NC Supreme Court justice discusses work of Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice at Greensboro event

NC Supreme Court justice discusses work of Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice at Greensboro event

Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls spoke on racial equity in criminal justice in Greensboro on Wednesday. Image: AdobeStock

Anita Earls touts progress in combating criminal justice inequities, calls for work at state and local levels to continue

When Anita Earls moved to Charlotte in 1988, one of the first people who welcomed her to the Queen City was the chair of the Charlotte League of Women Voters. Earls credits the chapter with helping her grow as an attorney and inspiring her through its work in support of maintaining racial integration in the city’s schools.

On Tuesday, Earls, now an associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, repaid the favor, talking to the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad about the work of the state’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice — and how its power originated at the local level through the work of groups like the League.

“Give yourselves a round of applause, because what you do is so important,” Earls said. “Just remember that this task force, and all the work that we’ve done, is the result of people in communities coming together and saying that what was going on was unacceptable and that we needed to make changes.”

Earls is the co-chair of the task force, better known by its acronym, TREC. Gov. Roy Cooper created TREC in June 2020, the month after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Race and racial inequities are central to the task force’s work. Earls presented data showing that people of color make up 37% of North Carolinians but almost 60% of the people incarcerated in state prisons; 63% of those serving more than 20 years in prison; and 67% of people serving life without the possibility of parole.

TREC members produced a massive report at the end of 2020, proposing 125 solutions to make the criminal legal system more equitable. The suggestions were wide-ranging, spanning an array of issues within the justice system, including improving policing practices, eliminating racial disparities in the courts and curtailing the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly enshrined some of those proposals into statute, but most simply remain ideas, not laws.

But many of TREC’s suggestions do not require legislative action, Earls told the crowd Tuesday. Criminal justice touches state and local governments, and the levers of power are not all located on Jones Street in Raleigh.

“We’re talking about local institutions. We’re talking about police departments, sheriffs’ departments, highway patrol, and we’re talking about the court system, and then the prisons, and what happens after someone’s convicted, as well as reentry and what happens after somebody’s released and serves their time,” Earls said. “So, there’s a broad spectrum of institutions that are interrelated working within the criminal justice system.”

TREC members released another report last month. They also produced a status update on each of the 125 recommendations proposed in 2020.

The task force was scheduled to disband last year, but Cooper extended its efforts, announcing that TREC’s next phase will focus on four areas: violence prevention, local law enforcement practices and accountability, more equitable judicial system policies and practices, and the analysis and sharing of data on the criminal justice system.

“Your work has been too important to let this process end, especially when there’s more work to do,” Cooper said in October.

Earls touched on the status of the recommendations from two years ago — providing a glimpse of the task force’s work that still needs to be done — breaking them into executive, legislative, judicial, and local committees, an indication of which governmental body holds the power to enact change. She highlighted the executive committee’s work, its goal of expanding the use of restorative justice and rehabilitative programming, revising the standards for police officers’ use of force, and training school employees and school resource officers about officers’ proper role within schools.

“A lot of what TREC has done is really in the weeds,” Earls said. “I think some of these executive committee priorities, we’re seeing things that that won’t be headlines in the newspaper but will impact what happens when law enforcement come in contact with a citizen.”

One achievement is the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, which Cooper created in 2021. The four members are reviewing roughly 300 cases of individuals who were under age 18 when they committed a crime and have been imprisoned for more than 20 years. The board makes recommendations to the governor, but it is ultimately Cooper’s call on whether to grant relief. He has commuted the sentences of five people whose cases were suggested to him by the board.

“This is what we call justice with mercy, and it’s based on cruel racial data that shows you people may get created equally, but we have not treated them equally,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham and a JSRB member, who briefly also spoke about her work with the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad on Tuesday.

Earls took questions from the audience before the roughly hour-long discussion ended. Many of the questions centered on what advocates can do at the local level to advance change. Several people asked about cash bail. Earls said it was important to push back on the notion that money bail protects communities, and to highlight the ways a cash bail system punishes people for being poor.

“I think this is one area where you don’t necessarily have a statutory barrier to what you want to achieve,” said Earls. “Our statutes actually say that imposition of cash bail should be the last resort. And it’s the implementation that is sort of not in the spirit or what the language of the law is.”

Earls also reminded those in attendance that many members of the criminal justice system are elected officials — people who can be moved to embrace different policies based on the evolving needs and priorities of the electorate. One audience member said that conferences for district court judges and district attorneys were not prioritizing racial equity, implicit bias or diversity trainings among their members. How, she asked, can citizens pressure these conferences to provide these training sessions?

“Your district attorneys and your judges are elected, so they do appear at candidate forums; you do have opportunities to ask them about things like this. But I think also more fundamentally, if you just create a climate in which they appreciate that this is expected, I think that’s important,” Earls said. “This is cultural change. This is about getting into people’s understanding and consciousness that the public wants them to have this understanding.”