August 2013 Bar Bulletin
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August 2013 Bar Bulletin

Racial Disproportionality in the Justice System: What Can Be Done

By Dan Satterberg


There is an old joke about the weather, "Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it."

It seems that many of our pressing social concerns are like that - plenty of problem statements and hand wringing, but not enough action. When it comes to the challenge of reducing racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system, we can do more than just talk. I believe that prosecutors can, and must, play a key role in assessing past practices and laws that have contributed to the undeniable and unacceptable fact that African-American men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.1

That our larger society also exhibits disproportionality in most of the metrics that measure a fair society should come as no surprise, as we are only 150 years from legal slavery and only 50 years from the passage of the Civil Rights Act. As lawyers, we must face the fact that during the 20th Century most of our institutions, including the courts, spent much time and energy propping up the barriers to equal opportunity that kept minorities in the economic margins of society.

But the fact that there are multiple examples of upstream disparities does not absolve us, as lawyers and leaders, of the responsibility to examine our system for the ways that we exacerbate our social inequities. Together we have the power to shape our justice system so that it lives up to its name. Here are a few things that the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office is doing that could make a difference.

Keeping Young People in School

Education acts as a protective shield against criminality and imprisonment. A high school dropout is five times more likely to go to prison than a high school graduate. A college degree makes the chance of involvement with the criminal justice system statistically miniscule.

My office uses our state's truancy laws to return at-risk students to school and to help them reengage in the education process. While our truancy laws are designed as a court-based model, we use our discretion to keep those students out of court, instead inviting them to participate in a local, school-based workshop designed to provide individual attention to get at the heart of why they are not going to school.

The workshop ends with a three-part contract between the school, the parent or guardian, and the student that maps out expectations and a road to success. Each party agrees to take one action to get the student to reengage. This past school year, 1,355 petitions were filed on students in danger of dropping out. Of those petitions, only about a third proceeded to juvenile court for additional intervention. The remaining petitions were dismissed because the student reengaged in education.

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