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Spokane County Bar Tackles Systemic Racism

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

 On Saturday, the Spokane County Bar Association and its Diversity Section tackled the issue of systemic racism in the county’s criminal justice system. They held a day-long workshop and invited the public to participate in the discussion.

Spokane attorney Gloria Ochoa-Bruck says the bar association’s conference continued the national debate about systemic racism.  

“There are a lot of people, still, that are non-believers. They don’t believe it exists. They don’t believe that there is racial inequality. There’s some people that just believe it isn’t a matter of the system itself, it’s a matter of character," she said.

“The concern we have with systemic racism in our justice system has been clearly highlighted by the Supreme Court of Washington letter," said Francis Adewale, a public defender for the city of Spokane and a former bar association trustee.

"The Supreme Court laid down the gauntlet, saying they are challenging themselves to examine their previous decisions, their cases and ensure that no one in our state will go through our justice system with the burden of systemic racism operating as a barrier for them," Adewale said.

Asked for a tangible example of systemic racism, Gloria Ochoa-Bruck pointed to the county’s cash bail system.

“A lot of times it isn’t the gravity of the charge, it’s really the ability of the person to pay. There was an individual that was charged with stalking and then attempting to murder an ex-partner and his bail was set really high, $250,000. But this person could pay, so as long as they paid and came to court, they were totally fine," Ochoa-Bruck said.

She contrasts that to the recent case of a young man with mental health and substance abuse problems who smashed one of the hearts downtown that was created as an art project. She says he wound up remaining in custody until his trial because he didn’t have the money to post bail.

“It came down to the ability to pay, not to the safety of the community, of having somebody out," she said. "Obviously, as a community member, I would be more concerned with somebody potentially charged with a very serious violent crime that committed property damage. This type of thing impacts a lot of people of color, specifically because if you go back to your root causes, there are disproportionately more people of color in poverty.”

Francis Adewale suggests one improvement: more funding for legal aid programs.

“If I’m a domestic violence victim and I approach the court and say I need protection from you, chances are that I will be able to get some help, but if I am an undocumented person, chances are I will meet a lot of bias. We need to support them with more funding to give access to justice to people," he said.

Gloria Ochoa-Bruck says the bar association plans to create a task force to consider some solutions. Though it’s a big issue, she says the fixes may be small or incremental steps, rather than big, sweeping changes.