Online event to probe injustice in U.S. judicial system

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What is justice for all and how do we achieve it? The National Women’s Hall of Fame Forum this week plans to explore answers to that question.

Slated for Aug. 6 at 7 p.m., the virtual event highlights the work of attorney and journalist Amy Bach in “Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court.” A recipient of the 2010 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the book investigates our nation’s approach to justice, advocacy and how courtroom failures disproportionately impact the lives of some Americans.

“It is particularly important to review it now in light of the various issues that have been brought to our attention and some of the people who feel their voices have not been heard,” says Sharon Stiller, partner at Abrams, Fensterman LLP. “One of the most important points of Amy’s book about justice or injustice is that she was able to sit in the courtroom and there were other people who were able to sit in the courtroom and then raise questions about what happens there. Part of what we’re hearing in Black Lives Matter is that people feel their voices have not been heard and that their rights and even their lives are not important.”

Stiller is the moderator of the NWHF Forum, which features Bach, CEO of Measures for Justice, and other female experts. They are:

■ Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. A MacArthur Fellow, legal scholar and professor, Deer is an activist for Indigenous women. She is a 2019 NWHF Inductee.

■ Shani Mitchell, municipal attorney with the city of Rochester. A former assistant district attorney in Monroe County, Mitchell has served as a prosecutor in Rochester and Atlanta. 

■ Mridula Raman, the clinical supervising attorney in Berkeley Law School’s Death Penalty Clinic, where she works with law students to represent death-sentenced individuals in a number of states. Previously, Raman was an assistant federal public defender in the Capital Habeas Unit of the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona.

The panel hopes to engage in different points of view, using Bach’s work as an educational resource. Raman would like people to feel energized to fight for changes they seek.

“Going forward, in addition to protesting, I hope people will attend public court proceedings (when the health situation allows), closely follow and get involved with local elections for positions like district attorney and sheriff, and pressure elected officials to make changes ranging from ending cash bail to eliminating the death penalty,” she says. “And, of course, many people have been pushing for change for a very long time, but it’s time for all of us to invest in making our criminal system just.”

In an effort to influence change, Bach’s organization Measures for Justice was founded in 2011 to develop a data-driven set of performance measures to assess and compare the criminal justice process from arrest to post-conviction on a county-by-county basis. The data set comprises measures that address three broad categories: fiscal responsibility, fair process and public safety. Based in Rochester, MFJ aims to measure every stage of the criminal justice process across more than 3,000 counties in the United States. Data for New York is expected this year.

A 2019 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found at least 4.9 million people move through county jails each year. Black men and women account for 21 percent of people who were arrested just once and 28 percent of people arrested multiple times, the study states. Multiple arrests included jail time for nonviolent offenses such as theft and drug possession.

Raman believes communities need to prioritize eliminating systemic racism, by doing more to “ensure that lawyers cannot strike potential jurors because of their race and by countering implicit bias in charging and sentencing decisions.

“We have to ensure that public defender officers are adequately funded and not overloaded, so that the quality of representation people get does not depend on what they can afford,” she adds. “We have to stop using jails and prisons to warehouse people with mental illness.”

Stiller hopes the conversation will heighten awareness among the audience.

“A good outcome would be for people to be aware of the issues and want to make sure that we provide as much justice to everyone as we can,” she says. 

Participants are not required to purchase Bach’s book for the program, but tickets cost $20. Free passes are available to the media and nonprofits. Students can attend at no cost. To register, click here.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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