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09/30/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 09/30/2021 17:40

“At the end of the day, it’s race”:  Task Force on Race and Justice Presents Findings on Unequal Treatment in WA Criminal Justice System

"At the end of the day, it's race": Task Force on Race and Justice Presents Findings on Unequal Treatment in WA Criminal Justice System

September 30, 2021

Bias and the legacy of historically racist laws and practices contribute significantly to racially disproportionate treatment and outcomes in Washington's criminal justice system, a task force reported this week to the Washington Supreme Court.

From more frequent police stops, searches, use of force, arrests, longer sentences, fewer non-prison sentencing alternatives, higher or more frequent fines, and higher rates of deaths at the hands of police, people of color are treated more harshly than White people from the first contact with the justice system, according to data collected by the Task Force 2.0: Race and Washington's Criminal Justice System.

Members of the Task Force presented their findings to the Supreme Court over Zoom on Wednesday, Sept. 29, and released their report to the public. The presentation was broadcast live on TVW and recorded for future viewing.

"We come to you with deep concern about evidence we see of racial injustice in criminal law," said Gonzaga University School of Law Dean Jacob Rooksby, one of three co-chairs of the Task Force along with Seattle University School of Law Dean Annette Clark and University of Washington School of Law Dean Mario Barnes.

In addition to gathering data from the many points of contact throughout the justice system, Task Force researchers worked to identify reasons for disparities, often comparing "similarly situated" persons (those with similar crimes and criminal histories) and documenting differential treatment.

"At the end of the day, it's race," said Seattle University School of Law Professor Robert Chang, executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality. "At the end of the day, we see that disproportionalities persist in the criminal justice system."

The Task Force report examines data on policing, prosecutorial decision-making, pre-trial release, sentences, incarceration, Legal Financial Obligations (court fines and fees), driver license suspensions, community supervision and reentry from incarceration, and more. The study also addresses the extensive impacts of contact with the criminal justice system on people's mental and physical health, families, future employment, housing, and more.

Examples of Task Force findings include:

  • From 2013 to 2020 in Washington state, 253 people were killed by police. Based on each group's relative population, Black people were killed at a rate 3.6 times greater than that of non-Hispanic White people; Indigenous people were killed at a rate 3.3 times greater; Latinos were killed at a rate 1.3 times greater; and Pacific Islanders were killed at a rate 3.3 times greater.
  • Black persons, Indigenous persons, and Latina/os are sentenced to court fines and fees (Legal Financial Obligations, or ''LFOs'') more frequently and at higher rates than White and Asian persons. Even after controlling for relevant legal factors, Latina/os are sentenced to significantly higher LFOs than similarly situated White defendants.

The Task Force was launched in mid-2020 by the deans of Washington's three law schools following the death of George Floyd, nationwide protests for racial justice, and an Open Letter issued by the justices of the Washington Supreme Court on June 4, 2020 to members of the state judiciary and legal community in which the justices said, "The legal community must recognize that we all bear responsibility for this on-going injustice, and that we are capable of taking steps to address it, if only we have the courage and the will."

"Task Force 2.0 is our response to that letter," Gonzaga School of Law Professor Jason Gillmer, director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, said during the presentation. The Task Force is dubbed "2.0" because it is a re-launch of the Race and Justice Task Force established in 2010 following comments made by two then-sitting Washington Supreme Court justices about criminality and race. That first task force produced a report in 2011 with data that has guided a number of efforts since then, including an annual symposium presented by the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission focusing on specific issues of racial disparity.

Professor Chang said that two paths were clear in response to the newest findings - to decide that the justice system is just fine and the disproportionality is not due to bias, or to acknowledge the significant, ongoing issues highlighted by the research.

"The organizations and individuals in Task Force 2.0 all agree the system is not working just fine, and the challenge is, what then?" Chang said.

The Task Force will release recommendations for action by the end of the year, along with another report from a "task force within a task force" examining the state's juvenile justice system. Speakers during the presentation pointed to the need for greater transparency and information sharing in all areas of the justice system, the need to examine the role and impacts of incarceration itself, the need for leaders from all branches and levels of government to be involved, and the need to acknowledge that even with neutral laws and policies, implicit bias influences the unequal application of those laws throughout the criminal justice system.

"We need to be intentional," said retired King County Superior Court Judge J. Wesley Saint Clair during the presentation. "Seven decades I've been dealing with this. And if we don't make space for these hard conversations, 70 years from now we'll be in the same place."

"To look at this data is devastating. But it's also an opportunity for hope and reinvigoration," said UW School of Law Dean Mario Barnes.

The first call to action is to read the Task Force report and commit to reading the recommendations which will be released later this year, said Annette Clark, dean of Seattle University School of Law. Then, "Choose a piece of the work," she said. "None of us can do it all."

Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven González, who was involved in the 2010 task force before he joined the Supreme Court, closed the presentation by thanking the presenters and the members of the task force for their ongoing work. "We regret that this work is still needed, but we recognize that it is," he said.

More background on the work of Task Force 2.0 can be found at https://law.seattleu.edu/centers-and-institutes/korematsu-center/initiatives/task-force-20-x24772.

CONTACT: Seattle University School of Law Professor Robert Chang, executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, [email protected], (206) 398-4025; Gonzaga University School of Law Professor Jason Gillmer, director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, [email protected], (509) 313-3750; Kim Eckart, University of Washington School of Law, [email protected], (206) 543-2580.

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