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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Judge Maryann Moreno: Racial equity must be part of criminal justice reform

By Judge Maryann Moreno Spokane County Superior Court

The notion of equity has received heightened attention recently on the national and local stage. Equity is a long-established legal principle originating in English common law and enshrined in our legal system. The United States Constitution authorizes judges presiding over cases to apply not just law, but equity as well. Every day in courts across our country, judges, lawyers and litigants strive for outcomes that are fair and just. Indeed, the concept of equity is not new or novel.

That’s why I’m disappointed that, especially during a time of national conversation and reckoning regarding race, several local leaders are objecting to ensuring that racial equity in task force principles informs our approach to criminal justice. This principle was developed by an interagency task force comprised of local government, business and nonprofits, as well as community leaders who overwhelmingly voted to adopt racial equity as a guiding principle in our approach to criminal justice. Leaders who object favor more neutral commitments to “equality” over “equity.” This misguided and watered-down version of the principle not only misses the mark but also reflects misunderstanding of the true meaning of equity.

Excluding racial equity ignores the fact that people’s circumstances, experiences and identities collectively influence and determine their outcomes and that not all who enter or interact with the system are on equal footing. Equality means that all segments of society are provided the same level of opportunity and assistance. Equity means that all individuals, regardless of needs or circumstance, have the same access to the same opportunities and assistance. Equity is a means to prevent injustices and correct hardships that occur when an even application of the law overlooks these individualized realities. In other words, equity is a prerequisite for true equality.

Stakeholders across our justice system are thoughtfully evolving the system status quo into a safer, fairer and more effective system. Along with implementing several strategies designed to safely reduce the jail population and insure accountability for those convicted of crimes, we have worked hard to earn trust from our community partners who have devoted their time, experiences and untiring commitment to abolishing systemic racism. Still, there is much work to be done. An analysis of Spokane’s jail population last year found that Spokane County continues to disproportionately incarcerate people of color. This points to the need for a decision-making framework that explicitly includes considerations of racial equity.

We already recognize the value of equity in the criminal justice system. Many of the programs we have developed and implemented over the years prioritize a compassionate approach for those with behavioral health issues by offering critical health-related services. Therapeutic courts, designed years ago under wise leadership, attempt to equalize those who enter the system struggling with substance use disorders or mental illness with their healthy counterparts so that they can achieve success and stability. Moreover, our local law enforcement has adopted a co-deployed team concept, pairing a mental health expert with a patrol officer in order to minimize the need to arrest those who would benefit from a public health approach instead of incarceration. These are fine examples of a system invested in an equitable approach and can serve as jumping-off points for bigger change. Is it such a stretch to envision a system that embraces racial equity as well?

Recently, my colleagues on the Superior Court bench and I reaffirmed our commitment to establishing systemic reforms in our justice system after painfully recognizing and acknowledging the role the courts have played in these system injustices. It’s also why, as an officer of the court, sworn to uphold the law and the Constitution, my duty demands that I consider each individual through an equity lens. I’m encouraged that just this week, strong leaders stepped up to embrace racial equity as a means to achieve the goals of community safety and humane treatment for those who are involved in the criminal justice system.

My fellow justice partners, who have hands-on ability to effect change, would do well to review the Constitution and its principles, to commit to a better understanding of its terms, and to pursue policies and practices that advance equity in our system. Strong leadership to guide the way is crucial. The future of our justice system depends on it.

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