Facebook Twitter

Mistrust of legal system by minorities runs deep

Many in Utah feel it is biased against them

SHARE Mistrust of legal system by minorities runs deep

Three years in the making, the results of a statewide examination of how minorities are treated by Utah's legal system are finally in.

And most people, particularly in the minority community, will likely not be surprised with some of its conclusions — that minorities feel the system is biased against them.

But the statewide leaders who cooperated in the effort, the most thorough of about 30 states that have made similar studies, said they hope the report's call for reforms will be the beginning of a effort to create as much fairness and equity as possible in the legal system.

The report, which will be made public Sept. 6, acknowledges individuals in the minority community have a pervasive mistrust of the police, courts and prison systems, but it stops short of making a definitive statement that bias exists in the legal system.

The task force, which was created in 1997 by the Utah Judicial Council and comprises the heads of statewide agencies and community groups, also found minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of those in each phase of the legal system, from being stopped by police to being tried in court and incarcerated. The percentage of minorities increases as cases move through the justice system.

Still, finding hard evidence to link the trend to some sort of bias was virtually impossible because each agency had different standards of reporting. A uniform data collection system was among the recommendations outlined in the report, obtained by The Associated Press.

A number of other shortcomings were spelled out in the report, ranging from a lack of diversity in the legal system to media coverage that can inflame mistrust of the justice system.

After reading a final draft of the report, Michael Zimmerman, chairman of the Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness and a former Utah Supreme Court chief justice, said that while some may think it controversial or a whitewash of greater issues, the report at least made significant strides in getting people to talk about racial issues.

"The greatest accomplishment of the task force was getting active members of the minority community to sit down and work with people who run the system, minorities and Anglos alike, and develop some measure of trust in each other," Zimmerman said.

Part of the reason the report does not reach any definite conclusions is "a lack of good information" due to the diverse methods of record-keeping by state agencies examined, from police to corrections and parole, which made it "almost impossible to analyze (the system) in any depth on an objective way," Zimmerman said.

But the report makes specific recommendations regarding other problems encountered, such as the need of translators, cultural training and clear administrative rules.

"I've been impressed with the extent of the perception of racial and ethnic biases," Michael Sibbett, chairman of the State Board of Pardons and Parole, said. "Sometimes those perceptions can be as damaging as reality."

Sibbett says he plans to tell people he will not tolerate racial biases. "In the past, I haven't made those public statements because I didn't think I had to," he said.

But he also hopes that state agencies will take to heart the recommendations outlined in the report. "It's such a broad-based (effort) that organizations will have to take it seriously," he added.

Task force executive director Jennifer Yim said the report's implementation process includes transforming the task force into an independent commission that would continue to draw its membership from the state's criminal and justice system and community organizations. The commission should issue an annual report on how well the recommendations are being implemented in each agency, she said.

"It would no longer be the justice system's examination of the criminal justice system," she said.

The task force has asked the Judicial Council to request funding for the new commission from the Utah Legislature. A final proposal is still in the works, Yim said.

The task force spent about $325,000, gathered from grants and fund-raising, on three years of research, pubic hearings, and information gathering.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

E-MAIL: hans@desnews.com