How can our state improve racial equity in the criminal justice system? North Carolinians have no shortage of ideas.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated below to reflect the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) consists of 24 members from diverse backgrounds.

In June, Governor Roy Cooper appointed North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and  Attorney General Josh Stein to lead a new task force aimed at developing solutions to ensure racial equity in North Carolina’s criminal justice system. On Tuesday, the task force invited the public to offer their ideas for improving a system that disproportionately affects communities of color.

Michael Banner

Michael Banner, a self-described three-time felon from Winston-Salem, urged the panel to take some of the money earmarked for police and allocate it to help families.

“Right now, the whole emphasis on locking someone up has really fractured our families.”

Policy advocate and civil rights attorney Jennifer Marsh stressed the need for bail and pre-trial release reforms.

Attorney Miesha Evans of Disability Rights NC said to truly address racial equity in the criminal justice system, the state must first address racial equity in our schools.

“Programs to address specific learning disabilities would benefit all students with disabilities, but it would particularly benefit students of color,” explained Evans.

Miesha Evans, Disability Rights NC

“In North Carolina in 2016-17, Black students compromised 25% of the student population, and 31% of the students with IEPs, yet 44% of the students who had emotional disabilities and 44% of the students who had intellectual disabilities.

Identification under intellectual and emotional disability can lead to lower expectations, stigma, more restrictive classroom placements , and resentment for acting out, particularly  for students who have been miscategorized.”

Tabitha Curry- Bey, whose husband has served 19 years of a 45-year sentence, asked the task force to take a hard look at excessive sentences.

“The mandatory minimum, is that designed to rehabilitate someone or humiliate people? I don’t understand it,” said Curry-Bey.  “Forty-five years seems excessive to me.”

Elizabeth Crudup zoomed into the online meeting from outside of the Lumberton Correctional Center,  and pleaded for the release of more inmates during the pandemic.

Elizabeth Crudup

“People are getting sicker. They are living like animals out here…and all you can talk about is future policies. We need to act immediately. This should be your number one priority.”

Stereotypes perpetuated by the media must also be part of the conversation, according to Dr. W. Russell Robinson, a professor of mass-communication at NC Central University.

“How they present the first 10 minutes of their newscast, stories of Black crime, whether it be Black victimization or Black criminality.”

Dr. Robinson also pressed for law enforcement to actually live in the neighborhoods they police.

“I think it’s important, if police officers are entrusted with looking and serving and protecting over people, they have the gravitas of the people they protect as well.”

David Crispell, the executive director of Jubilee Home in Durham, pushed for greater  support of transitional housing for young people following an incarceration.

“We need a list of who is coming back into a community. Right now, service providers like us rely on a word-of-mouth, which means people show up on our porch out of homelessness,” explained Crispell.

Crispell said with “a smoothing of information pathways” the counties could do a better job in providing services to the newly released.

Activist and former Raleigh mayoral candidate Zainab Baloch asked the panel  to consider its own make-up when discussing racial equity.

Thomas Maher, Center for Science and Justice at Duke University.

“Racial equity transcends just white and Black people. This task force does not include anyone from the indigenous community, the Latinx community, and Asian and Muslim community members.”

[Editor’s note: The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice does have a diverse make up, with members who are Latinx, Asian Muslim and Lumbee. You can find a complete list of the task force members here.]

One of the final speakers in the session was Thomas Maher, the Executive Director of the Center for Science and Justice at Duke University.

As the former head of North Carolina’s Indigent Defense Services, Maher stressed the need for those who are accused of a crime to have adequate representation.

“For years and years, North Carolina’s public defense system has been underfunded. The public defenders workload study shows they are understaffed, carrying more cases than they should. Obviously in the time of our current economic crisis that become more of a problem.

Much of what you are working on will only work if there’s a strong defense function, and that means providing resources and public defense.”

Justice  Earls  said the two-hour hearing left the governor’s working group with “a lot to think about” over the coming weeks.

Thus far, the task force has adopted three recommendations: The duty to intervene and report for law enforcement officers, a prohibition of neck holds by law enforcement officers, and a North Carolina Supreme Court requirement of an assessment of one’s ability to pay before levying fines and fees.

A final report on legislative and municipal recommendations is due on or before December 1st.

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