Racial Justice: What Can We Do? Local community members respond to legal community

Sep 1, 2020


The Racial Justice: What Can I Do? CLE, presented by the BLAC-CBA Round Table on July 16, was an earnest step for the legal community in the direction of fostering equity, justice and potential reform within our industry. To that end, CBA president Chris Wagner reached out to members of the Greater Cincinnati community, both legal and non, to get their perspective on the issues facing the field. The same questions were posed to everyone, and responses have been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

What should the legal community do better?

Raymond T. Faller, Hamilton County Public Defender:
In our criminal courts, bail reform jumps to the front of the line. Money talks. People accused of crime often stay confined pre-trial because they do not have the funds to secure their release. Being poor does not make a person a flight risk. We pride ourselves on a system in which people are “presumed” innocent of charges until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet, if a person is locked up prior to trial, unable to post bond, the loss that person sustains is, in many ways, immeasurable.

I’d ask our readers to think what they might lose if confined in jail for 30 days, 60 days, 120 days or longer, unable to secure their release, while “presumed” innocent. They might lose a job, a car, an apartment, a home, their children, their spouse or significant other, their clothes, their possessions. They might lose everything. Reality is that poor people deal with these issues daily and this reality hits hardest on poor people of color. Our bail system must be reformed.

Chief Aaron Tillman III, CLEE, Woodlawn:
[The] justice system must be applied proportionately equally in cases where African Americans and Latino Americans may not have the resources to defend themselves. Cultural awareness training on implicit biases for members of the judicial system with oversight for accountability. Once the legal community has demonstrated this to the community, the legal community will regain the desired credibility of the people who serve them. Simply put, show the community that everyone will be treated with dignity and respect regardless of race.

Heather Willins, CPS teacher and racial justice activist:
To create financial equitability inside of our legal system, we should be eliminating cash bail. …[R]ich people who can afford bail get out, get to go home be with their families and wait. And that is not fair. We want racial justice inside of our legal system. The legal community could be fighting those battles with us and realize that while it is very important to have lawyers in our society and that we’re not trying to get rid of them, we just want their jobs to be easier by making our society better. 

We don’t need to send everybody to jail, to a labor camp, essentially. There are more rehabilitation and restorative justice practices that are available to be used as examples in other countries.

Dr. Ericka King-Betts, President of the MLK Coalition of Cincinnati:
The legal community must: seek a deeper understanding of racial justice, equity and what it means to be inclusive, engage marginalized groups and those often without a voice or “seat at the table” but overrepresented in our jails and prisons on how to bring about substantive and long-term change, collect, analyze disaggregated data, and make informed decisions to bring about change, and collaborate with traditional and nontraditional partners to analyze root causes of inequity, identify resources, formalize a plan to address the inequities, act and then review whether a positive impact was made.

Chief Richard Wallace, CLEE, Amberley Village: 

Legal maneuvering by defense attorneys to have cases dropped because of a minor flaw is disingenuous to the victim and only increases the risk of putting a dangerous criminal back on the streets. The way the system currently works makes it very difficult to get witnesses and victims to testify.

How can our legal system be improved? 

Faller: We, as attorneys, need to look at clients as individuals who are in crisis. We need to remember that we’ve been privileged to obtain an education which includes a professional degree and also a license to practice law. While we certainly worked hard to get there, we were fortunate to have had many opportunities that others did not have. We have to treat our clients the way we would want to be treated if roles were reversed.

Tillman: Where warranted, educational programs over incarceration. We should be reaching our at-risk kids at first signs of behavior that leads them to the legal system. There needs to be a study conducted [about] why crimes are being committed in our communities is it the lack of opportunities or education we need to ask ourselves what is the root cause for the choice to choose unproductive behavior over productive behavior. I believe that it is already known to us; however, we have not done enough to resolve this crisis. 

The leaders in Hamilton County have declared racism a public health crisis, and it shows that someone is listening to the people. Until racism is acknowledged and fully understood in the law enforcement community and the legal system, African Americans and Latino Americans will further their mistrust for the legal system and the law enforcement community. 

Justice reform is not a dirty word. We must be open and listen to those individuals who may have been victimized by society and the justice system by failing to have accountability when the community needs it. The reform has already started for the law enforcement community. We are going to adapt to the call for change, and we cannot continue to operate in a manner that causes further mistrust in the law enforcement community. Society is outraged at the injustice demonstrated in the law enforcement community and the legal system; therefore, we must evaluate how we can do better and do it.

Willins: I think if we start to consider the human condition more often when we are approaching criminal activity, we are more likely to see that acts of violence are symptoms of a larger problem. If we start there and really do consider more sociological, anthropological, psychological theory behind criminal activity, I think we will see a very big improvement in how we perceive criminal activity. 

Betts: For the legal system to be improved, leadership must create a roadmap for change. By seeking qualitative and quantitative data and then identifying goals and action items, this process could bring about incremental change and success can be achieved and monitored. 

Speaking out against injustice. Racial justice and equity can be achieved when people speak with a unified voice and call for it. A person’s skin color or socioeconomic status should not be a determinant in the severity of their sentence or a reason they are engaged with the legal system. Supporting groups that are actively working to exonerate individuals who may have been wrongly convicted. Holding its members accountable for misconduct. Working with the legislative branch to overturn laws or reduce overly harsh sentences that are having a disproportionate impact on individuals based on their race, socioeconomic status or other demographic factors that are not relevant to the case. Providing additional financial support to Public Defenders Offices. Financially supporting Diversion Programs to end the vicious cycle of incarceration that often time disproportionately impacts marginalized groups. Continuing to advocate for and support community-oriented policing.

Wallace: Funding needs to be approved to enhance drug rehabilitation in lieu of jail time. Along with this, funding needs to be approved to identify and treat mental illness including reopening institutions formerly closed by the state that treated the mentally ill. People who commit crimes are either bad or sick. The bad criminals should go to jail and the sick should go for treatment. There have been improvements with the use of drug court, but I believe we can do better as a whole.

What change would you like to see in the Cincinnati legal community in the next year?

Faller: Education is the key to escaping poverty. I’d like to see the Cincinnati legal community take a stand to help ensure that elementary and high school students stay in school and receive a quality education. They shouldn’t just be pushed along. That education should lead to a decent job or a college education and a real chance to avoid a life in and out of jail, stigmatized with a criminal record.

Tillman: As law enforcement, we are a branch of the legal community. Their needs to be open communication to have a better awareness of the mistrust that African Americans and Latino Americans have for authority. Having a better understanding of how we got here will help us in the law enforcement community and the legal system to work together with the community.

Willins: What specifically I think lawyers can do and the legal community in Cincinnati could do is more community outreach to schools, specifically. What I think needs to be done is more positive intervention prior to people getting involved in the legal system. That meaning like, why don’t we have lawyers reach out to schools? Do more one-on-one in the classroom work with kids, teaching them about the law, teaching them about their rights. 

Betts: In these difficult and painful times, we ALL must continue to fight in solidarity against the systemic and interrelated triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. We can work against these evils by gathering information, educating one another, and having a personal commitment to justice. Through nonviolent direct action, we can bring about change by demanding accountability from our institutions and governments. One way to do this is by supporting continued efforts to improve community-police relations and demanding an end to police brutality. Another is by calling for an end to a militarized police force. 

Wallace: Stop treating everyone charged with a crime the same. Our community witnessed a huge increase in crimes ranging from drug usage to petty thefts to murder shortly after the state of Ohio closed down most of the institutions who treated and housed the mentally ill at all levels. There is still a need for state funding regarding mental health. As a community, we need to push for increased funding in this area for the court system to have additional avenues for treatment and supervision.

Raymond T. Faller is the head of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office, a position he has held since 2012. A 1976 graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Law, Faller is a former prosecutor and defense attorney, and has tried more than 250 criminal jury trials in Ohio.

Dr. Ericka King-Betts is the President of the MLK Coalition of Cincinnati. A Cincinnati native, Ericka is the wife of Darrell Betts Jr. and proud mother of two boys. She genuinely believes in giving back to a community which has given her so much. 

Chief Aaron Tillman III, CLEE, joined the Woodlawn Police Division in 1995, was named acting chief of police in 2013 and appointed chief in 2016. He serves on multiple boards, including the Hamilton County Association of Chiefs of Police, where he has served as secretary, treasurer, vice-president and president.

Chief Richard Wallace, CLEE, joined the Amberley Village Police and Fire Department in 1996, and was named chief in 2011. Wallace serves on several boards, is the current first vice-president of the Hamilton County Police Association and past president of the Hamilton County Association of Chiefs of Police, and cares deeply about the communities he serves.

Heather Willins is a high school educator within Cincinnati Public Schools teaching government, and recently piloted a course on human rights and social justice. She is active in multiple political movements, and committed to racial justice activism.