A new multi-pronged approach aims to make a strategic breach in the discrimination deadlock

NEW YORK, Dec 23 2021 (IPS) - Systemic racism in the US has had devastating consequences for generations of individuals from diverse backgrounds. Our legal system, which is intended to be color-blind, should be an essential tool in eliminating racism. But instead—despite legislative, educational and social efforts aiming to provide equal access to justice—the US ranks only 21st in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2020.

Ian McDougall

Access to justice is tragically unequal depending on one’s race. The list of injustices is long, and includes inequitable attorney and judicial behaviors, unfair bail practices, and legal outcomes decided by arbitrary factors like the defendant’s income. Furthermore, specific failures within the legal system contribute to and reinforce widespread inequities across the entire criminal justice system, including policing, pretrial detention, sentencing, parole and the collateral consequences associated with a criminal record.

Top-down legislation hasn’t succeeded in fixing these problems. The legislative process is laborious and moves at a snail’s pace; even the best intentions are inevitably diluted by partisanship and politics.

How can these problems be solved? In a word: innovate. Grassroots measures that attack and eliminate specific inequities at the ground level are needed. Those involved in these efforts to must be able to easily connect and collaborate to share expertise.

No single measure can turn the US legal profession into a body as diverse and inclusive as the population it serves. However, a new initiative by LexisNexis is aimed at developing and implementing a multitude of innovative solutions and inclusive practices that address specific racial inequities. Our hope is that this stepwise, collaborative approach will clear a path to the eliminate systemic racism across the legal community.

Advancing the Rule of Law — with equal treatment being at the root – is the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint. At LexisNexis, we produced incontrovertible evidence of the connection between strong Rule of Law and socioeconomic measures. The Rule of Law is fundamental to realizing the dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In 2021, LexisNexis Legal & Professional and LexisNexis Rule of Law Foundation (LNROLF) in partnership with the Historically Black Colleges, Universities Law School Consortium, and the African Ancestry Network created a new fellowship program that aims to jump start the process of change. The 12 inaugural fellowship recipients identified some of the most pervasive practices perpetuating systemic racism in the legal system.

Studies, surveys, and recommendations in the fellowship advocacy papers address new approaches to painful but fixable issues: inequities in bail reform, racially weighted bankruptcy advice from attorneys, law school admissions processes, employment and compensation practices, gender inequalities, and racial and economic stereotyping that undermines guidance for misdemeanor defendants who represent themselves.

Easing access to law school

For example, the Blueprint Program developed by cohort member Paris Maulet aims to improve access for students from disenfranchised communities by prepping prospective law students. Maulet, whose own path was opened by a pre-law program said: “Access to a legal education and to the tools needed to become successful in the legal field are not the same for minorities as for their white counterparts. This access disparity is a disadvantage that drives down the pool of African Americans.”

Inequitable advice in consumer bankruptcy

Emony M. Robertson’s project focuses on a different but equally vexing problem: reducing racial bias in consumer bankruptcy practices. He points out that consumer bankruptcy has a clear racial disparity. African Americans are disproportionately advised by their attorneys to file Chapter 13 versus Chapter 7 petitions. “Chapter 7 bankruptcy offers many advantages, including the possibility of debt being totally discharged. Chapter 13 filings, by contrast, can result in the perpetuation of debt,” he said. Robertson created a simple solution: bankruptcy filing checklists that attorneys can review before engaging with African American clients, and literature that explains the disparate outcomes.

Failures in self-representation

When individuals charged with misdemeanors attempt to represent themselves, the attempt to save costs works against them. They are far more likely to plead guilty. The fallout can have a lasting impact on the rest of their lives, including their ability to secure housing, employment, or federal funding for upper-level education. Oscar Draughn, a student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University College of Law developed a digital tool that teaches individuals charged with low-level misdemeanor offenses how to defend themselves when adequate counsel is not available. His app will include a knowledge database, tutorials, and interactive modules. This tool will reduce the probability of conviction for reasons unrelated to the facts of the case.

One goal, many pathways

There is no single road towards eliminating racism in the legal system. Approaching this problem from multiple angles will accelerate change. Targeted strategies, training, technology and collaboration can provide the collective power to break down the barriers of systemic racism in the legal system, once and for all.

Ian McDougall, President, LexisNexis Rule of Law Foundation