The Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice and the Washtenaw Faith Leaders Forum hosted a “Race to Justice” town hall Thursday evening to review an August report on the racial disparities in judicial sentences in Washtenaw County. About 84 members attended the event.

The nonprofit group Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw compiled the report, which sought to understand how long-standing racial inequities affect the legal systems in Washtenaw County. By examining publicly available criminal case data from the Washtenaw County Circuit Court, CREW members gathered data from 1,000 cases and 3,600 felony charges.

Desirae Simmons, co-director of Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, began the town hall by summarizing some of the results from the report, which showed that in all of the 11 case categories the study looked at, prosecutors charged anywhere between 3 to 29 times more people of color than white people.

Simmons said she was drawn to participate in the anti-racist efforts this summer to put a focus on the court system, which is often where racial disparities are most prominent.

“This was coming up when we were in the midst of all of the police shooting of Black folk all summer, and so we definitely recognized the role of the police in this,” Simmons said. “But so often, the courts are painted like they’re not a part of this; like they’re painted, really, as a face where justice will catch up. And one of the things that we really found in this was that that’s not the case.”

CREW members also found 23 instances across the case categories where an individual judge was an outlier with harsher sentencing or whose sentences showed racial disparities. Of these 23 instances, according to Simmons, 13 instances were accounted for by Judge Archie Brown, former Chief Judge of the Washtenaw County Circuit Court.

Arthur Williams, former principal of Ann Arbor Huron High School, said the disparities revealed in this report have existed for a long time.

“Of course, I’ve been an African American for a long time,” Williams said. “And these figures have been the same my entire life, and I just want to put that out there because this has not changed.”

The report also offered recommendations for both prosecutors and judiciary segments of the legal system. Some recommendations included establishing a community racial equity commission and engaging a neutral, third-party evaluator to make recommendations for evidence-based improvements. CREW members also reported a recommendation to perform an equity audit to better assist voters with decision-making.

Rev. Joseph Summers, the pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, was also a member of the CREW team. Summers said this town hall is a step toward enacting a more just system in Washtenaw County, which might not be as progressive as many would think.

“The question that we’re raising tonight is how do we as community members, how do we as faith communities demand a more accountable, a more just system in Washtenaw County?” Summers said. “Washtenaw County always likes to see itself as the kind of progressive edge of the country. Instead, we find ‘No,’ we've got the same statistics that exist in the rest of the country. So, how do we bring that change home here.”

Community member Trische Duckworth emphasized the possibility for community engagement and rallying to make change.

“We're sitting here thinking, ‘Oh my god, we are so powerless.’ No, we are not,” Duckworth said. “We do not have to wait on them to pass laws. We can petition, get signatures, and get something put on the ballot ourselves.”

Recently appointed Ann Arbor City Council member Linh Song, D-Ward 2, also attended the meeting, saying she is committed to encouraging her fellow council members to read the report.

“I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” Song said. “And you know what I’ll do is, at this coming Monday’s council meeting is, each individual council member can report out some notes, what’s going on in the community that they’d like to bring attention to. So, I’ll challenge the rest of council to review the report.”

Attendees of the town hall proceeded to discuss various concerns regarding the county’s legal system for the rest of the hour, many pointing out that these changes must start on an individual basis. 

“The only way to begin to modify that behavior is to closely monitor it at the level of law enforcement and arrests to monitor it at the level of how the prosecutors act when people are adjudicated, and also how the judges act, when they’re in court,” community member John Deikis said. “The issue here is one of very, very ingrained racism.”

Daily Staff Reporter Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu

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