Five years ago, the UNC School of Government published a unique manual, Raising Issues of Race in North Carolina Criminal Cases, as part of our Defender Manual Series. Supported by a grant from the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation, the manual examines how issues of race and bias can improperly influence criminal processes and outcomes, and it suggests strategies for lawyers to consider when addressing these issues. I coauthored the manual with former Defender Educator Alyson A. Grine, Professor John Rubin edited it, and a stellar volunteer advisory board, including James Williams, Tye Hunter, Rich Rosen, Mary Pollard, and Breana Smith, provided guidance during the creation of the manual.
Primarily intended for criminal defense attorneys, the manual is a tool for all court actors working to eradicate racial bias from criminal proceedings. For example, District Attorney for New Hanover and Pender Counties Benjamin David observed that “[m]aintaining public trust, from the police encounter through sentencing, requires that race play no role in how people are treated throughout the process. This manual provides an important tool for ensuring that criminal trials are free from improper influences of race.” The reach of the manual has been wider than we could have hoped: in addition to feedback that it has been useful to our target audience of North Carolina attorneys, it has been recognized by media outlets including the NY Times (see here and here), and was even cited in a US Supreme Court opinion (in a dissent, in a footnote, but still!).
Building on the publication of this resource, the School of Government’s Indigent Defense Education Group launched an ambitious training program to educate attorneys about the contents of the manual and build a community of leaders with expertise in this subject area. I have the honor of being the project attorney and now also director of the program. The program, called the NC Racial Equity Network (NC REN), began with a competitive application process open to all North Carolina indigent defenders. Fifty attorneys were selected to engage in an eighteen-month training program beginning in 2015. In late 2017, we selected a second cohort of NC REN attorneys – 60 attorneys this time, to keep up with demand – who also participated in an eighteen-month training program based on the manual. At this point, we have graduated over 100 NC REN graduates who are equipped with the skills to identify, litigate, and collaborate with other court actors on addressing issues of race and racial bias in the criminal justice system. We are proud of our NC REN graduates. As we begin a new chapter of NC REN, I thought it would be fitting to highlight some of the program’s accomplishments and lay out our plans for the future.
NC REN attorneys participated in six day-long trainings, each of which took a deep dive into a particular stage of the criminal process, such as police encounters, eyewitness identifications, pretrial release, jury challenges, and sentencing. Presenters included practitioners, academics, and members of community-based groups. During these day-long programs, NC REN attorneys developed new skills and deepened their understanding of potential barriers to justice within the criminal legal system.
NC REN members have drawn on the training and support offered as part of this program to develop innovative, collaborative, and at times litigation-based solutions to problems. For example, several members are currently working on ensuring that jury lists reflect a fair cross section of the community, as guaranteed by our state and federal constitutions. Others have succeeded in having a video about implicit bias shown to potential jurors in advance of jury selection, a method for minimizing the impact of implicit bias on juror decision-making. Some have formed local working groups of court actors to collaborate on issues of common concern, such as bail reform, eliminating discrimination in jury selection, and developing local implicit bias trainings. Some have challenged the unreliability of cross-racial eyewitness identifications to prevent wrongful convictions or the disparate treatment of schoolchildren of different races who engaged in similar behavior. A number of NC REN attorneys have taken their specialized knowledge and skill with them as they transition into new roles as judges, prosecutors, and leaders of criminal justice organizations throughout the state.
What’s next for NC REN? We will not be forming a third NC REN cohort and instead will be growing the program in different ways. We hope there will be many opportunities for interested attorneys to get involved. Moving forward, we will be hosting an annual NC REN Master Class and Reunion, open to NC REN members and others. It is intended to serve three purposes: (1) deliver cutting-edge content on law, strategy, and best practices for addressing issues of race in criminal cases; (2) provide an in-person opportunity for NC REN members to connect, reunite, and offer support to and learn from each other; and (3) build the NC REN community by involving interested attorneys who are not NC REN graduates. Our first annual program will be December 6, 2019, at the School of Government. More information can be found here. This program will include at least 5 CLE credits and will be offered at no cost to participating attorneys, thanks to the continued support of the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation.
In addition to our annual program, NC REN will deepen support for local NC REN working groups in various parts of the state, develop additional materials for the NC REN website, provide trainings on addressing issues of race and bias for other court actors, produce additional written materials regarding the intersection of law and racial equity, and work on an update of the manual that launched this program. We hope to stay nimble and flexible in our support of NC REN graduates and others in the state taking bold steps to address issues of race and equity in our court system. We encourage you to reach out to us with project ideas or requests for assistance. Onward!