Race, Data, and Procedural Justice: A Conversation with David Slayton

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Race, Data, and Procedural Justice: A Conversation with David Slayton

Race, Data, and Procedural Justice: A Conversation with David Slayton

At Reinvesting in Justice, David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, talks about using data to implement procedural justice and address racial disparities in the justice system.

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AVNI MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Hello, this is Avni Majithia-Sejpal, and you're listening to the New Thinking Podcast. Today I'm at the Dallas City Hall with David Slayton, who is the administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration in Austin. We're both here at Reinvesting in Justice, a conference that brings together a wide range of criminal justice practitioners to discuss challenges and highlight innovative work being done in the field of criminal justice across the state of Texas and elsewhere. David is speaking on a panel about procedural justice in a little while here. Specifically, how procedural justice intersects with thinking about racial disparity in the justice system. David, welcome to the New Thinking Podcast.

DAVID SLAYTON: It's great to be here.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Today's big subject is "Reinvesting in Justice." From where you sit, what does reinvesting in justice even look like, and why is it so important right now.

SLAYTON: Right now, we face really challenging times, and making sure that the dollars and the efforts that we put into criminal justice are being effective at what we want them to do. The outcomes are important. It’s not just about inputs and outputs anymore, whereas maybe in the past that was a huge focus, how many cases can we get done, or how many are we having filed. Focusing on, are we actually making an impact with the efforts that we're putting in? I think that's an exciting thing to be able to focus on as we do our work.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: For the benefit of those who are not here today, can you summarize what your panel is going to be about, and what you specifically will be talking about?

SLAYTON: We have the Dallas City Police Chief on the panel, which will be really interesting to hear his perspective on law enforcement's interaction with the public. We're going to have the deputy director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, whose focus is upon court-appointed counsel, and of course, making sure that there's a feeling of fairness in that system. I'm particularly focusing on procedural fairness, and the work that we're doing in the state to try to make sure that people, not only are being treated fairly, but that they feel that they're being treated fairly in the court system. Obviously, that feeling is as important as the reality.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Can you talk about procedural fairness?

SLAYTON: Sure. One of the key things with procedural fairness is we want to make sure that when people enter the court system, that they know what to do and that they understand what's going on. The court system has been around for centuries and it’s built for attorneys who are very learned in the system and understand exactly how it works, it’s built for judges. Sometimes the language that's used and the procedures that's used in the courts are not as easily understandable to the public and sometimes that leads to confusion, leads to a feeling of unfairness. So, making sure that people not only are treated fairly, but that they understand what's going on, that they are able to understand those procedures and the forms and the languages that's going on is really important. Then, obviously, at the end of the day, making sure that people are, indeed, treated fairly based upon the situation in their case, and that outcomes are similar for all different groups, no matter what their background is.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: There is a lot of discussion across the spectrum about racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and outside of it. Can you talk about how maybe procedural fairness actually addresses that, or can possibly address that?

SLAYTON: Yeah. I think one of the real key things that's important ... I'm going to be talking about this on my panel today ... is the need for us to really take hard look at that with data. There are different communities that are involved in our criminal justice system who are over-represented. We know that for a fact, we see it. Oftentimes, I'm not sure that we have, in the past, been willing to take a hard look at the data to see--what are those degrees of over-representation?

What I see happening today, at least in the judiciary in Texas, is, really, a willingness to really peel back the layers and see: what does the data show, as far as the effect on different groups, and the disparities that are there? And what can we do about it? Whether it be in the child protective system, child welfare system, we've been looking at that, the truancy system, the children involved in the juvenile justice system, all the way up to the criminal justice system. I think it’s really important for us to take a look at that. And making sure that people are being treated from the beginning of their involvement in this system, all the way to the end is important. I think procedural fairness plays a big part in that.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: What is the data telling us?

SLAYTON: I think the data is revealing what we know, which we know anecdotally, there is indeed over-representation of certain groups. I look, in particular, to a study that was done a few years ago, that has had tremendous impact in our state, which was a report called "Breaking Schools Rules." It was done by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute from Texas A&M. It looked at about a million kids in our school system in the state, and what their involvement was in the school ticketing for minor offences.

What the report found is that, number one, there was over-representation of minorities, but even disparity in the treatment of those minorities for similar offences. With all other factors equalized, the educational background of the parents, to the income, to school district, to even school campus level; if we equalized all those things, the factor that still showed as a differentiation in the way they were treated was race. Besides race, we also saw an issue with individuals who had disabilities being overrepresented and the treatment being different. What that led to was really a real focus, and a real effort to try to reform and put in place reforms that would address that. It’s a really excting thing to be able to see the data show that, and then to take action based upon that.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Are there specific practices of procedural fairness that can actually address some of these disparities that we are talking about?

SLAYTON: You know, one of the things that's really important is the training that we have been in ... I want to talk about this today too ... is the training that we have been doing with judges on implicit bias. We know it exists. We know, as humans, we have our biases. I think it’s sort of like the step one of AA, admitting we have a problem is sometimes the number one. I think, a lot of times, just for judges and court staff and prosecutors and defense attorneys to realize that they have implicit bias is an important factor. Then, controlling that with tools, to make sure they can overcome those natural biases that exist. I think that's number one, the training behind that is really important.

Then number two, really trying to overcome that by making sure that we have things like community courts and drug courts. Making sure that the people who are on the bench and in the courtroom look and act like we do, that speak the same language as we do. All those types of things, I think, are really important to making sure that people really do feel that the system is fair and that they are not going against someone who is very different than them, speaks a different language from them, and therefore, they don't feel they are getting treated as fairly as they should.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Are there any interesting initiatives in the state of Texas that you can talk about?

SLAYTON: One of the things that I am going to talk about today, when I was court administrator in Lubbock County, which is a medium-sized county in west Texas ... The judges there really felt like it was important to ask the people who were coming before them, how they felt about the job the judges were doing. In fact they labeled it "Judge the Judges." So, everyone who went before the judges was asked to answer a survey about their interactions with the judges that day.

Some of the questions that they asked were, first of all, "Was finding the courthouse easy? Did I have forms that I needed? Did I feel safe? Was I able to do my business in a reasonable amount of time?" and "Were the hours that the court was open, did that make it easy to conduct my business?" Because oftentimes that can be an issue. Then it went a step further, and for those individuals who actually appeared before a judge, it asked them the following questions. They were asked to grade on these statements:  "The judge listened to my side of the story before the decision was made”; “The judge had information necessary to make a good decision”; “I was treated as everyone else": and "As I leave I know what to do next."

 What we did was, we asked everyone who was leaving the courthouse that had been before the judge, "How do you feel about this?" And we got some really great feedback. We asked information on the survey about demographics, and what type of case it was, and which court level they went before. We really started to get some information that allowed to drill down into the feelings of different individuals who were coming before the courts. It gave the judges valuable feedback as to how they could address the issues that might be a concern for the public. So, that's one example. We've seen some other courts in the state also replicate that survey. I think that it’s really just helping us to use that information to make positive changes within the court system.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: When it comes to procedural fairness there are sometimes skeptics who suggest that perceptions of fairness have very little to do with actually adjudicating, and also take up a lot of time that judges and others don't necessarily have. Are there ways you address the skepticism?

SLAYTON: You know, I am going to say this today, and I think, in this day and age, it’s really true that the public sees the court system through the lens of the entire criminal justice system. So, if you have police brutality, or you have a wrongful conviction, or you have an issue in the defense side or the prosecution side, it’s all the court system, in people’s eyes. So, I think you have to think about this with our partners and the criminal justice system, as a system-wide issue that we have to address. And if we don't do that I'm not sure we really make a real difference. I think that's the key, is really looking at that from the system-wide perspective and then making changes based upon that.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: What are some of the most urgent challenges facing procedural justice, particularly as it pertains to dealing with some of the racial disparities that we are seeing across various platforms and institutions in the country right now?

SLAYTON: I'm gonna talk about this today. One of the real issues that I see is the whole issue of community engagement. I've been talking at the state level with the chief justice and others about the need for us to really do a better job of engaging with the community. In the past when we looked at judges doing community engagement, it’s been going to the Rotary or going to the bar assar association and speaking. I'm not sure that's exactly that type of community engagement that is most beneficial, and we need to figure out a way to get into different communities across our state and our local communities and have discussions about, how do you feel about the court system? What do you think the challenges are? How can we better connect? I think that is one of the biggest things.

The second thing, in my mind, that we can do better is to be more transparent. We are doing our best to be transparent, but there is even more we can do. For instance, we have limitations in our data. If someone asks me for racial disparity data, I have limitations in what I can say. So, we are doing some work at the state level to try to get more data, that is more granular that we can begin to really take a look and study these issues a little bit better.

Then, the last thing I would say, is really opening up our records from a perspective so that anybody can see what is going on. You mentioned earlier, "Is this a real issue, is this a perception issue." It doesn't really matter at the end of the day. Perception is reality. So, I think making sure that people can actually validate or not, their assumption, is really important, and so, that transparency, I think, is really key.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Great. David, thanks so much!

SLAYTON: Thank you for having me today.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I'm Avni Majithia-Sejpal and I've been talking to David Slayton at Reinvesting in Justice about racial disparity and the need for procedural fairness. To listen to more New Thinking podcasts, or to learn more about our work, you can visit our website atwww.courtinnovation.org. Thanks so much for listening.

 

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