In 2015, a black bar association in St. Louis named the Mound City Bar Association hosted a “solutions summit.”
It was in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The shooting brought on days of protests and marches from angry residents.
The bar meeting reduced tension by bringing together legal professionals, law enforcement officials and local activists to talk face-to-face.
That’s the kind of work bar associations can and should be doing to build public trust in the American justice system, according to a report released earlier this month by the American Bar Association.
The report, written by the Task Force on Building Public Trust in the American Justice System, recommends the ABA, state, local and minority bar associations encourage the adoption of best practices to reform the criminal justice system, build consensus about needed reforms and educate the public about how the criminal justice system works.
“I think that attorneys may be the best answer to solving the horrible problems we have regarding public trust in the justice system,” ABA President Linda A. Klein told the Daily Law Bulletin.
Klein, also senior managing shareholder at Baker, Donelson Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz P.C. in Atlanta, said the idea for a task force came up as she and the then-ABA president had dinner during a bar associations meeting in July 2016.
“We were just so upset about everything that was happening in our country,” Klein said.
It was shortly after the three-day period where Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police in viral videos and a peaceful march in Dallas was interrupted by an Army veteran who claimed to be angry about police shootings of black men opening fire on officers, killing five and wounding nine others.
“We were just so worried about our country, and we knew that we needed to help find a solution,” Klein said.
The report says relationships between people of color and law enforcement are broken in too many parts of the country, calling this “a wound in the American criminal justice system.” It claims the ABA is uniquely positioned to help build consensus on criminal justice reform, as its members serve as prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, elected officials, professors, community leaders and civil rights attorneys.
“As the architects and administrators of the criminal justice system, members of the profession have a special responsibility to ensure that the system provides equal justice to all members of society,” the report says.
It recommends bar associations convene stakeholders — law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, elected officials, law professors, community leaders and others — to talk frankly. It says the ABA and other bar associations are “viewed as honest brokers” and, therefore, recommends lawyers help build consensus about needed reforms.
“If people get together, they can listen to each other, listen to different perspectives,” Klein said. “Right now, since that’s not happening enough, we’re not seeing the kinds of healing that we need to see and we need to get that consensus that these conversations will bring.”
The report also recommends the legal profession do more educational outreach like educational forums hosted by local bar associations, since the general public may misunderstand legal terms like the standards for self-defense, the functions of grand juries and the meaning of reasonable doubt.
It says education, housing, public health and poverty alleviation reforms could also help improve relationships between communities of color and police.
The report says confidence in the rule of law can be enhanced by faithfulness to established constitutional principles and enforcement of existing laws.
“Much of what is wrong in our practices can be cured by a greater fidelity to what is right in our laws,” it says.
Task force members included the Baltimore Police Department commissioner, a former mayor of Atlanta, a senior circuit court judge from Maryland, an assistant attorney general from Connecticut, a former U.S. attorney from the western district of Washington state and the associate director of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Office of Tribal Justice Support.
The report analyzes the May 2015 report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, reports on different cities’ unconstitutional and illegal police practices from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and other research,
It can be found online at ambar.org/publictrust.