Tennessee Supreme Court Unveils Plan To Reduce Racial Disparities In The Legal System

Jul 31, 2020

A woman stands, fist raised, in front of a banner that reads, "Black Lives Matter. Not 1 More" at a protest in May.
Credit Rachel Iacovone / WPLN

  Black Lives Matter protests have sparked conversations nationwide about the role of race in policing. Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court is taking those conversations one step further — to what happens after someone has already been arrested.

 

The court’s Access to Justice Commission released a two-year plan Thursday to reduce discrimination and racial disparities in judicial system.

Read the full strategic plan here

The commission was created in 2009 to support underprivileged Tennesseans in the court system — particularly those who couldn’t afford an attorney. But the group shifted focus last month to address racism “head on.”

“Events over the last few months have highlighted the need for dialogue on racism that leads to meaningful change,” Commission Chair William Coley said in a press release. “The commission’s vision is to provide collaborative leadership to create solutions and resources to ensure access to justice for all.”

A growing body of evidence suggests there’s more work to be done to make the justice system more equitable.

2016 Sentencing Project study found that Black Tennesseans are incarcerated at nearly four times the rate of their white peers — 1,166 per 100,000 compared to 316 per 100,000. And a 2019 report by the Sycamore Institute revealed that 40% of the state’s prisoners are Black, even though they account for only 17% of the population.

The court says it’s ready to have honest conversations about the biases that could be shaping those disproportionate outcomes.

“Education on how implicit bias impacts decision-making among all players in the judicial system is an important first step in addressing racial an ethnic fairness,” commission member Sean Hunt said.

The court plans to host one race-related virtual training session each quarter, starting this fall. Commission members are also organizing a poverty simulation, virtual town halls and a speaker series with prominent people of color in the judicial system.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.