Racial disparities in Dane County court: Local group studies cases, aimed at seeking justice
MADISON, Wis. — Most people don’t want to find themselves in a courtroom, but volunteers with a local group known as Nehemiah do.
Sandi Reinardy is a courtroom observer and volunteer with Nehemiah. It’s her job to make sure people who do end up in court get justice.
Reinardy watches how the prosecutor, victim, defendant and judge act throughout the process and takes notes on all of it. She said they write down “general details about the case, or about the defendant in the case, as well as our observations about what we notice in how the courtroom professionals are, how everyone interacts, what sentencing recommendations there may be from the prosecutors and how the whole thing plays out.”
Those notes are given to Nehemiah’s vice president of research and education, Karen Reece.
Reece said she spearheads this study to find out “are the judges’ proceedings, are the ways that the prosecutor is operating, are the things that the defense attorneys are doing, are they by the book? Are they following procedure? Are they giving defendants and victims the best justice they can get?”
Reece said seeking justice is what motivates the study.
“We have seen a handful of cases where we can identify specific racial differences in either the way plea deals were offered or the way the judge handles the case,” Reece said. “So we are looking at same charge, similar age and demographics of the defendant where the only difference is race.”
Nehemiah’s CEO and founder, The Rev. Alex Gee, agrees.
“Report after report, statistics show that it’s an issue in Madison,” Gee said. “It can’t just be fixed by one organization or one branch of the government. It’s got to be everyday people caring about everyday people.”
Nehemiah has about 30 volunteers who act as courtroom observers. They go into court sentencings, hearings and trials and just sit, watch and take notes. So far, they’ve collectively sat in on more than 200 cases over the past seven months. They don’t have enough data to notice any trends or draw any conclusions, but Reinardy said she can make general observations based off the 30 cases she’s personally sat in on.
“I will say I’ve seen a couple of times where (there were) very similar cases where one person was African-American and one person was white and they had very different sentencing recommendations from the prosecutor’s office. I’ve seen one judge immediately call that out, which was great to see,” Reinardy said.
Since the year 2000, of all the people who went to prison, the numbers of black and white people are split nearly 50/50.
“Wisconsin only has a 7 percent black population, so we see black defendants far overrepresented in our criminal justice system,” Reece said.
It’s the reason why people like Reinardy volunteer to sit and observe. Dane County judges have started to notice their presence.
“That’s the excellent part of our system. It’s open to the public. It’s open to anyone, including people who want to come in and study what’s going on,” Judge Nick McNamara said.
McNamara is aware of exactly what the volunteers do in his courtroom, but he says it might be difficult to draw any conclusions given the fact that the criminal justice system is so complex.
“Sentencing really is the most complex task any judge has,” McNamara said. “The impact of the victim has to be taken into account and how a sentence and crime will affect the public needs to be considered.”
But Reece said the study isn’t necessarily trying to draw certain conclusions.
“It’s an observational study,” Reece said. “So we are not attempting to make this quantitative. We are not attempting to compare one judge against the other. We are merely observing how does this system operate in comparison with how the system is supposed to operate.”
It’s particularly focusing on the difference they can make by having people on the defendant’s side.
“It makes a difference to them when they see supporters in the courtroom,” Reece said. “If there’s an option for community supervision, if there’s an option for reduced jail time, or community programming is part of that sentence, we hope that providing advocates in the courtroom, the judges can see that that’s a reality and that person is more likely to succeed with those resources behind them.”
The next part of the study involves more resources being available for the defendant. Once the courtroom observers get enough experience sitting in on court cases, they can become courtroom advocates. At that point, they establish a relationship with the defendant.
“The judge actually sitting on the bench saying, ‘Well I see you have great representation. You have people who believe in you, you have people who understand you are more than what’s on this sheet in front of me.’ It sends a message that you’ve connected with the community,” Gee said.
Reinardy believes having support on the defendant’s side will help get justice for those who might otherwise face a sentence where their race may have been a factor.
“We’re coming to notice that we think our presence helps people become aware of implicit bias that may be there,” Reinardy said.
McNamara, on the other hand, said the system may still be too complicated to determine that.
“We see a lot of people who come from fully intact families who have been supported all the way through, but they can’t seem to stop themselves from committing sometimes a very serious crime,” McNamara said. “In some ways, the fact that a person has all that support in place and still finds themselves committing what any person would consider a serious crime, actually is kind of a negative thing.”
Even if the study cannot come to any formulaic conclusions, Nehemiah staff say one thing is for certain.
“When we get to go behind the scenes and really understand not only how things run, but what the experience is of people who have committed crimes, victims of crimes and family members on both sides of that table, when we see what they really experience, it can be eye-opening,” Reece said.
If anything at all, it’s a learning experience, one that McNamara even encourages as a way to help better serve justice.
“It’s good that we have people that care enough to volunteer the time and put in the effort to try to educate all of us on how things are working and how things could work better,” McNamara said.
Reece said they plan on releasing an early version of their findings at the end of this spring.
If you would like to become a courtroom observer, you can sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visit nehemiah.org.
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