Bringing New Integrity to Our Criminal Justice System

There is a saying in many African-American communities that our system of criminal “justice” means “just us.” While overstated, the expression reflects longstanding, as well as very recent, experiences of racial profiling and unequal treatment.

For many years the evidence has been mounting that, despite our progress as a nation, race continues to have a strong and unequal influence on outcomes in the criminal justice system. Research has found racially biased treatment in many state and federal systems at the stages of investigation, arrest, charging, plea bargaining, jury selection, and sentencing. That bias contributes not only to stark racial imbalances in our nation’s prisons—some three-quarters of prisoners in the US are African-American and Latino—but also to a dangerous erosion of public trust.

Last week, federal lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation that, if enacted, could begin to restore that trust. Senators Biden (D-DE), Specter (R-PA), Cardin (D-MD), and Kerry (D-MA) introduced the Justice Integrity Act. The Act would establish a pilot program within the US Department of Justice designed to eliminate unjustified racial disparities.

Under the legislation, ten U.S. Attorneys designated by the Attorney General would appoint and chair an advisory group composed of prosecutors, public defenders, judges, civil rights leaders, and other experts their region. Each advisory group would gather and analyze relevant data on criminal justice systems within its jurisdiction to determine whether racial inequality exists and, if so, its cause. Each would report key findings and recommend a plan to reduce unwarranted disparities. The ten reports would inform a comprehensive report and recommendations to Congress by the Attorney General at the end of the pilot program.

The bill grew in large part from a 2007 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and the National Institute for Law and Equity. (By way of full disclosure, my wife was one of the architects of that report). The report included the contributions of over a dozen former U.S. Attorneys, and won the support of public defenders as well as prosecutors.

To be sure, the Justice Integrity Act, if passed, would be a modest step. Its principal weapons against bias in the system would be rigorous investigation, honest reporting, and concrete recommendations, along with the reputations of the advisory group members themselves. The legislation, on its own, will not prevent or remedy injustice. Just a few years ago, however, such a bill would have been unimaginable, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle routinely ignored or denied the existence of racial bias. This modest step is, nonetheless, an important one.

In introducing the bill, Senator Biden noted that “nowhere is the guarantee of equal protection more important than in our criminal justice system.” If enacted, the Justice Integrity Act can help to make that guarantee a reality.

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