Steve Miletich, Seattle Times, October 21, 2010
State Supreme Court justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson stunned some participants at a recent court meeting when they said African Americans are overrepresented in the prison population because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes.
Both justices disputed the view held by some that racial discrimination plays a significant role in the disparity.
Johnson also used the term “poverty pimp,” an apparent reference to people who purportedly exploit the poor in the legal system, say those who attended the meeting.
Sanders later confirmed his remarks about imprisoned African Americans, saying “certain minority groups” are “disproportionally represented in prison because they have a crime problem.”
“That’s right,” he told The Seattle Times this week. “I think that’s obvious.”
African Americans represent about 4 percent of Washington’s population but nearly 20 percent of the state prison population. Similar disparities nationwide have been attributed by some researchers to sentencing practices, inadequate legal representation, drug-enforcement policies and criminal-enforcement procedures that unfairly affect African Americans.
Some who attended the meeting say they were offended by the justices’ remarks, saying the comments showed a lack of knowledge and sensitivity.
Kitsap County District Court Judge James Riehl, who attended the meeting, said he was “stunned” because, as a trial judge for 28 years, he was “acutely aware” of barriers to equal treatment in the legal system.
Shirley Bondon, an AOC manager who oversees programs to remove barriers in the legal system, said that during the discussion she told the justices that she believed there was racial “bias in the criminal-justice system, from the bottom up.”
Bondon, 50, who is African American, said Sanders told others to turn to a page in the report that listed barriers to the justice system, including age, race, disability and other factors.
Sanders asked for the name of anyone who was in prison because of one of the barriers, according to Bondon and others who attended the meeting.
Sanders also stated that he didn’t believe the barriers existed, except for poverty because it might restrict the ability to afford an attorney, Bondon said.
Ada Shen-Jaffe, the Seattle University participant, responded that she didn’t have names but could provide research, Bondon and Riehl said.
Sanders, in an interview, said he replied with words to the effect that maybe prison statistics reflect crimes that were committed.
After Sanders’ remark, Johnson said he agreed, noting that African Americans commit them against their own communities, Bondon said.
Bondon said she told Johnson that was unacceptable and that she didn’t believe that to be true.
Johnson then remarked that he believed some people are taken advantage of, and in connection with that, used the term “poverty pimp,” Bondon said.
Justice Debra Stephens said she heard Sanders and Johnson make the comments, including Johnson using the words “you all” or “you people” when he stated that African Americans commit crimes in their own communities.
Bondon said she remembered thinking that she didn’t need data or statistics to prove that she and other African Americans don’t have a predisposition for criminality.
“Just the idea that it was necessary to disprove the assertion was sickening,” Bondon said.
Sanders, in an interview, said he has a reputation for standing up for those accused of crimes but that he hasn’t seen evidence that African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned because of race.
He said his concern was for “individuals,” and that if someone is in prison for any reason other than committing the crime, “I want to hear about it.”