December 2015 Bar Bulletin
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Zero Detention: More Principle, Less Compromise

 

For years now, readers of this column have been hearing about the new Children and Family Justice Center and detention reform from the perspective of the Court. Hearing from the advocates who take a different view is long overdue. This month, in the place of my column, is this piece written by Nikkita Oliver, an attorney and an organizer with EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex), adapted from an article she wrote for the South Seattle Emerald.

As I was sworn in by Judge Susan Craighead as a part of the latest batch of new lawyers at KCBA ceremonies, I thought, "I hope that in 20 years I do not compromise my principles to be accepted by an inequitable justice system or to allow the system to continue to function in unjust ways."

In many ways, who I am and what I stand for frustrate the legal profession -a profession that has historically valued legal precedent over what is just. In this country we have used the law to justify racism, slavery, genocide, civil rights violations, mass incarceration and many other atrocities. It is hard to accept, but the law and justice are not the same thing. We must remain cognizant of our historical and present-day failures. We must vow both in word and deed to be better and to challenge the status quo despite how the law is often resistant to change.

According to the 2013 Department of Justice Census Data over 1.5 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons with nearly 7 million people under correctional control. Research organizations, like the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), believe that number to be much higher. When juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, Indian Country jails and detention centers are incorporated into the data over 2.4 million people are incarcerated in the United States.

In a report regarding racial disparities, PPI points out that black people make up only 13% of the U.S. population, but compose 40% of the U.S. prison population. Together, black people and Latino people make up 59% of the prison population, but only 29% of the overall U.S. population.

To paint a picture of how disproportionate the system is, black people are incarcerated at six times the rate of white people though white people make up well over 50% of the U.S. population. A 2012 ABA report on lawyer demographics shows that only 4.8% of lawyers are black, 3.7% Latino, 3.4% Asian Pacific American, and 88.1% white. ABA reports also show that the judiciary demographics look a lot like lawyer demographics. As a result, statistically speaking, a young black person in the United States has a better chance of becoming an inmate than a lawyer or judge.

These statistics are disturbing and point us toward a need for a complete overhaul of the system. We need more than reform. We need principle over compromise because compromise is part of the problem.


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