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Panel examines prejudice in justice system

Thursday, November 30, 2000

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Young black men are stopped, arrested and incarcerated at rates out of all proportion to their numbers, yet black citizens are grossly under-represented in the jury pool.

A judge won't consider wife-beating as a factor in awarding joint child custody to a father, while a mother is denied a protection-from-abuse order because the judge thinks she's looking for a wedge issue in the custody battle.

A caseworker removes neglected children from a single mother in public housing but leaves similarly neglected children in the home of two parents in a wealthy suburb.

Judges, lawyers, experts and advocates testified about these and other paradoxes yesterday as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System held its first public hearing.

The panel was appointed by the justices a year ago to study an array of concerns: courtroom interaction among judges, attorneys, litigants and defendants; hiring practices and appointments; quality of representation in criminal cases; equity of sentencing; jury selection; treatment of litigants in sexual assault and domestic violence cases; and special issues in cases of divorce, custody, adoption, dependency and support.

The panel listened for six hours yesterday as two dozen witnesses testified at the YWCA, Downtown.

Lisette McCormick, the committee's executive director, said more hearings will be held across the state.

"We're going to gather data over the next 18 months to two years," McCormick said. "Then we will analyze it and prepare a report for the court, along with recommendations to address any problems we've identified."

She wasn't sure if the findings would be made public upon completion.

The committee, chaired by Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University Law School, is collecting statistics from expert witnesses such as Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Hunter Hurst Jr. of the Center for Juvenile Justice. But its members are also interested in anecdotal information.

City Councilman Sala Udin, for example, spoke yesterday about a family wedding where dozens of young women gathered to catch the bride's bouquet, but only three or four of their male counterparts were present when the groom threw the garter.

"That speaks to what happens when a large number of African-American men are incarcerated," Udin said.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Cynthia Baldwin said the public must have faith that the justice system is fair. That perception, she said, can be easily undermined by court employees and attorneys who don't realize how their biases are showing. She gave an example of a young lawyer who barged into her conversation and asked her to deliver some papers to the judge. It never occurred to him that the African-American woman to whom he was speaking might be the judge.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said he believed his office was making every effort to act without racial or gender prejudice, adding that isolated occurrences would be addressed if brought to his attention.

Public Defender Susan Ruffner contended that real fairness for indigent clients was all but impossible on her annual budget of less than $6 million, noting that overworked attorneys in her office have little time to prepare for court and no money to investigate their clients' cases. This year, she said, out of $13 million in federal grant money the state received for training in the criminal justice system, her office got only $60,000.

David Carroll, senior research associate of the Spangenberg Group, which specializes in improvement of indigent defense systems, fingered the major cause of the funding problem: Pennsylvania is one of only two states that provide no state money for the county court system. The biggest step toward greater equity, he said, would be for the state to assume a share of the costs.

John Kramer, a Penn State University professor and former executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, noted that minorities make up 50 to 60 percent of the state's prison population. Some 80 percent of the racial disparity is based on so-called "warranted" causes, such as prior convictions and severity of crimes, he said. The other 20 percent is "unwarranted disparity."

Kramer said that after controlling for all other things, minorities have a 12 percent greater chance of being incarcerated, with young black males bearing the brunt of the statistic. Courts often use education and employment as mitigating circumstances, he said, which works against poor and minority populations.

Where racial bias probably shows up most is at the level of deciding who gets stopped, arrested and charged with what level of criminal offense, Kramer said.

Attorney Tim O'Brien noted the nearly complete absence of blacks from juries and the jury pools from which they are selected. In the past five years, he said, he's represented 20 African-American plaintiffs in civil jury trials in state and federal court. Most of those cases lacked even a single black person in the jury pool.

Allegheny County Jury Commissioner Allan Kirschman said his office draws names for the jury pool from voter registration and driver's license records and phone directories. Efforts to expand the pool have not paid off, he said, and had to be curtailed when his staff was cut from 34 employees to 10.

Scott Hollander, executive director of Legal Aid for Children, said race, class and gender bias are constant concerns in the system that deals with abused and neglected children and their families. Some higher-income school districts won't even report suspicions of such cases, he said, because the community doesn't want to look bad -- even though abuse and neglect occur across all barriers of income, race and class.

Lorraine Bittner, director of legal advocacy for the Greater Pittsburgh Women's Center and Shelter, said court personnel must be trained to realize that abused women often say what they think their questioners want to hear, even when it works against them, because that's how they've learned to stay alive in violent relationships.

Grace Coleman, executive director of Crisis Center North, said too many judges want to keep both parents in a child's life at all times and at all costs, even when that decision places victims of domestic violence at great risk.

The committee's next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in Philadelphia. Others are to take place in Erie, Harrisburg, State College, Wilkes-Barre and Allentown.

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