A Cleveland art exhibit has been created to draw attention to racial fairness in the justice system. Organizers say there are too many minorities in jail. Activists accuse everyone from court employees to police and judges of not giving some citizens a fair shake. They say a disproportionate number of minorities are in jail because the system singles out minorities. But defenders of the system says the statistics don't tell the whole story. 90.3 WCPN's Mike West has more.
Mike West: In the cavernous lobby of the Justice Center in Cleveland, about 50 people have gathered for an art reception of sorts. The display is called The Art of Racial Fairness. The program was created by the Racial Fairness Report Project. The project involves showing photographs of people in various settings around the city. They're holding dry-erase boards, showing messages written by the subjects of the photos.
Alexis Thyne: We are looking at a black-and-white photograph with two caucasian youths holding up a dry-erase board. The words written on the dry-erase board are: "I hate the f--- pigs, slash 5-O f--- judges! And bastards."
MW: Alexis Thyne is an art instructor who guided the project. She says the photos were taken by young people between the ages of 11 and 17 who are part of a church after-school program.
AT: This one I particularly like. It's a teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools - this is at the Puerto Rican Festival, she's holding a sign that says "It's racism is ignorance, we don't trust each other." She felt races don't communicate enough between each other.
MW: This is one of dozens of public awareness campaigns put together by the Racial Fairness Report Project. Its leader is Molly Weiser. She says her efforts stem from a report that was commissioned by the State Supreme Court and the Ohio Bar Association. It recommends that numerous policies be created to improve fairness for minorities who are arrested, tried and sentenced.
Molly Weiser: That report was about six components of the justice system, broadly it's about the courts and the legal profession. But the six sub-topics are: juries, criminal justice, interpretative services, judges and attorney's perceptions and employment and appointment practices in the courts and law schools.
MW: The art show also featured guest speaker Reverend Marvin McMickle who has publicly accused the county justice system of having an "apartheid feel to it" - his comments were featured in a local newspaper. He also says the county practices its own brand of racial profiling.
Marvin McMickle: We are not one nation, we simply do not have liberty and justice for all. And our criminal justice system is the clearest place to see that racial disparity.
MW: The reverend claims that there is something wrong when jails don't have the population that mirror the general public.
MM: If drug use is the same, 13%, why is it that 35% of arrests are African-American? 55% of convictions are African-American and 74% of those who are incarcerated for the same offense are African-American. So part of what the racial fairness in the criminal justice system has to deal with is, whether or not there really is liberty and justice for all, one nation indivisible where all of us are treated equally.
MW: Accusations of racism bother Richard McMonagle. He's the administrative judge for the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
Richard McMonagle: It sort of makes my skin crawl. I've been a judge for 23 years and the thought of that shows a real misperception of what we really do down here in the courthouse.
MW: The judge says the system is not perfect but they are doing the best they can with tight budgets and ballooning case loads. And he says getting people worked up over the issue could do more harm than good.
RM: It's sort of scary, I get the idea that there may be even a little more racial tension then there was in the past. I think that we thought that things had leveled out after then 60s and 70s. But it's just a feeling that we get. Maybe without naming people who are on podiums who are talking about these things, it just seems that they get attention and the people who listen are the populous who maybe wanna blame their plights on other people.
MW: Former Prosecutor and Pubic Defender Judge Robert Glickman also denies the local justice system is "out to get minorities."
Robert Glickman: I was a prosecutor for 9 years and I don't believe I ever saw somebody prosecuted in a more aggressive manner because of their race, creed, religion, sexual orientation. However, the system never going to be perfect.
MW: Glickman admits that defendants with enough money to hire the best lawyer spend fewer years in jail. But he says the issue is poverty, something the justice system has no control over.
RG: Unless somebody is able to then suggest a way to fix that problem simply standing up and yelling "the system's wrong and the system's unfair" isn't productive. We in Cuyahoga County do everything in our power to see to it that people get as fair a trail as we can give to them.
MW: Marcia Booker, a 17-year-old student who took part in the project as a photographer, is not optimistic that legal tensions between minorities and the legal world will change anytime soon.
Marcia Booker: For a lot of these judges and police officers there is still racism, no matter how far we get there is always going to racism around, there's always going to be somebody hating someone else just because there different. And it's probably always going to be like that
MW: Who's job is it to fix it?
MB: It's us, it's all of us as a people, everyone in America - it's all of our job.
MW: Some of the recommendations in 1999 the report have already been followed. They include forcing lawyers to disclose their racial background as a condition of practicing law in Ohio. The report has also resulted in the creation of the Racial Implementation Task Force by the Ohio Supreme Court. Its members have been reviewing the study and are expected to come out with their reaction within days. The Art of Racial Fairness is on permanent display at the Juvenile Division of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's office. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.