race is a factor in the criminal justice system in the United States.
“There is unfairness in our system,” White said. “There is injustice done by our system to people all over the land and including in our state” of Wisconsin.
Neal described the criminal justice system as the government intervening when someone breaks laws, encompassing law enforcement, the courts and correctional facilities.
For example, White noted the process starts with a complaint, then the police step in and send their version of events to a district attorney before the complaint ultimately ends up in front of a judge.
“We all come to the bench with a certain set of values, and I think that’s where it all begins and ends for some people,” she said. “We need to make certain that when someone is given the honorable position of judging conduct, behavior or calls and coming out with a resolution that we don’t forget that an individual person has biases, implicit or otherwise, that need to be checked by an accurate and fair application of the law.”
White added that the criminal justice system does not “screen out those faults that we may have,” meaning justice isn’t always distributed in a fair manner.
According to White, other problems in the system include the inability for low-income defendants to afford quality legal representation.
“It’s a very complex matter when you place everything on the robe of the judge to make everything just and fair because we are fallible human beings,” White said. “So what we need is checks and balances. We need the public to be interested in who wears the robe and how they wear it.”
Beyond issues related to sentencing, White discussed mass incarceration, noting the United States imprisons “more people than any other place on the planet.”
According to White, Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the United States when it comes to over-incarceration of African Americans. African Americans only represent 7% of the state’s population but make up roughly 50% of Wisconsin’s prison population.
“We spend billions of dollars housing people with the expectation that housing them will get a better result when they return home,” White said. “We have one zip code in Wisconsin, 53206, that has been written about a lot nationally [because] it probably has more missing African American males from that zip code to incarceration than any in the nation.”
Neal echoed many of White’s concerns, noting the criminal justice system is representative of a broader population that “grew out of having a certain body of people enslaved.”
“While we made some progress and people like me continue to have great hope because we really are impressed with that document called the ‘United States Constitution,’ the fact of the matter is that we have a good way to go,” Neal said. “This system was not designed to protect us. Even though the Constitution gives us some hope, we’re a long way from an equal system for Blacks.”
While there are reasons to be pessimistic, White noted progress is being made in Wisconsin to craft concrete reforms for the criminal justice system.
Several years ago, an ordinance in Milwaukee County established the Milwaukee Community Justice Council, a board that every head of government in Milwaukee County sits on to deliberate how to deal with issues surrounding criminal justice reform.
“That instrument can operate almost as a united front for all of the independently elected people to decide as a group, how to attack certain problems,” White said, adding that its goals are to eliminate racial disparities and reduce jail populations.
Since creating the Milwaukee Community Justice Council, White noted the county has seen a 20% reduction in the use of its jails.
In order to ensure equal justice for all, White and Neal believe there’s room for improvement. As a prosecutor, Neal worked closely with the police in Arkansas, but he still believes more can be done to hold police accountable when they wrongly kill someone.
Additionally, as someone who lived through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, he’s seen multiple similarities to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’ve been impressed with what these young people are doing and, and how diverse the participants are,” he said. “I’m hopeful that in the final outcome, we will see those who are committed to fairness, justice and equality prevail this time.”
Likewise, White encouraged the next generation to continue fighting for racial equality.
“Don’t give up on the American dream; it belongs to you,” White said. “Democracy is not going to stick; you have to go in there and make it stick.”