UCLI presented a three-session Racial Justice Series in October and November. UCLI, the Utah Minority Bar Association (UMBA) and the Utah State Bar cohosted the Series, which was sponsored by Maschoff Brennan and Smith Washburn. We are grateful to these sponsors for making this wonderful series possible for the more than 75 lawyers who attended each session, along with many students from NIU Law School.
The three sessions were: (1) Counteracting Bias in the Courtroom, featuring panelists Sam Alba, Judge Clem Landau and Professor Maybell Romero; (2) Rethinking Prosecutorial Discretion, featuring Professor Carissa Hessick and Judge Michele Christiansen Foster; and (3) Addressing Disparities in Bail Pre-Trial Detention and Sentencing, featuring Monica Diaz, Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, Meghan Guevara, and Judge Todd Shaughnessy.
In Session 1, Professor Maybell Romero of the Northern Illinois School of Law shared research on manifestations of racial bias in the courtroom and the work that has been done and has yet to be done to combat such bias, which, as we know, undermines faith in both our criminal and civil judicial systems. Following her remarks, Sam Alba recounted his experiences over his long and varied career with courtroom bias as both a judge and a practitioner. Session 1’s concluding speaker was Judge Clem Landau, who discussed ongoing efforts by the bench and bar to combat courtroom bias in all its forms. Following the initial presentations, panelists responded to many questions from attendees. The Q&A session lasted well past the scheduled conclusion of the session, demonstrating both the level of interest in the topic and the willingness of our panelists to provide additional detail about their experiences and perspectives on courtroom bias. During Session 2, we had the opportunity to hear from one of the nation’s leading experts on prosecutorial discretion, Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick of the University of North Carolina School of Law. Professor Hessick shared compelling information about the powerful and often unpublicized and misunderstood role of prosecutors. Much of the information she provided stemmed from her work as the Director of UNC’s Prosecutors and Politics Project, which focuses on bringing attention to the lack of accountability of prosecutors and on increasing our understanding of the relationship between prosecutors and politics. She indicated that because so few criminal cases actually proceed to trial and instead result in guilty pleas, juries rarely serve as a check on prosecutors, leaving few avenues to review prosecutors’ decisions or take action when prosecutorial discretion is abused. Following her remarks and responses to insightful questions posed by moderator Judge Michele Christiansen-Forster, attendees once again had the opportunity to share viewpoints and raise questions about how to hold prosecutors accountable and ways to improve the trustworthiness of our criminal justice system.
Finally, in Session 3, our speakers focused on the need for increased racial justice during the pretrial portion of a criminal case. Meghan Guevara of the Pretrial Justice Institute shared national statistics and trends demonstrating stark racial disparities in pretrial outcomes both in Utah and nationally. She outlined ways that our system could be analyzed and improved at the pretrial stage to account for historic bias, bringing increased equality to the pre-trial process.
Following these remarks, Judge Shaughnessy provided the history of efforts to address pretrial disparities in Utah, particularly with respect to the bail system. Representative Pitcher built on what Judge Shaughnessy shared, highlighting HB 206, which went into effect on October 1, 2020. Prior to HB 206, the primary pretrial release tool available to Utah’s judges had been monetary bail, which is dictated by a schedule that looks at the charged offense rather than the defendant’s individual circumstances. Rep. Pitcher reported that while HB 206 preserves monetary bail, it also provides addition tools to judges to enable them to adequately address an individual’s public safety risk. However, even with those additional tools, panelists discussed ongoing challenges to employing such tools due to the lack of readily available data. Following that discussion, Monica Diaz of the Utah Sentencing Commission reported on the work of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (“CCJJ”) has undertaken in an effort to eliminate bias at each stage of the sentencing process. One such effort includes a new rule allowing for bias to be considered as a mitigating factor in sentencing. She indicated that few lawyers have used this opportunity so far, but the hope is that this tool will be more widely utilized in the future. Attendees learned that CCJJ is continuing to work with courts and the legislature to develop new and better methods to eliminate bias throughout the different stages of a criminal case.
The Racial Justice Series provided attendees with three hours of robust discussion, informative analysis, and thought-provoking insights into how all of us who are part of Utah’s justice system can work together to eliminate racial bias and provide true justice to all stakeholders. The Series embodied UCLI’s efforts to highlight the ongoing need to bring about an equitable and inclusive future for Utah’s legal institutions.
Presenting such high-quality CLE on topics central to UCLI’s mission will continue to be a focus at UCLI. Given the tremendous success of the Racial Justice series, UCLI anticipates many similar presentations on other core topics in the months and years ahead. We thank all those who attended the Racial Justice Series and look forward to seeing you again at one of our CLE events.
In 2021, UCLI will continue to develop its CLE programming. UCLI will add to these offerings several CLEs and extended trainings focused on the connections between diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and attorney wellbeing, as well as other DEI-focused seminars.