North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein will co-chair a new Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.
The two joined Gov. Roy Cooper at a press conference Tuesday afternoon afternoon to announce a new executive order creating the task force, which will recommend solutions to stop discriminatory law enforcement and criminal justice practices and to hold public safety officers accountable.
“We can stop the use of excessive force by police and we know what is needed to achieve racial equity, now is the time to put that knowledge to work,” Earls said. “I am grateful to the Governor and the Attorney General for recognizing that the Judicial Branch has a crucial role to play in eliminating racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and I am committed to a collaborative process with meaningful community involvement to achieve those goals in short order.”
Earls authored an opinion last week deeming it unconstitutional to retroactively apply the repeal of the Racial Justice Act to death row defendants who already had pending cases seeking relief under the law. The RJA was specifically written to address racial inequities in the criminal justice process regarding death penalty sentencing.
Ironically, Stein’s office argued against RJA relief at the Supreme Court for those defendants who could prove racial bias or discrimination played a factor in their death sentencing. Stein’s office has also argued many times before the Supreme Court against defendants getting relief for claims of Batson violations, or racial discrimination in jury selection.
Earls also authored a historic opinion in May giving lower courts guidance for the first time about how to dig deeper and better assess Batson claims of racial discrimination in jury selection. Last week, Justice Sam Ervin wrote another opinion overturning the denial of a Batson claim.
Until that pair of decisions from the high court, North Carolina appellate courts had never acknowledged race discrimination against jurors of color, and the state stood alone in that regard among southern states.
“We must eliminate the glaring racial disparities that continue to exist,” Earls said at the press conference. “And we must begin to live up to our most highly cherished value of equal justice under the law. After all, we’re the state that espouses the creed, ‘To be, rather than to seem.'”
When asked after the press conference Tuesday whether Stein’s office would continue to oppose relief under the RJA, spokesperson Laura Brewer said they were reviewing the decision from the court and expected to have more information about it soon.
Stein said at the press conference that that inequities that African Americans experience — in the economy, healthcare, schools and the criminal justice system — are pervasive just as they are wrong.
“Even today, African Americans are suffering death at greatly disproportionate rates from COVID-19,” he said. “My heart aches for the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many other people who have been killed or mistreated by their own government. Any senseless act of violence is tragic, but especially so when perpetrated by those sworn to protect and defend us. It represents such a fundamental violation of the authority we grant law enforcement and the trust we place in them.”
The task force will develop and help implement policy solutions to address systemic racial bias in criminal justice and submit legislative and municipal recommendations on or before Dec. 1.
The executive order also creates a Center for the Prevention of Law Enforcement Use of Deadly Force within the State Bureau of Investigation to track statistics and improve training related to the use of force.
This week, Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Erik Hooks directed law enforcement agencies under his purview to ensure each division has a duty-to-intervene policy in place. He also directed that divisions conduct policy reviews on use of force, de-escalation techniques, arrest procedures, cultural sensitivity training and internal investigation processes. Cooper’s Tuesday directs cabinet agencies and encourages non-cabinet state agencies with sworn law enforcement officers to do the same.
Cooper pointed out during the press conference and in a subsequent news release that communities of color are disproportionately affected at each stage of the criminal justice system, with national data showing the following:
• Black adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than white adults;
• Latinx adults are 3.1 times as likely to be incarcerated than white adults;
• Black drivers are approximately twice as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by law enforcement for a traffic stop;
• Black defendants are more likely to be jailed before trial than white defendants;
• The murders of white people are more likely to be solved than the murders of Black people;
• When Black men and white men are convicted of the same crime, Black men receive a prison sentence that is 20 percent longer;
• Black women are imprisoned at twice the rate as white women; and
• Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than are white men, and Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than are white women
“For Black people, the past several weeks have again ripped open scars created by generations of historical trauma,” Cooper said. “Too often that trauma was inflicted by a justice system that should protect them, but instead treats them unfairly. … It’s important for us to recognize these telling numbers and identify the disparities, but it’s even more important and challenging to actually do something about it.”
The task force will be comprised of no more than 25 members, including co-chairs Earls and Stein. Members will be appointed by Cooper and shall serve “at the Governor’s pleasure.” It will include representatives from the state Departments of Justice and Public Safety and the judicial branch, as well as district attorneys, public defenders, victim advocates, chiefs of police, sheriffs, justice-involved individuals and more.
Read the full order below.