Mary Pollard Offers Insight Into Recommendations From Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice

December 16, 2020

NCAJ Past-President Mary Pollard serves on Gov. Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which released a report with 125 recommendations on Monday. Pollard is the executive director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services and previously served as executive director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. Cooper appointed her and 23 others to the task force this summer to examine the role of racial bias in law enforcement and the judicial process throughout the state.

Here Pollard answered our questions about the group’s workings and recommendations. She encourages NCAJ members to read the report and offer feedback and support.

What did you think about the representation on the task force?

The task force included law enforcement officers, judges, community activists, victims’ rights advocates, elected officials, district attorneys, and defense attorneys. I wish there had been more voices from the community in our working groups, but I also think that the task force members heard and listened to the voices of the hundreds of people who attended the public comment session or submitted written comments and materials. I found the public comment sessions helpful and meaningful, and in fact the only bright side of this pandemic was that it led to the creation of public comment by Zoom, which allowed many more people to participate than otherwise might have been able to.

The report includes recommendations on more than 100 topics. What are the main categories the recommendations fall into?

The task force had four working groups: Law Enforcement Management, Policing Policy and Practices, Court-Based Interventions to End Discriminatory Criminalization and Advancing Racial Equity in Trials and Post-Conviction. We were charged with making recommendations that would help end disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system to mitigate the effects of bias and discrimination and to increase accountability in law enforcement and criminal justice.

There are a number of recommendations related to law enforcement recruitment, training, culture and accountability that are geared toward ending inappropriate uses of force and toward building a collaborative community policing approach.

The most frequently charged offenses in the criminal justice system are traffic violations and drug offenses. In North Carolina, Black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers. And, while Black people and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates, Black people are far more likely to be charged. Accordingly, the task force made a number of recommendations related to reducing inequities in charging these types of offenses.

Another category of recommendations was geared at eliminating racial disparities in the courts and in sentencing. Those recommendations include efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline, changes to pretrial release practices, changes to how and whether we impose fines and fees on people who may not be able to pay and reviewing how to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. We also recommended reforms and improved programming within our state’s prisons and eliminating barriers to re-entry to enhance people’s ability to succeed after being released from incarceration.

It’s a really broad-ranging group of recommendations. One common thread among the working groups is that all recommended training on how to recognize implicit bias and racial inequity for all of the relevant actors across the system.

Which of these are most likely to find support in the various communities involved in this conversation?

A number of the recommendations should receive widespread immediate support. For example, a recommendation that law enforcement agencies enact use of force policies that prohibit neck holds passed overwhelmingly at the task force’s second meeting. Another recommendation that ought to be noncontroversial is that North Carolina raise the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction from age 6 to age 12. We currently have the youngest age of juvenile jurisdiction in the country. There seems to be widespread support and significant community interest in the recommendation to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. I think it’s important to note that the task force members were sorted into working groups based on their interests and expertise. The recommendations for changes in law enforcement policy and practice came from working groups largely made up of law enforcement. The recommendations related to the courts and to criminal justice reform came from working groups staffed with judges, lawyers and other expert stakeholders. I am hopeful that the task force members can help build support within their own professional communities.

What are the recommendations that NCAJ members should be particularly interested in and encouraged by?

The recommendations related to enhancing accountability of law enforcement will be of interest to anyone who has litigated use of force cases or other cases involving missteps by law enforcement. The report recommends ongoing development of a statewide law enforcement accreditation program, greater transparency about officer discipline and decertification and mandatory use of body and dashboard cameras. Members who practice criminal defense will be particularly interested in the recommendations involving expanding the Raise the Age Act, decriminalization of marijuana, restriction on the use of habitual felon status, mandatory first appearances in misdemeanor cases and restoration of right of counsel in most misdemeanor cases. And all litigators should be interested in and encouraged by the group of recommendations that are geared towards expanding our jury pools so that our juries will be more diverse and truly reflect our communities.

What are the next steps and how should NCAJ members get involved in helping to promote and achieve these changes?

While some of the recommendations can be implemented immediately through policy change, many will require legislative action. I would encourage NCAJ members to take some time to review the report and make their voices heard. One of the report’s recommendations is that the state improve criminal justice data collection and reporting so that we can know if the task force’s recommendations, if implemented, actually result in lessened racial disparities in the administration of justice. I don’t want to see this report sitting on a shelf collecting dust, and I hope to work alongside anyone who is interested to help make positive change.