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“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”
-Bobby Kennedy
Lest you thought nothing good ever comes out of Texas, think again. Up in Dallas County, the criminal justice apparatus has markedly improved over the last decade. The city's citizens elected Craig Watkins as District Attorney in 2007, and when he took over, the county had much work to do. Not only did Dallas have the highest crime rate in the nation, but the area was rocked by a police scandal in which officers planted sheetrock and other items on "criminals" to produce illegitimate drug convictions. In all, more than 80 felony drug convictions were overturned as the scandal was exposed.
Six years into his tenure, Watkins now feels that he has the political clout to propose highly needed and very controversial criminal justice reforms. This week, he proposed legislation that would allow those convicted of crimes in Texas to appeal their sentences on the basis of racial discrimination. You might be wondering to yourself: without this law, convicted criminals are not able to appeal based upon racial discrimination?

In theory, the appellate process covers this concern. In practice, though, it is nearly impossible for appellants to prove discrimination. Short of an email from a racist assistant district attorney outlining his plans for prosecuting a person on the basis of race, there is little evidence that can currently support a finding of racial discrimination. Reality operates a bit differently, though. Even racist district attorneys are not stupid enough to publish their motives, and the statistics indicate that racial disparities exist in prosecution rates and sentencing outcomes, even if we are uncomfortable with that information.

Watkins is proposing something that many within the criminal justice system might call radical, but it is entirely necessary. His proposal would allow appellants to use general statistical evidence to support a finding of racial discrimination. Rather than having to show specific discrimination in their case - a standard that enables racial discrimination on a broad scale - an appellant could prove discrimination in his case by pointing to overarching statistical evidence.

This is the sort of reform that would remove an avenue of easy cover for would-be racists that hold the power in district attorney's offices around Texas. It would force those offices to consider, with every decision, the overall racial impact. And it just might force district attorneys to treat their poor black and Latino defendants like they treat their middle class white defendants. Otherwise, they open themselves up to an appellate challenge of racial discrimination in a host of different cases.

The criminal justice system is dramatically broken. In medical terms, it's a compound fracture or a torn ACL. And you don't fix those injuries with a splint or a band-aid. You fix those injuries with radical, invasive measures that cut to the core of the problem. This is what Watkins is trying to do, and he should be commended for using his influential voice to take on what will prove to be an unpopular stance.

Watkins has stated that he does not particularly care what other district attorneys think of his plan. After all, he is somewhat of an outcast among the group already, given his willingness to speak out about the things that are currently wrong with the system of prosecution and enforcement. To put it mildly, he broke the code of silence that exists to protect those DAs and those police officers who would perpetuate the sort of scam seen in Dallas more than a decade ago. But that's not stopping Watkins this time.

Officials with the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, the state prosecutors' group, said they weren't aware how prosecutors felt yet about a potential act. But Watkins said he wasn't concerned if the idea would be unpopular with other prosecutors.
Watkins is not a legislator, and thus, the success of his idea will ultimately lie in the hands of the people who make laws in the state of Texas. Given the composition of this particular legislature - which figures to be as deep red as Texas has seen recently - it is unlikely that this initial attempt at justice reform will get very far. But it must be noted, and the underlying problems must be pointed out often enough that any legislator willing to ignore them will have to do so under a public hot light. As the Associated Press notes, the proposed reforms come in response to very real problems that impact very real lives:
A number of academic studies have argued that a racial disparity in sentencing exists. One 2008 study by a University of Denver professor concluded that black defendants in Harris County were more likely to get a death sentence than white defendants. Blacks comprise 40 percent of Texas' nearly 300 death row inmates while just 11 percent of the state's population is black.
The racial problems go much further and nest much deeper than the AP article is willing to dive, but the above facts provide a snapshot. There is also racial inequality in terms of victim treatment, and many of the racial disparities are a result of arrest and prosecution preferences among police officers and district attorneys. The racial disparities are a result of jury composition, as attorneys are too-often allowed to strike jurors on the basis of race because of irresponsible case law on the matter. The disparities happen because states are not committed to providing adequate funding for indigent defense, and a large portion of the arrested people who get court-appointed lawyers are black and Latino.

The issues are deep-rooted, and they speak to the worst elements of the human condition. And Craig Watkins is taking a very brave first step in a state where such steps are not welcomed. In doing so, he is embodying the words that Bobby Kennedy spoke so many years ago.

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 08:03 AM PST.

Also republished by Black Kos community, RaceGender DiscrimiNATION, and Community Spotlight.

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