January 26, 2017

Breakfast with a Purpose: Eliminating Racial Bias from the U.S. Criminal Justice System

By:  Franklin Graves*

At this year’s Midyear Meeting in Miami, FL, the Diversity Dialogue Breakfast hosts a panel and roundtable discussion focused on decreasing racial bias from the U.S. criminal justice system. The annual breakfast event presents an opportunity to discuss relevant topics, ranging from diversity in mentoring to gender gaps in the workplace, which lawyers may encounter on a daily basis in the legal profession.

The YLD seeks to spark a both productive and educational discussion on the topic of racial bias selected for this year’s Diversity Dialogue Breakfast.  Michael Nguyen, an Assistant District Attorney with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office in San Francisco, CA, and an advocate for diversity in the legal profession, organized the panelists and will be moderating the discussions.  “The conversation will be geared toward steps that can be taken to rebuild trust in the criminal justice system,” he explains. “I think the advancement of technology is helping to do that by allowing people, citizens to record what is going on.”

Sidney Butcher, Counsel at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Baltimore, MD, and a panelist for the breakfast, agrees with Michael on the role of technology. “As a prosecutor, at times [technology] can make the job harder,” Sidney says. “People, particularly a jury, don’t want to just hear from a witness, they want to see it for themselves.” He points to events such as the shooting of Keith Scott in North Carolina as examples where video can solidify in people’s mind that a victim is not the aggressor, but instead it may have been law enforcement. “However,” he adds, “there are countless other incidences that occur on a daily basis where we don’t have the luxury of a bystander with a camera phone that can corroborate something that either law enforcement or the alleged defendant may have done.”

For those unable to attend in-person at the Midyear Meeting, there will be an opportunity to catch up on the discussions later. “We’re excited to have the ABA YLD Scholars participating in the event,” says YLD Diversity Director Daiquiri Steele and one of the coordinators for the breakfast. “The scholars will serve as discussion leaders at the different round tables and take notes on the ideas being shared.”  From there, Daiquiri explains, the scholars will write a white paper on the Diversity Dialogue Breakfast discussions. The paper will then be published by the YLD and circulated through the YLD’s website and across the greater ABA organization, often getting picked up for other publications within additional divisions or sections.

Michael encourages attendees to come with an open mind. “Everyone is going to come to the event with personal thoughts and perspectives on the issue,” he explains. “I think the conversation with the four panelists is going to spark interesting thoughts and that’s where the YLD Scholars will assist in building upon the panel discussion within the smaller groups using prepared questions.”

“Implicit bias doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with race,” says Sidney. “It’s how an individual perceives their own conscious thoughts and opinions of those that are around them and how the individual chooses to interact.” Sidney hopes young lawyer attendees use the opportunity to learn and that implicit bias has an impact on their daily interactions with others. He recommends young lawyers take three simple steps while at Midyear Meeting and once we’ve returned home: 

  1. Get out of your box and explore groups of people you don’t know;
  2. Become involved in other sections of the ABA before the end of your time as a YLD member (drawing on your YLD Committee experience is a great springboard to entity committee—join a YLD Committee today) and
  3. Explore opportunities for diversity within your own community, such as taking on pro bono clients of a different race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic background than your own.

Is Justice Blind? Eliminating Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System” is an invitation-only breakfast event scheduled for Saturday, February 4, 2017, from 7:45 AM until 8:45 AM in the Tenor room in the Hilton Miami Downtown. For more information on the event or if you have questions about attending, email Daiquiri Steele, Michael Nguyen, or YLD Diversity staff person Renee Lugo

Register for the 2017 ABA Midyear Meeting, visit the official YLD Events at ABA 2017 Midyear Meeting website.

Additional panelists will include: the Honorable Earnestine H. Dorse, Municipal Court Judge in Memphis, TN; Wayne McKenzie, General Counsel for the NYC Department of Probation in New York, NY; and Melba Pearson, Deputy Director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in Miami, FL.


*Franklin Graves is an in-house attorney in Nashville, TN, and an Associate Editor for The Affiliate.