Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Allegheny County president judge acknowledges systemic racism in courts

Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark recently released a letter to the public stating her acknowledgement of the systemic racism found within the courts and that changes must be made in Allegheny County in an attempt to create a system that serves justice equally, reported the Pittsburgh City Paper and the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Her letter comes after a Black lawyer accused the nation’s criminal justice system and the Allegheny County District Attorney office of being systematically racist.

The letter, released in late June, highlights a phrase from the fourteenth amendment, “Equal Justice Under Law.” However, Clark writes that throughout history and in recent events, such as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that justice is not equal for many Americans.

“The Court must consciously and publicly address the waning public confidence in the justice system amidst the growing and compelling evidence that persons of color are at a greater risk of death or serious bodily injury at the hands of the police and are more likely to languish in the child welfare and juvenile and criminal justice systems than white persons,” Clark wrote.

Clark has served in Common Pleas Court since 1999 and was appointed President Judge in 2018. She is the first Black person to serve as President Judge in Allegheny County history.

She wrote in her letter that it’s the court’s duty to openly address and acknowledge its flaws rather than turn a blind eye, and implement positive changes to these flaws that will benefit all citizens. She added that the commitment to these changes in the judicial system is not to only promote equality, but ensure equity.

Clark wrote a list of commitments that Pennsylvania’s Fifth Judicial District will implement in the court to combat issues of racial and ethnic disparities and systemic racism in the justice system.

Some of these commitments include the utilization of the PA Detention Risk Assessment, implementation of a Language Access Plan to promote equal access for limited or non-English speakers and deaf/hard of hearing court users, collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, the Allegheny County Executive, the Allegheny Department of Human Services to address criminal justice reform, among others found in the letter.

Though her comments came on the heel of high profile events related to racism in the courts — including charges of racism against the District Attorney and Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Mark Tranquilli using racists remarks in 2020 — Clark did not directly address those in her letter.

Clark said the mission of the court begins with a thorough examination of their processes and procedures that might contribute to racial and ethnic injustice. She added that she asked a diverse group from Allegheny County and the Fifth Judicial District to assist her in creating a mission within the court that sets forth their responsibility to serve all members of the public.

“We will do our best to earn and keep your respect, and to hold ourselves accountable to the public that we serve,” Clark wrote.

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