Events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Cleveland and, most recently, Pasco have again made us painfully aware of the different experiences that people of color face when it comes to the police and the criminal justice system.
Black Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be searched, more likely to be arrested and more likely to receive longer prison sentences for the same behavior as white Americans. This is not a new problem, but what seems different now is that there has been a much broader push to address and improve the practices in the criminal justice system, such as reforming certain police practices and changing mandatory minimum sentencing laws, that disparately impact certain communities. Authority figures such as FBI Director James Comey acknowledge that more needs to be done to address unconscious racial bias.
Unfortunately, much less attention has been paid to the unequal experiences of the same people in the civil justice system, where many important and significant rights are denied.
The civil justice system impacts more people in their everyday lives than does the criminal justice system. It acts to protect the essential rights and needs of all people, such as ensuring safe and habitable housing and protecting rights in a divorce. Unlike the criminal justice system, there is no right to a lawyer in civil court, so the costs of defending or bringing a lawsuit are borne by the people involved, many of whom can’t afford a lawyer.
The main predictor of success in civil court is whether a person has a lawyer; those who do win up to two or three times more often than those who do not. The problem is that the cost of a lawyer has soared dramatically over the past two decades, effectively pricing out the poor and even those of moderate means, which disproportionately affects people of color – the very groups that are most likely to face discrimination or have their basic needs threatened.
When a lower-middle-class or poor family – which is the majority of our population – can’t afford a lawyer to protect their legal rights, they must navigate the court system alone, often against an opponent who does have a lawyer. While legal service providers provide some relief, they lack the resources to provide full service outside of a very small portion of those who need it. The end result is a weakening of the legal protections of the people most vulnerable to exploitation, especially people of color, who are disproportionately lower income and thus suffer a denial of full access to the basic rights and privileges of citizenship.
If we as a country are to preserve the fundamental right of fairness and equality, we must find ways to provide meaningful access for all people to both the criminal and civil justice systems. The Washington State Access to Justice Board works to provide greater access to justice in the civil court system for those who face significant barriers – economic, race and others. The board has engaged in projects to increase funding for legal service providers, advocated for greater assistance for low-income people in court, and helped simplify court forms and procedures for self-represented people.
The board’s work has helped stem the tide of higher costs of civil court. Fully addressing the problem requires systemic change based on a deeper understanding that “if justice isn’t for all, it isn’t justice.”
Recent events have brought to the forefront of national attention the deficits of our criminal justice system and the impacts they have on minority Americans. But if we are to address the problem of racial disparity in our legal system, we must do more than just address inequities in our criminal courts. We must also identify and address failings on the civil side as well. And that begins by recognizing there is a problem and beginning a discussion on how to provide a solution. When people of color and lower income experience the justice system in different ways from white people and people with money, we have truly failed to live up to our promise of equality under the law.