Q&A: Dem. Reps. Jackson And Reives On Racial Inequalities In NC

Jun 11, 2020

File photo of the NC General Assembly in Raleigh.
Credit W Edward Callis III

It's now been more than two weeks since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Protests around the world and across our state have followed. And in some places reforms are already being implemented. Here to discuss how racial inequities in policing and beyond could be addressed in North Carolina are Democratic state House Representatives Darren Jackson and Robert Reives.

Q: There is a spectrum of ideas for changes that we've heard about in recent days, from defunding police departments to providing a greater level of funding for more training and resources. What legislation is either moving right now at the General Assembly, or do you have optimism we'll receive a hearing in the weeks ahead.

DJ:  Today, as by chance, we will be hearing the Second Chance Act. That was one of the things that our caucus identified in the last couple of weeks is something that passed unanimously in the Senate and has languished in the House for about 13 months now. We thought that that would be a pretty good place to start. And so we requested the Republicans here that this week, and they agreed to that. And so we're going to be hearing that today on the statehouse floor.

Q: Give me a layperson’s overview. The Second Chance Act, that's a nice bill title, what does the Second Chance Act do?

DJ: It's an expungement bill that allows people who may have made a mistake in their past, once they've turned their life around and kept their nose clean and stayed out of trouble, you know, those kind of convictions tend to haunt you for years and years to come. And they prevent you from furthering your education or getting that foot in the door. And so if you've demonstrated on a non-violent offense, misdemeanor or non violent felony, that you did make that one-time mistake and that you have turned your life around, you'd be eligible to go back and get that expunged so that you can start your life over.

Q: Representative Reeves, what other pieces of policy, perhaps, have been languishing I think was the word Rep. Jackson used. What other bills do you have an eye on? Are you hopeful that they're going to be moving or they might get a committee hearing here during  this short legislative session.

RR: So I think Ban the Box has a chance to move in also this session. Beyond that, there are things I'd love to see move. I don't know if they will move. I know Charlotte had a local bill that they want to have moved that would allow for subpoena power for the review board, Citizens Review Board. We've also got a bill that you know, provides for a more uniform, look for citizens review boards, and those have a chance to go. I think one of those has a Republican sponsor. That would be ideally, of the ones that are pending, that I think would have a good chance of moving and having a chance to getting good bipartisan support.

Q: As a reminder, I think a lot of our listeners know this, of course, but Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature, and thus that likely affects what kinds of policies you can successfully introduce and have debate over and vote through. This is an election year. However, that's worth noting, if you were in the majority at the statehouse, what other reforms would you be calling for and pursuing right now?
 
DJ: I'll jump in and start and say one of the first ones would probably be looking at Medicaid expansion. You know, we have a lot of racial health care disparities in this state. African American babies are twice as likely as white babies to die prematurely. And we know that that prematurity and low infant birth weight improves in states that have expanded Medicaid. We've also seen during this COVID-19 crisis, that it's hit our African American communities harder, you know, 39% of our COVID-19 deaths are African American, even though African Americans only make up 22% of our population. So Medicaid expansion would allow us to target some resources to protecting our vulnerable individuals.

RR: I think beyond Medicaid expansion to me, again, I would re-emphasize the importance of citizen review boards. I think one of the things that you really see with a lot of communities is if they trust in the judicial system, you actually have less problems with the judicial system. So I think an expansion of that, an expansion that allows for folks to decide what's going to work for them locally. Obviously, what's going to happen in Charlotte is going to be different than what's going to happen for somewhere like Siler City.

Other things we'd like to see done are better spending in education. I think that the thought process that public education is going to somehow go away if we keep putting money in the private schools is just not realistic. And the reality is most students go to public schools. And I can tell you this as a former prosecutor, and as an defense attorney, you rarely see people when they're answering those questions on that transcript and serious cases, be in situations where they've had extensive education. If you've got a good educational background, that gets you out working, that gives you less chance to end up involved with the criminal justice system. Because I think really, you want to invest more in preventative measures, I don't think you ever want to get to a point where all of your focus on criminal justice is something that comes at the end, when you put people in prison. I think if you work on preventative measures, those preventative measures will help reduce the impact and help reduce the strain on your criminal justice system.

Q: You're both lawyers, you spend a lot of time in court. What's the most glaring, or one of the most glaring, inequalities that you've seen over the course of doing your other job?

DJ: I'm sure without even asking, Robert… I know I have and I'm sure he has been in courtrooms across the state where every defendant sitting out in the gallery was a person of color. I've seen it. I've seen it before. That should tell you something. Whether it's the targeting or the discretion that goes into charging or how we treat people once they are charged, whether it's with bond or bail, appointment of lawyers, the money we invest in court-appointed attorneys, our prison reform, what we're sending people to jail for versus alternative sentencing programs trying to get people back on the right track. You know, I have been struck more than once being in a courtroom and looking around and seeing nothing but people with black or brown skin sitting in the gallery.

RR: And on top of that, I think you see a general lack of diversity in positions that make decisions and what is what's kind of funny and what I appreciate, do not get me wrong, I appreciate seeing more African American judges, there are already more African American judges right now than it were when I started practicing. And I think that trend has continued. That's good. But judges are the very last line that a criminal defendant’s going to face. There are so many decisions made up until that point. The first decision is made by that officer on the ground, whether or not that officer is going to arrest or not arrest. There's not some robotic chip in that person who says, ‘I see the person A doing this, therefore, I must arrest and charge with this crime.’ There's discretion right there. Prosecutors offices, I mean, you can go around this state, you'll see prosecutors offices that don't even have African Americans answering the phone, much less have an African American prosecutors, African American investigators. Those things are important, because all of those people help them make decisions and then you get to the judge. So let's try to move for more diversity at all levels of our criminal justice system. And let's try to move for more options besides just throwing people in jail.