Justice system unfair, almost half of public says

bshannon@theolympian.comJune 8, 2014 

A public opinion survey done for Washington courts shows a sharp racial divide in public views of how fair the justice system is in the Evergreen State.

The report, which used an Internet-based survey of 1,500 residents in 2012, was done for the state Supreme Court’s Minority and Justice Commission and is scheduled for a public presentation and discussion Monday in Olympia.

Among the findings, the report shows more than 40 percent of the public does not think the justice system treats people “fairly and equally.” More than 65 percent of all respondents thought a black person would be more likely to be convicted of a crime he or she did not commit than a white person charged with the identical crime.

While just 11 percent of whites reported disrespectful treatment by police on at least one occasion, the figures show up to 62 percent of African Americans reported a negative experience.

The survey also found Latinos report more “contentious contacts” with police and the courts than whites, but “somewhat fewer” than do blacks, while experiences of Asian Americans are comparable to those of whites.

The sample was weighted to increase its match to the state’s population, according to the report. Researchers said group differences were noted only when the odds of them occurring by chance were less than 1 in 20.

“The report provides an excellent opportunity for us to continue our work toward enhancing confidence in our courts,” newly appointed state Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, who is co-chairwoman of the Minority & Justice Commission with Justice Charles Johnson, said in a statement. “We look forward to working collaboratively with all of the other entities in our criminal justice system on improving the delivery of justice and addressing these findings on how the wider community experiences us.”

Monday’s session, which includes a forum with questions, runs from 8:30 a.m.-noon at the Department of Social and Health Services headquarters building, 1115 Washington St., Olympia. Attendees are asked to register by email to cynthia.delostrinos@courts.wa.gov.

“My guess is that it will be a lively conversation,’’ said Ed Prince, director of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, who was helping to organize the forum. “My hope is that a larger conversation about this gets started. The data don’t tell me anything I didn’t already know as far as perception.’’

Prince said he thinks the involvement of the high court can make a difference in broadening the discussion.

The commission plans to report its findings to the nine-member state Supreme Court.

Uriel Iniguez, director of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs and a member of the justice commission, offered a similar assessment.

“To me this is nothing new. But how do we mainstream this issue so people are aware of it and what’s going on? We sometimes tend to isolate it, segregate it — (we say) it’s not my problem,” Iniguez said.

Iniguez said that getting people to acknowledge what the public perceptions are may lead to a better conversation and eventual changes in the system.

“These discussions are not easy — at times they bring out some hurtful feelings,” Iniguez said. “People jump to conclusions, ‘you’re calling me racist.’ No … this is what people are saying. It may not be reality, but it’s what they are saying, and we have to come to terms with it.”

The research was done by a team of investigators that included professor Jon Hurwitz of the University of Pittsburgh, professor Jeffery Mondak of the University of Illinois, and professor Mark Peffley of University of Kentucky.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com

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