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How Race and Poverty Intersect With the Criminal Justice System


Oneida County (N.Y.) District Attorney Scott McNamara and Save Our Streets Program Director Patrick Johnson discussed how race and poverty intersect with the criminal justice system in a webinar moderated by SUNY Polytechnic Institute Professor Ronni Tichenor on Oct. 21. This was the latest in the collaboration with Colleges and Community for Unity and Change Lecture Series sponsored by Hamilton’s Levitt Center Law and Justice Lab.

Johnson, whose Save Our Streets initiative aims to reduce gun violence in Utica, began the event with a presentation that outlined the ways in which race can become a factor in the criminal justice process. In most courthouses across the country, he said, the employees are overwhelmingly white, a lack of diversity that “could send the message — a very loud message — that in this institution, Black people and people of color do not hold the same value as their white counterparts.”

He also identified implicit bias as an issue in the criminal justice system and emphasized that it affects everyone, regardless of their position or status. Though Johnson acknowledged that plenty of those working in the legal system are good people, he made clear that “many, many Black people and people of color have had less than positive experiences with people in law enforcement — intimidation, bullying, if not outright racism.”                    

racial justice reform series continues on Oct. 28

The webinar series covers Black Lives Matter, police use of force, the treatment of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system, domestic violence, and other issues relevant to effective reform.

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McNamara provided the perspective of someone with an extensive background in criminal justice. In any legal case, he said, one has to be aware of the variety of often-conflicting desires present between, for example, the victim and defendant. “They all want justice, but obviously from your vantage point, you see it differently,” McNamara explained. “Although many people would argue that we can make changes, those changes sometimes come at the cost of someone with a different vantage point.”

Pulling from his 14-year tenure as district attorney, McNamara mentioned several measures introduced locally that could help mitigate the potentially damaging effects of the criminal justice system on people’s lives. One such measure was the creation of a marijuana diversion program, which offers to dismiss criminal charges for the completion of an online course and community service. A similar reform was initiated for traffic violations, allowing those charged to apply for a diversion program without first hiring a private attorney. 

Hamilton Professor Michael “Doc” Woods featured in the webinar as well, this week talking about jazz and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” As with the other forms of African-American music he has previously analyzed, Woods identified the presence of a “cry” in Coltrane’s playing, a voice that endeavored to articulate facets of the Black experience.

Tichenor concluded the webinar by observing the overlap in discussion points between Wednesday’s conversation and those of previous installments in the series. “Dividing these topics is really an artificial exercise,” she said. “When you start to pull at any one thread, there are all these other problems that are connected to it ... it just shows the importance of this initiative.”            

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