Is the System Racially Biased?

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Judge LaDoris Cordell
Until recently she served on the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, where she heard both juvenile and adult cases. A state court trial judge since 1982, she presided over Manny's fitness case.

A number of recent surveys have shown that there are profound racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, that African-American and Hispanic youth are more likely to be tried as adults. They are more likely to receive longer sentences, they're more likely to be in locked facilities, and on and on and on, even when charged with the same offense as whites. Do you think that that's true?

. . . . I believe, absolutely, that what you have described exists in the system. The statistics prove it--they're there. What is hard is that if you go up to your average juvenile court judge, and that judge is the one who sends these kids off--we're the ones ultimately responsible for these statistics--that judge will look you dead in the eye and say, "I'm not unfair, I'm not racist, I'm not prejudiced. I do the best I can." And that judge is telling you the truth. . . .

But what is at play here in most cases? I'm not saying there aren't those judges who are so prejudiced and so racist; there are those. But I think, in the main, most are not. But I think what happens is that stereotypes are so embedded in the psyche of human beings, that those stereotypes come to play. So that when a young black kid comes into court before a white male judge, who perhaps doesn't have any experience dealing with young black males, and this black male has on baggy pants, has an attitude, may have a tattoo, immediately a picture, a mindset comes up in that judge's head. We make assumptions; that's what stereotypes are. Assumptions get made. . . . I think, in the main, that's what happens, and I think that's what accounts for those statistics. . . .

Now, how do we solve it? How do we remedy it? One way is to increase the number of judges on the bench who are judges who look like the people who come before them. So, if I have judges who are African-American, who are Latino or Latina, who are from the Asian-American communities, they are less likely to engage in that kind of stereotyping when some young kid who is of the same background or same ethnic background comes before that judge. . . . The other is, there are judges who are white, black, whatever, who have those biases. The idea is to address those biases, to get them to address it, which means judicial training. . . . where we say, "We've got to talk about this, we've got to put it on the table and talk about stereotypes and your biases, so that when you go back to work, we change the system that we have." The numbers are astounding, shocking, and they are indeed a reflection of what's going on in the system. . . .

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/juvenile/bench/race.html

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