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Marilyn Mosby is the latest example of why Black lawyers matter

Yolanda Young | 5/14/2015, 10:45 a.m.
In response to last year’s killing of Michael Brown, La June Montgomery Tabron, who heads one of the nation’s largest ...
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced on Friday, May 1, 2015 announced that charges had been filed against six police officers in connection with the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. Photo: CNN)

— Special to the NNPA from Lawyers of Color

In response to last year’s killing of Michael Brown, La June Montgomery Tabron, who heads one of the nation’s largest philanthropies, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, issued a statement in which she astutely noted that deaths like Brown’s “demonstrate that the law-enforcement and justice systems in our nation are broken.”

Lawyers by race

(Photo: American Bar Association)

Lawyers by race

An often-cited criticism: The police force is too White. Well, the legal profession is even whiter and the job much more subjective. Consider the role prosecutorial discretion plays in the administration of criminal justice. Insufficient resources and an overflowing criminal docket require prosecutors act in a role the public views as judge and jury. Without objective criteria, prosecutors decide whom to charge and what those charges will be. They alone decide whether to offer a plea bargain or proceed to trial. They are usually allowed to exercise this power with impunity and outside of public view, but in the last year, the curtain has been pulled back.

In a rash of high profile police killings of unarmed Black males — John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott — White prosecutors appeared reluctant to vigorously pursue indictments, even when facts were highly disputed. Reports by Talking Points Memo, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post conclude that almost none of the police officers who kill roughly 1,000 people each year is ever charged.

By contrast, Marilyn Mosby joins a strong block of Black prosecutors, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her predecessor Eric Holder, who are able to respect and support law enforcement without ignoring the complexities of police power. Mosby is Baltimore City state’s attorney. As Brooklyn’s district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, put it in addressing an indictment against a police officer who shot an unarmed man in a stairwell: “Acts of police brutality are not only crimes against the individual victim but also are attacks on the communities in which they occur…The people of Brooklyn have voted for their District Attorney to keep them safe from all crimes, including those of police brutality.” Thompson is African American.

White prosecutorial restraint does not extend to Black defendants

Notably the prosecutorial restraint White prosecutors have recently displayed toward police doesn’t extend to Black defendants. A 2011 study of the New York County District Attorney’s Office (DANY) by Vera Institute of Justice found Black defendants 19 percent more likely than Whites to be offered plea deals that included jail or prison time. Blacks charged with misdemeanor person offenses or drug offenses were more likely than Whites to be held in jail or prison at their arraignment and to be offered plea deals that included jail time. Such biases are largely responsible for the current makeup of the prison population. In 2012, African Americans and Hispanics accounted for 58 percent of those in prison for drug offenses.

While unconscious-bias training and stricter rules might improve the situation, the best way to stem discrimination is to have more Black faces in the room. This was the sentiment shared by Black prosecutors in a 2010 district attorney roundtable discussion. As former National Black Prosecutors Association president Bruce Brown put it, “When you have African-Americans in the room making decisions, challenging decisions, folks are forced to look at the motives behind what they’re doing, and it’s not until all those motives are questioned that we make sure that our system is working, not only effectively, but also efficiently and fairly for everyone involved.”