A simple concept underpins the American legal system: equal treatment.
But the ideal more often is missed than met — at least that’s what protesters argue during the near-daily demonstrations since the Sept. 15 acquittal of a white former St. Louis police officer in the 2011 shooting death of a black man.
The recent events once again have some local attorneys trying to square their faith in a system they’re supposed to respect despite its flaws.
Rep. Steve Roberts Jr., D-St. Louis, sees obvious commonalities between the U.S. Constitution and the legal system.
“You’ve got these amazing concepts, but then there’s a human element to it,” said Roberts, who also is an attorney. “In the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri, I mean, it’s a race issue. And I think that if you don’t recognize that, you don’t understand the problem.”
The numbers prove Roberts’ point. Yearly reports from the Missouri attorney general’s office since 2000 show black drivers are pulled over more often than white drivers.
There’s another basic flaw in the legal system, too, according to Kathryn Redmond, a third-year student at Saint Louis University law school and past president of the Black Law Students Association.
“The purpose has always been and still is to this day to maintain a sort of rigid order,” she said. “It doesn’t stop crime from being committed. People who go to jail, go to prison, serve any kind of time, their problems are rarely ever fixed. It actually just creates more problems.”
Redmond decided to go to law school after Michael Brown, who was black and 18 years old, was shot and killed in 2014 by a white Ferguson police officer. And while the Sept. 15 verdict in the Jason Stockley case stung, she still felt like becoming a lawyer was the right thing to do.
“It doesn’t make me want to stop hoping that there is room for change and we are working toward change and that change will come,” Redmond said.
No easy fixes
The bias in the American legal system is subtle, corporate attorney Bianca Chapman said.
“We all bring our past experiences to the table, and when there’s predominately white males there, you only get that set of experiences to base things off of,” she said.
Legislation can reduce the negative impacts of a system that has little representation from people of color, Chapman said, but a bill can’t change the way people think or feel. To really have influence, you have to get different people into powerful positions like judge and prosecutor.
“You need more people who are not biased, who recognize their biases and [are] willing to confront them in the system,” she said.
That’s part of the reason why Chapman, a Pagedale native, went to law school 13 years ago.
“Growing up in an impoverished area, I would see the debtor’s prisons where people would get parking tickets, traffic violations, and have to spend time in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay them, and I wanted to be on the side of changing the system,” she said. “My socioeconomic background has given me opportunities as well as obstacles that someone else from a different background, a different race, has not seen.”
A lack of resources makes it harder for people to get out of legal trouble once they’ve been charged with a crime or sued. Elad Gross, a former assistant attorney general under Democrat Chris Koster, described a client who sat in jail for six-and-a-half months because the public defender’s office was too overworked.
“It’s not just, not fair, it’s a huge waste of resources. It de-legitimizes the very institutions that we need to believe in in this country,” he said.
People, not institutions
Gross still has faith in the American legal system, though for him, it’s about the people, not institutions.
“We need folks who are willing to represent people who don’t have the resources. We need good folks serving as prosecutors, so that our justice system works better. We need attorneys I hope especially looking outside of just the legal community but working with folks in all different kinds of areas and being strong advocates for what we want to see in this country,” he said.
Lisa Sonia Taylor, the director of inclusion and diversity education at SLU Law School, said she hopes to see more attorneys consider the impact of the laws they enforce.
“We were looking at the substance and the procedure of law and we weren’t evaluating whether we were working towards justice. And we can still debate whether that’s our role or not,” she said. “... But even my own perspective of my profession has changed. We’re guardians of this justice system, the legal system, and I think we need to be more aware of the impact it’s having on our community.”
Conversations and debate are some of the most powerful tools available to change the legal system, Taylor said.
“It’s great to make everyone aware that the law impacts people in very different ways,” said Christina Arrom, the president of SLU’s Hispanic Law Students Association. “You’re going to get a lot of pushback, but it’s good and important to have those conversations.”
Read all of St. Louis Public Radio's coverage of the Jason Stockley verdict and ongoing protests.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann