Local group organizes court observers to combat racial disparities in policing
COLUMBIA - Race Matters, Friends is currently seeking out volunteers to sit in on, take notes on and observe court cases to ensure the defendant is getting treated and represented fairly.
Peggy Placier, member of Race Matters, Friends, said, "So do they get good representation and are they treated fairly as the court case proceeds? Or is there any evidence of bias in the, in everything, from what they're charged with, if there's a the jury, jury selection. There's just so many elements of the criminal justice system where issues could arise."
A defendant in an upcoming court case has already requested an observer for their hearing next week which will be the first RMF court observer appearance.
According to its Facebook page, its mission is: "Race Matters, Friends (RMF) will confront our community’s history of racial inequities by collaborating with trusted partners to build transformative policies that dismantle disparities in all local institutions and organizations."
RMF was established two years ago as a non-profit volunteer group and has recently placed a focus on racial inequity with regards to education, community policing and police stops.
Racial disparities in the Columbia vehicle stops reports for the last three years caught the attention of RMF members, but one growing gap is what narrowed RMF's focus.
"The 2016 report for the Columbia Police Department indicated a disparity index of 3.13 for black drivers, an increase from 2.97 in 2015," according to the report.
“We do know that black defendants are far over-represented in the cases that eventually go to trial,” Placier said.
Another factor that led to this decision is defendants sending letters to RMF saying they didn't get a "fair shake" in court.
The group started out analyzing statistics in vehicle stops; however, now the group is looking into all aspects of the judicial system saying that disparity in arrests is just the start of bigger issues.
These issues can extend from people not being able to post their bail and having to stay in jail on a minor charge or from escalating to a situation similar to what happened in Ferguson.
In addition, RMF is also fundraising money to help people pay fines and post bail for minor charges.
“One of our members was looking into bail and how people can get incarcerated for so long because they were unable to make bail or their bail is excessive,” Placier said. “If somebody is stopped and arrested or given a fine. What happens then? Can they make bail if they’re arrested? What are the conditions in jail if they can’t make bail? If they’re given a fine is it something they can pay?"
Laura Mitchell, member of Race Matters, Friends, said, "In states with a cash bail system like Brooklyn, New York or Seattle, Washington, this idea seems like a stepping stone to keep bail from creating a debtors prison, where people with money can leave and people without money are stuck."
Another issue Placier brought up was public defenders having too many cases, preventing them from being able to represent those with lower income status the same way people with a higher income status would be represented.
Mitchell said an example is the Hunter Park case.
"Myself and others went to the trial of Hunter Park in June of 2016 after he sent out anonymous racial threats on Yik Yak to black students. First, I thought it was interesting that they waited until a lot of the people, the students affected by the threats, were gone. In reality, his other tweets not released to the public were much more offensive and threatening. But he didn't receive any jail time," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said their goal is to "not just have people behind bars just for not posting bail."
Anyone interested in being a court observer volunteer should contact the RMF Facebook page.