Are people being treated differently in dane county courtrooms based on the color of their skin?
One group in madison is aiming to answer that question.
The group-- known as nehemiah (knee-uh-maya) has been conducting a study over the last year in dane county courtrooms. jamie perez spoke with the group to find out how they're working to educate all of us on racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
Court nats most people don't want to find themselves in a courtroom.
Nats benjamin cortes probably didn't either.
But driving 100 miles an hour down midvale boulevard, and killing someone got him here.
And in a way, it got sandi reinardy here too.
But unlike most of us...she wants to be here... sandi is a courtroom observer and volunteer with a local group known as nehemiah.
It's her job to make sure people who do end up here... get justice.
She watches how the prosutor, victim, defendant, and judge, act throughout the process and takes notes.
"general details about the case, or about the defendant in the case as well as our observations about what we notice in how the courtroom professionals are, how everyone interacts, what sentencing recommendations there may be from the prosecutors and how the whole thing plays out," reinardy said.
Those notes are given to this justice project coordinator, karen reece.
"are the judges proceedings, are the ways that the prosecutor is operating, are the things that the defense attorneys are doing, are they by the book?
Are they following procedure?
Are they giving defendants and victims the best justice they can get?"
The reason behind all of this.
"we have seen a handful of cases where we can identify specific racial differences in either the way plea deals were offered or the way the judge handles the case.
So we are looking at same charge, similar age and demographics of the defendant where the only difference is race," reece said.
Whether you are black, white, red or purple... race is how we got here... "report after report, stastics show that it's an issue in madison," says reverend alex gee, the founder of nehemiah.
Reverend gee is the founder of nehemiah... he's been studying justice and race for years.
"it can't just be fixed by one organization or one branch of the government.
It's got to be everyday people caring about everyday people" nehemiah has about 30 volunteers who act as courtroom observers.
They go in to sentencings, hearings, trials and just sit, watch and take notes.
So far they've collectively sat in on more than 200 cases over the past 7 months.
They don't have enough data to notice any trends or draw any conclusions, but what they have noticed... "i will say i've seen a couple of times where very similar cases where one person was african american and one person was white and they had very different sentencing recommendations from the prosecutors office and i've seen one judge immediately call that out which was great to see," reinardy said.
Since the year 2000, of all the people who went to prison, the numbers of black and white people are split nearly 50/50.
"wisconsin only has about 7 percent black population so we see black defendants far over-represented in our criminal justice system," reece said.
It's why people like sandi are here... and judges have started to take notice... "that's the excellent part of our system.
It's open to the public.
It'spen to anyone, including people who want to come in and study what's going on," judge nick macnamera said.
Macnamera is aware of exactly what they do in his courtroom.
But says it might be difficult to draw any conclusions given the fact that the criminal justice system is so complex... "sentencing really is the most complex task any judge has... the impact of the victim has to be taken into account and how a sentence and crime will affect the public needs to be considered," macnamera said.
But nehemiah isn't necessarily trying to draw certain conclusions... "it's an observational study.
So we are not attempting to make this quantitative.
We are not attempting to compare one judge against the other.
We are merely observing how does this system operate in comparison with how the system is supposed to operate," reece said.
It's particulary focusing on the difference they can make by having people on the defendant's side... "it makes a difference to them when they see supporters in the courtroom...if there's an option for community supervision, if there's an option for reduced jail time, or that sentence, we hope that t of providing advocates in the courtroom, the judges can see that that's a reality and that person is more likely to succeed with those resources behind them" that's the next part of the study once they've eventually had enough courtroom observers with enough experience... they become courtroom advocates..
"the judge actually sitting on the bench saying ,'well i see you have great representation, you have people who believe in you, you have people who understand you are more than what's on this sheet in front of me.'
It sends a message that you've connected with the community," gee said.
You might be wondering, does support on a defendan't side really make a difference?
Sandi seems to think so... "we're coming to notice that we think our prence helps people become away of implicit bias that may be there," reinardy said.
Judge macnamera on the other hand says... it's still too complicated to know... "we see a lot of people who come from fully in-tact families who have been supported all the way through, but they can't seem to stop themselves from committing sometimes a very serious crime.
In some ways, the fact that a person has all that support in place and still finds themself committing what any person would consider a serious crime, actually is kind of a negative thing."
Maybe it's too soon to really know, maybe there is no way to know, no matter how many cases they sit in on..
For now, they can conclude one thing... "when we get to go behind the scenes and really understand not only how things run, but what the experience is of people who have committed crimes, victims of crimes and family members on both sides of that table, when we see what they really experience, it can be eye opening" if anything at all, it's a learning experience, one that judge macnamera even encourage as a way to help better serve that justice.
"it's good that we have people that care enough to volutneer the time and put in the effort to try to educate all of us on how things are working and how things could work better," in madison, jamie perez, wisc news 3.
Nehemiah will continue compiling data and will post their findings on their website when they have enough to make a full report of their observational study in late spring.
If you want to volunteer to be a courtroom observer, you can sign up by emailing justifiedanger@ nehemiah.