Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Judge, Attorneys Discuss Hard Truths about Race and Reform

With public outcry for criminal justice reform more visible these days, so are the uncomfortable stories from stakeholders in the system in an effort to bring awareness and enact change.

The Columbus Metropolitan Club (CMC) recently held a discussion about race and the justice system, and the impacts of inequity when it comes to representation and sentencing. CMC, an organization that holds weekly town hall-style forums on current and relevant topics of community interest, was led on this topic by a former U.S. attorney, an appellate judge, and a defense lawyer.

“If you don't understand how race, class, poverty, sexual orientation, having insurance affect that person, you might not even get the terms of that probation correct,” said Tenth District Court of Appeals Judge Laurel Beatty Blunt.

As one of the state’s seven minority appellate judges out of 75 seats, Judge Beatty Blunt spoke to the challenges all people of color face in the justice system regarding unfamiliarity about social and personal circumstances. It could be as a defendant, as a legal professional, or a jurist.

The former Franklin County common pleas judge described how personal experiences could potentially have profound impacts on the bench.

While campaigning during a Fourth of July parade years ago, she revealed that she and her volunteers were called racial slurs while having tennis balls thrown at them.

“We have to experience those things, then turn around and be fair and impartial to all people, which is just something other judges don't have to do,” she said.

For a perspective on the other side of the bench, attorney Diane Menashe detailed the need for empathy of the accused, including those charged with lengthy records.

“There's a misconception that all clients should be treated the same, and when we do so, inevitably, bias creeps in,” Menashe said. “Instead, we should be approaching every individual on a separate basis, and really understand where they are, and how they got there.”

Other suggestions to transform awareness within the legal profession include being proactive with community partners and law schools. Another is transparency through a statewide criminal sentencing database, like one proposed by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Michael Donnelly.

Menashe cited one example in how disparate outcomes can be from cases to case. After nearly 40 hours researching all sentences in Franklin County for a specific crime, she had proof that her client – an African-American woman with no prior criminal record – was facing a much harsher sentence than the norm.

“Instead of the 13 years that the prosecutor was asking for, guess what the average number that a white person was not only getting as a jointly recommended sentence, but from the judge? It was four,” Menashe said.

Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Carter Stewart served as the event’s moderator. Before the conversation opened up to audience questions, he asked the panel if there was optimism for progress on these generational issues. They – and countless others – see the glass as half full.

“I’m a part of a system that’s perpetuating things that have historically hurt my people. I have to have hope,” said Judge Beatty Blunt.