MASSACHUSETTS IS NOT IMMUNE from the pandemic of systemic racism. Recent reports document that racial and ethnic disparities persist at every level of our juvenile and criminal systems. In November 2019, the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board noted that, in spite of decreases in arraignment, racial and ethnic disparities persist at every systemic level and may actually be increasing. On September 9, 2020, Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program released a study, commissioned four years ago by Chief Justice Ralph Gants, which noted that black and Latinx defendants routinely face more serious charges and serve longer sentences than white defendants. However, there has been a defensiveness about analyzing and addressing the scope of the problem, which has been reflected in a lack of transparency and the will to accurately gather the data.
According to CommonWealth, the Harvard report’s finding that both national and Massachusetts-specific studies find substantial racial disparities in policing practices suggests “our results based on available data following the filing of charges may underestimate the true magnitude of racial disparities within in the Massachusetts criminal justice system.”
These findings are, unfortunately, paralleled in the juvenile context by dramatic under-reporting of school-based arrests in spite of 2018 reforms requiring that such data be collected. A September 2018 WBUR report indicated that we have a year of data but still don’t know about the impact of police in Massachusetts schools. This is largely attributable to the fact that only 31 of the state’s 289 schools districts reported that there were any arrests during the 2018-2019 school years, and observers, including Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee attorney Matt Cregor, indicate that some reporting districts have dramatically understated the numbers.
Advocates have been forced to engage in freedom of information requests from schools and police departments across the state. Sadly, these efforts are reminiscent of similar efforts in districts such as Springfield prior to the 2012 publication of Arrested Futures, which examined school policing in Springfield, Boston, and Worcester.
Responses to advocates seeking information have included police, school, and court officials expressing confusion about whose job it is to gather the data, which may underline the need to put in more robust enforcement mechanisms in the 2018 legislation. Some authorities have professed to have made mistakes in collecting the data. As Cregor wryly observed, “If it’s human error, it’s an error made by a lot of humans at a lot of school districts.”
In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson asserts that “our era calls for a public accounting… a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” to address systemic racial and ethnic inequity. But, as she notes, “you cannot solve anything that you do not admit exists, which could be why some people may not want to talk about it.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins has said that “you can’t fix what you can’t measure.” Perhaps that phrase should be changed to you can’t fix what you won’t or refuse to measure. It may be difficult to engage in difficult conversations, but there is an imperative in doing so now if we are to truly confront the reality of this nation’s original sin of slavery and all that has ensued. Racial and ethnic disparities have become so imbedded in our lives and legal culture that a growing number of scholars and civil rights activists, including Professor Charles Ogletree and Bryan Stevenson, talk about our juvenile and criminal systems having jettisoned the word “justice” in describing both.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants commissioned the Harvard Criminal Justice Policy Program report in 2016. With his passing, my former judicial colleagues and I have lost our North Star, a visionary leader who dedicated his career to pursing equity in all contexts. Ralph embodied Deuteronomy’s admonition: “Justice, Justice, Shall Thou Pursue.”
The time to act is now. The Legislature has the opportunity to accept the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline and remove police from schools, embrace meaningful police reform, and mandate and enforce accurate reporting of racial and ethnic data from all court departments, school districts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and state agencies, including the Department of Children and Families. It is time for all of us to walk the walk.
Jay Blitzman is a retired Juvenile Court judge.