Editorial: Judiciary must address unequal application of justice based on race

Published: 3/12/2022 6:00:53 PM
Modified: 3/12/2022 6:00:10 PM

Last week, the Supreme Court listened to a series of recommendations from a task force it created to review how the judiciary handles domestic violence cases, including examining the court system’s own procedures.

Some suggestions from the task force were as simple as creating more user-friendly legal forms. Others were more complex, like providing more assistance for victims of domestic violence seeking protection to navigate the legal process.

It’s not easy to look inward, especially when a close analysis can reveal flaws. Yet doing so can increase awareness of a problem, help identify instructive failure and lead to better outcomes in the future.

We commend Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald and the Supreme Court for doing so.

However, the work is not done.

It’s past time for the court to take a look at another problem area and consider what can be done about it, namely the unequal application of justice for people of color in the state’s criminal justice system.

This is not a new idea.

It was brought up to several judges last fall during a meeting of a committee that was established two decades ago to improve communication between the court system and the state media corps.

The response from several judges on the committee was:

We don’t have the data.

We don’t have the time.

We don’t have the money.

These responses are inadequate.

It’s no secret that people of color face disproportionate consequences for similar offenses when compared to white peers.

Certainly getting more data for future analysis should be a priority, but it’s no excuse to take no action now.

Consider these statistics from 2016, reported by NHPR:

In Hillsborough County, Blacks and Hispanics comprise 16% of the county’s drug arrests, yet account for 29% of incarcerated defendants awaiting trial in the county jail on those charges. Conversely, whites make up 83% of those arrested for drug offenses in the county, yet they make up 69% of those incarcerated while awaiting trial on those charges.

While it’s up to police to arrest and prosecutors to levy charges, the bail decisions are made by judges.

Or these statistics reported by the Monitor in 2020:

About 7% of the New Hampshire State Prison population is Black, while 1.8% of the state’s total population is Black, which points to unequal outcomes for people of color in courts and in prisons and jails.

There are some very basic numbers that point to a larger, systemic problem in New Hampshire, which is not unique to this state.

We can look to other states to see what successful reform looked like there, or come up with our own Granite State solution.

Time and money are always in short supply, especially with a backlog of cases and a never-ending list of initiatives and goals. The domestic violence task force, which was established in November, reveals the swiftness with which the court system can act when it chooses to and propose real solutions at minimal cost.

It’s true, some reforms can be expensive, but let those proposals be debated openly and weighed against other spending priorities.

In honor of Sunshine Week, which begins today, we call upon Justice MacDonald and the other members of the Supreme Court to consider such a review.

It’s not enough for the state’s best legal minds to shrug and look the other way if defendants of different races do not receive the same access to justice.

As members of the state’s media, we believe it is part of our role to point out issues that appear in need of improvement and insist public institutions are as transparent as possible. We’re good at illustrating numbers that indicate a problem. But we want to report on solutions too.

We don’t know everything. Far from it. If this problem is to be addressed and improved, the well-meaning members of the judicial branch must be willing to address it.

It could be painful. It could be difficult.

But in a state that cherishes liberty more than any other, it’s worth it.

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